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.

Abstract for “Forms of Feeling” Conference

So here’s a new thing I thought I’d try: Instead of simply sending off abstracts to conferences and waiting in equal parts silence and anticipation, I might as well share my idea on here first, and see what sort of feedback I get even before I get an official reply.

In a recent series of essays, philosophers Steven Shaviro and Graham Harman have suggested that a question of aesthetics defines the affective relation between objects, including any special distinction given to the subject. That is to say, in the affective ontology of ordinary experience, the immediate prehension of others, individuals are caught in a whirligig (to use Gerard Genette’s term) between interactions felt as being either sublime or beautiful, withdrawn or multiplicious. In my short intervention—tentatively entitled “Objects of Intensity: The Desire for the Sublime, the Drive for the Beautiful”—I analyze the contemporary aetheticization of everyday life as a process involving unconscious remediation by digital technologies caught between that traditional dichotomy, from the ubiquity of earbuds streaming a sense of outward privacy but inward plurality to the filtering and archiving of experience via Instagram. My claim is that we relate to our physical media—the screens and wires that, when working, are practically invisible—as objects of affect, as “a cluster of promises” (to use Lauren Berlant’s phrase) that we typically analyze for content rather than for the means by which media always in-form the symbolic unconscious, influencing any interpretation. Such objects, of course, are neither apathetic nor psycho-socially neutral, but instead tend toward certain forms of intensity, certain modes of the aesthetic, over others; accordingly, I follow the work of communications scholar Jodi Dean to suggest that digital media objects favor the beautiful over the sublime, or, in psychoanalytic parlance, the drives over desire.