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Timothy Morton is a professor at Rice University in Houston. They have written more than fifteen books, such as Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World; Dark Ecology; Being Ecological, and Ecology without Nature. Thiago Pinho interviews them about experience and reality.
Object Oriented Ontology is a recent approach to philosophical questions about the nature of reality. It aims to overcome our anthropomorphism by considering the world not merely from a human viewpoint but also from the viewpoints of animals and even inanimate objects.
Professor Morton, how do you define yourself in the philosophical universe? Can I call you an ‘object-oriented ontologist’?
You may call me that. You may also call me a philosopher, although I’ve never called myself that. I think it would be a little arrogant of someone to call themselves that. It’s increasingly interesting to me as I get older that the word ‘philosophy’ is composed of two emotions. Obviously, love, the ‘ philo’ part, is an emotion; but wisdom, the ‘ sophia’ part, is also more of an emotion than an idea. A feeling is an idea that hasn’t been articulated yet, whereas an idea is more like the receipt that comes out of the cash register of the thinking process. When you go to therapy, it is because you’re having a feeling, and you don’t yet know what it is, how to describe it, nor how to deal with it. Emotion is a kind of movement, right? Love is a kind of movement. Emotions, in general, are moving: motion is even in the word ‘emotion’ itself. I’ve always thought that feelings are more important than ideas. It’s like driving your car on the street of wisdom: you don’t need to get too involved with the lamp-posts – the ideas. You don’t want to focus too much on them, otherwise you’ll be wrapped around the lamp-posts.
Anyway, you could put me in the OOO – Object Oriented Ontology – section. If there is a deconstruction section, you could put me there, too.
Realism is the philosophical idea that the world – or some aspect of it – is real and exists independently of us. There’s a new kind of realism on the horizon, as we can see in OOO. The new realists usually go beyond the limits of the Kantian tradition in that they are not afraid to talk about reality itself. How important are realism and OOO in your writing?
The difference between my kind of OOO and other new forms of realism is that I agree that we’re going beyond Kant in some ways, but at the same time, not wanting to blow up the ‘transcendental’ barrier he erected between things and data [that is, between reality and one’s experience of that reality]. But we’re removing anthropocentrism, since there’s no good reason why non-human beings can’t also have this weird fun that humans have of being radically excluded from the real and only able to access the data.
Data takes many forms. There’s scientific data, which usually comes in the form of measurements of things like velocity, spin, frequency; but there are other kinds of data – like, for example, ‘This tastes good’, or ‘This reminds me of my grandmother’, or ‘This feels funny when you lick it’. Since licking is something snails are capable of doing, and since licking is pretty much just as valid or invalid an interaction as measuring something or thinking about it, I think snails can probably have this kind of Kantian fun, too: realizing, in a proper snail way, that there’s a kind of transcendental crack in the universe – a crack that you cannot point to.
Yes, snails aren’t good at pointing. We find many interesting new concepts in OOO, such as undermining, overmining, allure, onticology, democracy of objects, and, in your case, the notion of ‘hyperobject’. But how can I define that? Can I understand Covid-19 as a hyperobject?
Well, a ‘hyperobject’ is something that exemplifies the difference between ideas and feelings. And we don’t need the word ‘coronavirus’ because we all have a feeling called ‘coronavirus’. At the beginning of the pandemic, two people in Washington state caught Covid and I think they died. When that happened my mother, who used to be a social worker, said that if you see two or more cases of abuse in a family that you’re visiting, then it’s probably everywhere. So, by the time these two people died in Washington, I thought that this virus was everywhere in the United States – which turned out to be true. It was already much more pervasive than people realized. Unfortunately, we discovered that a little too late. So Covid was this thing that was everywhere and nowhere at once, and this makes it a kind of hyperobject. So certainly, Covid-19 and the growth of coronavirus cases and so forth would be a really good example of a hyperobject in action. You can’t touch it directly or see it directly, but you can think about it. It’s both inside and outside of you, just like you are part of it. It seems like it structures your world, to some extent. Being a hyperobject is relative. If you were an electron, who could also talk, you would be able to talk about this iPhone that you’re now inside. It would be a hyperobject for you.
Another thing about hyperobjects is that they happen on different scales to different things. So on an individual human scale, I am terrified since I have a lung problem and could easily die if I get Covid. But on a planetary scale, it’s like in Avatar, when the people suddenly gain planetary political consciousness. Black Lives Matter comes along and it also happens on a planetary scale, as a planetary political consciousness. That and the #MeToo movement are incredibly important for ecological politics.
