Culture Magazine

Reading Hyperobjects 3: Are We Are Poems About the Earth?

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
Before considering the subtitle of today’s post, which is derived from the last sentence on page 51 of the thirteenth page of “Nonlocality”, I want to examine the first paragraph, just to examine what’s in there, with some care and attention to detail. First I’ll quote the paragraph in full without commentary; then I’ll comment on it line-by-line.
When I look at the sun gleaming on the solar panels on my roof, I am watching global warming unfold. Carbon compounds and other molecules in the upper atmosphere magnify the burning intensity of the sun in the Great Central Valley of California. Yet I do not see global warming as such. I see this brilliant blade of sunlight, burning the top of my head as I watch it with half-closed eyes reflecting off the burnished, sapphire surface of solar panels. The manifold that I witness is not merely a “subjective impression,” but is rather just this collusion between sunlight, solar panels, roof, and eyes. Yet global warming is not here. Hyperobjects are nonlocal.
Microsoft Word tells me that paragraph has 93 words. Let’s go through it sentence by sentence.
1) When I look at the sun gleaming on the solar panels on my roof, I am watching global warming unfold: Three things, the sun, solar panels/roof, and global warming. An three spatial scales, the solar system at millions of miles, the earth at 10s of thousands of miles, and the house, at tens of feet. All linked by the fact that Morton is aware of them.
2) Carbon compounds and other molecules in the upper atmosphere magnify the burning intensity of the sun in the Great Central Valley of California: Morton now elaborates on warming and introduces a fourth scale, the microscopic scale of molecules and atoms; objects invisible to the naked eye; objects we think about only through scientific investigation and reporting. Action has shifted from Morton and his seeing to those molecules distributed about the upper atmosphere; they’re magnifying. And, by implication, he’s feeling the sun’s burning intensity. Morton closes the sentence by opening out on a fifth scale, the Central Valley: smaller than the earth, larger than the house.
3) Yet I do not see global warming as such: This sentence inserts a gap (a word Morton uses often, as in the gap between phenomenon and thing) between Morton, the observer writer, and global warming, his subject. He’s seeing something, and he knows global warming is somehow IN that something, but he really isn’t seeing global weather. Rather...
4) I see this brilliant blade of sunlight, burning the top of my head as I watch it with half-closed eyes reflecting off the burnished, sapphire surface of solar panels: Now we’re moving back into the conceptual space of the first two sentences, e.g. burning intensity of the sun (2), burning the top of my head (4); solar panels (1) solar panels (4). To this we add his head and his eyes, organs of sight.
5) The manifold that I witness is not merely a “subjective impression,” but is rather just this collusion between sunlight, solar panels, roof, and eyes: What’s this word “manifold”? I suspect a mathematical provenance put to use as an abstract placeholder soon to be filled by the phrase “this collusion...eyes” Where/who is this “I” that witnesses that manifold, that collusion? It can only be a (present) manifestation of Timothy Morton who is writing; but not that past manifestation of Morton who was once glancing back and forth between sun and roof.
6) Yet global warming is not here: Now the writer Morton affirms the gap between a spatial locus and global warming. This is a bit like (3), but tilted differently.
7) Hyperobjects are nonlocal: The first six sentences have been exemplifying something. We’re now told what that something is: nonlocalness. And it’s used to quality, not the topic of the previous six sentences, which is global warming, but the species of which it is an example, hyperobjects.
I choose this paragraph, not because it is exceptional, but because it is typical. They gather things together to show us, in this case nonlocality, rather than tell us about it in the manner of an analytic essay. Such paragraphs are central to Morton’s style. They are his workshop.
This particular exemplum seems cut from the mold of a figure Morton introduced on page 3 to characterize objects, that of the octopus that “squirt out a dissembling ink as they withdraw into the ontological shadows.” I read the first six sentences as the octopus with its tentacles reaching hither and yon. That closing sentence that announces the sign under which those sentences were written, that’s the dissembling ink.
