Saturday, January 31, 2015

Blog all Dog-Eared Pages: Hyperobjects

Above, an 8oz styrofoam cup, after a trip a mile down below the Gulf of Mexico, at the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

(with apologies to Michal Migurski)

I've just finished Timothy Morton's 'Hyperobjects', which I'd seen pointed to by many trusted sources over the last few years. It'd been floating in my ambient awareness for a bit, and that interest was catalyzed by a reference from somewhere to this longform Q&A over skype between Morton and Hans Ulrich Obrist, at dis magazine. The conversation was part of Obrist's 'Extinction Marathon' at the Serpentine Gallery, which event as a whole seems a bit, er, problematic (at least in the styling). The convo between Obrist and Morton is fascinating, though. Obrist is in London, and Morton is in Texas, and there's a thunderstorm rolling in … I tore through it on my phone over morning coffee. It's worth reading in its entirety, and so is the book, just go do it.

Before reading this book, I'd just come off of Donna Haraway's 'When Species Meet', again, after hearing a lecture or two of Haraway's, and reading a few of her shorter pieces. I'd seen excerpts from 'Cyborg Manifesto', and 'The Companion Species Manifesto' (which reappears, in edited form, in 'When Species Meet'). Haraway writes and speaks, in several places, about 'staying with the trouble' when theory meets practice, which I read as an encouragement to remain close to difficulty and difference whenever those are encountered. This notion has been helpful in a recent drawing series I completed, that is explicitly about finding 'troubles' within systems and engaging with them. Haraway's work, as a way to think about (and think with, and live with) animals in a very clear eyed way, has also been helpful in another project I've recently launched: The Nonhuman Autonomous Space Agency, of which more here (thanks, Analee Newitz and io9).

It's this admonition to stay with difficulty that I find to be the first compelling bridge between these two books. In Morton's 'Hyperobjects', the first half of the book catalogs the characteristics of hyperobjects, and the second half catalogs their effects and consequences. One of the consequences is 'Hypocrisies', which for him is not so much a pejorative, but more of an inescapable base state. In the time of hyperobjects, everyone is a hypocrite. No one is innocent or unaffected when it comes to things that are large and persistent like global warming, or nuclear power. This doesn't mean that the appropriate response to ubiquitous hypocrisy is cynicism or snark, but instead to, as Haraway might put it, stay with these troubles and acknowledge them as things to work with. Haraway's best examples are in the relationship between human and nonhuman genomes, both hyperobjects that have shaped each other through coevolution for millennia. There are few people on the planet who haven't benefited from the exploitation of animals and animal products, just as there are vanishingly few who haven't gained from the instrumentalization of petroleum or  plutonium, but this doesn't mean the answer is to give up engaging with these relationships, or to become cynical about hopelessness.

One of my favorite things about the book is that it wears its influences on its sleeve, and its influences, when they aren't art historical high culture, are almost all pop culture science fiction. The index shows references to Douglas Adams, Blade Runner, Buckaroo Banzai, Cthulhu, Doctor Who, The Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, Star Wars, Wall-E … all alongside artists like Laurie Anderson, Bridget Riley, and Alexander Rodchenko. Even when he's not calling these outright, a science fictional vibe is deeply informing the imagery:

p. 4, on postmodernism:
The globalizing sureness with which "there is no metalanguage" and "everything is a metaphor" are spoken in postmodernism means that postmodernism is nothing like what it takes itself to be, and is indeed just another version of the (white, Western, male) historical project. The ultimate goal of this project, it seems, was to set up a weird transit lounge outside of history in which the characters and technologies and ideas of the ages mill around in a state of mild, semiblissful confusion.

Without saying so directly, this invokes Douglas Adams' 'The Restaurant at the End of the Universe', especially since the subtitle of Morton's book is 'Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World'. Or maybe it's a slightly more obscure reference to the Doctor Who episode 'The End of the World', in which the characters visit a party on a space station set to observe the destruction of planet Earth, five billion years in the future.

p. 17, on space and posthumanity:
For now the possibility that we have loosed the shackles of the earthly to touch the face of the "human form divine" (Blake) seems like a wish fulfillment. According to hyperobjects, themselves, who seem to act a little like bit like the gigantic boot at the end of the Monty Python credits, outer space is a figment of our imagination: we are always inside an object.

This passage on aesthetics and temporality, from p. 91, represents, for me, one of the main goals of Morton's project here:
Just as a hard drive is a surface on which data is inscribed, so London is a series of surfces on which causality has been inscribed. There is no difference between causality and aesthetic appearance (aisthesis). - Appearance is the past, essence is the future. The strange strangeness of a hyperobject, its invisibility - it's the future, somehow beamed into the "present". The futurality is meant by the term attractor, as in the Lorenz Attractor, as entity occupying a high-dimensional phase space that traces weather patterns.