Covid is incredible when you think about it on a huge scale. In fact, even on an intermediate scale, it’s interesting because it’s like you’re phenomenologically close to people again; social distancing brings you a kind of intimacy. You have to follow the sanitary measures, such as staying six feet away from other people; but this brings you closer in the sense that you and the other person are signalling to each other that you don’t want to suffer and die. When you put on your mask, some people end up interpreting that as a restriction of your speech, but what you’re really doing is sending a very strong message: “I have mercy on you” – which is a different kind of intimacy. So actually, I think the lockdown was also a type of ‘opening up’. That’s another thing hyperobjects do: they radically challenge your everyday consciousness and assumptions about things.
Your writing style is clear, and flows really well. This aesthetic dimension is evidently not something random for you, but perhaps I can say has ontological importance. Actually, we see in OOO in general a different way of dealing with language.
I’m honored, and it’s interesting that you said that. The other day, my son in middle school was talking to a random boy in the cafeteria who said, “Wow, is your dad Timothy Morton?” Apparently he’d read something about my books and I thought to myself: “That’s amazing! A twelve-year-old boy interested in my work.” There are fifteen- or eighteen-year-olds who write to me and identify with a lot of things; but a twelve-year-old boy? It’s really important to me to be able to talk about deep and complex things with anyone. In a way that’s like playing with time. It’s like being a comedian. Comedians are very clever in their use of time. They can say anything to anybody, as long as they fit it in at the right time. In a way, making or getting a joke is not just like having an idea; it’s like a feeling of having an idea. Somehow, the way the thing that you unconsciously don’t know connects with the thing that you do know, causing a kind of release of energy in the form of laughter or a kind of ‘Wow’. Like you said, it’s a kind of aesthetic moment.
Again as you suggested, this is not some superficial thing. We all in OOO think that the aesthetic [sensory perception] dimension is where the causality of the world is. That sounds weird, but it’s actually something basic that you find in David Hume, for example, and it’s why perceptual data forms the basis of modern science. A fact is always an interpretation of data, and, in a curious way, the same happens with a scientific fact. When I said this to thousands of engineers in Singapore they tried to [metaphorically] kill me for three days, because they thought I had insulted them. But actually, this is something very important. Since at least 1750 in European philosophy, it has been seen as impossible to look under the hood of the data and see the reality underneath, as if the reality underneath were cogs hidden behind the appearances. Actually, reality is in front of things, so to speak. Seeing reality has to do with observing patterns in the data, and patterns are aesthetic, sensual things. So, everything is just very aesthetic, in a certain way. For instance, things don’t touch each other ontologically, they just influence each other aesthetically. Quantum theory tells us that touch is ultimately the sensation of electromagnetic resistance. So, when you’re touching something, you’re not actually touching it! Rather, it’s like you have two magnets of equal poles repelling each other. The poles are incapable, really, of touching each other. If you were able to touch an object, that would mean that the particles of your finger would become particles of the thing you’re touching, and then you wouldn’t be touching it but you’d be part of it.
What role does phenomenology play in your writing in general?
Before I went to university, when I was a seventeen-year-old, I read the word ‘phenomenology’ for the first time. Even though I didn’t know what it meant, I thought to myself, ‘Wow, what is it? I need to know about it! This is amazing.’ I thought: ‘This is what I need to do with my life’. Gradually I found out what it was – a gesture of taking the contemporary world more seriously. It’s like that phrase people say to people learning quantum theory: they say ‘Do the math’ – which basically means you (and they) don’t know what’s going on; you just look at the data, crunch the numbers, and then figure out how the patterns work. It’s like that in phenomenology too. Don’t assume you know what’s going on. Don’t assume that there is a subject and an object, a here and a there, an up and a down, a man and a woman, a black and a white. Don’t assume the labels. Instead of assuming the prefabricated facts, which are always interpretations of the data, just look at the phenomenon, the data of experience itself, for a minute. Just see what’s happening there. That’s because the way something happens tells you what it is. That is what defines phenomenology. The basic slogan of phenomenology is: The ‘how’ replaces the ‘what’. Chemistry for instance is a type of phenomenology that applies to chemical elements. You can describe salt in terms of how it dissolves in water: that’s the ‘how’ of salt. In a way, phenomenology is saying that ideas and thoughts also have a ‘how’ and a delivery mechanism, in the same way that a glass of wine has a kind of ‘how’. You hold it in a certain way to drink the wine. In the same way an idea has a way of having itself. That’s why Hegel’s book is called the Phenomenology of Spirit, since it’s all about how you having an idea is actually already part of the idea. My favorite example is that evil marks an attitude directed toward something that is called evil. If you think that evil something that you can fly a drone over and drop a bomb to get rid of it, that attitude itself is evil. That’s what evil is.
