POSTED: May 31, 2017 |
Blog | Book review | Moral Framings

The uncanniness of climate – Review of Morton’s Hyperobjects

by WILL DAVIES

Timothy Morton cares about the humans and things with which he co-exists, and doesn’t want to see them destroyed. But reading Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World, Will Davies finds, it’s not entirely clear why. His version of environmental ethics is rather disquieting.

CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 :: NASA / Flickr.com

Timothy Morton cares about the humans and things with which he co-exists, and doesn’t want to see them destroyed. But reading Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World,  it’s not entirely clear why. It’s certainly not for any anthropocentric reasons, such as the inability of humans to flourish in a degraded environment. Nor is it because he fears some impending apocalypse: the world has already ended, as far as he’s concerned. It is certainly not for economic reasons, indeed he is adamant that the non-human world cannot be adequately grasped merely as a ‘resource’ to be valued, whether in a sustainable or an unsustainable way. For Morton it is less that we should care about our ecology, and more that we have no choice but to do so. There is nowhere else to go, other than to care. “What remains without a world is intimacy”, he argues.

‘Hyper-objects’ are real things with discernible impacts upon we humans, but which we cannot know in the way that modern science once hoped to. Global warming (he is against the term ‘climate change’) and atomic power are the two primary examples in the book, although a planet might be conceived as a hyper-object. For Morton, these are objects, but with spatial and temporal properties that make it impossible for a human being to grasp them cognitively or theoretically. We can know them empirically, inasmuch as we can acquire experience of them, but not rationally. Hyperobjects are not contained within rational, geometric laws (as for Newton or Descartes), rather we are contained within them.

Western philosophy has had a neat trick for dealing with the unseen dimensions of reality, attributing it to the ‘essential’, ‘metaphysical’ or ‘noumenal’ realms, that have a different ontological properties from the phenomena that present themselves to the scientist or the everyday observer. This has allowed humanity to maintain a sense of a ‘world’, a meaningful and manageable finite sphere, beyond which lies something infinite and absolute. Oddly, Morton points out, humans have long been entirely comfortable with the idea of infinity, as it serves as the ontological other of their more anthropocentric environment. ‘Nature’, as a set of finite, malleable, exploitable objects, is just one such ‘world’, the one invented in the 17th century, around Newtonian physics, Cartesian distance and capitalist exploitation.

What is disturbing about hyperobjects is not that they are infinite or beyond quantification (like noumena or God), but that they are merely extremely large in scale and temporal effects. Our inability to see them properly is a reflection on our own marginality and irrelevance, not on their ontological quality. If we’re lucky we can feel them, as we feel global warming via scientific instruments and our own skin, but this is an affective experience, in which objects happen to strike us. The boundary between the aesthetic and the scientific disappears. What remains hidden is not something we should leave to philosophers to define or to scientists to model, but an objective reality far larger and more enduring than scientific research will ever fathom, and which renders utilitarian calculations (such as those of economics) completely irrelevant. To enter a debate about global warming or nuclear weapons on the basis of evidence or cost-benefit analysis is to leave one open to the risk of anihilation. Morton urges us to act now on the basis that we cannot know, rather than in the hope that we can.

This is what Morton means by the ‘end of the world’: things are no longer ‘for us’ in the sense that they were for Cartesian philosophy, Newtonian physics or even Heideggerian phenomenology. Hyper-objects will outlast humans, but not vice versa. One riddle of Morton’s analysis is that modern science (which was inaugurated with the resolutely subject-centred philosophies of the 17th century) is heavily responsible for this side-lining of the human and of subjectivity, via Darwin, relativity theory and latterly the rising awareness of ‘climate’ as a hyper-object operating in ways that engulf us. At each point, philosophers have tried to reassert the autonomy of the human dimension (to rebuild ‘world’), but now it is too late. In that regard, Hyperobjects has a curiously Enlightenment feel to it, a sense that the end of the ‘world’, as with the end of Cartesian delusions of grandeur, is an awakening of a sort, not to our power or autonomy but – on the contrary – the extreme smallness, vulnerability and ephemerality of the human species. Global warming shows us how little we really knew about what we were doing, in the comforting ‘worlds’ that consumerism and risk management constructed for us. This is a learning process, similar to the unmasking performed by Nietzsche, only now with the assistance of the object we used to call ‘weather’.

In common with various books on the anthropocene (although that’s not a term Morton uses), Hyperobjects offers one alternative approach to what was previously termed ‘nature’. Morton’s is the most radically, almost manically post-human of the texts that we’ve read in this anthropocene reading group. The notion of a ‘hyper-object’ offers a way of viewing the non-human world that transcends divisions between science, philosophy and art, increasing our sensitivity to what appears (heat, light, rain, earth) but also a slight paranoia regarding what doesn’t. As Morton puts it in a typically wry phrase, “global warming doesn’t go golfing at weekends”. Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not after you.

One curiosity of all this regards the status of science in helping us cope. On the one hand, Morton views a certain style of climate science as inducing denialism – a style of rationalist science that seeks ‘objectivity’ and ‘causality’, then never adequately finds them. Yet it is still science that convinces Morton the planet is getting hotter. It seems, therefore, that (as with MacKenzie Wark’s vision of distributed scientific consciousness), Morton is favouring a type of radical yet fearful empiricism in which we notice our experiences better, collect them more artfully, raise fears for what else might be taking place, all the while avoiding the lapse into mysticism or metaphysics. It is a difficult style of consciousness to get right.

In certain respects, it seems to share something with the epistemology of data capture, as explored by Mark Hansen in Feed-Forward. Human experience, for Morton, is not an epistemological phenomenon (as for Kant, say) but an objective after-effect of some previous event that humans may or may not have been involved in. Hence, global warming (as we talk about it now) is the delayed effect of processes that were put in motion in the late 18th century with the invention of the steam engine. These processes have been there all along, but only reached our senses 200 years later. The nature of human agency in this is a little difficult to discern, but it seems that, for Morton, humans accidentally interfered with a hyper-object, at a time (the Enlightenment) when they were still under the illusion that they mattered. We are now living with the knock-on effects. Similarly, Hansen’s notion of ‘feed-forward’ (in contrast to ‘feedback’) suggests that, in the age of ubiquitous data capture, we are constantly sending off messages to be collected, analysed and used at some future date. We just don’t know what that date will be or who will use the data.

In that sense, the person living in the age of hyper-objects faces a similar existential problem as the resident of the ‘smart’ digital environment. Each action must be performed on the basis that it will have consequences, but without any certainty as to how, when or for whom. Causality is being threaded through physical things that theories of causality are hopeless in grasping; this is what was tagged as the ‘end of theory‘ in relation to data, and Morton expresses something analogous in relation to climate. In place of critical distance, a sense of paranoia and responsibility takes over. Morton offers us a version of environmental ethics, but a deeply disquieting one, seeing as it offers nothing by way of control or worldly hope. It may, on the other hand, be radically realistic.

Will Davies is Co-Director of the Political Economy Research Centre at Goldsmiths. He leads the CUSP theme on meaning and moral framings of the good life.

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