This is what Morton means by the term 'hyperobject', he is expanding on the ways in which Object Oriented Ontologists like Graham Harman refer to 'objects'. Hyperobjects have, like the objects of OOO, their own existence and agency independent of human interaction, but hyperobjects are so large, persistent, and complex that they are only perceivable as such by thinking in terms of other spatial and temporal dimensions. And often, Morton hints that this (these?) other dimension(s?) are where the self existing, unperceived, identity or essence of all objects, not just hyperobjects, resides and radiates from. The question of essence as it relates to Harman's flavors of OOO has always felt a little unsettlingly Platonic to me, I prefer instead to think about, as Bruno Latour does, sticking to the relationships, and following the actors, rather than worrying about what's inside these black boxes, the appeal of extradimensional science fiction imagery notwithstanding.

p. 106, on his objections to concepts of naturalness and the world:
Ideology is not just in your head, it's in the shape of a Coke bottle. It's in the way some things appear "natural" - rolling hills and greenery - as if the Industrial Revolution had never occurred, and moreover, as if agriculture was Nature. The "landscape" look of agriculture is the original "greenwashing".

p. 119, more on "natural":
This confusion of sensual and real, in the terms of A House is a House for Me, is like thinking that bread really is a house for jam, and jam alone. Rather than simply an idea that occurs to me, and perhaps to the jam, when it finds itself slathered in there. Marmalade wants in on the bread? Too bad, marmalade is an artificial, unnatural parasite! Peanut butter? Illegal alien! Only jam is "natural", such that bread is only made-for-jam. See the problem with Nature? In OOO-ese, reification is precisely the reduction of a real object to its sensual appearance-for another object. Reification is the reduction of one entity to another's fantasy about it.

This is a particular difficulty I grapple with in regards to the Nonhuman Autonomous Space Agency.  In allowing the animals and robots to "communicate" via social media, partly based on projects like Botanicalls, No More Woof, and @houseofcoates, there is the risk of mistaking speaking-for for speaking-with, that is, reification and anthropomorphism. Two particular precedents I was interested in drawing on: memes that caption animal photos, like LOLcat and doge, and the growing trend of giving space exploration robots like NASA's Curiosity Rover official and unofficial twitter accounts that speak in the first person. Some friends were very kind to comment on the project in early phases. One friend who is a sociologist doing work in Animal Studies wrote me that she considered LOLcats and doge as examples of anthropomorphization, that they represented the projection of human desires and concerns onto the animals represented. An urbanist friend wrote me, with regard to a twitter conversation between Curiosity and the first Martian rock it sampled with a laser, that no human joker or PR person at NASA had the right to use a social media account that way: "only the basalt knows what the laser feels like".

Morton helps here, he offers an interpretation of something like 'mathematics' that brings it back to a Greek root: mathesis, which, counter to Positivist deployments of the word as "Mathesis Universalis", or 'Universal Learning' by Liebniz and Descartes, he translates loosely as 'getting used to' or 'growing accustomed'. Hence math and physics are aesthetic attempts to get used to the properties of objects. To extend Morton's argument maybe almost too far: math is a poem about the world. This is useful in thinking about ways to avoid reification and anthropomorphization - these are just bad attempts to get used to relationships between nonhumans. They are bad poems, as cynicism is a bad poem, and just because bad poems exist, that doesn't mean that it's impossible to make good poems. 

We can also see this when we make another comparison between Morton and Haraway. Morton uses 'world', to mean an illusory, singular, totality, this is what has ended in his book's subtitle. Haraway prefers 'worlding', not an object, but a process, and always a process alongside and with others. Let's place Haraway's 'becoming-with' alongside Morton's 'appearance-for'. This is what I hope to mean by saying that attempts to offer language to nonhumans in projects like NASA can be speaking with, not just speaking for.

p. 124, one final related note form Morton, on strangeness:
… what I call the strange stranger, the stranger whose strangeness is forever strange - it cannot be tamed or rationalized away. This stranger is not so unfamiliar: uncanny familiarity is one of the strange stranger's traits. Only consider anyone who has a long term partner: the person they wake up with every day is the strangest person they know.

There are other things to say, about how OOO in general works well with Haraway's call to for ways of thinking that challenge 'the tyranny of human exceptionalism', about Kim Stanley Robinson's notions of Martian geology and the agency of rocks on a planet empty of human people. I took a break in the middle of 'Hyperobjects' to read Robinson's 'The Memory of Whiteness', which is about the ability or not of art to have a causal or aesthetic relationship to aspects of the world(s). This book resonates well with Morton, and indeed, Kim Stanley Robinson wrote a cover blurb for 'Hyperobjects'. 

If there's any objection I have to the category of hyperobjects that Morton describes here, is that this description isn't broad enough, and that it isn't personal enough. Much time is spent dwelling on global warming, petroleum, and radioactive materials as hyperobjects, and after a while these felt a bit overly sterile and mineral. What about genomes? The way Haraway, and other writers like Michael Pollan speculate about the agency of nonhuman plant and animal genomes, and their interaction in the long long term with the human genome, would place them in Morton's ontology. And what about imaging hyperobjects? How can we have a sci-fi inflected study of the identity of powerful objects like plutonium without mentioning Godzilla? Hyperobjects might be hard to understand, but one of the ways in which humans have historically attempted this understanding is by means of stories about monsters, mascots, and megafuana. What about markets? Futurist Justin Pickard suggests replacing the word 'markets' with 'dragons' when reading the news, resulting in sentences like 'dragons reacted with uncertainty to the latest report from the Federal Reserve …' 

Are hyperobjects really more like each other than they are like ordinary non-hyper 'objects'? How many types of hyperobject are there? How do they interact with one another? Ordinary objects at least seem to share a lightcone and a timespace substrate, if hyperobjects are too large in time and time space to relate to objects in ways that are consistent and comprehensible, then how do we use the existence of this category to formulate a way of being-with, and even speaking-with hyperobjects? As an extension of the increasingly broad use of the category 'object', Morton's hyperobjects are useful, and the work of further taxonomy remains.

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