Timothy Morton on Hyperobjects: Hype & Tripe; an uninvited review

Abstract: The Emperor is showing you his closet full of new clothes

Hyperobjects” sound like a grand new idea – just as General Systems Theory did in the 1950s when negative feedback (and not much else) entered social parlance. So what are they? “Things that are massively distributed in time and space relative to humans.” That definition is on the second line of the book. The remainder of the first page diffuses obfuscation very successfully. Anything, anywhere, of whatever nature might be a hyperobject. Let us go backwards, the Acknowledgments illuminate this thought:

Hyperobjects make you think about how families are fuzzy sets of beings, distributed over spaces and times wider than me and my immediate surroundings.” Big news to genealogists I imagine.

I regret to say that the average reader will gain no further clarity on the matter. Still on the first page, examples of hyperobjects are: black holes, the Florida Everglades, an oil field, the sun, the biosphere, and plastic bags. An example used throughout the book is “Global Warming” – one of the entities the author claims that he knows quite well (often through raindrops falling on his head): well enough to know that it “doesn’t go golfing at the weekend (p. 76).” The term “Climate Change” is rejected by the author on the basis of a single graph shown on page 3. The reader is left to figure out why (good luck, and no answers at the back either.)

I wanted to like this book – and to find something useful to take away from it. After all it was a sensitively chosen Christmas present and I saved it to read in quiet times before bed. The Publisher’s blurbs entice you in: but to what effect? None that I can determine. In trying to arrive at a diagnosis from the symptoms I get nowhere. The author attempts to impress with the vast range of subjects he touches on and yet, he seems not to sense that scholars of every stripe and colour are all well aware of the vast and largely hidden complexities of their subject: the hyperobject is no new notion to them, nor I suspect to many intelligent readers engaged in a vast range of practical enterprises. What sense the book makes to scholars in the same profession I do not know. I do know that those outside his discipline (Footnote 1)  will rise eyebrows at his use of language “Thus, like the strange stranger, there is a future future … ( a time beyond predictability.) …. There is an elsewhere elsewhere.” [Why is my grammar checker poking me?]. When I was well through the book I put it aside one night and read through a special issue of Scientific American on Time. The contrast in clarity with respect to difficult topics was extremely striking.

Morton hops around topics like a demented a flea, although I suspect the flea makes better use of its mobility. It is this ‘hopping’ that fails to help us understand how hyperobjects – as defined by Morton – can be understood. He gives us no useful, practical, analysis about how to find or implement the meaning of these connections. This may be different for those in the field of OOO (Object-Oriented Ontology), but I have no way of knowing.

Two thirds of the way through the book I was trying to think of a way to summarize my view of it for my wife without giving too much offence.  It occurred to me that one might select almost any paragraph, or least one from any page, and turn it into an absurdist comedy along the line of a Monty Python sketch. Imagine my surprise when on page 146 he uses the Python “argument” sketch to illustrate meta-languages and their role in modern philosophy as a way to win arguments. I don’t have a clue what this really means but I take comfort that “hyperobjects end the world, and end the transcendental a priori that jumps out of the world to decide its reality.” And, just as hyperobjects are golf-indifferent, they “don’t smack us upside the head or hit us like Dr Johnson’s boot, refuting Berkeley ” That must be the first good news we’ve had about Global Warming.

Lest you think I am being unfair – employing some kind of kinder (footnote 2) meta-language to down Morton – you might want to read “Ursula K. Heise reviews Timothy Morton” on Google – someone with a professional background in his fields.

Be careful on your way out – whatever you touch will be a non-local (because “non-locality is just that, non-locality”) manifestation of a hyperobject but it won’t be the hyperobject itself (just warning and informing you).

@ The Universe (which might just be a  _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _)  CLUE > 11 across – fuzzy, might be warm and outta sight, and it isn’t in my spell checker yet.

1) Timothy Morton is Rita Shea Guffey Chair in English at Rice University.

2) Not “nice”, but as in kindergarten.


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