Whatever’s happening in this book, it’s in the many paragraphs like this one. What’s their cumulative effect?
* * * * *
Four pages into the chapter we find, near the top of the page, these two sentences which end a paragraph:
OOO is deeply congruent with the most profound, accurate, and testable theory of physical reality available. Actually it would be better to say it the other way around: quantum theory works because it’s object oriented. (p. 41)
Just what is Morton claiming when he says, “quantum theory works because it’s object oriented”? Well, if OOO has it right, then it’s a trivial tautology: quantum theory works because the physicists got it right. But Morton makes that assertion after he’s first, in effect, summoned quantum mechanics in support of OOO: “OOO is deeply congruent ... available.” That first sentence is about the relationship between two discourses, OOO and quantum mechanics, while the second one, with the inversion, seems to treat quantum mechanics as a discourse and OOO as the world itself.
It also has the effect of giving philosophy priority over science. THAT I read as anxiety caused by lingering fall-out from the so-called science wars. Morton is here defending the honor of humanistic inquiry.
The question of the relationship between philosophy, Continental philosophy in particular, and science is a tricky business, one I broached yesterday: Pardon Me While I have a Strange Interlude. It’s an issue I’ve also addressed in very specific forms in many, though not all, of my posts about Levi Bryant, one of Morton’s colleagues in OOO (see e.g. this post on Bryant’s account of entropy and this one on his accounts of phase space and attractors).
There’s a lot of sloppiness going on here and, as far as I can tell, Morton is not free of it. But I’m not sure how much it matters to his project. As far as I can tell he simply doesn’t need that second sentence; it doesn’t do any necessary work.
If OOO is just a set of very general and very abstract statements that apply across the board to any and all domains, then it’s not clear to me what it’s value is (cf. my post From Objects to Pluralism). The philosopher’s general assertions are, to borrow a phrase from Terence Blake, simply tautological restatements of assertions specific to specialized disciplines. But that’s not what Morton is up to.
He’s up to something else. Just what that is, though, is not clear. I don’t know how to talk about it. Whatever it is, though, it has to do with the need for a general discourse about the world, one that’s intelligible to a broad educated audience. It’s not a specialist’s discourse.
For that’s the kind of discourse Morton is writing. It ranges widely and freely across both the sciences and the humanities, with global warming as the octopus whose tentacles pull everything together and the discourse of hyperobjects as the ink leaving traces on the page. On page 53 Morton references Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia, a work I don’t know, characterizing it as “part novel, part nonfiction, and part philosophy.” Well, Hyperobjects doesn’t include novelistic passages, but perhaps its elements of personal memoir play a similar discursive role. Otherwise it seems to be a discursive hybrid of a strange and unknown kind.
At the moment I’m measuring it against that sentence at the bottom of page 51, with a bit of context:
In a sense, we can expect human egos to be pockmarked with the traces of hyperobjects. We are all burnt by ultraviolet rays. We all contain water in about the same ratio as Earth does, and salt water in the same ratio that the oceans do. We are poems about the hyperobject earth.
I can’t tell you what it means, but in context that last sentence makes perfect sense.
By way of comparison, consider the best-known sentence that Noam Chomsky, the linguist, ever wrote: Colorless green ideas sleep furiously. Chomsky didn’t mean it as an assertion about certain ideas. He created it as an example, one showing that syntax is independent of meaning. Syntactically, that sentence is well-formed. But it’s meaningless gibberish.
Then along came a poet, John Hollander. He prefaced Chomsky’s line with two of his own and thereby gave it meaning:
Curiously deep, the slumber of crimson thoughts: While breathless, in stodgy viridian, Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.

* * * * *
Previously:
  • Reading Hyperobjects 1: The World has Ended
  • Reading Hyperobjects 2: What does real mean?
  • Reading Hyperobjects: Pardon Me While I Have a Strange Interlude

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