A Permanent Sense of Asymmetry: Watching the Non-Human Enter
Sitting in the audience at the California College of Arts, listening to Tim Morton’s talk “Enter the Non-Human,” I couldn’t help but think of a comment by Brian Eno. Eno had just finished producing the Talking Heads album “More Songs about Buildings and Food,” and he noted that the new album contained “more ideas per minute” than the first record. It’s my sense that the density of ideas in Morton’s talks is increasing as he pushes towards the “final” formulation of his book on Hyperobjects. As has been noted elsewhere, the ideas were streaming off the stage, washing over the audience. I experienced them like a Proustian sentence, holding an object out for our minds and then sketching it this way, then that way, then another, through a tumbling outpour of sub-clauses.
In the age of the Network, we often want things to be instantly consumable. If I don’t get it right off the bat, my attention moves to the next thing. The real-time stream and rest of the internet is just a click away. Morton traffics in philosophy, aesthetics and ecology; conversations on these topics aren’t easily digested. We have to chew on them a while. Sometimes we need to leave them and come back. Because of their difficulty, outside of the curriculum of an academic program, they tend to have limited circulation. This kind of learning is not achieved in a single transaction. The Book of Common Prayer suggests that as one encounters scripture, one must “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest.” Poetry and philosophy require a similar process. Watching Morton give this talk in person, my understanding rested on having heard recordings of other versions of the Hyperobjects talk and read his papers and books. But even with this foundation, I felt compelled to come back to the talk as a recording.
Enter The Non-Human: A New Phase in Aesthetics
Enter The Non-Human
Several days later as the recording unfurled through my earbuds, I noticed some interesting differences between the microphone’s experience of the talk and my own. Morton’s voice was much more dynamic and intimate on the recording, in the room it was compelling, but much softer. Perhaps this is due to the earbuds and the recorded audio seeming to manifest inside my head, rather than coming from an outside source. The microphone, sitting in Morton’s shirt pocket, interacted with the fabric containing it while he moved about the stage. In the moment, only the microphone was aware of these subtle sounds of textiles. During the Q&A session after the talk, strange mechanical sounds emanating from the space above the auditorium intruded into the conversation space providing an appropriately non-human perspective. The microphone recorded barely a trace of these intrusions. The recording is there on my iPhone, waiting for me to give it a play and allow these thoughts a chance to sink in further.
A Series of Hyperobjects
Something about this experience feels like a new form of pedagogy. Certainly it’s spilled over the walls of the Academy and on to the the Network, but it’s form is the biggest difference. The playing field has fundamentally changed when one can to listen to multiple versions of a lecture, can loop back through the recorded lecture and focus on particular parts, and read versions of the idea as downloadable papers. Certainly nothing like that ever occurred in my years in the academy. Like a hyperobject, the lecture on hyperobjects is massively distributed in time and space.
One of the laugh lines in Morton’s talk is “anything you can do I can do meta.” The idea behind this quip is to characterize the move to “undermine,” or in Graham Harman’s phrase, to “overmine” an opponent’s position. Either some atom is the basic building block to which all things can be reduced; or some system is the foundation from which all things extend. Generally what is taught in the Academy are the particulars around these atoms and systems. In his talk, Morton reviews the historical progression of these “particulars” in an effort to get to the present ecological moment. The strange thing about Morton’s talk is that he’s not trying to lay out a new complex conceptual framework that wraps up everything that precedes it. Instead he brings up a series of examples of the rift between appearance and essence—the remainder that each of these conceptual transactions always generates as it tries to snugly fit around the contours of the real. For students trained in memorizing and recapitulating particulars, the process of discarding conceptual frameworks to see more clearly must seem counter intuitive. In a line of thought that operates in a space without a center or edges, sometimes it’s difficult to know when it’s arrived at it’s topic. And further, once there, what is the listener meant to take away? What kind of transaction is this?
From my perspective, Morton’s set of examples melded with, and transformed threads from my other reading, in particular with David Graeber’s book “Debt.” One of Graeber’s profound observations is on the origin of the exact transaction from which both parties can walk away from free and clear. While it’s the dominant model now, from a historical and anthropological point of view, the desire for “exactness” comes from events in which some harm has occurred and fair reparations must be calculated. The more normal transaction would be to always have some remainder on one side or the other, an ongoing debt–the idea is that there would always be a continuation of the relationship. The desire to walk away from a transaction free and clear with no debts on either side is born from anger.
When trying to imagine a just society, it’s hard not to evoke images of balance and symmetry, of elegant geometries where everything balances out.
