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Fracturedpolitics.com - Critical theory about current events: Interview: Timothy Morton
Interview: Timothy Morton
Man, global warming sure is getting big, ain't it?
In the literal, not just rhetorical, sense. For evidence, consider the tornadic orgy that has been unfolding across the mainland United States, this year. As of May 28, 1,333 tornadoes had been confirmed, in a decade that sees an annual average of 1,274. Big fan of death? At least 520 fatalities have resulted from the twisters, the most since 1950.
Intellectually, we may rationalize the increase in catastrophic storms as part of wider environmental shifts. This acknowledgement is typically superficial, however, expressing collective anxiety more than a genuine attempt to think through dramatic ecological changes. In the following interview, Timothy Morton, founder of the notion of 'hyperobjects', explains the need for such an onto-ecological gesture, while curating his own object-oriented project.
Q: To begin, what
are 'hyperobjects' and how are they explained through the five
characteristics you attribute to them - namely, that hyperobjects are
viscous, molten, nonlocal, phased, and interobjective?
simply gigantic objects, gigantic from some other object's point of
view. (Here object is taken to mean any entity whatsoever.) So, for instance, from the point of view of humans, the biosphere is a
gigantic object that surrounds us and penetrates us and lasts for
billions of years. Global warming is an object that emerges within
this biosphere as a result of fossil fuel burning. It lasts up to 100,000 years as igneous rocks slowly absorb the remaining traces of
excess carbon dioxide.
viscous. This simply means that they stick like goo to whoever
or whatever they touch. This stickiness is both physical and
conceptual. For example, the more we know about the biosphere, the
more we realize we are stuck to it. Say you decide to move to Mars
because of global warming. In some sense global warming is still
stuck to you, because that's why you move to Mars. And on Mars you
have an even bigger problem: You have to create a livable biosphere!
molten. They are so long lasting and so massive that they
physically refute the idea that space and time are firm, consistent
boxes (either physical or conceptual) in which things just sit like
balls in an executive toy. They are living examples of why Newtonian
mechanics is wrong. Think about Earth, surely a hyperobject for its
inhabitants. It was recently established, using a host of tiny
gyroscopes, the most accurate ever made, that there really is a
spacetime vortex around Earth. This vortex is an emergent feature of
Earth itself. It doesn't contain Earth. Earth produces it.
Einstein was correct in this regard.
nonlocal. They are so massively distributed that they confound
prejudices we have about objects as located in specific regions of
time and space. For example, global warming causes hazardous weather
such as tornadoes. You feel the tornado: It rips your house apart.
But you don't feel global warming. But global warming is the mother
of the tornado. It's a necessary condition for the tornado. Something
you can't feel becomes more substantial than a tornado tearing
through your neighborhood! Electromagnetic waves and gravity waves
propagate throughout space: They are nonlocal in this sense.
Evolution is a gigantic wave of replicating molecules expressing as
viruses, spider webs, arms, mucus, birdcalls, and my answers to this
interview. (Iain Hamilton Grant's concept of a megabody is
quite similar to this.)
Now, if it's true
that there are all kinds of things happening between 10-17 (the size of an electron) and 10-33 cm (the Planck
length), and these things are truly nonlocal, then it means that whatever
happens down there is “everywhere" in some sense. This is very
hard to think about. But Petr Horava of Berkeley and others now
suggest that spacetime itself is an emergent property of objects
larger than 10-17 cm. In this way you can make gravity
work with the other fundamental forces. Or rather, it doesn't have
to, because it emerges out of them.
phased. The reason they are nonlocal and molten is that they
occupy a higher dimensional phase space than other entities can
easily cope with. One tornado can be seen as one point on a plot of a
huge weather algorithm that spreads out in a high dimensional phase
space. When Edward Lorenz looked at weather patterns in 1963 he
discovered a very strange entity in the high dimensional phase space:
a weird figure of eight pattern that is now called the Lorenz
Attractor, the first strange attractor ever discovered. Hyperobjects
appear to come and go in our regular 3-D space, like the way the Sun
seems to appear from behind a cloud, or a storm seems to arise in a
cloudy sky. But if we were four or five dimensional beings, perhaps
we would see them as gigantic vortices or tubes spreading out around
interobjective. They are formed as interactions between more
than one entity. For instance global warming emerges from the Sun,
the biosphere, humans burning fossil fuels, carbon dioxide and so on.
