Caring for the hyperobject
In The Ecological Thought (2010), Tim Morton introduced the idea of the hyperobject, a higher-dimension being that shows up in our world in unsettling, confusing, and profoundly important ways.
COVID-19 consecrated Morton as The Philosopher of Our Times. Covid exhibits all the properties that Morton had specified a decade earlier. It is nonlocal; it manifests in opposite parts of the world (and is not simply the aggregate of its manifestations). It is viscous; it literally adheres to our cells, it sticks around, it attaches itself to all other aspects of life, and it is even a sticking point politically. It is phased; because it is a higher-dimension object, we are only able to experience it incompletely as a process that we are always catching up to (flatten the curve!).
Hyperobjects are scary and weird. They are also, according to Morton, worthy of care. From the astonishing conclusion of The Ecological Thought (emphasis mine):
Suppose that future humans achieve a society that is less materialistic than ours. This will probably be the case, if only to prevent human extinction. They will be less materialistic, but the actually existing products of profound materialism will persist, haunting them like inverse ghosts: more solid than solid, more real than real, “nearer than breathing, closer than hands and feet.” Is it not impossible that future humans will have built something like spirituality around these materials? Care for the hyperobject will emerge. Return for a moment to the question of the nuclear power plant powering the fuel cell factory. What do you do with the radioactive waste? You can’t just sweep it under the Yucca Mountain carpet and hope nobody notices. You know too much – we live in Ulrich Beck’s risk society. So you have to store it, ideally above ground in monitored retrievable storage, for thousands of years. Hyperobjects are the true taboos, the demonic inversion of the sacred substances of religion. The recent plan to dispose of nuclear materials by putting small amounts in regular household silverware was perhaps the most outrageous “solution” yet. Future humans’ treatment of hyperobjects may seem like reverence to our eyes. Isn’t it ironic that supposedly materialist, secular societies created the ultimate spiritual substances?
I grew up in a town where American flags were planted in the lawns. Morton invites the possibility that I might die in a town where nuclear waste is buried in the lawns. It’s a dark thought, but it’s a kind of darkness that Morton distinguishes from despair:
I explore the possibility of a new ecological aesthetics: dark ecology. Dark ecology puts hesitation, uncertainty, irony, and thoughtfulness back into ecological thinking. The form of dark ecology is that of noir film. The noir narrator begins investigating a supposedly neutral point of view, only to discover that she or he is implicated in it. The point of view of the narrator herself becomes stained with desire. There is no metaposition from which we can make ecological pronouncements. Ironically this applies in particular to the sunny, affirmative rhetoric of environmental ideology. A more honest ecological art would linger in the shadowy world of irony and difference. With dark ecology, we can explore all kinds of art forms as ecological: not just ones that are about lions and mountains, not just journal writing and sublimity. The ecological thought includes negativity and irony, ugliness and horror. Democracy is well served by irony, because irony insists there are other points of view that we must acknowledge. Ugliness and horror are important, because they compel our compassionate coexistence to go beyond condescending pity.
Things will get worse before they get better, if at all. We must create frameworks for coping with a catastrophe that, from the evidence of the hysterical announcements of its imminent arrival, has already occurred.
Dark ecology does not argue against mitigating, preventing, or planning for catastrophe. It just asks that we also open up to catastrophe: the catastrophes that we’ve inherited, the catastrophes we are bequeathing to our children, and even our catastrophic way of being.
What does this look like? While writing this post, I was pointed to the work of Joanna Macy, who created the idea of Nuclear Guardianship in 1989:
If we truly understand that the earth is a dynamic living system, then we understand that burial will only further disseminate and contaminate, not contain.
Nuclear Guardianship advocates the storage of radioactive material above ground, or just below ground in a monitored, retrievable configuration. When the material is stored where present and future generations can see it, the maintenance required for its continual isolation from the environment is more readily facilitated.
For Macy, part of this guardianship is telling and preserving the stories of those who survived the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a project known as Hibakusha Stories.
As I quickly familiarize myself with Macy before clicking Publish, I’m feeling a mix of things. Excitement: Hey, here’s someone who’s done it, whose blueprint we could follow for COVID and the crises to come, who shows us how to grieve and care and make resolutions as a society. And sorrow: that generational wisdom appears not to be as accretive as I wish it were. If I can’t even pick up on the lineage from Macy to Morton, how many other generations of care have we been ignoring? The whole structure feels a bit like sandcastles built too close to the shore.
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