Hyperobjects and thinking about the Anthropocene

Tim Morton, Max Liboiron, Anna Tsing

This week I am highlighting the term “Hyperobject” coined by Timothy Morton, books by Max Liboiron and Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing. I am also featuring Adrienne Reynolds, a cross-disciplinary visual artist. Her work “explores physical and psychological space, drawing inspiration from cities, architecture, the movements of energy, and the intersections between the natural and urban.”

I first read Morton’s Humankind : solidarity with nonhuman people during the first few weeks of the 2020 lockdown. And looks like I am in good company. A recent (Nov 16, 2021) WIRED article entitled At the End of the World, It’s Hyperobjects All the Way Down featured Timothy Morton and the idea of “Hyperobjects”. I have been thinking about this for a while and the article prompted me to write today’s post. It is not a critique or a comprehensive review — just trying to jot down a few random threads and making connections with a few other books. Also great to find the artworks of Adrienne Reynolds which inspired me as well.

In Humankind Morton argues that we should abandon the anthropocentric idea as the predominant mode of our thinking. Maybe this is the “turtles all the way down” type of recursive thinking? The book does dwell with Buddhist and Indian philosophy but I haven’t seen any reference to “world turtle”. Maybe I missed it.

Morton’s idea is steeped in Marxist humanistic theories but he shows that according to Marxism and Communism, anthropocentrism is a bug, not a feature. They also uses “Object Oriented Ontology” (also known as OOO) but most probably this is not about the digital world. Morton is more with Björk than Bjarne (Bjarne Strostrup is the creator of C++ programming language). But the digital world could also be a collection of hyperobjects.

Hyperobjects (things that are “massively distributed in time and space relative to humans” like capitalism, oil spills, pandemics) can help us think about our relationship with current technology and the environment. One thing that resonated with me about their work is the idea of inaccessibility and limitation of our current frameworks of ideas. And critically looking at the dominant view of giving the human species a central and privileged role at the core of all existence (what about the turtles, right?).

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And this idea of Anthropocene. Where do we find it? How do we engage with it? Morton talks about Indra’s Net and the infinite connections and recursions. Maybe you need to go to Michigan to find the Anthropocene and hyperobjects? The following is from Searching for the Anthropocene: A Journey into the Environmental Humanities by Christopher Schaberg:

Timothy Morton coined the term “hyperobjects” to describe things that are “massively distributed in time and space in ways that baffle humans and make interacting with them fascinating, disturbing, problematic and wondrous.” That’s a particularly elegant formulation that applies to so many things that one stumbles across while searching for the Anthropocene. In Michigan, you can hold Anthropocene between your fingers.
Remember, Petoskeys are the remains of a coral that lived around 350 million years ago. Let the weight of that time sink into your mind. These bleached and subterranean stones that you can see and hold are traces of an aquatic, unfathomable life-form that existed so long ago, in a world in a world inseparable but totally dislocated from this place that I recognize as home. Pondering this makes my head spin. (To get through the Anthrpocene, we may need more headspining— and more sharing of how our heads spin).

Reading Morton’s book does make your heads spin. When I first read, I found him as another English/Literature professor that just name drops a lot and spews out things in a cool/rock star fashion. Another Žižek with some ecology mixed in (at least Žižek has jokes). I have dealt with Marxist theories during my graduate studies (part of my dissertation was inspired by Henri Lefebvre— hey! name drop!!) and a fair amount of theological, philosophical, humanistic thinking underpin my writings. But I found Morton’s writing unwieldy - thought provoking, exciting but maybe a bit useless (like Žižek).

But the WIRED article made me revisit the book. I can visualise the hyperobject framework a bit better now — the ecosystems, the objects that make other objects. This framework is helpful to get out of the binary mode of thinking. I always had a problem with dichotomies — for example, the human/nature, religious/secular. I now could see the multi-sensory, beyond binary experience that we can garner with hyperobject thinking.

And the relations. The re-reading also made me connect Morton’s writing to others. For example, Max Liboiron’s Pollution is Colonialism ( a must read, I will rank and recommend Liboiron’s book above Morton’s both from theory, method and the scientific aspect). There is a section in Pollution is Colonialism about plastics and how the visual shock of birds in tangles and consumer activism are problematic. They also talk about plastic ingestion rate and why some birds ingest plastic and some do not (there is also a reference to a paper about zero per cent plastic ingestion rate by silver hake —Merluccius bilinearis — which generated a few hate emails). The point is to think about the “relations” and “pipelines” (both from a methodological and consumer perspective):

“Regardless of whether I find plastics in any given fish species, the pipeline that moves plastics into waterways remains the same. We can move from a question of harm that asks “how much” (a question based on threshold theories) to “how” and “why” questions about violence (the relational questions that matter at a different scale). (p. 85)

The argument here is not about “is plastic good or bad” — it is more about how we think about the scale, the impact, and the interconnected links. How do we the flow of plastics? This is where I see hyperobject and Pollution is Colonialism intersecting (btw, Liboiron also brings up the point that not everything needs to be decolonized and anti-colonial science is not the same as indigenous science). Here’s another snippet about plastics and albatross — here they talk about plastic pollution, Chris Jordan's famous dead albatross photograph and the notion of “alterlife” by Michelle Murphy Liboiron’s argument hinges on the importance of relationships between humans and non-humans but also points to the slippery slope in these relationships framework. Taking plastic ingestion and mortality of birds into account:

That means that the iconic photos of albatross, which ingest some of the highest rates of plastics of any species, are images of survival and success, not peril and doom. Albatross are all about Murphy’s alterlife, “the condition of being already co-constituted by material entanglements with water, chemicals, soil, atmospheres, microbes, and built environment, and also the condition of being open to ongoing becoming.” They are the life that holds “together tensions between violence and possibility, braiding the organic and inorganic, body and land” and thus represent an “openness to a potential for recomposition that exceeds the ongoing aftermaths.” In short, albatross are effing stars. To use albatross bodies as tokens of damage instead of signs of alterlife is not only incorrect and a misled opportunity, it is rude. It misses the wider relations, the Land relations, of albatross and plastics, and turns them into a Resource for shock, awe, and charismatic academic presentations. Please, stop. Thank you. (page 107)

(I am unable to capture the whole essence of the book here so please go read the book!)

A few other works came to mind after I re-read Morton that tries to think about “hyperobject” without the hype and “hyper”ness.

The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins by Anna Tsing is another must read. Tsing uses the Matsutake mushroom as an example and metaphor for evolution and survival. The book has rich ethnographic details along with historical analysis. Tsing also makes us think about our world as “patchiness, that is, a mosaic of open-ended assemblages of entangled ways of life”. These assemblages are part of the hyperobject that Morton writes about. But Max Liboiron, Anna Tsing, and Michelle Murphy’s work provide a bit more nuance, context, humility and also hope. Again, glad to see the WIRED article about Morton and I was glad to re-read and make these connections. Hope these notes spark some more discussions and collaborations between these works.

I will end this post with the following from the WIRED article:

We do not need to walk on our knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting, as the poet Mary Oliver once wrote, to exist in solidarity with other beings. We already do, and we already are. We just need to accept it. As Morton says, “We’re being born now”—standing on the precipice not of becoming post-human, but of becoming truly human for the first time.

So read Morton for a headspin but read the rest for context, connection, consolation and for moving forward.