Because of this interobjectivity we only ever see footprints of
hyperobjects, like footprints of dinosaurs in fossilized mud. It
seems as if they are merely made of information: They appear to be
products of our mapping and modeling. I disagree profoundly with
this: The information appears this way because hyperobjects inscribe
themselves in other objects, like the dinosaur foot. Hyperobjects are
already there before humans measure them. This is particularly
poignant concerning global warming, which humans created without
knowing it, like Frankenstein's monster.
The hyperobject made
of radioactive materials is nothing but the sum of all the moments at
which an alpha, a beta, or a gamma ray inscribed itself in some
surface, such as your skin.
In this way,
hyperobjects are historical. Not simply because we humans can tell
their story, but because they tell their own story by marking other
objects, just as we mark paper and pixels to tell our histories. In
this larger sense they produce time. We are now living within the
time of hyperobjects, in which hyperobjects make decisive contact
Q: How do
hyperobjects relate to conceptions of history, particularly with
regard to an awareness of what you've called the "era
of ecological crisis" in which we now find ourselves?
I hope the last part
of my thoughts about interobjectivity helps us to understand how
there is a time of hyperobjects. In fact I would rather call
the ecological age the time of hyperobjects because it makes it very
physical and concrete, rather than something we decided to think
about for a laugh.
hyperobjects provide evidence for how history was never human
history, even when humans thought that it was only human. History
always included rats, grass, tidal waves, and mountains. Likewise,
social space was never quite human. It always included spiders, dust,
smoke, and horse dung.
We are living in an
exciting, disturbing moment, in which we are forced to reconfigure
everything we know about history and society, backward from what we
know now. Hyperobjects did us a favor, in this regard. They forced us
to see the big picture.
Q: How did you
arrive at the concept of 'mesh', and how does it illustrate the
interrelationship and entanglement of life forms, or what you call
The mesh, quite
simply, is everything, considered from the point of view of
interobjective relations between things. Thus, ecology includes the
biosphere, the Sun—and, thus, the entire solar system is part of
thinking ecology. Once we think the mesh, we can't draw a line around
it. The mesh is, thus, nonlocal and nontemporal.
Mesh means snare
or trap: We are inside it and there is no outside, no center
and no edge. It also means mask: The mesh, despite its
reality, is also a kind of aesthetic display that emerges out of
things, in front of things, like a fencing mask. Meshes contain gaps, as well as connections: They are full of holes and not-holes. Meshes
are, thus, inconsistent, paradoxical objects made of presence and
Take a small part of
the mesh, evolution—when Darwin discovered it, he quickly discovered
how it was about enmeshment, or as he says on the last page of The
Origin of Species, entanglement. And when you think
evolution, you have to think how life and non-life are not so
separate. And how species are just abstractions. Really, it would have
been better if Darwin had used emoticons: The Origin of Species ;
). What does evolution mean? There are no species and they have
outrageously, astonishingly, the mesh forces you to realize how
everything that composes it is utterly unique. This is what strange
stranger means. Strange strangers are uncanny: strangely strange; in other words, you can't contain or predict their strangeness. They
become even more strange the more you know them. Like your boyfriend: When you wake up next to him after ten years, you wonder who the heck
he is more than you did when you first slept with him.
strangers were lifeforms. But I soon realized you could logically
extend the concept to non-life, since life arises from non-life in
any case. There is no thin rigid boundary. Strange stranger is
a pretty good translation of the term object in
object-oriented ontology (OOO), which I endorse.
In other words, the
mesh floats “in front of” strange strangers, like a fencing mask
hides, yet reveals, the face that wears it. In this way, my ecology is
rather odd, because interconnectedness is secondary to uniqueness.
Most ecologies make a much bigger deal out of interconnection. But if
interconnection lies underneath objects, then these objects don't
really exist, and we are dealing with some kind of idealism, if we
push the thinking to an extreme.
I think that
ecological awareness means appreciating the fact that humans coexist
with a vast plenitude of strange strangers. In other words, we are
not just parts of a giant machine or pieces of some prefabricated
“environment” or “world.” Paradoxically, ecology means the
end of the world, in a philosophical sense! Just as we are ending the
world as we know it through global warming, ecological awareness
ends the idea of world. How ironic is that—in a not so cool,
not so postmodern way?
Q: Are aesthetic,
and especially artistic, sensibilities shaped by hyperobjects and/or
the escape of nonhumans from human mastery, and if so, how?
This is a very deep
question. Yes, forever, and always. Quite simply, paintings have
always been made of more things than humans. They have been made of
paint, which is powdered crystals in some medium such as egg white or
oil. Now when you put the painting on the wall, it also relates to
the wall. A fly lands on it. Dust settles on it. Slowly the pigment
changes despite your artistic intentions.
