JANUARY 4, 2018
IT HAS BECOME commonplace in academic circles to assess a scholarly work by the magnitude of its “intervention.” According to one of the definitions provided by Merriam-Webster, to “intervene” is “to interfere with the outcome or course especially of a condition or process (as to prevent harm or improve functioning).” By this measure, Timothy Morton’s latest book, Humankind, is intended as an intervention of epochal scale: no less than a recoding of the way we think and act about our species, our planet, and the crisis that has emerged between them. That Humankind asks us to question and reconfigure just about every word in that last sentence — especially “species” and “between” — speaks to the magnitude of the problem (and the possibilities for thought) that our ecological moment presents.
Humankind is the latest in a barrage of brief volumes that has transformed Morton from a literary critic with an interest in food and Romantic poetry to a globe-trotting public intellectual elaborating a new ontology for the Anthropocene. Ecology without Nature (2007) and The Ecological Thought (2010) developed the argument that Nature with a capital “N” inhibits true ecological awareness. Hyperobjects (2013) introduced the titular concept of massively extended, empirically elusive objects, such as “global warming,” that demand new ways of thinking about human action and subjectivity. In Dark Ecology, released last year, Morton expanded these claims into a deep-time story of how everything went wrong with the invention of agriculture. In a stylistic analogue of the syncretic spirit of these works, Morton’s writing has become increasingly breezy in its references to object-oriented ontology, Buddhism, and My Bloody Valentine, often in the same sentence. Humankind picks up right where Dark Ecology left off, arguing — among many other things, and through a bewildering array of asides — that our best chance for solidarity with nonhuman beings is fixing the “bug” of anthropocentrism in Marx.
Don’t be put off by, or expect too much from, the Marx. While Humankind is broadly Marxist in orientation, and while Morton ultimately locates the proper place for Anthropocene politics in an interspecies — nay, interbeing — communism, the book is hardly Marxian in tone or method. Morton spends more time with quantum theory than he does with class-consciousness. This is because, for him, our ecological crisis, signified most clearly by the hyperobject of global warming, begins not with James Watt’s steam engine or the logic of surplus value, but with the separation between humans and nonhumans that occurred with the Neolithic Revolution. In this passage, which will give you a sense of Morton’s prose and program, he previews the story he’s going to tell:
[S]olidarity […] cuts against a dominant ontological trend, default since the basic social, psychic and philosophical foreclosure of the human-nonhuman symbiotic real that we call the Neolithic. Let’s think up a dramatic Game of Thrones–sounding name for it. Let’s call it “the Severing” […] The Severing is a foundational, traumatic fissure between, to put it in stark Lacanian terms, reality (the human-correlated world) and the real (ecological symbiosis of human and nonhuman parts of the biosphere).
So far, so good-environmentalist-holism. But Morton’s not interested in a return to Eden. Quite the contrary: bad holism, what Morton calls “explosive holism,” is the destructive ontology behind both capitalism and its naïve adversaries like deep ecology or messianic Marxism. “Explosive holism” maintains that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This idea produces violent negations of difference, the imposition of spurious hierarchies, and the millennia-long delusion of utilitarian value as a guide to action. To cure this error, we should embrace an “implosive holism” that says that the parts add up to more than the whole. Morton’s main example of a whole in need of some implosive recoding? Humankind itself.
Morton clearly has an ambitious conception of how critique can change history. “Intervention,” as popularized by the TV show of the same name, can refer to a dramatic effort to interfere with a person’s addiction. In Hyperobjects, Morton was mostly interested in addressing our addiction to fossil fuels. Now he’s staging an intervention against our addiction to a whole way of thinking and feeling: the logic of explosive holism born of the Severing, or what he calls “agrilogistics.” Agrilogistics is a bad program that we’ve left running so long that it’s produced the Sixth Mass Extinction Event. It’s what’s behind patriarchy, racism, and dead polar bears. It’s the basis of anthropocentrism and — as Morton argues in complicated but compelling fashion — Kantian correlationism, another enemy. The analogy to code isn’t just a cute way of flattening the ontology of humans and computer viruses: just like the anthropocentric “bug” in Marxism, ideas are real, material forces, and if we don’t learn to think correctly, we’ll never come to act correctly. In fact, rigidly distinguishing thought from action is another part of the problem.
“Implosive holism,” or “subscendence,” is based upon a Heideggerian distinction between the phenomenon and its appearance(s). This distinction involves the notion that objects are “withdrawn,” or permanently (if only partly) closed to access. Drawing from the philosophy of object-oriented ontology, Morton accepts that “out-there” reality is really real and made up of discrete objects, but it’s never totally accessible. Withdrawnness is a basic feature of all objects: humans, quarks, rocks, and poems. And in its interobjective relations, every thing in the universe operates with an impaired mode of access. Rather than being cause for dismay, this insight opens up a hopeful world of ambiguity and partiality, a world (actually, many overlapping and perforated worlds) where there is no all-seeing God or mute matter. Divested of our essentialism and our obsession with proving how real or not real any one thing is, we (the titular humankind, that is) can embrace weirdness, multifarious appearance, spectrality. (To intervene: “to enter or appear as an irrelevant or extraneous feature or circumstance.”) This takes us back to the freedom of childhood and the intellectual humility of the Paleolithic, and brings us forward, Morton hopes, to the solidarity of the future.
