Nature is What Hurts

Nature is What Hurts

by
Robert Seguin
2016-02-07

In this review of Timothy Morton’s Hyperobjects, Robert Seguin contemplates the implication of the text’s eponymous subject on art, philosophy, and politics. The “hyperobject,” a hypothetical agglomeration of networked interactions with the potential to produce inescapable shifts in the very conditions of existence, emerges as the key consideration for the being in the present.

Review of Timothy Morton’s Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. University of Minnesota Press, 2013.

The posthumanist turn in recent theory and cultural studies continues apace. Posthumanism, briefly, is in general the effort to challenge and even displace the vestiges of anthropocentrism that persist within the conceptual regimes of the human sciences. In this, it follows a series of sustained and by now familiar decenterings of certain privileged subject positions: the postcolonial decentering of a certain Western subjectivity, or the queer decentering of a certain heteronormative subjectivity, for instance. Posthumanism wishes to go further, however, and seeks to decenter the human as such, principally by exploring the complex web of connections and correspondences that obtain between both human and non-human life forms and between the human and our increasingly multiform and complex technological apparatuses - to imagine then a kind of seamless continuum of earthly being, with no point on the continuum to be seen as ethically or epistemologically privileged in any way.

A certain upping of the conceptual stakes can be observed in the recent posthumanist theorizing that is indebted philosophically to those trends variously known as speculative realism or object-oriented ontology, two basic elements of which might be isolated for our purposes here. The first is captured in what philosopher Quentin Meillassoux calls ancestrality, the radical temporal disjunction and distention evidenced by things such as ancient rocks or the fossil record, which body forth realities and processes that radically transcend the operative evolutionary timeframe of human consciousness. The second element entails the attribution to nonhuman objects, and matter more generally, of a kind of generative power, thus evoking a “nature-culture continuum,” as Rosi Braidotti calls it. This is in contrast to the essentially inert, mute aspect that western idealism (an epithet that appears to characterize, for some posthumanists, the whole of western thinking as such) is typically understood to ascribe to matter. Taken together, these postulates partially define the growing field that Mark McGurl has recently labelled, in a nice phrase, “cultural geology.” These are the discourses of cultural study that have begun to borrow heavily from the physical sciences, especially cosmology, evolutionary biology, and chaos theory, in order to enframe the productions of human consciousness and human culture in an ever widening set of temporalities and physical processes - “deep time,” as it’s sometimes called, stretching back now thousands, now millions of years, radically re-inscribing our now rather puny seeming endeavors against a much vaster horizon, and challenging philosophy to stop being a “sop to the pathetic twinge of human self esteem” (xi), as Ray Brassier acerbically puts it.

Timothy Morton’s Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World offers an interesting recent intervention in this context, particularly for those of us who come at cultural theory from a more materialist and dialectical perspective, as this last was an important aspect of Morton’s own approach before his apparent embrace of the object-oriented ontology of Graham Harman and others in this new book. In the broadest terms, Morton contends that humanity lives “inside” of a series of - overlapping, interconnected - hyperobjects, a situation that severely problematizes longstanding notions of human autonomy, agency, and purpose. More pointedly, “nonhuman beings are responsible for the next moment of human history and thinking” (201). But what are they? Hyperobjects are big: we are inside of them, like Jonah in the whale, though not infinitely big (Morton describes them as “large finitudes”). They are viscous - they stick to us like the crude oil that sticks to the birds and turtles after a tanker spill. They are nonlocal and temporally fluctuant: they phase in and out of our perceptual realm and one can never grasp the whole of them - they constitutively withdraw from us, Morton argues, drawing upon Heidegger’s celebrated exploration of the tool - the hammer, say, that manifests itself as a tool most strongly when we are least aware of it, that is, precisely when we are hammering with it. We can model and compute the reality of hyperobjects but we can never access them directly: they are only visible in their effects, like the cloud of ink emitted by the octopus as it flashes away from us. Thus, the sedimented layers and serpentine flows of nuclear radiation as these have been produced and disseminated since the start of the nuclear era would be a hyperobject. All of the flammable hydrocarbons both in the ground and emerging from it would be another. Or, to name Morton’s most developed and persuasive example of a hyperobject, global warming. Rather than a process, as we are accustomed to think about it, Morton wishes to posit global warming precisely as an object, a directly causal thing that does things to other things. The ontological issues aside, this strikes me as quite a usefully defamiliarizing description. While we do statistically model global warming, using eons worth of climate data, the process talk we typically employ prevents us from assigning any causal relations: it’s true that we’ve never seen a drought like this, but you can’t say it’s global warming. Nonsense, says Morton, global warming is an object, and it is doing what objects do, namely affect other objects. That unprecedented superstorm, that 1000 year flood? Global warming, surrounding us and smashing us, and disabling the humanist conception of “world” as that horizon of contemplation in relation to which the human subject anchors or stabilizes itself.

