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Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2013, 240 pages, $ 24.95 paperback. ISBN 978-0-8166-8923-1.
Timothy Morton’s Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World is a queasily vertiginous quest to synthesize the still divergent fields of quantum theory (the weirdness of small objects) and relativity (the weirdness of big objects) and insert them into philosophy and art, which he notes are far behind ontologically speaking (page 150). Morton’s wager is that for the first time, we in the Anthropocene are able to see snapshots of hyperobjects, and that these intimations more or less will force us to undergo a radical reboot of our ontological toolkit and (finally) incorporate the weirdness of physics. You know that cozy hobbit world where people tend gardens and think stars are beautiful and flush their excrement into the ‘away’? Well, that world is a fantasy, and now that we can see hyperobjects, that world is at an end, hence Morton’s subtitle. Morton encourages us to adopt an object-oriented ontology (OOO), and OOO tells us that “thinking and art and political practice should simply relate directly to nonhumans” (page 109), which is actually not so simple. But more on that later.
So what is a hyperobject? Morton acknowledges that big objects have always already been there, nudging those who would listen toward an ontological reboot, but it has been possible for most people to ignore this. No longer. Morton argues that the ‘hyperobjects’ of the Anthropocene, objects like global warming, climate or oil that are “massively distributed in time and space relative to humans” (page 1), have become newly visible to humans, largely as a result of the very mathematics and statistics that helped to create these disasters. As we glimpse them through our reams of data, “[h]yperobjects compel us to think ecologically, and not the other way around” (page 48).
For Morton, this “thinking ecologically” will first require the “smashing” of the aesthetic bubble we call a world (page 127). The end of the world is like waking up inside something big (pages 118-19), which penetrates you to the cellular level and yet sticks to you and everything you know on Earth and everywhere: it is something like a wasp drowning in a jar of honey—the more you panic and resist it, the more stuck you become (page 30). And at the same time, you know that there are an endless succession of larger objects in which you are stuck:
“we are always inside an object” (page 17).
This is humiliating for humans, Morton tells us, and this is a good thing. Hyperobjects show us “there is no center and we don’t inhabit it. Yet added to this is another twist: there is no edge! We can’t jump out of the universe” (page 17).
I have digressed a bit down just one pathway that Morton’s book pursues, that of undoing the world and the Earth. What makes this book ‘dizzying’ is that Morton claims that hyperobjects smash almost all of the coordinates by which we think we know a ‘world’ or the ‘Earth’: matter, time and space. This comprises the first part of the book, “What Are Hyperobjects?” By the time I arrived at the precipice of Part II, “The Time of Hyperobjects”, which explores the human reaction to hyperobjects, I felt disoriented and yet excited. Hyperobjects were terrifying, yes, but the notion also seemed to hold a lot of political potential in terms of becoming ‘attuned’ to our ecological emergency.
However, my excitement got a bit bogged down in the gloom and, yes, doom of Part II, leaving only an uncomfortable malaise, much like being stuck in honey. Morton does not soften the blow for us, on purpose. We have no choice but to be uncomfortable, he says: this is what hyperobjects force upon us. Our task is to learn how to ‘tune’ ourselves to objects, to “drop the concepts Nature and world, to cease identifying with them, to swear allegiance to coexistence with nonhumans without a world, without some nihilistic Noah’s Ark” (page 100). This would entail an ethics and politics “based in attunement to directives coming from entities”, entities that are objects in their own rights, which if taken seriously should encourage us to use precaution as our “guiding principle” (page 182).
In this call for ‘coexistence’ and indeed, care, for nonhumans, there does seem to be room for new kinds of love and warmth—something that other speculative realists explore—,but these possibilities are for the most part distantly glimpsed by Morton. The lack of coziness is due to the fact that hyperobjects abolish distance. We are left with only extreme intimacy; pressed up against and riven through with objects until what is left is the “oppressive claustrophobic horror of actually being inside it [the hyperobject]” (page 132). What is left is what Morton calls a “charnel ground” that is like being in an emergency room, where people are dying and bleeding out all around us, “a place of life and death, of death-in-life and life-in-death, an undead place of zombies, viroids, junk DNA, ghosts, silicates, cyanide, radiation demonic forces, and pollution” (page 126). There is no ‘away’ from our human hypocrisy and our ‘weakness’ and ‘lameness’ in the face of hyperobjects, no transcendence, no sense in waiting for a future doom (the doom is now), or a final revolution, no escape chute. It sounds pretty hellish, and it is, but Morton says, drawing on the Buddhist acceptance of suffering, that it can be soothing (page 126). I was not so sure.
Mired in the human weakness that hyperobjects have forced upon me, I am reminded of another thinker who, like Morton, is informed by Heidegger and yet diverges from him: Hannah Arendt (1906-1975). Actually, given the breadth of Morton’s citations, as well as his acknowledged indebtedness to Heidegger, it is a bit surprising that he does not cite Arendt, because there are passages of his—and concerns of his—that are downright Arendtian. Arendt is an anthropocentric thinker for sure, but objects and the human-made ‘world’ play an integral part throughout her philosophy. Arendt also sees the frailty and absurdity of humans who, although they have the power to make new beginnings, to ‘act’, are almost immediately impotent once that action enters the complex web of interrelated people and things. This sense of a web that lives long after human-kind, and that “seems to entangle its producer [of the action] to such an extent that he appears much more the victim and the sufferer that the author and doer of what he has done” (Arendt, 1958: 234), resonates with Morton’s observations that “[a] human ethical or political decision is made caught in the force fields of intermeshed zones” (page 143).
I bring up Arendt not just to suggest a kindred spirit for Morton. I bring up Arendt because she dares to propose two remedies for the predicament of human frailty in the face of those out-of-control and unpredictable webs, which could supplement or complicate the call for a more-than-human politics in the face of hyperobjects. Morton encourages us toward an ethic of coexistence with nonhumans and care for them, but he does not give us many affective resources upon which to draw to do so. Arendt, meanwhile, turns to the possibility of forgiveness and making and keeping promises (page 237). We cannot undo what we have done, she says, but we can forgive, we can love; we cannot know the future, but we can inject some stability by trying to make and keep promises. Major caveat: Arendt explicitly warns that these remedies are unavailable outside “the realm of human affairs” (page 238). This is because she thinks that forgiveness and promises will not work without plurality, by which she means a strictly human plurality (page 238). Without these ‘remedies’, the only way to undo an action is to destroy it, and so humans proceed to destroy not only each other but also “the conditions under which life was given to him” (page 238).
But what if, drawing upon speculative realists like Morton, a political plurality can be achieved with nonhumans? Can we then think about whether forgiveness or making promises that include nonhumans might be remedies in political action? Other speculative realists, such as Jane Bennett (2010), have begun to ask similar questions, but in a more generous aesthetic register. Bennett acknowledges the terror of including nonhumans, but she does not bring us to a charnel ground. She is not naïvely skipping through the friendly garden of Nature, and yet she also gives us courage, beauty and sexuality as we turn toward nonhumans. She shows us the possibilities for “an irrational love of matter” and its “shimmering , potentially violent vitality” (page 61). Perhaps this is just the creation of another ‘hobbit world’ that will be smashed by hyperobjects. But Morton and Bennett want the same thing, a public that includes nonhumans, and what kind of politics will result from humans being dragged “kicking and screaming” (Morton, 2013: 160) into this public? Morton might say this is inevitable, but he also recognizes that “a person who is losing a fantasy is a very dangerous person” (page 196). The most terrifying thing of all is how little there is in Hyperobjects to guard against this.