Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Tim Morton talks with a scientist, and then a spirituality of care [COVID-19 as hyperobject]

Morgan Meis, Timothy Morton's Hyper-Pandemic, The New Yorker, June 8, 2021.

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The next morning, I was eating a leisurely breakfast at my B. and B. when a young woman sat down at the same large wooden table. I assumed that she was in Houston to do something artsy in this part of the city. “Are you visiting the Menil Collection?” I asked her.

“No,” she said. She was a scientist in Houston for business; she worked for one of the largest petrochemical companies in the world.

“Are you here for the Menil Collection?” she asked, in return.

“No,” I said. “I’m here to meet Timothy Morton.”

I told her about Morton and hyperobjects. She nodded along indulgently, then told me more about her work, which revolved around the difficult task of improving plastic. She pointed to the corner of the breakfast room. “It’s a completely different matter to get plastic to be brittle and hard like that trash can over there, versus making it get supple and strong and stretchy like the bag inside the can,” she said. I asked her if she felt bad about working for a giant petrochemical company. Her brow furrowed. “I wouldn’t say that,” she said. “I just think maybe it’s worth something to make plastic better, more efficient, less wasteful.” She seemed to be gauging my reaction, staring at me intently over the lip of her coffee cup.

I was suddenly curious about what a conversation between a plastics scientist and an eco-philosopher might sound like. “Will you come to Galveston with me and Simon and Tim?” I blurted.

“Absolutely,” she said, jumping up from the table. “Just give me a couple of minutes to get ready.”

In Morton’s Mazda, we zipped along the massive highway linking Houston and Galveston, which is in the area that the Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca called “the Isle of Bad Fate.” There, we saw a giant yellow phosphorescent pile of sulfur; a building complex containing three massive glass pyramids; Halliburton, or at least a sign pointing to Halliburton; and a Second World War submarine credited with having sunk one of the Japanese aircraft carriers that attacked Pearl Harbor.

We stopped for lunch at the Black Pearl Oyster Bar, a seafood restaurant that evoked a hypothetical diner inside the film “Pirates of the Caribbean.” The place was full of customers, their plates piled high with critters pulled from the Gulf of Mexico and tossed immediately into a deep fryer. Morton ordered oysters. “I love the objectivity of science,” they said, turning to the plastics scientist. “I love the rigorous way that you can ask questions and then get answers.”

She nodded. “But polymers are tricky,” she said. “Polyurethanes behave in downright magical ways.” She picked at a salad layered with tentacles.

“But there’s a method,” Morton insisted, beginning to progress through a dozen oysters.

“Sometimes it seems more art than science,” she cautioned. “I have deep emotional commitments to plastic.”

Listening to their discussion—about art and science, logic and emotion—I understood an argument to which Morton often returns. We are not getting rid of the hyperobject Plastic anytime soon, or of any of the other hyperobjects that are the result of our industrial practices. We are deeply involved with all of them now. We might as well admit our commitment, physically, practically, and emotionally.

In “Dark Ecology,” Morton writes that we must cultivate a “spirituality of care” toward the objects of the world—not just the likable parts but the frightening ones. Morton suggests that, instead of burying nuclear waste, we might store it aboveground, in a visible place, where we can learn to take more responsibility for it—perhaps even building an aesthetically interesting enclosure. The kind of care Morton envisions is as interested in piles of sulfur as in trees; it is concerned with both polar bears and circuit boards. Morton wants us to care for plutonium. At a minimum, Morton thinks that this kind of caring could cure us of the idea that we are in control; it might show us that we are part of a vast network of interpenetrating entities that come to know one another without dispelling their mystery. At a maximum, Morton seems to feel that this omnidirectional, uncanny form of care could help save the world. [...]

Nearly a year after my trip to Houston, I called Morton on the phone. It was April, 2020. COVID-19 was tearing through the U.S.

“Is COVID-19 a hyperobject?” I asked them.

“It’s the ultimate hyperobject,” Morton said. “The hyperobject of our age. It’s literally inside us.” We talked for a bit about fear of the virus—Morton has asthma, and suffers from sleep apnea. “I feel bad for subtitling the hyperobjects book ‘Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World,’ ” Morton said. “That idea scares people. I don’t mean ‘end of the world’ the way they think I mean it. But why do that to people? Why scare them?”

What Morton means by “the end of the world” is that a world view is passing away. The passing of this world view means that there is no “world” anymore. There’s just an infinite expanse of objects, which have as much power to determine us as we have to determine them. Part of the work of confronting strange strangeness is therefore grappling with fear, sadness, powerlessness, grief, despair. “Somewhere, a bird is singing and clouds pass overhead,” Morton writes, in “Being Ecological,” from 2018. “You stop reading this book and look around you.

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