Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology at the End of the World. 2013.
J.M.W. Turner, The Slave Ship, 1840.
Hyperobjects is a book about a single concept: objects so ‘big’ – in multiple senses – that they exceed typical human capacity for grasping, comprehending, keeping hold of, controlling, counting, taking account of them. Deriving this concept from our present relationship to climate change, the book charts the philosophical, analytical, and to some extent, affective implications of hyperobjects. There are obvious points of connection to the theories of worlding and sensemaking in ritual theory, Deleuze, affect theory, philosophies of meaning as a whole, technological imagination… and of course, speculative realism, as the nom de guerre wielded by the author himself.
Hyperobjects [H] are “massively distributed in time and space relative to humans”. The black hole, the Florida Everglades, or the sum total of all uranium on earth. H are viscous, and “’stick’ to beings that are involved with them”; are nonlocal, that is, instantiations are distinct from the virtual entity; inhabit different temporal scales, even Gaussian ones; their effects are detectible interobjectively. (1)
Hyperobjects’ entrance into human life is relatively new, says Morton – although we could easily make an argument that medieval astrology, the early modern conception of nature as a divine order, and indeed feudal societies’ use of emblems and other signs all point to some hyperobjective characteristics. But back to Morton: he says where older cosmic phenomena were explainable in terms of a fairly stable worldview (there is a celestial order, and a star out of order is an omen of disaster, literally, dis-astron, falling star), indeed, a worldview known and asserted by humans, the catastrophe of global warming is a question of whether it is already happening or has already begun. (16)
The reign of the hyperobject entails several philosophical consequences. It is an object which cannot be captured fully by an uncontaminated metalanguage (and indeed, persists despite this elusiveness). It not only confirms the postmodern death of master narratives, but also the erosion of boundaries between scientific objectivity and personal subjectivity. (3-6) A life with hyperobjects is one in which “the concept world is no longer operational”; contrary to the common ecological call ‘the world is about to end’, the advent of the Anthropocene (here anchored to 1784, invention of the steam engine) has introduced humanity not only as human history but a ‘geophysical force on a planetary scale.’ (6-7) Part of this is the displacement of the human, what Freud called ‘the great humiliation of the human’ by Copernicus and Darwin now extended. (16) We are now tasked with accounting for phenomenological ‘experience’ “in the absence of anything meaningful like a ‘(life)world’ at all”. (3) See ‘World’ section below.
Morton also engages in a speculative realist turn away from correlationism to deal with the question of the (hyper)object. The year 1900 saw a confounding of discrete objects in a number of fields, including Max Planck’s blackbody radiation problem; it became more difficult to stick to neatly containable ‘things’. Or, Husserl’s dilemma: flip the coin a million times, you’ll never see the ‘other side as the other side’. The dark side remains perpetually withdrawn. It’s like the Kantian inability to think the thing-in-itself. Or: to perceive weather every day but to be unable to experience climate change. Even worse, hyperobjects’ weird proportions mean the ‘line’ between phenomenon and thing, between local and hyperobject, is impossible to delineate. (11-2) Where Heidegger through Dasein sought to resolve this problem in profoundly idealist and correlationist ways, Harman extends Heidegger’s own point on withdrawal to argue objects are profoundly withdrawn even from themselves. (14-5) This is exactly how it is for hyperobjects; and moreover, hyperobjects make the withdrawing nature of itself/objects more obvious to our awareness.
Properties of hyperobjects
Viscosity: “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.” H are never far away, or as far as we think. Indeed, they are always already here, like radiation that has already clung to me by the time I’m being scanned at airports. And sometimes we sink into it, or it sinks into us, as Sartre said, “the sugary death of the For-itself (like that of a wasp which sinks into the jam and drowns in it” when I place my hand in a jar of honey. (30) It’s hard to get away; if we once thought the toilet flush or the rubbish bin led to a mythical ‘Away’, we now know they too are part of a global circuit of every kind of thing in which we are part. Our honey jar is ‘ecological interconnectedness’. (31-2) It’s all about a ‘reality’ that we can’t get away from.
