Hyperobjects and Individuality

We live in a liberal age and the liberal paradigm dominates, not just for liberals but for everyone. Our society consists of nothing other than liberalism and reactions to liberalism. And at the heart of it all is individualism. But through the cracks, other possibilities can be glimpsed.

One challenging perspective is that of hyperobjects, a proposed by Timothy Morton — as he writes: “Hyperobjects pose numerous threats to individualism, nationalism, anti-intellectualism, racism, speciesism, anthropocentrism, you name it. Possibly even capitalism itself.”

Evander Price summarizes the origin of the theory and the traits of hyperobjects (Hyperobjects & Dark Ecology). He breaks it down into seven points. The last three refer to individuality — here they are (with some minor editing):

5) Individuality is lost. We are not separate from other things. (This is Object Oriented Ontology) — Morton calls this entangledness. “Knowing more about hyperobjects is knowing more about how we are hopelessly fastened to them.” A little bit like Ahab all tangled up in the lines of Moby-Dick.

6) “Utilitarianism is deeply flawed when it comes to working with hyperobjects. The simple reason why is that hpyerobjects are profoundly futural.” (135) <–I’ve been arguing against utilitarianism for a while now within this line of thinking; this is because utilitarianism, the idea that moral goodness is measured by whether an action or idea increases the overall happiness of a given community, is always embedded within a temporal framework, outside of which the collective ‘happiness’ of a given individual or community is not considered. Fulfilling the greatest happiness for the current generation is always dependent on taking resources now [from] future generations. What is needed is chronocritical utilitarianism, but that is anathema to the radical individuality of utilitarianism.

7) Undermining — the opposite of hyperobjecting. From Harman. “Undermining is when things are reduced to smaller things that are held to be more real. The classic form of undermining in contemporary capitalism is individualism: ‘There are only individuals and collective decisions are ipso facto false.’” <– focusing on how things affect me because I am the most important is essentially undermining that I exist as part of a community, and a planet.

And from the book on the topic:

Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World

by Timothy Morton
Kindle Locations 427-446

The ecological thought that thinks hyperobjects is not one in which individuals are embedded in a nebulous overarching system, or conversely, one in which something vaster than individuals extrudes itself into the temporary shapes of individuals. Hyperobjects provoke irreductionist thinking, that is, they present us with scalar dilemmas in which ontotheological statements about which thing is the most real (ecosystem, world, environment, or conversely, individual) become impossible. 28 Likewise, irony qua absolute distance also becomes inoperative. Rather than a vertiginous antirealist abyss, irony presents us with intimacy with existing nonhumans.

The discovery of hyperobjects and OOO are symptoms of a fundamental shaking of being, a being-quake. The ground of being is shaken. There we were, trolling along in the age of industry, capitalism, and technology, and all of a sudden we received information from aliens, information that even the most hardheaded could not ignore, because the form in which the information was delivered was precisely the instrumental and mathematical formulas of modernity itself. The Titanic of modernity hits the iceberg of hyperobjects. The problem of hyperobjects, I argue, is not a problem that modernity can solve. Unlike Latour then, although I share many of his basic philosophical concerns, I believe that we have been modern, and that we are only just learning how not to be.

Because modernity banks on certain forms of ontology and epistemology to secure its coordinates, the iceberg of hyperobjects thrusts a genuine and profound philosophical problem into view. It is to address these problems head on that this book exists. This book is part of the apparatus of the Titanic, but one that has decided to dash itself against the hyperobject. This rogue machinery— call it speculative realism, or OOO— has decided to crash the machine, in the name of a social and cognitive configuration to come, whose outlines are only faintly visible in the Arctic mist of hyperobjects. In this respect, hyperobjects have done us a favor. Reality itself intervenes on the side of objects that from the prevalent modern point of view— an emulsion of blank nothingness and tiny particles— are decidedly medium-sized. It turns out that these medium-sized objects are fascinating, horrifying, and powerful.

For one thing, we are inside them, like Jonah in the Whale. This means that every decision we make is in some sense related to hyperobjects. These decisions are not limited to sentences in texts about hyperobjects.

Kindle Locations 467-472

Hyperobjects are a good candidate for what Heidegger calls “the last god,” or what the poet Hölderlin calls “the saving power” that grows alongside the dangerous power. 31 We were perhaps expecting an eschatological solution from the sky, or a revolution in consciousness— or, indeed, a people’s army seizing control of the state. What we got instead came too soon for us to anticipate it. Hyperobjects have dispensed with two hundred years of careful correlationist calibration. The panic and denial and right-wing absurdity about global warming are understandable. Hyperobjects pose numerous threats to individualism, nationalism, anti-intellectualism, racism, speciesism, anthropocentrism, you name it. Possibly even capitalism itself.