As the example of global warming suggests, Morton’s focus is broadly ecological (a central concern of his previous books), but against the grain of much environmental literature he has no interest in arguing for an embrace of nature in any way. For him, our notions of nature are merely aesthetic and ideological constructs bequeathed to us from Wordsworthian romanticism, constructs that merely keep the nonhuman realm at a safe, contemplative distance, thereby inoculating us against the full pressure it ceaselessly brings to bear upon us. Indeed, Morton sharply critiques any benevolent, Gaia-like fantasy of nature, such that Fredric Jameson’s well known and resonant phrase from The Political Unconscious comes to mind here: if for Jameson “history is what hurts,” then for Morton it is precisely nature that hurts. He invokes the Buddhist image of the charnel ground as the uncanny and ominous frame of our vulnerable dasein: “a place of life and death, of death in life and life in death, an undead place of zombies, viroids, junk dna, ghosts, silicates, cyanide, radiation, demonic forces and pollution” (126) (elsewhere he asserts the primacy of suffering as such). The viscous grip of the nonhuman upon us provokes Morton to some of his more lyrically intense moments, rhapsodic passages wherein we are strafed by cosmic rays, infiltrated by toxic, mutagenic agents, colonized by symbiotic microbial swarms, buffeted by climate upheavals, and seared by free-floating radioactive isotopes. Such moments are in the service of pulling down the vanity of both our comforting aesthetic illusions and what he sees as our cynical analytical metalanguages (those deriving chiefly from Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud), analytic codes that only lure us into the position of the Hegelian beautiful soul, calmly dissecting things from some lofty perch while disavowing any messy entanglement in the phenomena under scrutiny. Morton’s position here strikes me as a rather too-easy evasion, since one of the main purposes of the dialectic as it developed in Marx’s hands was to re-inscribe the subject into the material processes of history as such, and to undermine the temptations of bourgeois idealism. Indeed, I sometimes wonder if Morton and his fellow posthumanists aren’t in a way extending that inaugural critical reversal from the German Ideology: if for Marx consciousness was determined by life (meaning social relations and material production), rather than the other way around, for Morton and company we might say that consciousness is determined by both nonhuman life and non-life more generally. But what does this determination imply?

Hyperobjects are futural, Morton asserts, they “scoop out the objectified now of the present moment into a shifting uncertainty” (13). The future here is meant in Derrida’s sense of l’avenir, “the unknowable future, the absolutely unexpectable and unexpected arrival” (123-4). We might be tempted to invoke Ernst Bloch’s image of the novum here, but such Utopian leanings might need to be tempered by the insistence that the absolutely unexpected arrival might well destroy us as readily as save us. This temporal inflection is interesting, since on the face of it an object-oriented ontology would seem to be committed to an essentially synchronic description of reality; indeed, describing global warming synchronically, as an object, I think accounts for a large measure of its unfamiliar power. Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that the hyperobjects I’ve listed so far are to great extent the products of human action, something that should be taken, not as an inconsistency in this avowedly posthumanist discourse, but rather as that which points us to what is perhaps the most fruitful conceptual nexus in posthumanism: not the effort to erase the pole of human subjectivity, not the stipulated ontological equivalence between sentience and nonsentience, or between humans and rocks - perspectives that I finally find unhelpful and more than a little strange - but rather what Dipesh Chakrabarty characterizes as the urge to undermine the “age-old humanist distinction between human history and natural history.” Indeed, it is this division that developments in systems, complexity, and evolutionary theory have rendered increasingly unstable, as a range of social and cultural processes traditionally taken as specifically human matters seem ever more amenable to re-description in terms of non- or ahuman process or substrate (sometimes, it must be said, with disturbingly reactionary implications, as in the cruder forms of sociobiology or evolutionary psychology), while, from the other direction, natural phenomena are more and more often found to display the kinds of recursive and autopoietic dimensions typically associated with human self-consciousness.

