FEBRUARY 20, 2014
YOU KNOW THE SCENARIO. It begins with someone asserting that global warming really exists. “Oh, yeah?” asks his skeptical friend. “Show me this thing called global warming; where is it exactly?” The other points first to a graph, then to a spate of bushfires, then casts around for another disparate bit of evidence. In the end the skeptic has the last laugh with her example of the delicious irony of climate scientists being stuck on a ship frozen in Antarctic ice.
This is the conundrum that Morton hits upon in this book. Hyperobjects, of which global warming is his prime example, are vast objects. You can’t pick them up as easily as an orange. They exceed human apprehension, but we constantly notice their local manifestations. They challenge our assumptions of human mastery over things; we can philosophize more simply, it seems, about the existence of ordinary things like oranges, but hyperobjects are scary game-changers, and they have a touch of the sublime. Like Bob Dylan’s Mr. Jones, we sense something is happening, but we don’t know what it is.
With extraordinary verve and audacity, Morton makes his hyperobjects into harbingers for a new epoch, on a planetary scale, a task in which he is assisted by the general consensus about the Anthropocene, the current era of human-induced planetary change. His tone is inevitably messianic; it’s right there in his title, “the End of the World.” But I shall have to explain what he means by this, along with how he has built his argument on what we thought were the ruins of the late 20th century’s postmodernism and poststructuralism. With Morton’s book, along with the work of his like-minded colleagues, postmodernism has returned with a vengeance, bolstered with all the moral force of global ecological concerns.
So how did Morton get to write a book like this? An Englishman who studied at Oxford, he was imbued in the Romantics, writing a dissertation that became Shelley and the Revolution in Taste (1994). Moving to the United States, it wasn’t such a leap from the Romantics to ecology, giving us Ecology Without Nature in 2007. He taught at the University of Colorado, Boulder and UC Davis before moving to Houston, where he is now Rita Shea Guffey Chair in English at Rice University. What he does is “theory,” which is what high-flying professors of English write when they are not training people to read literature. Those who read Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory in college will be familiar with the genre. It comprises difficult material made a little more accessible, and even enjoyable, via rhetorical flourishes, brilliant and breathtaking connections (Marx, God, Wordsworth, and cornflakes might appear in the same sentence), and sometimes it includes combat sports, as rival critical theories are pummelled into the ground.
Theory is not an academic discipline. Philosophers reading Hyperobjects might groan and protest (see Nathan Brown’s review of Morton’s recent Realist Magic), but Morton is not doing philosophy, he is sampling it. Likewise with the most recent advances in theoretical physics, appearing in this book in spades, along with some writing about avant-garde arts and music. It’s a strange mash-up, this theory stuff. You don’t read theory to advance the discipline you might belong to — you read it for stimulation, which is why Hyperobjects will find a broad educated readership across the world. And it is good that it should. The destiny of the planet is his topic, after all.
The hyperobject is a catchy concept — that is, it catches you while you can’t quite catch it. Morton first established it in The Ecological Thought (2010). His new book explains why everyone is affected by hyperobjects, even if they strive to deny their existence. Climate, natural oil reserves, the English language are all hyperobjects in that they cannot be grasped as “simple” objects. Have you ever met “English”? No, but what you experience every day are groping attempts to make meaning with words. Whispered lovers’ words and words digitized and zapped across the internet are materially quite different things, but both belong to the hyperobject we call the English language. Here’s another example: you feel the existence of global oil reserves each time you check, while pumping gas, how much the price has gone up; and you sense there is something to do with oil in the Middle East conflicts, and how it makes you want to debate the hijab.
Hyperobjects are pervasive and don’t allow you to rationally divide and resolve them with our human artifacts called Science and Art. It doesn’t work to say global warming is a purely scientific issue. “The Science is in, folks! And the rest of you should shut up.” Such an imperative would stop us treating it as ideological or related to voting patterns, or, indeed, related to aesthetics and philosophy. But no amount of science or human willpower can make that happen, because it is already there, says Morton, infiltrating every aspect of existence. Nor can any amount of science provide absolute, 100 percent proof of causal connections. This gives skeptics and fossil fuel industries the same “lack of certainty” argument that big tobacco had in earlier debates.
The right-wing ideologues might argue, but their corporations also assess the risks. Hyperobjects are there for them too, pushing different buttons:
The panic and denial and right-wing absurdity about global warming are understandable. Hyperobjects pose numerous threats to individualism, nationalism, anti-intellectualism, racism, speciesism, anthropocentrism, you name it. Possibly even capitalism itself.
The pervasiveness of hyperobjects is what Morton calls their viscosity, and in Part 1 of the book he outlines this and the other strange properties of hyperobjects: non-locality, phasing, and interobjectivity.
