Does Reality Bite? Philosophy, Ecology and the "End of the World"

Global warming, wide-scale evolutionary mutations, genetic modifications, deforestation, the possibility of a machine-human that lives beyond 1000 (now there's a birthday worth celebrating!), plutonium, other galaxies, multiverse theories -- such notions have entirely dethroned our confidence in human knowledge. They have stripped us of any assurances regarding our collective future. Ecologists call this the age of the Anthropocene. Timothy Morton, Professor of English at Rice University, calls this the epoch of the hyperobject.


The epoch of the hyperobject has unraveled our anthropocentric telos (read: the human-centered sense of purpose) that otherwise maintains our large scale narratives of progress and developmental hope. Here there is no metalanguage or metanarrative or ultimate truth, no overarching explanation of life and reality. Nothing to console us in the face of disaster, or in the after life for that matter.

Now it is not language or consciousness that join us in a meaningful cosmos, but our plural inter-entity existence with nonhumans and hyperobjects. From a deep time perspective, the latter are quite literally larger than life, rendering all efforts of human comprehension and exploitation vain and futile.

However, while there is no good reason to be unshakably optimistic about all this, Morton's ecophilosophical vision does contain a hidden brightness that intimates a way forward, a diamond in the consumer-driven rough. For the epoch of the hyperobject is something to acknowledge, accept and dynamically engage, rather than solely reacting in ideologically polarizing ways, anticipating an inevitably encroaching doomsday, or vehemently protesting corporate existence from aggressive activist pulpits.

Here Morton's thinking rejects the common distinction between nature and civilization, pointing out that nothing - be it the pyramids, cell phones, missiles, aluminum, transgendered identities or whatever - is ever really separable from Reality. I capitalize Reality to emphasize this word instead of the dichotomy of 'nature' and 'culture.' Morton makes this point in a nuanced way when he writes: "One of the things that modern society has damaged has been thinking. Unfortunately, one of the damaged ideas is that of Nature itself."

Taken seriously, this view throws into confusion and complication the romantic vision of a pure natural world juxtaposed against an incriminating technological exploitation of the planet's resources by a totally naughty, greedy, despicable humanity. Such a view, which refuses to place humans right 'here' and nature way over 'there,' has unfortunately tended to outrage contemporary ecological activists.

So where do we turn for trustable resources, insights and nonanthropocentric understandings of reality, while soberly knowing that we in our earthling inhabitance live as nothing more than mere ants in simplex agricultural houses amidst a vast universe devoid of human interests and safeguarding?

For one thing, we need to be historically sensitive, sober and paradoxically light-hearted in order to grasp the ramifications of the Anthropocene and face the irreversible darkness and anxiety grabbing any sensible and concerned human being's attention nowadays. We also need to avoid over-identification with the ideological dogmas - associated with global warming, for instance - that hinder our ability to explore and engage openly these ecstatic and terrifying times we live in. Finally, we need to fundamentally accept exactly the way things have come to be, as cliche as this might sound, even as we cooperate vibrantly and in revolutionary political fashion to solve various problems and urgent dilemmas.

In other words, we need to ecologically celebrate the 21st century, as strange and incorrect as this sounds. In Morton's recent twittered words, "You think ecologically tuned life means being all efficient and pure. Wrong. It means you can have a disco in every room of your house." You can follow Tim on Twitter here.

What are hyperobjects? Hyperobjects are tangible proofs, concrete realities of both the near future and already existing posthuman (or inhuman) powers utterly beyond our control, magnified in the mirror of our technological era. Hyperobjects obliterate even practical notions of the world as either purely natural or purely human-made. Such is the meaning of "the end of the world" - at once conveying a mega-literal and powerfully figurative message that altogether debunks human confidence in progress and "being made in the image of god," as the saying goes.

Coming to terms with the hyperobject also shatters the default Cartesian assumption that reality operates according to consistent laws, facts and deep mechanistic processes that have stood the test of time and empirical verification. Well, there may be deep mechanisms in the world, but just what is deep about them is precisely what confounds us in the epoch of the hyperobject.

Put more technically, there is an interrelated field of objects (humans are also ultimately mere objects, however complex) that impact each other aesthetically and in all kinds of nonlocal and nonarbitrary ways. Consider, for instance (from a spatially hyperdistant view), the way we violently bounce off each other at nation-state borders; or how different chemicals and atmospheric elements mingle with human production with an unprecedented span in the twenty-first century; or how our bodies eventually decompose and feed into the circle of life; or the way certain striking coincidences sometimes happen, like thinking of someone you haven't spoken with in several years, only to hear from said person that very same day.

As already mentioned, these objects, whether conventionally referred to together (with notions like tundra or rain forest) or singled out (with notions like planet or hydrogen), are not reducible to their mechanistic process or evolutionary function, and they are not mere appearances-for us humans in some utilitarian sense. Indeed the infinite range of objects visible to us - including our own trillion-celled bodies - elude all forms of human consciousness that perceive and handle them.

While there may be grounds for affirming intra-species coherence, communicative action and intelligibility among humanitas, acknowledging hyperobjects in conjunction with the postmodern deconstruction of all truth claims and metanarratives has placed us in a very serious and precarious (if inevitable) situation - the latter (via something like cultural relativism where there is no meta-narrative or strong universal truth) in theory, the former (hyperobject infiltration) practically.

Does reality bite? In the words of a colleague commenting on the radical French philosopher, Georges Bataille, "the noumenon has fangs." I think this is a strangely relevant metaphor.

The question I might ask is which parts of those fangs are human-made or human provoked, and which parts are the unintended consequence of the universe's sheer indifference or, worse, malignant intentions? Is global warming in the form of its recent atmospheric activity merely a symptom of a far larger hyperobject that has begun unleashing a catastrophic burp from it's mouth as the sky? Or has this burp already subsided and we're now riding the earth's digestive juices, whereas the real fang has yet to even touch the surface of human consciousness?

Do we live in an incomprehensibly intelligent and sentient cosmos or an utterly accidental and dead universe that somehow arranged material strata for this sheer accident life to appear for a period of time cosmically analogous to a single snowflake in human temporality? Most importantly, what next of our noble emancipatory visions and practical injunctions for the sake of the human community and the call of the good?

Such questions, though obviously not meant to be taken literally, point to a profoundly significant phenomenon, one made possible by the virtue or curse (take your pick) of the epoch of the hyperobject.