Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Ursula K. Heise reviews Timothy Morton’s Hyperobjects

Timothy Morton. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013. 240 pp. Hardcover $75.00. Paperback $24.95. 

Reviewed by Ursula K. Heise

4 June 2014

Here's the good news about Timothy Morton’s Hyperobjects: Whatever you may be looking for by way of a theoretical concept, paradigm, or major event, you’ll find it here. Quantum theory, Hiroshima, the extended phenotype, the Anthropocene, the Prisoner's Dilemma, irony, cynicism, postmodernism, deep time — it’s all here. Elaborating on his earlier advocacy for an "ecology without nature" within the framework of object-oriented ontology,  Morton aims for an "ecology without matter" and an "ecology without the present" in his new book (p. 92), and he  links his argument in surprising and often fascinating ways to authors, artists, and works from the last two hundred years across a multitude of media and genres: from Wordsworth and Keats to John Cage, Brenda Hillman, The Lord of the Rings, David Lynch, Reza Negarestani, Marina Zurkow, and many more. His discussion of La Monte Young's compositions is particularly useful and illuminating.


There's even better news. In working toward an environmental perspective beyond materialism and the here-and-now, Hyperobjects engages the important theoretical issue of scale, which implicitly or explicitly underlies many current discussions in the humanities about such concepts as big data, deep time, the Anthropocene, slow violence, and species thinking. Rapidly increasing data inventories and new digital tools have contributed to this rising interest in large-scale processes and big-picture patterns, as have shifting geopolitical configurations and global ecological crises. The concept of hyperobjects— "things that are massively distributed in time and space relative to humans" (p. 1) and "genuine nonhuman objects that are not simply the products of a human gaze" (p. 199)—is meant to address such large-scale configurations. 


Here's the bad news: It is not easy to make out what Morton is actually saying about the problem of scale. Seeking to ground his speculative realism — the assertion that hyperobjects are real and independent of human thought and that human knowledge cannot completely grasp their essence —in science, he invokes both quantum mechanics and relativity theory to support the "strange strangeness" of hyperobjects such as global warming: "The more data we have about hyperobjects the less we know about them—the more we realize we can never truly know them" (p. 180). But he then moves far ahead of science in relating everything from heat and droughts to species extinction, Hurricane Katrina, and the 2011 Tōhoku Earthquake and tsunami to global warming: claims that most climate scientists would feel uncomfortable with, given the difficulty of establishing causal relations between individual weather events (let alone earthquakes or extinctions) and long-term climate patterns. 


But, worse news, this is not even the major problem. More difficult for Morton's argument is his seamless transition from the subatomic realm of the extremely small to the cosmological realm of the extremely large without any discussion of the fact that theoretical physicists have found it very difficult to reconcile quantum mechanics with relativity theory. In Morton's perspective, oddly holistic in this respect, both theories support his contention that objects are not fully accessible to the grasp of human understanding. Not just large objects, but all of them: "In a strange way, every object is a hyperobject," he concludes (p. 201). If scale makes no difference, and global warming is not as a matter of principle different from "pencils, penguins, and plastic explosive" (p. 176), what useful work does the concept of the hyperobject do?


For Morton, hyperobjects function as historical markers: They usher in a new era, which he sometimes refers to as the Anthropocene or, in his last chapter, as the "Age of Asymmetry" between humans and nonhumans (p. 161), in the sense that "nonhuman beings are responsible for the next moment of human history and thinking" (p. 201). The Anthropocene as defined by Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer actually prioritizes human agency in the wholesale transformation of the planet over the last two hundred years in ways that are diametrically opposed to Morton's approach. Morton presumably passes over addressing this discrepancy because human agency is what he seeks to steer his readers' attention away from: "It is not simply that humans became aware of nonhumans. . . . The reality is that hyperobjects were already here, and slowly but surely we understood what they were already saying. They contacted us" (p. 201). For science fiction fans such as myself, the suggestion that aliens have come knocking on our door is hard not to like, as is the idea that this implies the end of modernity (p. 94) But why do they come knocking now? What drives historical change?


But, perhaps most importantly, hyperobjects are Morton's tools for doing away with a romantic notion of nature  that he attributes to environmentalism, as well as with any idea of a Heideggerian "world" in which humans might find a home if they overcome the alienations of modernity. By insisting on the "weirdness," "uncanniness," "monstrosity," and "strange strangeness" of natural as well as human-made objects and environments, Morton seeks to unsettle any aspirations toward harmony or balance with a nature construed as "over there" or "'over yonder,'" separate from humans (pp. 113, 155, 174). Fair enough (though it might be worth noting that recent environmentalist thought, from Stacy Alaimo and Richard White to Richard Hobbs and Peter Kareiva, has already moved well beyond this separation in ways that don't tally with the strawman environmentalism Morton attacks). 


But, and this is perhaps the worst news about Hyperobjects,  contradictions proliferate in Morton's portrayal of our new "coexistence" with other objects. Nature understood as hyperobjects is not over yonder—yet it is unknowable. Hyperobjects confront us with the strangeness of the world, but at the same time they create greater "intimacy" with our fellow objects. Humans are "responsible" for certain hyperobjects such as global warming and nuclear radiation, but Morton challenges Marxist and environmentalist accounts of which human groups, structures, or institutions should be held responsible (pp. 154–55). "Ethics and politics in a post-modern age after Hume and Kant must be based in attunment to directives coming from entities, which boils down to accepting and listening to true lies" (p. 183): Whatever this may mean, it doesn't rule much in or out by way of thinking about how we live in and with more-than-human environments. 


Morton himself seems quite aware of the twists and turns in his reasoning. "In order to cope with such arguments we can do one of two things. One is to forget everything we have just found out about hyperobjects. The other is to allow for the existence of contradictory entities. It is the second path that we shall take in this book," he signals toward the beginning (p. 78). But this path leads him to so many self-cancelling claims about hyperobjects that coherent argument vanishes like the octopi that disappear in several chapters in their clouds of ink, Morton's favorite metaphor for the withdrawal of objects from the grasp of human knowledge. What the reader is left with is —well, ink and cloudiness. And the first path begins to look clearer.