Hyperobjects

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.

 

 

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Annotated Bookshelf: Ambient Rhetoric

Rickert, Thomas J. Ambient Rhetoric: The Attunements of Rhetorical Being. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013.

 

Yes, of course I’m listening to Brian Eno as I type this, while the morning’s coffee slowly dilutes within my bloodstream and the spring sunlight beckons me to go where my pollen-clogged nostrils don’t want, a little bit of outside already inside me. In Ambient Rhetoric, Thomas Rickert wants to draw our attention to the ways in which the surrounding world, the material ecology of our embedded existence, not only informs or situates rhetorical acts, but is constitutive of suasion as a fundamental affectability that “is lived in the attunements that illuminate our being-together-in-the-world” (15). As such, he aims to undo the familiar subject/object binary in favor of a more primordial and choric ontology that, following Heidegger and others, articulates being as inexorably tied to place and dispersed in dwelling, wherein rhetoric would be interested in “not just inventional places, then, but the invention of the places (from the myriad loci) from which invention will be realized” (67). “Rhetoric emerges from our being-in-the-world,” explains Rickert, “as a response to the way the world attunes and speaks us, but a response that allows for new forms of revealing that transform, at least potentially, how we are in relation to the world” (189). Such a concept subverts the traditional humanistic view of rhetoric that underscores an intentional, conscious subject attempting to intervene in and influence a pre-existing situation; “rhetoricity cannot be rendered as solely the result of human doing” Rickert argues (216), emphasizing our ontological weddedness to the world at large, in which humans dwell, and in dwelling, are. Such a mode of being is neither passive nor necessarily provincial, however, for Rickert’s “dwelling is rhetorical in an ambient sense: disclosure and attunement emerge out of a worldly affectability, so that dwelling’s coming to manifestation is a matter of ongoing differentiation” (248), allowing the world to move being as beings move (by being) the world, in ways both known and mysterious.

One further thing worth noting, however, is how frequently Rickert’s examples—Earthrise, a Schwarzwald cabin, an idyllic Canadian island—are rather inert; even Eno’s music is based largely on loops and ephemeral clips. This is thought-provoking, at least insofar as Heidegger’s work, whatever its development, never abandons a focus on temporality: It’s Being and Time, after all, not Being and Topos, Sein und Zeit, not Sein und Site. In his conclusion, to some degree Rickert acknowledges and addresses this limitation, noting “that a commitment to place is not a static, isolating proposition. It is a recognition that movement, activity, and building are what disclose and create a place” (273), making it “important to balance an attendance to what is present with an attendance to what withdraws and to what the future brings so that we are open to whatever further disclosive possibilities may become manifest,” whatever further places may appear together in the same spot” (280). Taking this call, how might we begin to consider temporality as a part of ambiance, specifically considering Heidegger’s notion of time. not as a series of nows but as a unity of past-present-future? How does a sense of time affect a sense of space—let alone spacetime—which becomes the condition of possibility for rhetoricity in its choric dimension? A possibly fruitful direction might be to compare the painfully deferred resolution of Tristan und Isolde‘s opening chord to Eno’s short burst, and the way in which an ambiance of anticipation and desire emerges from the resulting lack in the former.

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.

Annotated Bookshelf: What is Called Thinking?

Heidegger, Martin. What is Called Thinking? Translated by J. Glenn Gray. New York: Harper Perennial, 2004.

“If we receive the answer we were expecting,” asked Lacan in his second seminar, “is it really an answer?”—the unspoken conclusion here being that we fail to ask a question when we already (presume to) know the answer. Similarly, in these surprisingly sober lectures, delivered in a Freiburg seminar series between 1951 and 1952 during a brief return to professorship, Heidegger poses his titular question not “to snatch at a quick answer in the form of a formula,” but to “stay with the question” (48), for the “movement, step by step, is what is essential here. Thinking clears its way only by its own questioning advance” (170), which does not seek “a once-for-all decision and choice of way” across an impassable crossroads of interpretative multiplicity—”[f]or all true thought remains open to more than one interpretation” (71)—rather such a “crossroads accompanies us on the way, every moment” (175), through “a way of questioning, on which the problematic alone is accepted as the unique habitat and locus of thinking” (185). Thus in asking was heißt Denken?, Heidegger inquires after not only the definition of thinking, whether historically—and the two seminars contained here spend their latter halves with intensive readings of Nietzsche’s “last man” and Parmenides’ sixth fragment, respectively—or contemporaneously in a “thought-provoking time [when] what is most thought-provoking shows itself in the fact that we are still not thinking” (28); but also “[w]hat calls on us to think, demands for itself that it be tended, cared for, husbanded in its own essential nature, by thought” (121). In this call to thinking—which, etymologically, is also a thanking, a thanc (139)humankind is “offer[ed] an abode” in which to dwell (124), in which to question, in which to keep and gather “all that concerns us, all that we care for, all that touches us” in an “incessant concentration on contiguity” so that “we ourselves are that gathering” (144f.). As any dismissive grad student might expect from Heidegger, though which we have hardly begun to question and even less to think, the call to “thinking is determined by what there is to be thought about: the presence of what is present, the Being of beings. Thinking is thinking only when it recalls in thought the ἐόν, That which this word indicates properly and truly, that is, unspoken, tacitly. And that is the duality of beings and Being” (244), ontological difference.

