Thursday, March 18, 2010

Hyperobjects and the End of Common Sense

Timothy Morton
U.C. Davis

In the liner notes to Stop Making Sense, Talking Heads frontman David Byrne wrote “Nuclear weapons could wipe out life on Earth, if used properly.” The brilliant fake naivety of this seemingly obvious remark should make us pause. We have indeed created things that we can hardly understand, let alone control, let alone make sensible political decisions about. Sometimes it's good to have new words for these things, to remind you of how mind-blowing they are. So I'm going to introduce a new term: hyperobjects. Hyperobjects are phenomena such as radioactive materials and global warming. Hyperobjects stretch our ideas of time and space, since they far outlast most human time scales, or they're massively distributed in terrestrial space and so are unavailable to immediate experience. In this sense, hyperobjects are like those tubes of toothpaste that say they contain 10% extra: there's more to hyperobjects than ordinary objects.

Plutonium, for instance, has a half-life of 24 100 years. That's far, far further into the future than it's possible to think that anyone meaningfully related to me could still exist. Will the future people even be human in the currently defined sense? 24 100 years is over twice as long as the whole of recorded human history thus far. Here it is: plutonium—it's really here, take a look.

Pu 239 aglow with radioactivity

It will outlive your descendants' descendants far beyond any timescale in which the idea of descendants (sharing my genome, my taste in music, my politics) is significant in any way.

This means that we need some other basis for making decisions about a future to which we have no real sense of connection. We must urgently construct some non-self ethics and politics to deal with these pernicious hyperobjects. No self-interest theory, no matter how modified (to include my relatives, my nearest and dearest, my cat, my great grandchildren's hamster's vet) is going to cut it.

As well as being about mind-bending timescales and spatial scales, hyperobjects do something still more disturbing to our conceptual frames of reference. Hyperobjects undermine normative ideas of what an “object” is in the first place.

Let's consider the fact that hyperobjects disturb our habitual ideas of time and space by stretching them and by distributing effects across them. The trouble with global warming is not just that it's real—the trouble with it is that it deals a deathblow to “common sense.” Palin and the Tea Baggers may have taken up this phrase precisely to forestall the victory of the hyperobjects (and the related issue of the death of Reagan, which happened in October 2008 when the stock market crashed). Common sense tells you that things you can see and feel like snow are more real than things like global warming, which must be abstract and thus vague. But global warming turns this false immediacy inside out. Global warming is far more real, while things like weather—things that appear to be immediate in our experience—are actually the abstractions! Local weather is a kind of snapshot of larger processes, a snapshot that's pretty much out of date by the time you notice it.

Repeat after me: climate is not weather. It's sort of like how momentum is not velocity. If you're tied to a train track, and a train is coming towards you with constant momentum, it doesn't matter if it slows down—you will still be dead.

You can't see climate, but it's more real than wet stuff under your boots. This sudden turnaround has a weird effect on all of us. Think of those conversations you can't have any more with strangers, about the weather. You can't have them because at some point one of you mentions global warming, or the conversation trails off into an awkward silence (because of global warming), or, heaven help you, the other guy says “See! This global warming thing is a crock!” The conversation loses its redundancy, its nice, comfy, just-passing-the-time-of-day feel.

This loss is part of a more general loss of a sense of a neutral background against which human events can become meaningful. In a globalized world of hyperobjects, there's no background anymore—and so there's no foreground (you have to have one to have the other). This sudden loss of meaningfulness is dreamt up in countless sci-fi fantasies—our hero arrives at the 13th Floor, only to find that “reality” outside the window has become a horrifyingly blank zone of uniform gray… The realization of climate change is just as disturbing. The meaningless background of weather, our everyday experience of the world, now means something. Climate change represents the possibility that the cycles and repetitions we come to depend on for our sense of stability and place in the world may be the harbingers of cataclysmic change.

We now have instruments that can perceive hyperobjects. We now have computers that can model climate in real time, but this takes terabytes of RAM per second (a terabyte is a thousand gigs). From the less than tiny to the vaster than huge, we humans have discovered and unleashed things that go way beyond our everyday frames of reference. Geiger counters can perceive radiation and atomic clocks can perceive relativistic effects—the effects that make you realize that E = MC2, the reason nuclear bombs explode the way they do. These effects are happening all around us but our regular “common sense” perception can't compute terabytes of global climate information or sense nanosecond timescales. Most mornings I can't even find the coffee grinder.

The fact that we need these devices to see hyperobjects, objects that will likely define our future, is humbling in the same way Copernicus and Galileo brought humans down to Earth by insisting that the Universe wasn't rotating around us. In their era, common sense told you that the Sun went around the Earth once a day. Common sense also told you that weird old ladies offering herbal remedies who didn't drown when you threw them in water should be burnt, because they're witches. Common sense has a lot to answer for.