Indeed, we might momentarily pursue the figure of autopoiesis or self-making as a potential mediating term in thinking about human vs natural history, for it seems to me that what Marx spoke of in terms of our species being might be re-articulated as a form of autopoietic recursion at the level of the human as such and its interaction with the world. A valuable crosslight here is shed by the work of Cary Wolfe, whose thinking takes as its point of departure, not the object-oriented ontology of Harman, but rather the systems theory of sociologist Niklas Luhmann. The central idea here is of a process of reflexive constitution: natural or social systems do not simply execute patterns or programs, rather they are enabled and enfolded by mutational processes that are ongoing and immanent, as their complex internal and external relations loop back upon themselves in dynamic recursiveness. As Wolfe crisply puts it, “systems use their own outputs as inputs in an ongoing process of self-making or self-production, and they constantly (re)produce the elements that in turn produce them” (36). Broadly, this strikes one as perhaps a re-inscription of historicity at the level of systems; more specifically, it seems a very precise way of describing Marx’s notion of species being, that is, the human situation of needing to produce our lifeworld and in the process produce and reproduce ourselves. An odd congruence, one would think, as species being would surely count as one of those anthropological universals that posthumanism would rule out of court. It is a slippery universal, though, in the sense that it inscribes change and mutability into the human situation. Remarkable, in any event, that a discourse so keen to exclude anything anchored in the specifically human should wind up, through the figure of autopoeisis, reintroducing Marx’s notion of the human in a greatly expanded and more far reaching sense, as all systems, human, nonhuman even nonliving alike, conform in Wolfe’s view to its dynamics. The formal schema here is the movement of a figure of change or mutability as such as it tacks between the poles of human versus natural history, which strikes me as a central tension of posthumanism. As Adorno once cautioned, a certain dialectical ambivalence informs this distinction, one that fosters an instability or reversibility of the divide between human and natural history as one moves between them. The two are finally irreducible to each other, and indeed have a way of switching places as you try to pull one toward the other. Herein lies the ambivalence of species being itself, as it lies productively if uncertainly between the human and natural.

In any case, we have arrived, in our current theoretical situation, at a rather peculiar place, where it seems possible to describe the entirety of our inhabited reality on the one hand in fully human terms, as Jameson does in a memorable passage in Valences of the Dialectic: “We have indeed secreted a human age out of ourselves as spiders secrete their webs: an immense, all-encompassing ceiling … which shuts down visibility on all sides even as it absorbs all the formerly natural elements in its habitat, transmuting them into its own man-made substance” (608). On the other hand, we now seem capable of positing that entire human totality in non-human terms, or at least in terms that radically minimize whatever we may have thought to be distinctively human about it. It is tempting to see here an antinomy of some kind, perhaps indeed another antinomy of postmodernity as such. But the seeming deadlock might be undone, I think, as Jameson suggests in the continuation of the passage just quoted: “Yet within this horizon of immanence we wander as alien as tribal people, or as visitors from outer space, admiring its unimaginably complex and fragile filigree and recoiling from its bottomless potholes, lounging against a rainwall of exotic and artificial plants or else agonising among poisonous colours and lethal stems we were not taught to avoid.” We inhabit a situation where the more humanly produced our surroundings the more strange and uncanny they become, a situation which, for Marxism, is rooted in that primal alienation of capitalism, which is alienated labor as such. Indeed, the status of Marxism with respect to posthumanism is interestingly ambiguous, as I’ve been trying to suggest here: alienation itself is not infrequently taken to be a humanistically tainted concept, a target of Althusser’s arguably posthumanist elaboration of history as, famously, a process without a subject. Yet there’s a sense in which Marx might be thought of as very precisely a prehumanist, since we inhabit what he liked to call prehistory, and hence as a species we’ve never in fact existed in a situation that would allow us to truly grasp the extent and implications of our humanness in the first place, beyond a general sense of its creative destructiveness, that is, its dasein as freedom as such.