Micah Albert, Kenya’s Dandora rubbish dump, 2012
Nonlocality: Quantum theory “is the only existing theory to establish firmly that things really do exist beyond our mind (or any mind).” (39) Individual phenomena are commensurable, in Morton’s analysis here, to quanta, to ‘units’/’objects’ of OOO (object-oriented ontology). Quanta are able to explain experiential qualities like solidity in realist terms. One always uses quanta to explore and test other quanta. But quanta withdraw from one another, and hence every measure of a quantum by another involves a (mis)translation = Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle where any observation occludes some aspect of the observed = Bohr’s complementary where no quantum has full access to another quantum. (40-1) Quanta are performative; “if it walks and quacks like an electron, it is one.” (41)
Quantum reality is nonlocal in the sense that particles could be entangled (manipulate one particle, the other responds in complementary ways) across arbitrary distances. Zeilinger achieved this through particles either side of Vienna, between two Canary Islands, between orbiting satellites. What kind of world is this, that which Einstein called “spooky action at a distance”, which seems faster than light? This nonlocal universe is nonatomistic; there is no such thing as ‘one photon’ in discrete form. Blurred boundaries is the de facto state, as is withdrawal (an ontological fact rather than a conditional product of human observation). (42-4) One explanation has been the universe as a holographic projection from an inscribed surface within a black hole, a H if there was ever one. (46-7) Or, to put it really simply: quantum reality is nonlocal insofar as the particle isn’t “here” (only here, nowhere else, distanced from faraway things in a linear way), but entanglable in ways that disturb the classifier of the ‘local’.
Nonlocality thus implies entanglement, inconsistency and a strange kind of duplicity in H. Nuclear radiation. Endorcine disruptors in pesticides like Roundup. H instantiate themselves near/in me in nonlocal ways, and their relation back to H is associative and probabilistic. Of course there is no ‘direct proof’ (38-9); it’s not about your unrecycled bottle “causing” anything, as if there was a clear, neat, singular line between you and your reserved portion of the atmosphere! The entire point is that whether with evolution, global warming or capitalism, you snap just one moment of it, it won’t give you ‘causal proof’ of H, which lies in some way beyond direct experience. (48) Hiroshima survivors never experience the bomb as an entirety; indeed, one speaks of the bomb ‘reflected in the corridor’ in the destruction. (50) The irony being that the more ‘distance’ we have from the event, the more we are able to knit moments together, and the larger H looms. (51)
Temporal Undulation: The more we learn about ecological H, the more we realise we can never truly know them. (56) Part of it is the extreme temporal distance; H may not be infinite, but it is a very large finitude. Perhaps it is relatable to what Meillassoux, in After Finitude, calls le grand dehors [the great outdoors]. (64) Temporality here is undulating in the sense that it is relative (not just felt, but actually; a 2011 gyroscopes experiment ‘confirmed’ a ‘gigantic spacetime vortex’ around Earth.) (65) All this breaks the Newtonian, and before that, Augustianian Neoplatonic, idea of space and time as ‘empty containers for entities to sit in’. Every object has its own time.
Phasing: H “phase in and out of the human world.” (70) Not to say they actually disappear; they phase into forms we can experience, then out of them (but still present). (76) They have a ‘transdimensional quality’, which, in my reading, carries on from Deleuzian virtuality. The thing is, that doesn’t mean they’re abstractions; they are real objects even if their particular space and time is generally occluded from human experience. (One solution has been to have software simulations ‘see’ them for us, e.g. as accounted in Manuel de Landa’s Philosophy and Simulation.) (73) Here, mathematical representations are just that – the ‘warm and fuzzy’ human way to make sense of, translate, reality. The reality of the object subtends mathematical reality. (75) Phasing applies finally across objects; a flock of birds ‘contains’ more than itself, as it instantiates global warming as H; this is to say, somewhat like Cantor Sets, objects can be contradictory and contain more inside than it can seem to fit. (78-9)
Interobjectivity: Intersubjectivity of humans is part of “a much larger interobjective configuration space.” (81) A kind of ‘mesh’ which Heidegger calls ‘contexture of equipment’. Links, and gaps between links, a causal dimension. ‘Subject’ and ‘mind’ are emergent effects of interobjective relations, a view also held by enactive theories of intelligence (arising from ‘connectionist’ AI thinking). (84) H exemplify interobjectivity in their highly mediated instantiations.
