Morton, Timothy. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.
Notwithstanding Morton’s best efforts and wonderful writing, it is constitutively difficult to say what a hyperobject is: No, it’s not a polybutadiene rubber bouncing ball rocketing around the room wall to wall to floor to ceiling; rather, according to Morton, a hyperobject might take up all that same space, and unfold over all the same time it takes the ball to bounce, yet the sheer enormity and distribution of the hyperobject make it impossible to grasp. Think global warming (Morton’s running example) or the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russia (my own)—these are things in the Heideggerian sense, well beyond a human scale of comprehension, involving innumerable intentions and actors and real events over many years in many places, which is precisely why they are not only so hard to envisage, but make it so hard to plan a vision for how we should respond in the future. In the first half of his book, Morton offers five fundamental characteristics to help identify hyperobjects, even if we can only see their shadows:
- Viscosity: Hyperobjects surround us, stick to us, up close and personal even as they overwhelm our sense of personhood or agency, which makes them all the more uncanny and sublime, like the mountain in Wordsworth’s prelude (51).
- Nonlocality: We should not be fooled by local manifestations of hyperobjects, like confusing a cold snap in the weather as evidence against global warming; attending to the individual raindrops rather than the overall climate is to be fooled by a “false immediacy” that overlooks the hyperobject as “massively distributed in time and space” (48).
- Temporal Undulation: Even as hyperobjects “envelop us,” at the same time “they seem to taper off, like a long street stretched into the distance” (55); that is to say, they “are time-stretched to such a vast extent that they become almost impossible to hold in mind” (58). When did global warming begin? or scarier still, when will it end? certainly not in our lifetime, nor in our children’s children, should life remain sustainable that long—how can we comprehend such a massive event when the end (which already exists, in that it must) is so far beyond our imagination? “These gigantic timescales are truly humiliating in the sense that they force us to realize how close to Earth we are” (60), unseating humans from the head of the table, the other side of which remains past the horizon of our experience.
- Phasing: Never appearing all at once, in no specific time and no specific place, hyperobjects are “transdimensional real things” (73), perhaps perceivable to some Tralfamadorian fourth dimensional stranger, just as the whole apple can appear to us while only slices are visible to the stick figures of Abbott’s Flatland.
- Interobjectivity: Hyperobjects are made up by a “strange interconnectedness of things, an interconnectedness that does not all for perfect, lossless transmission of information, but is instead full of gaps and absences,” a mesh of entities that precedes and exceeds an individuals involvement with it (83).
In the face of such complicated and overwhelming hyperobjects, Morton suggests that we have entered into an “Age of Asymmetry” with our nonhuman neighbors wherein the “fragile aesthetic effect” we call world or nature, the ideal background we dream once ran harmoniously and cohesively, is simply at an end (99). “Three cheers for the so-called end of the world, then, since this moment is the beginning of history, the end of the human dream that reality is significant for them alone,” sing Morton (108), calling us to embrace our ontological weakness and lameness when confronted with hyperobjects, and to establish “more democratic mods of coexistence between humans and with nonhumans” (121).
This post is one entry in an ongoing annotated bibliography of my bookshelf. If it’s useful to any person other than myself, all the better.