what the heck is a hyperobject?

This weekend I’ve been reading Tim Morton’s Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World.

Here Morton expands on his concept of hyperobjects (a term he first used in The Ecological Thought) defining these as entities of such huge spatial and temporal dimensions that we can’t perceive them at all except by parts, completely overturning traditional ideas of “thingness.” These are units “massively distributed in time and space relative to humans” … they’re things like global warming, the Florida Everglades, the stock market, all the uranium on Earth. You get the idea.

The book on the whole is challenging and surprising—highly recommended—and full of stuff I’m on board with, like how certain contemporary arts practices are not aimed so much at making us think (because really, what’s the point). Instead, and this I love because it fits really neatly with my current research, the text is taking us through particular processes, sometimes interactively, sometimes in a way that just simulates interaction, where it’s not always entirely clear which is which. “We need art that does not make people think,” says Morton, “but rather that walks them through an inner space that is hard to traverse.” Precisely.

I’m currently doing a book chapter where I explore how this picks up on what the Modernists were doing (for a lot of the same, information-Age-induced reasons). Gertrude Stein for example, whose Making of Americans can hardly be read as anything but a walk through tough terrain. Creates an experience partly because it's freaking hard to read. Oh, and Ulysses, and Finnegans Wake, and the Cantos, and basically everything that isn't imagism. Okay, overstatement, but you get my point.

The difficulty of the traversal, ie. moving through the text, is partly due to a certain round and round, where-the-hell-is-this-going quality that spans the modernism-postmodernism divide, if one there be. It’s also in a really intense close-up-ness of perspective, getting right up in very intimate and tiny spaces (Tender Buttons). And then a sometimes startling elasticity of scale as we zoom out unceremoniously to these vast and ambitious vistas with epic poems like The Waste Land, the Cantos, The Bridge, etc. etc.

The vast and the tiny, macro and micro, are both fair game in an elastic universe. I mean, scale is almost not even relevant in a world where we can fathom (and prove) that hyperobjects exist—and where we can also fathom how much we seriously can’t fathom them. 

The idea that we are just a blip in time, for example. Or, how important is the difference between a drop of water and all the water in the ocean, once you start talking about the size of THE WHOLE UNIVERSE? It’s pretty meh. 

Playing around with scale draws that out. That sort of thing goes on, rather more literally, in Danielewski’s House of Leaves, where the house itself goes from tiny to vast as humans try to traverse its interiors. Or in Delillo’s Falling Man, from intimate family conversations and droplets of sweat on skin to the NYC skyline with towers falling—again, the elasticity of scale representing a sort of new normal.

The poet Alice Fulton described a kind of writing that disrupts itself in this way, and encircles round and round (like Stein above), and zooms in and out, as fractal poetics, after the mathematical equations (fractals) whose renderings stay the same regardless of how far away or close you are. You can zoom in interminably and the shapes keep their structures. 

This seems appropriate to the way we are obliged to understand reality now, where, travelling the smallest and largest levels we can comprehend, we always know there is smaller and larger.

In that sense hyperobjects represent the sum of our technological abilities and anxieties in the current technological age, a kind of anti-hubris that is sort of fascinating and lovely. “The overall aesthetic ‘feel’ of the time of hyperobjects,” Morton writes, “is a sense of asymmetry between the infinite powers of cognition and the infinite being of things.”

The more the rate at which we become capable of knowing increases, the more the horizon of knowing recedes.