We could think of
all these nonhuman interventions as themselves a kind of art or
design. Then we realize that nonhumans are also doing art all the
time. It's just that we call it causality. But when calcium
crystals coat a Neolithic cave painting, they are also designing,
also painting. Quite simply then, the aesthetic dimension is the
causal dimension, which in turn means that it is also the mesh, the
vast nonlocal web that floats “in front of” objects
(ontologically, not physically “in front of”).
So now this fact is
available to humans, and we are starting to do art about it. Simple!
The kind of art we do in an age of ecology will have two basic
features: irony (a new kind of irony) and a demonic quality. What
does that mean? Irony means that because of viscosity (see above),
art finds itself stuck inside the very thing it's depicting like a
flower petal suspended in Perspex. There is something ironic about
this, like seeing your own death or realizing that you, the
detective, are actually the murderer. Demonic qualities mean that art
becomes a tuning to nonhumans. The Greeks used to think that
art was a tuning to divine forces, like channeling. This tuning has
real causal effects. Art becomes dangerous and weird, without losing
irony. Suddenly we're not in Kansas anymore—not even postmodern
Q: Can your
formulation of 'hyperobjects' be extended to areas outside of
putatively ecological realms, such as economic class and warfare?
Yes, definitely. Why
not? A war might be a great example of a hyperobject. I don't very
much wish to police how we think about hyperobjects. It's more
interesting to me to study their startling qualities.
There are some great
advantages to thinking class as a hyperobject. It means you totally
avoid the subjectivism and, yes, even idealism that plagues normal
Marxist theory. Class is just the set of interobjective inscription
events such as payment, exploitation, and specific actions like working a loom or trading a stock. This means we can think past the
Hegelian tendency within contemporary Marxist theory—that is, if we
want to be Marxists. (I certainly think that you don't have to be a
Marxist to think about class or about hyperobjects.)
I believe this would
be helpful because Hegelianism tends toward something quite
religious, and I find religion rather oppressive. Marxism has become
about forging the perfect attitude toward reality, and this cynicism
is just primitive in the face of ecological reality. And thinking
class as a hyperobject seems to open up lots of possibilities, small
and great. Class becomes a physical object. Why not? Wouldn't this
explain why it's so hard to shift? But why it also might be easy to
subvert if we can understand it?
Q: Finally, you've
recently probed the idea of a 'speculative sublime' that moves beyond
Kantian and Burkean notions of the sublime, employing Longinus to
capture the intimacy between entities. Why is Longinus helpful to
reframing sublimity from an object-oriented perspective and what
implications does this shift have for ecological debate?
Longinus says that
sublimity is the echo of a great soul. I don't think there's much
difference between human souls, if they exist, and the souls of
badgers, ferns, and seashells. In other words, we can retrofit the
oldest philosophy of the sublime for a fresh new look at ecological
coexistence. Because the Longinian sublime is based on coexistence.
At least one other thing exists, apart from me: that great soul,
whose footprint I find in my inner space.
By contrast, the
more familiar concepts of the sublime are based on the experience of
just one person. It's my fear and terror, my shock and awe (Burke).
It's my freedom, my infinite inner space (Kant). Of course, it's
triggered by some object. But then you drop the trigger and just
focus on the state: This is especially true in Kant. And Burke is
just about oppression. It's about the power of kings and bombing
raids. Why couldn't the sublime object be something vulnerable or
In this sense, it's
not so much that Burke and Kant are wrong, but that what they're
thinking is ontologically secondary to the notion of coexistence.
Longinus puts the sublime a way back in the causal sequence, in the
“great soul” that leaves its footprint on you. In this sense, it's
in the object, in the not-me. Thus the sublime tunes us to what is
not me. This is good news in an ecological era. Before it's fear or
freedom, the sublime is coexistence.
Let's go even
further. Let's think again about how causality is aesthetic. The
sublime, on this view, is how fresh objects are born. Suddenly, other
objects discover these shards of glass in their world, fragments of
broken object embedded in their flesh, scattered over the floor. The
sublime is how things are born.
Timothy Morton is Professor of English (Literature and Environment) at the University of California, Davis. He is the author of Ecology Without Nature (2007) and The Ecological Thought (2010), as well as numerous articles that reconfigure environmental theory. Follow his work at www.ecologywithoutnature.blogspot.com, on YouTube at youtube.com/ecologywithoutnature, or on Twitter at twitter.com/the_eco_thought.