Kindle Locations 2712-2757

Marxists will argue that huge corporations are responsible for ecological damage and that it is self-destructive to claim that we are all responsible. Marxism sees the “ethical” response to the ecological emergency as hypocrisy. Yet according to many environmentalists and some anarchists, in denying that individuals have anything to do with why Exxon pumps billions of barrels of oil, Marxists are displacing the blame away from humans. This view sees the Marxist “political” response to the ecological emergency as hypocrisy. The ethics– politics binary is a true differend: an opposition so radical that it is in some sense insuperable. Consider this. If I think ethics, I seem to want to reduce the field of action to one-on-one encounters between beings. If I think politics, I hold that one-on-one encounters are never as significant as the world (of economic, class, moral, and so on), relations in which they take place. These two ways of talking form what Adorno would have called two halves of a torn whole, which nonetheless don’t add up together. Some nice compromise “between” the two is impossible. Aren’t we then hobbled when it comes to issues that affect society as a whole— nay the biosphere as a whole— yet affect us all individually (I have mercury in my blood, and ultraviolet rays affect me unusually strongly)?

Yet the deeper problem is that our (admittedly cartoonish) Marxist and anarchist see the problem as hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is denounced from the standpoint of cynicism. Both the Marxist and the anti-Marxist are still wedded to the game of modernity, in which she who grabs the most cynical “meta” position is the winner: Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Meta. Going meta has been the intellectual gesture par excellence for two centuries. I am smarter than you because I can see through you. You are smarter than they are because you ground their statements in conditions of possibility. From a height, I look down on the poor fools who believe what they think. But it is I who believes, more than they. I believe in my distance, I believe in the poor fools, I believe they are deluded. I have a belief about belief: I believe that belief means gripping something as tightly as possible with my mind. Cynicism becomes the default mode of philosophy and of ideology. Unlike the poor fool, I am undeluded— either I truly believe that I have exited from delusion, or I know that no one can, including myself, and I take pride in this disillusionment.

This attitude is directly responsible for the ecological emergency, not the corporation or the individual per se, but the attitude that inheres both in the corporation and in the individual, and in the critique of the corporation and of the individual. Philosophy is directly embodied in the size and shape of a paving stone, the way a Coca Cola bottle feels to the back of my neck, the design of an aircraft, or a system of voting. The overall guiding view, the “top philosophy,” has involved a cynical distance. It is logical to suppose that many things in my world have been affected by it— the way a shopping bag looks, the range of options on the sports channel, the way I think Nature is “over yonder.” By thinking rightness and truth as the highest possible elevation, as cynical transcendence, I think Earth and its biosphere as the stage set on which I prance for the amusement of my audience. Indeed, cynicism has already been named in some forms of ideology critique as the default mode of contemporary ideology. 48 But as we have seen, cynicism is only hypocritical hypocrisy.

Cynicism is all over the map: left, right, green, indifferent. Isn’t Gaian holism a form of cynicism? One common Gaian assertion is that there is something wrong with humans. Nonhumans are more Natural. Humans have deviated from the path and will be wiped out (poor fools!). No one says the same about dolphins, but it’s just as true. If dolphins go extinct, why worry? Dolphins will be replaced. The parts are greater than the whole. A mouse is not a mouse if it is not in the network of Gaia. 49 The parts are replaceable. Gaia will replace humans with a less defective component. We are living in a gigantic machine— a very leafy one with a lot of fractals and emergent properties to give it a suitably cool yet nonthreatening modern aesthetic feel.

It is fairly easy to discern how refusing to see the big picture is a form of what Harman calls undermining. 50 Undermining is when things are reduced to smaller things that are held to be more real. The classic form of undermining in contemporary capitalism is individualism: “There are only individuals and collective decisions are ipso facto false.” But this is a problem that the left, and environmentalism more generally, recognize well.

The blind spot lies in precisely the opposite direction: in how common ideology tends to think that bigger is better or more real. Environmentalism, the right, and the left seem to have one thing in common: they all hold that incremental change is a bad thing. Yet doesn’t the case against incrementalism, when it comes to things like global warming, amount to a version of what Harman calls overmining, in the domain of ethics and politics? Overmining is when one reduces a thing “upward” into an effect of some supervenient system (such as Gaia or consciousness). 51 Since bigger things are more real than smaller things, incremental steps will never accomplish anything. The critique of incrementalism laughs at the poor fools who are trying to recycle as much as possible or drive a Prius. By postponing ethical and political decisions into an idealized future, the critique of incrementalism leaves the world just as it is, while maintaining a smug distance toward it. In the name of the medium-sized objects that coexist on Earth (aspen trees, polar bears, nematode worms, slime molds, coral, mitochondria, Starhawk, and Glenn Beck), we should forge a genuinely new ethical view that doesn’t reduce them or dissolve them.


3 thoughts on “Hyperobjects and Individuality

  1. Your Graeber quote was noted. I have an old article that’s been sitting in the editor titled, “A Utopia of Bull Shit Jobs”, and I referenced “Bull Shit Jobs” in another article regarding a corollary to “Price’s Law”. I always rather liked Graeber for his sense of ironic absurdity; though, I’ll confess to viewing many of his conclusions as selectively contrived.