Non-locality has its origins in quantum theory, and here I should pause to say that Morton’s heavy reliance on fairly recent theoretical physics is a plank in his attempt to explain “how the world works” using accounts of reality that are updated to the relatively recent. In our common-sense world we interact with oranges according to Newtonian laws, and we don’t need quantum mechanics to stop crashing our cars. But at the other levels that Morton explores, things are indeed not quite what they seem, and he needs non-locality to explain how a hyperobject can act simultaneously at more than one place. The physicist Zeilinger has apparently demonstrated that “you can send one particle some information (make it spin in a certain way), and the others will instantly spin in complementary ways. This works to an arbitrary distance — that is, whether two yards, two miles or two light years apart.” And it can’t happen according to traditional physics because the connection would exceed the speed of light. The other theory is that there is a level of reality that is superposed over, or subtends, those discrete particles — the hyperobject, in other words.
Phasing, another property of hyperobjects, is like non-locality, but with a rhythm section added. Time and space exist “radically inside objects, rippling through them.” The multidimensional hyperobject pulses in and out of the limited confines of human perception. This adds further to the effect of diminishing human agency. We could call it the self-centeredness of humanity — when we are increasingly aware that in the Anthropocene, the forces that threaten to wash, blow, or irradiate us into oblivion have become more palpable.
Finally, even simple objects are “hyper” to the extent that they are in or out of phase, not being exactly “equivalent to themselves” at any given time. A paper clip is also a SIM card remover. An apple is also a baseball in a high-spirited backyard game that will get the kids into trouble with Mom. The apple-for-baseball is an object always getting into the rhythm for that kind of event. This lack of discreteness of objects, which tends to make every object somewhat hyperobjective, is underscored by the final property of Part 1, interobjectivity, “in which nothing is ever experienced directly, but only as mediated through other entities in some shared sensual space.” This is what makes the driver’s position in a car, with the seat and all the controls, (inter)objectively human, because no other being can effectively occupy it. Yet humans, in this object-oriented philosophy, are not elevated to special subject status, but are a subset of objects. And I guess even automobiles, to the extent that they become smart enough to drive humans, are becoming hyperobjects.
Interobjectivity is a meshing and crisscrossing that we inhabit and which inhabits us. The interobjective is not neatly sorted into classified strata, because existence is necessarily ontologically plural. Our existence is tied up with plants, animals, tools, ticking clocks. Morton exaggerates the immediacy of these connections in order to point to the cynical and artificial way that modern humans have imagined themselves critically distanced from “the world,” from “Nature.”
The pressing reality of hyperobjects now has the effect of destroying this critical distance, of making it impossible to separate causality from art (as if art were mere decoration on top of the “real workings”), and of forcing us to abandon the modern habit of redemptively imaging a better future, for now we have to hesitate in front of what hyperobjects are placing right in front of us: that we are not in charge of the future anymore, because it might well be without us.
This jolly thought takes us to Part 2 of the book, where the angle of attack is different. Here Morton asks how humans will react to the end of the modern world and to the new hyperobjective cosmos. “You are walking out of the supermarket,” he narrates casually, and, “As you approach your car, a stranger calls out, ‘Hey, funny weather today!’ With a due sense of caution — is she a global warming denier or not? — you reply yes.” We have all experienced this kind of hesitation and apprehension about the weather. Innocent conversations about it seem to be no longer possible. Worries about the weather are a mere symptom of something huge, foreboding, and ungraspable in its entirety: climate is a hyperobject, and global warming is its apocalyptic avatar.
The “world,” in the old sense, is over because the weather — like Nature — is no longer the neutral backdrop we can rely on to stay put, while we play out our little human dramas in front of it. If the hyperobject of global warming is imposing itself radically, and I am convinced that it is because even the deniers can’t stop talking about it (and our wisteria bloomed two weeks early last spring!), then that old world of human foreground and natural background is gone. You are right to get a sense of the ridiculous when you see on TV a skeptical captain of industry debating a greenie minister of religion, as if their opinions really mattered. It is not the absent scientist on the panel that is the real concern, it is that the conceptual architecture of the world they share is the same as it was at the time of the Industrial Revolution, that they still share the same language of human mastery, hope, and redemptive adjustment.
They occupy the same clichéd world of a beautiful landscape painting, one which has forgotten all the violence that went into its creation — not just the painting, but the whole conceptual architecture. Morton urges a replacement aesthetic that is attuned to hyperobjects via the concepts of hypocrisy, weakness, lameness, and asymmetry. If we own up to hypocrisy, rather than imagining that cynicism and critique will bring about change, we acknowledge that we inhabit chronic failure, not a world where we once achieved mastery or one day will. But hyperobjects also demonstrate ontological hypocrisy, for they can never reveal the full force of their reality, short of an unknowable apocalypse.