Okay — but how? Well, let’s return to Marx. A recurring figure in Humankind is the table that Marx discusses as a device to explain commodity fetishism. We all know that a table isn’t supposed to dance: that’s not what objects do. Yet, under capitalism, a table inhabits a special thing-world where the price of one commodity is computed — or computes itself — relative to another. Workers under capitalism have become so alienated from the products of their labor that tables have more agency than their makers. That’s weird. But Morton wants to double down on the table’s agency: sure, it can compute value, as it really does within capitalism, and it can probably dance, too. Instead of fearing this autonomy — Marx’s much-maligned “commodity fetishism” — we should embrace it: the table and its endless, nonhuman potential. Don’t settle for being materialistic — be radically materialist, and surround yourself with objects not to consume them or turn them into monetary value but for pleasure, for solidarity in the face of crisis.
At this point Morton’s ideas grow vaguer. He advocates for a theory of “rocking,” which lies somewhere between or beyond the activity/passivity binary. (To intervene: “to come in or between by way of hindrance or modification.”) It’s not quite clear what this would look like politically, even though Morton’s project is explicitly political. Note, however, that Morton, an academic leftist, proposes a peculiar embrace of consumerism — the bête noire of most diagnoses of our planet’s ills — as a viable solution toward more profound materialism.
This move is at least partly motivated by a penchant for provocation. Near the beginning of the book, Morton announces, “I’m going to be the devil again.” He knows that talk of the human species and metanarratives of collective guilt have been criticized for glossing over racial and gender differences and for eliding the massive disparity in historical responsibility for our current crises. He also knows, as a white Western male, that his invocation of a “we” will raise eyebrows. He offers mostly implicit responses to these anticipated critiques, connecting speciesism and racism to his theory of “explosive holism” and deploring the rigid enforcement of borders as an impediment to solidarity. Still, his obvious and unoriginal joy in what he calls “farting in church” is part of a larger affective mode that comes through in the book’s off-hand style and cool cultural allusions. Humankind is a performance of erudition and Big Picture thinking, but its waggishness is meant to preempt accusations of pomposity. Morton doesn’t always pull it off. His prose, constructed of successive declarative zingers, often lacks adequate connective tissue. Conversely, the virtuosity of his conceptual combinations distracts from the fact that much of what he’s saying has already been said elsewhere. (See Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto” for an obvious inspiration.)
Why read Morton, then? Surely not in search of a roadmap for revolution. Like most theory, whether of the capital-T or lower-case variety (and this is decidedly lower-case), Humankind is meant to prompt political projects, not to guide them. There are some fair contributions in this direction, a bit more concrete than what Morton has offered before: embrace a politics of pleasure, don’t buy into the obsession with scarcity and efficiency (a legacy of agrilogistics), and double down on moments of cross-species kinship like the Cecil the lion controversy. Of course, this still leaves us wondering what kind of solidarity we should be aiming for, and what politics for nonhumans means. Are we going to stand at the barricades with other objects? And will the barricades be part of our rebel army, too?
The best image of Morton is not a rabble-rouser on the streets but a lecturer with a flair for showmanship and arrogance, capable of synthesizing disparate sources into an argument for why we must think differently or perish. His work is most valuable for bridging the gap between the vanguard of new materialist philosophies (object-oriented ontology, speculative realism) and environmental politics, and as such his books are a very good introduction to what Theory (capital T) might have to say about climate change and species die-off. As with many exuberant professors, he is most appreciated, and seems most at home, in his particular philosophical redoubt, where the bulk of admirers share his demographic. But for all that, there’s a use to the performance: synthesis isn’t easy and, even if you don’t like how Morton gets started or where he ends up, it’s thrilling to watch the journey and learn something along the way. This is a great book for endnotes.
Put differently, Humankind is less than the sum of its parts. This is meant as praise. Morton’s argument is so far-reaching, so frequently counterintuitive, and its final thrust so in doubt that it invites being torn apart and reassembled. The upshot of Morton’s capaciousness is that this invitation is open to philosophers, eco-critics, activists, artists, psychologists, and historians, and perhaps even to the tomato sauce that I spilled on my copy of the book, temporarily occluding some of the verbal content while illuminating the previously withdrawn capacity of the pages to absorb liquid. I hadn’t physically related to a book in that way in a long time. It reminded me of the Ziploc bag with which I preserved my copy of The Neverending Story in third grade. And it made me anxious about what might happen when I returned the book to the library. Needless to say, it was the book itself that primed these reflections on past and future: on the way that I used to care for objects, and the way I might better care for them next time. To intervene: “to occur, fall, or come between points of time or events.”