As Morton points out, in the age of ecology there is no clean transaction you can walk away from. The fact that everything is connected isn’t something you can turn off when it’s inconvenient. There’s always something still owed, a remaining debt. Morton describes this as the viscous quality of the hyperobject, the more you know about it the more it sticks to you. And as Graeber shows, capital fails to capture the full extent of a transaction because it doesn’t fully represent the object. In the social context of the transaction, there’s always a remainder, the market never fully clears. At the level of capital and pricing, the numbers always add up, but the object of the transaction is broadcasting on multiple frequencies. And if you hold the concept of capital in abeyance for just a moment, you’ll find there were many more parties to the transaction than you had assumed, and if you listen closely, you can hear that the non-human has continued its relationship with you.
After the talk I was standing on a street corner in the darkness of the early evening discussing object-oriented ontology and Shelley with Morton. He said he thought the Romantic poets were very modern, that their poetry could have been written today. While I understood what he was saying on a basic level, I could see there was much more to it that was invisible to me. I had the sense of Shelley as a large tree that had grown up inside of Morton over many seasons. While no stranger to poetry, I’d only come to Shelley and his compatriots recently. Within myself, Shelley was no more than a small sapling.
Hymn to Intellectual Beauty
By Percy Bysshe Shelley
The awful shadow of some unseen Power
Floats though unseen among us; visiting
This various world with as inconstant wing
As summer winds that creep from flower to flower;
Like moonbeams that behind some piny mountain shower,
It visits with inconstant glance
Each human heart and countenance;
Like hues and harmonies of evening,
Like clouds in starlight widely spread,
Like memory of music fled,
Like aught that for its grace may be
Dear, and yet dearer for its mystery.
Spirit of BEAUTY, that dost consecrate
With thine own hues all thou dost shine upon
Of human thought or form, where art thou gone?
Why dost thou pass away and leave our state,
This dim vast vale of tears, vacant and desolate?
Ask why the sunlight not for ever
Weaves rainbows o’er yon mountain-river,
Why aught should fail and fade that once is shown,
Why fear and dream and death and birth
Cast on the daylight of this earth
Such gloom, why man has such a scope
For love and hate, despondency and hope?
No voice from some sublimer world hath ever
To sage or poet these responses given:
Therefore the names of Demon, Ghost, and Heaven,
Remain the records of their vain endeavour:
Frail spells whose utter’d charm might not avail to sever,
From all we hear and all we see,
Doubt, chance and mutability.
Thy light alone like mist o’er mountains driven,
Or music by the night-wind sent
Through strings of some still instrument,
Or moonlight on a midnight stream,
Gives grace and truth to life’s unquiet dream.
Love, Hope, and Self-esteem, like clouds depart
And come, for some uncertain moments lent.
Man were immortal and omnipotent,
Didst thou, unknown and awful as thou art,
Keep with thy glorious train firm state within his heart.
Thou messenger of sympathies,
That wax and wane in lovers’ eyes;
Thou, that to human thought art nourishment,
Like darkness to a dying flame!
Depart not as thy shadow came,
Depart not—lest the grave should be,
Like life and fear, a dark reality.
While yet a boy I sought for ghosts, and sped
Through many a listening chamber, cave and ruin,
And starlight wood, with fearful steps pursuing
Hopes of high talk with the departed dead.
I call’d on poisonous names with which our youth is fed;
I was not heard; I saw them not;
When musing deeply on the lot
Of life, at that sweet time when winds are wooing
All vital things that wake to bring
News of birds and blossoming,
Sudden, thy shadow fell on me;
I shriek’d, and clasp’d my hands in ecstasy!
I vow’d that I would dedicate my powers
To thee and thine: have I not kept the vow?
With beating heart and streaming eyes, even now
I call the phantoms of a thousand hours
Each from his voiceless grave: they have in vision’d bowers
Of studious zeal or love’s delight
Outwatch’d with me the envious night:
They know that never joy illum’d my brow
Unlink’d with hope that thou wouldst free
This world from its dark slavery,
That thou, O awful LOVELINESS,
Wouldst give whate’er these words cannot express.
The day becomes more solemn and serene
When noon is past; there is a harmony
In autumn, and a lustre in its sky,
Which through the summer is not heard or seen,
As if it could not be, as if it had not been!
Thus let thy power, which like the truth
Of nature on my passive youth
Descended, to my onward life supply
Its calm, to one who worships thee,
And every form containing thee,
Whom, SPIRIT fair, thy spells did bind
To fear himself, and love all human kind.