With this kind of thinking, you get a brilliant insight: ideas always have ways of having themselves. It also means that ideas are not just symptoms of the brain. Husserl started from that idea, by questioning this notion normally called psychologism, which basically says that logical propositions are merely symptoms of a healthy brain, being the kind of thing that a healthy brain does. That was a very popular belief in the nineteenth century. The problem is, what is a brain? It’s something that you can discover using science. But what is science? It’s something you can validate using logic. What is logic? It’s a symptom of a healthy brain. What is a brain?… So we get into a kind of infinite loop. So, logical propositions are mind-bending. You can say that an idea, like a meme or a tweet, is never in a vacuum. It must have some kind of ‘how’ related to it. That’s actually not just an optional addition, but a crucial part of the truth of ideas: there’s always a ‘how’. So when reading Graham Harman, it’s very nice when he says: “You don’t see red. You see a red toothbrush. You don’t see brown, you see a brown cow.” The ‘how’ of red is in the shape of the toothbrush. You are seeing red in the form of ‘toothbrush’. It’s amazing. I love this idea.
Graham Harman often doesn’t consider science as realistic. He thinks science is usually an undermining attitude, an oversimplification of the realm of objects. But I realize that you are in constant dialogue with science, using metaphors and other elements from scientific language. So what is the role of science in your work? And what is the relationship between science and philosophy?
I don’t think Harman is always saying that science is just undermining things and making them into smaller elements. That’s more a kind of scientism. Physics may say that ‘Tim is made up of atoms’, but physics isn’t saying that atoms are ‘more real’ than Tim. That would be scientism, which unfortunately, some scientists still embrace. But it’s a kind of religion of Science, where you take the idea of science and say that it’s actually about the real rather than being an interpretation of the data, as it actually is. I think that’s what Harman really means.
I’m in dialogue with science because my whole family is made up of scientists on my mother’s side. Back in the nineteenth century they were chemistry people. Everybody was a bit annoyed when I wanted to do Humanities at Oxford instead of Chemistry at Cambridge. But I feel that I’m carrying on the mission in a different way, because, as I said, phenomenology concerns the ‘how’ of everything, and there is a ‘how’ in being a scientist.
If we felt like scientists, that would be very good for the biosphere right now. Science and phenomenology are many things; but in general terms, thanks to them, I can think to myself: ‘I might be wrong. Maybe the ideas in my head are not correct.’ Of course, it isn’t very popular now, in the world of conspiracy theories and fake news, to think ‘I might probably be wrong’; but it’s a super healthy attitude. I am willing to be surprised and appalled by the data. I am willing to be grossed out as well as be amazed. My example for that are biologists I heard on the radio in Houston last year, who were basically saying, “I was crying over a mother sea lion that was showing love to me in the ocean and it was so beautiful, but it was also so gross because she was feeding me these dead penguins.” That funny combination of beauty and a little bit of disgust is a fantastic chemical combination. It’s a kind of oscillation between pleasure and disgust. I think that’s a very special phenomenological ‘chemical’, because it’s not only the feeling of science, it’s also a phenomenology of symbiosis.
What does it mean to be a life form? Imagine you’re a mononuclear organism swimming in the ocean, and suddenly BOOM! You ask, “Did I just swallow poison?” – but three billion years later your descendants say, “No, that wasn’t poison. It was an aerobic bacterium and it evolved into a mitochondrion, giving your cells energy.” But at that moment, when the mononuclear organism accidentally absorbs this thing, there’s a kind of uncertainty. For another example of beneficial uncertainty: you fall in love with someone, and then you think, “Is this going to be the toxic one that’s going to make it impossible for me to get into new relationships again?” Of course, you can’t think that in advance unless you want to build a wall, interrogate people, and have assumptions about who might be allowed in. Of course, here I’m also talking about former President Trump and his famous wall that was part of a culture war. So, I think this feeling of uncertainty is something important for the world; to be ready to be uncertain and to relate to something that you’re not sure what it is, and, at the same time, to be at ease with all of that.
Let’s talk about the geologists who say they were going through a certain process when they started their PhDs: they were holding a rock in their hands and all of a sudden they realized, “Gee, this is billions of years old. I’m holding billions of years in my hand. I have to be responsible for that now, because I’m a PhD in geology” and they freak out. They get this fantastic sense of vertigo, thinking, “I need to be responsible now for this gigantic time scale.” But since they’re flexible humans, they learn that they can accommodate themselves to this incredible time-scale. This is wonderful, and it gives you some kind of hope. It means that human beings could accommodate ourselves to the planet and to other life forms. We’re not actually types of Pac-Men, like busy little monsters that float around eating the universe with our thoughts: we’re more like chameleons, who take on coloration no matter what surface we’re on. We have great flexibility that can be expanded to include things. If we can’t accommodate ourselves to the changing world, then something not very pleasurable is going to happen. But, if we can, something pleasurable is going to happen. The point of all this is to build a more ecologically-attuned society for both humans and non-humans.
• Dr Thiago Pinho is a Teacher at Federal University of Bahia, Brazil. He has written three books on Social Theory: Decentering the Language (Zarte,2018), Symptoms (Paco, 2019) and Towards an Object-Oriented Social Theory (UFSM, 2023). Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.