A WWF climate change campaign ad.
The End of the World
The point of H for ecological action is to break us out of a modernist presentism that says, ‘act now!’ – an injunction which, Morton argues, actually paralyses us in guilt. One could argue H’s extreme temporality and vastness could do the same; the question is how it can avoid that fate. H teaches us there is no present as we know it, except as an arbitrary distinction. (92) Equally, it is the end of teleology; H, larger than our narratives, shows them up. So what is the present and future after the ‘end of the world’? (94-5)
World: The notion that we ‘live in a world’, the world that is Nature, no longer is quite meaningful. Aristotle said if it snowed in summer, we would recognize it as mere accident, not true substance. Global warming tells us that the summer, too, was just a very long accident. (101-2) At the level of the lifeworld, that trusty background that is the weather and the seasons – as well as the phatic communion of talking about the weather – now buckles under changing temperatures. (102-3) The mise-en-scene for our taken-for-granted ‘world’ is being upset. But then, ‘world’ was always constructed anyway. And some of the worlds we constructed weren’t so great. The ‘world’ as a basis for ethics is not a very good one. (106-7)
The alternative is to try and connect more directly to nonhumans. That doesn’t mean just ‘regulating the flows’ of waste (after all, we are all inside H, and there is no ‘elsewhere’ for it to go), or trying to make capitalism contradict its innermost force and become ‘sustainable’. Morton’s slogan, ecology without Nature, means thinking nature without reducing/reifying it to what OOO calls the ‘sensual object’, the nature-for-something else, for human use, sustainability, etc. (118-9) We might note that this is more or less what Heidegger calls for, as well, in The Question Concerning Technology: resisting an instrumentalisation of nature as ‘for-us and nothing more’. This is today becoming possible in an unprecedented way, because H are by various means becoming more visible to us. We now understand the Earth as the environment, as a mesh of ecological objects. (128-9) On one hand, this produces a fascination with the aesthetic of the ecological H; stars, planets, etc – as long as they’re ‘outside us’. When it’s global warming, and things we are ‘inside’, there is a ‘claustrophobic horror’. Perhaps part of the work art must do is address this response. (132-3)
Futurality: H are futural; tiniest decisions I make now impact the distant future when I and all that I care for are dead, Derrida’s l’avenir / future future. Every moment we enact the Prisoner’s Dilemma. One might regard the difficulty of sacrificing myself now for the distant future as a flaw or failure. Morton sees this as an ethically positive or at least necessary weakness; at least H brings that unimaginably distant other into contact with me, so that I might regard it with some ethical obligation. (122-3) H’s futurality makes it what philosophers have called a ‘wicked problem’; you can understand it, but you can’t rationalise a solution to it. (135) The numbers don’t help, either. Numbers are merely bathing us in a sea of nihilism. (137)
Hypocrisy: Hypocrisy means hypo (under/hidden/secret) + krisis (judgment, determination, discernment); encryption. Every nonlocal object bears H in some hidden way, but H also remains withdrawn after that. In this hypocritical condition, as Kierkegaard said, ‘we are always in the wrong’. This attitude stands directly opposite the familiar modern: think Sloterdijk’s cynicism which says, ‘at least I can always go meta’.
Age of Asymmetry: The age of object ontology and realism is Morton’s ‘age of asymmetry’. The task of art in this age is a “tuning to the object”, providing a mode of attunement to the withdrawn reality. (174) Getting closer but never close enough to the interobjective space of object-meshing.
Morton endorses Judge Nicolás Zambrano’s decision on the Lago Agrio oil field in an Ecuador pollution case; precisely because data is interminable and incomplete, we must act as if the threat was real. This is seen as taking the oil as an entity in its own right and being cautious (182). (We note here an eery relation to the logic of pre-emption in today’s war on terrorism, surveillance apparatuses and other exercise of state power. They use the exact same logic: because we will never know for sure, we must watch everyone, we must arrest you, we must… the central question is, if you are acting because the data is uncertain, what kind of evidence will stop you from doing anything?)