    Years ago, I wrote an article about the emergence of social motives as something that can becomes super-ordinate to the will of the individual. Aristotle spoke of “potentiality” and “actuality” as the source of an action versus its realization. In “life”, that might be equated to RNA/DNA and the organism that results from its expression, or information being expressed in what it constructs. Humans may result from that information, and we can hold information (or potentiality) as well. Moreover, we can also express it in our technologies and social systems (emergent actualities), both of which can also keep and express information of their own. But just as an emergent human mind isn’t necessarily concerned with the welfare of every cell in her body, neither do persistent societies nor technologies need consider the welfare of every individual from whom they emerge. They simply need to function in ways that guarantee their own survival.

    • We are more or less on the same page, if some of what you write in your comment goes over my head. I’m not familiar with Aristotle’s views on this. What I’d clarify, from my own perspective, is that the social doesn’t become super-ordinate. It is the starting point, the fundamental truth. Humans are social through and through. And reality itself is social, i.e., vitally interreational and dynamically interactive.

      All of this would relate to Julian Jaynes’ theory of the bicameral mind. For Jaynes, the human mind forms out of the social, with one of the most social of forces being language. But that then gets into a philosophical and scientific inquiry about what is language. The point being that ‘consciousness’ as an inner quality of an isolated individual is an illusion. Instead, it’s an emergent quality made possible, maybe even necessary, by growing complexity.

      I’ve come around even to emphasizing less the RNA/DNA angle, or rather placing it in another context. It seems we are missing something here, the magical blue fairy that brings Pinocchio alive. Genetics means nothing without epigenetics. The latter is everything between genetics and it’s expression, between the body and the environment. It’s the connection point out of which life manifests. Epigenetics is the living, spoken voice, without which genetics would be a dead, silent word.

      You get to this point in your piece:

      “It’s not, therefore, the chemical that encodes information that creates life so much as the consistent expression of that information. Life emerges as a separate entity. It arises from the potential coded in some convenient chemical form as it’s translated into an organism that can then perpetuate that same information. Or as Kevin Kelly states, “However you define life, its essence does not reside in the material forms, like DNA, tissue, or flesh, but in the intangible organization of energy and information.”

      Here is another way to think about it. The linguist and anthropologist Daniel Everett refers the Dark Matter of the Mind, as central to culture. He argues that the blank slate is closer to the truth than we typically would like to admit. Having begun his career as a Chomskyan, field research led him to the opposing view of Chomsky’s ‘language module’, an inbuilt brain structure for language, genetically and biologically determined. Everett studied a tribe that lacked linguistic recursion, the supposedly most essential component and hence definitive proof of the universal language instinct.

      I came across this issue again in NurtureShock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman (p. 222-3):

      “However, in the intervening decades, each step of language acquisition has been partially decoded and, in turn, dramatically demystified. Rather than language arising from some innate template, each step of language learning seems to be a function of auditory and visual inputs, contingent responses, and intuitive scaffolding, all of which steer the child’s attention to the relevant patterns. […] This doesn’t rule out the possibility that some portion is still innate, but the portion left inexplicable—and therefore credited to innate grammar—is shrinking fast.”

      Every version of essentialism, the once ruling ideology of the modern mind, is on the decline. This is probably why the idea of hyperobjects has come onto the scene, even as we struggle to perceive them. But maybe hyperobjects still doesn’t quite grasp the situation of the world we find ourselves in. I’m thinking of the Piraha, the tribe Everett studied. They don’t perceive anything as permanent and unchanging subject or object. Everything is fluid, shifting, and amorphous — a throbbing of life that can’t be contained.

      Maybe we should, instead, speak of hyperprocesses or at least hypersystems, that is ‘entangledness’ without any clear edges of boundary. Everything is inseparable. But the premodern and non-WEIRD culture could help us here. They actually didn’t perceive everything as a single world, any more than an dividual was a single self. A ‘world’ was a specifically located and grounded experience of reality, a unique perspective but one that was extensive and expansive.

      That is why every people believed themselves to be the center of the world and where they lived was the origin of the world. They couldn’t have imagined the hegemony of ideological realism. There were many worlds and each world had its own coherency, despite there being no objective way to define and delimit it. Worlds have a shapeshifting quality, in resisting scrutiny — maybe akin to Edmund Burke’s moral imagination. One can only know them by being inside them, being ideologically interpellated into them in being hailed by a social identity (Louis Althusser).

      Your young self asked, “Is it alive?” You were referring to a city. In the modern world, that is the closest we come to the premodern and non-WEIRD sense of world, as a sense of place and home. You were viewing the world around you and it almost animistically came alive in your imagination. Cities, in the bicameral mind, may have in a sense been perceived as alive. Every city had its ruling and tutelary deity, the soul and self of a place. You were touching upon an archaic intuition.

      Dark Matter of the Mind

      What is the Blank Slate of the Mind?

      The Chomsky Problem

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