But to invoke freedom is to bring us back to another principal concern of Morton’s, which is art and the specific aesthetic that the age of hyperobjects would appear to demand. In contrast to Flaubert’s notion that the most perfect art is that which contains the least matter, Morton is drawn, perhaps unsurprisingly, to aesthetic work that, if not containing the most matter, exactly, nonetheless possesses a kind of material force that conveys something of the inescapable pressure of hyperobjects: eardrum and retina assaulting work like Lamonte Young’s dense serial tones and aboriginal artist Yukultji Napangati’s optically searing interference patterns (Morton seems to like playing bands like My Bloody Valentine really loud, too). Morton adduces the vocation of art in what he calls the age of asymmetry as an attunement to the realm of hyperobjects. Morton fleshes out this bit of periodization most unexpectedly, returning to Hegel’s well-known typology of artistic forms, the symbolic, the classical, and the romantic. He suggests that the asymmetric age in effect recapitulates all three of Hegel’s phases at once: the animistic and fetishistic power of matter that loomed over and above the relative paucity of human artistic practices during the symbolic phase returns today through our posthuman recognition of the infinite innerspace possessed by nonhuman being, like a vast expansion of that realm of Geist that humans attained during the Romantic phase (it remains unclear to me where the classical phase subsists in all this). But Morton then quickly distances himself from this Hegelian invocation, for he must realize that any tarrying with this schema would lead to considerations of, say, the semiautonomy of artistic form throughout history and, inevitably, some consideration of the place of the subject. For in some ways this is more of an anti-aesthetic than anything: the polemic against the ideological duplicities of aesthetic illusion is consistent throughout, not in the service of some more Brechtian or constructivist alternative but rather, as I’ve noted, in favor of sheer concussive or assaultive force. The task of art today is to tune into the daemonic energy of hyperobjects, in order to channel what they have to say to us.

Thus art in this view is effectively a kind of transmitter, a notion that invites a further comparison with Cary Wolfe’s work. The most congenial aesthetic work for Wolfe turns out, as for example in the more arid stretches of Wallace Stevens poetry, to be enactments or, better, allegorizations of the very process of system formation as such. Here, too, art tends to be posited as essentially formally mimetic of the encompassing system. Yet there is a further, perhaps more interesting dimension operative here. Morton insists that art in the asymmetric age reveals the time of hyperobjects, or the situation of hyperobjects - the relentless pressure they exert upon us, the inescapable entanglement they draw us into. Morton contends that this situation makes hypocrites of us all, that is, we always judge and act wrongly inside of hyperobjects, in that they trump our every move:

Drive a Prius? Why not (I do)? But it won’t solve the problem in the long run. Sit around criticizing Prius drivers? Won’t help at all. Form a people’s army and seize control of the state? Will the new society have the time and resources to tackle global warming? Solar panels? They take a lot of energy to make. Nuclear power? Fukushima and Chernobyl, anyone? Stop burning all fossil fuels now? Are we ready for such a colossal transition? Every position is “wrong” …. (136)

It seems to me that capitalism makes similar hypocrites of us all, too, as I don my Bangladeshi made shirt before picking up a volume of Marx, but then Morton allows, in a very telling moment, that capitalism just might be a hyperobject as well. In any case, it seems to me that Morton capitulates to a kind of quietism in passages like these (where both left and right emerge as equally cynical and paralyzed), and misidentifies the very rhetorical productiveness of his own prose. What Morton does finally achieve in the more extravagant registers of his text is a sense of knife-edged urgency, where all actions, including not acting, contribute directly to the growing instability and complexity of the overall situation, where enormous catastrophes and fleeting butterfly effects alike contribute indubitably yet uncertainly to the outcome, whatever that might be. To my ear this sounds like an inescapably political situation, indeed like nothing so much as a growing pre-revolutionary crisis, where a dizzying array of forces and counterforces, at many different levels of both the social totality and - why not? - the natural (or at least nonhuman) world, are coming into an unpredictable temporal phase, and where actions taken or not taken, on any number of fronts, can shift the momentum in different directions. Global warming, then, will no doubt demand, not only its artists and theorists, but its Lenins as well.

Bibiliography

Braidotti, Rosi. The Posthuman. Cambridge: Polity, 2013.

Brassier, Ray. Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction. Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Jameson, Fredric. Valences of the Dialectic. London: Verso, 2009.

McGurl, Mark. “The New Cultural Geology.” Twentieth Century Literature, 2011 Fall-Winter; 57 (3-4): 380-390.

Morton, Timothy. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2013.

Wolfe, Cary. What is Posthumanism? Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2010.