It's ironic that the machinery of modern life is creating the materials that are modernity's undoing—materially, philosophically and even spiritually.


  1. One: The opening reference to David Byrnes reminds me of a slightly less subtle, but still potent, line by Todd Rundren. "I think I could make the world peaceful and calm/if I could just get my hands on a hydrogen bomb."

    Two: To imagine a history of hyper-objects -- not that you do so -- would suggest more originary hyperobjects, and these, I imagine, would be something like the concept of "God" and then "man." I wonder what other candidates for this category might be?

  2. I'm not sure whether hyperobjects have a history yet. At present I'm seeing them as unique to our moment—which is why they're so hard to understand. The other issue is that they aren't organizing categories of thinking or memes or whatever you want. Like, you don't have to believe in plutonium the same way you have to believe in Man or God.

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  4. Perhaps another difference would be that God is located in a beyond (hyper in that sense, yes)—but this beyond gives meaning to what we have over here. “Yonder” is the background for “hither.” The ontological threat of global warming and radiation is that they collapse the distinction between “over there” and “over here.”

    By the way—I love your book on loneliness. There is a kind of compulsory extraversion in contemporary ideology (environmentalism too).

  5. What do you think of Nietzche's allegory at the beginning of "On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense" as an invocation of the hyperobject? From his perspective, we often ignore the hyperobject when it is convenient for our self-understanding. Perhaps in our (we moderns) quaking fear before the ancient hyperobjects, we strive to create our own objects that can eclipse those sublime but terrifying objects that were here before us.

  6. Seth, yes, Neitzsche would have us say that the hyperobject itself is a convenient "truth"/lie. Unfortunately this is not Tim's point, as the hyperobject seems to be a hybrid object: one that because of our inherent relationship to it as actors that have help create it constitutes it as an ethical object, at the same time it is a real object whose super-human scales make it something only Science can accurately assess. It is a kind of ethico-science object.

  7. I think the hyperobject is a promising and provocative concept, but its parameters still aren't entirely clear to me here. Kvond's comment is clarifying--that what makes a hyperobject is not strictly its sublimity (stretching/transcending our human-scaled ideas of time and space) but more specifically that it is an ineffable-yet-empirical (empirically ineffable?) object (if we can call global warming an object) to which we must nonetheless forge some kind of instrumental relationship even though in its material complexity or longevity it defies conceptual mastery. But of course, global warming seems itself a symptom of our generalized failure to adequately anticipate the consequences of our object-relations, or better, it seems to indicate the hyperobjecthood of things--fossil fuels, big macs, coal plants--that we were never tempted to mistake for sublime. It would seem that an ecological thought might involve not circumscribing certain objects as particularly difficult to understand and anticipate, but to recognize this predicament as a feature of our relations with all objects.... ?

  8. I still hold faith in nuclear as a great energy source. The problem lies within what I call the "human factor". Humans have the capability to fuck up a wet dream.

    We are too irresponsible/dumb to harness such great and wonderful technology. Instead, we want to use it to harm ourselves instead of having it to solve our common everyday problems.

  9. Collingwood talks of things (objects processes, relations all are bad metaphors) having a minimum duration to manifest their qualities or features. He did this in "The idea of Nature" 60 years or so ago. What does "Hyper-objects" add to this, and why use the word "object". The way that materia overflows the sign does not at all lend itself to a notion of objects.

  10. Just talking with Joseph Nechtaval about your hyperobjects (he thinks about hyperlinks and multiple links) and would like the term persistent objects. I think that would mean misunderstanding hyperobjects,as you certainly think about over/above (Greek) - so are your hyperobjects as I suggested to Nechtaval like Pacman, hungry ueber-objects. And as I had to bring hyperreality in the sense of Baudriallard in (simulacra stuff, etc.) so certainly hyperreality is a hyperobject, too. Or?

  11. Is the Long Now Clock ( a hyperobject? It's designed to run for 10,000 years, so it's certainly persistent, but it's designed as much to stretch our human thinking as it is to last. I agree with GB, above, in that an "object" is a human distinction. Anything that could be considered a "hyper" object is really and enduring process. Even Einstein said that it was all done with energy fields, or you could say, with smoke and mirrors, illusions, albeit persistent ones. "Hyper-processes" perhaps. Is a star a hyper-object because it lasts billions of years? It, too, is a process, constantly changing energetic fields at work, and they, too, go through birth, adolescence, maturity, old age, and supernova death. It is thought that makes it so....