Letting go of pretensions to mastery is an aspect of the concept of weakness, which would also have an origin in the political philosopher Antonio Gramsci. Humans, from the start, have to make ethical compromises in their interobjectivity, as we swing from one relationship to another, without the certainty of any metalanguage: no beyond, no essence within. We must, if we are not occupying some fictional position of safety away from “the world,” be attuned to what’s going down. This is our weakness; in some profound sense we can’t help but go along with the imperative of the zeitgeist. In Morton’s argument, it is the age of hyperobjects dragging us into its vortex.
Morton takes his cue from speculative realist Graham Harman, of the object-oriented ontology movement in philosophy, in claiming that since objects always have an obverse, a side that is not in play, they are never complete in themselves. The language used is that they are “withdrawn,” as when the capacity for an apple to be a key component of a baseball game is withdrawn if you start to eat it. I am not convinced. I am uneasy about the generalization of withdrawnness, despite its philosophical heritage going back to Kant. It leads to mystery (Morton says, “The real dinosaur is a mystery […]”) and to assertive tropes like: “The more data we have about life-forms, the more we realize we can never truly know them.” This is no doubt true, but lesser scientists continue to plod away and discover another species of worm. And electronics experts continue to develop new cell phones without giving up in the face of ontological uncertainty, and they do so by bracketing out what Morton calls the lameness that “constitutes the very being of the object as such.”
Bruno Latour’s philosophy defines objects, instead, by their relations with each other, by their constantly changing constellations of attachments, some more permanent than others. For him, the important task is to follow the pathways of changes in objects’ attachments. That task, however, does not lead to “the age of hyperobjects” and the capacity for attunement to an aesthetics of doom without redemption. It is more pedestrian. You might end up describing how mobile telephony came about. As a concept, withdrawnness skates on the dangerously thin ice of the almost transcendent, even as Morton, bless him, is resolute in his refusal of any kind of beyond. He would be familiar, as a literary scholar, with the mystical use of the “radical unknowability” and “infinite richness” of the literary text. That’s what makes me uneasy, but I also know that an argument without a generalization would be flat and unworkable.
“The overall aesthetic ‘feel’ of the time of hyperobjects,” Morton says, “is a sense of the asymmetry between the infinite powers of cognition and the infinite being of things.” The hyperobjects seem to be winning this cosmic battle because, “Knowledge is to longer able to achieve escape velocity from Earth,” or at least the comfort of stable dualisms like Subject-Object, Self-Other is long gone, because “we” are swallowed by the viscosity of hyperobjects we are not sure we are inside or outside of. And even though humankind has given its name to this age because of its part in creating the Anthropocene, the concomitant philosophies emerging are effectively decentering that agency.
My political economist friends, who would scoff at Morton and quote David Harvey to the effect that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, would miss the point. He would applaud what political economists do to analyze the workings of modern capitalism. It just isn’t what he is doing, which is much more central to the core values of the humanities. I’ve been thinking a bit about what these values might be, among that ragtag bunch of litterateurs, artists, philosophers, historians, and linguists. They believe strongly in advancing their arts and disciplines, they believe they should be interesting (a poet can get away with being politically incorrect, but never with being boring); philosophers know, whatever they do, they must never be dogmatic, and historians must compare sources. What they collectively do is a pedagogical and civilizing thing, as they reflect back on and reinforce these core values within a culture. They keep the barbarians at bay, which is only a figure of speech, I hasten to add. The barbarians are those who put their faith in transcendent comforts like Science, God, Gaia, Individual Self-Interest, and the Market.
This is what I see Morton doing with this hyperintelligent book. It is bold, stimulating, and provocative. Its central ideas are persuasive because they are attuned both to what is going on right now with what he describes as the “sparkling unicity” of things, and to the “the three most progressive scientific views of our age, relativity, ecology and quantum theory.” Straddling the sciences and the humanities, he brings out the inherent creativity of both fields.
In 1945 Robert Oppenheimer exploded the atom bomb, inventing a hyperobject without knowing it. This is underscored by his quoting of Shiva, “I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds.” In Sydney, Australia, Morton looks at a 2011 work by Aboriginal painter Yukultji Napangati, and he sees it “surge toward me, locking onto my optic nerve and holding me in its force field.” He was thus captured by the Dreaming, “the Aboriginal hyperobject,” finding it “impossible to leave the painting. Hairs standing up on my body, tears streaming down my face, slowly I tear myself away…” It is Morton who mediates the Aboriginal aesthetic and the atom bomb, and in doing so he creates a new kind of subjectivity. Dare I say it, but the writing that has made a case for hyperobjects has created an offshoot, the hypersubject.