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.

Annotated Bookshelf: Technics and Time, 1

Stiegler, Bernard. Technics and Time, 1: The Fault of Epimethus. Translated by Richard Beardsworth and George Collins. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1998.

In the 2004 documentary The Ister—where I first learned of his work—Stiegler admits playfully that for many critics, his work is either too Heideggerian or not Heideggerian enough, an ambivalence towards the Freiburg philosopher that, according to Technics and Time, stems from an ambiguity in Heidegger’s own treatment of modern technology, which “appears simultaneously as the ultimate obstacle to and as the ultimate possibility of thought” (7). In his attempt to both recover and overcome Heidegger’s technological aporia, Stiegler begins his investigation not with a direct deconstruction of Being and Time—that comes in the volume’s second half—but with a broad reading of anthropological accounts of humanity’s technological origins. Following Rousseau and Leroi-Gourhan, the book’s first few chapters trace how “[t]he evolution of the ‘prosthesis,’ not itself living, by which the human is nonetheless defined as a living being, constitutes the reality of the human’s evolution, as if, with it, the history of life were to continue by means other than life: this is the paradox of a living being characterized in its forms of life by the nonliving” (51). That is to say, human history is characterized by Stiegler as prosthetic, technologically rooted and defined: Techne, defined as organizations of inorganic material, is the condition of possibility for humanity’s emergence. At its essential level, technology is not simply coterminous with culture, but rather “the technical dynamic precedes the social dynamic and imposes itself thereupon” (67), so that “[t]echnics evolves more quickly than culture” (15). Allegorizing this origin via the myth of Epimethus and Prometheus, Stiegler argues that a fault lies at the dawn of humanity: “The fall is when one can no longer be satisfied with what one is in one’s original nakedness,” devoid of predatory or defensive qualities like our animal brethren, “which, far from being a weakness, is the sign of force itself. The first man to have indulged in the apparent power of prostheses, obliged to do so by an accident in nature, took the road down to his fall, and led his descendants down the same” (118). In other words, we are imbued with an originary freedom, a lack of qualities that allows for our inventive intervention, both of technology and, reflexively, humanity itself; “whereas animals are positively endowed with qualities, it is tekhne that forms the lot of humans, and tekhne is prosthetic; that is, it is entirely artifice,” so that “[m]an invents, discovers, finds (eurisko), imagines (mêkhane), and realizes what he imagines: prostheses, expedients” (193). For Stiegler, “[a] ‘prosthesis’ does not supplement something, does not replace what would have been there before it and would have been lost: it is added…The prosthesis is not a mere extension of the human body; it is the constitution of this body qua ‘human’ (the quotation marks belong to the constitution). It is not a ‘means’ for the human but its end” (152f.). Ultimately, then, “there was no fall, but a [de-]fault, no hap nor mishap, but mortality” (189); within its Heideggerian articulation, such “technical maieutics” (175) recall the temporal ek-sistence of Dasein as being-toward-death, the radical freedom that stems from Dasein’s having-(yet)-to-be, the possibility of its impossibility in (in)organic death insofar as Dasein anticipates its end while taking responsibility for its facticity, its throwness. That epigenetic history, which is ours even if individually we have not lived it, is represented and given to us through the accumulation of technics in all forms, which are a form of cultural memory as much as they are a realization of anticipation—for creating a tool is to anticipate its use: “Time itself both deploys prostheticity in its concrete effectivity and deploys itself within it” (219), and this relational différance between the who and the what, Dasein and time, “is always already determined by its techno-logical, historial conditions, effects of an originary techno-logical condition. Time is each time the singularity of a relation to the end that is woven techno- logically. Every epoch is characterized by the technical conditions of actual access to the already-there that constitute it as an epoch, as both suspension and continuation, and that harbor its particular possibilities of ‘differantiation’ and individuation” (236).

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.