Wednesday, September 8, 2010


Timothy Morton
   U.C. Davis

Where, if not from the Impressionists, do we get those wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gas-lamps and changing the houses into monstrous shadows? To whom, if not to them and their master, do we owe the lovely silver mists that brood over our river, and turn to faint forms of fading grace curved bridge and swaying barge? The extraordinary change that has taken place in the climate of London during the last ten years is entirely due to a particular school of Art.
Oscar Wilde, “The Decay of Lying” 
  Art (verbal, visual, musical …), I think you will agree, comes from the future. That is, art contains hitherto unspeakable and unthought reserves of utopian energy. That's precisely why we keep studying it. No one reading exhausts the meanings of a story. Sure you read Jane Austen to find out about how men and women related in the past. But you also read her (go on, admit it) because she might be predictive of the future. I'm really rather disappointed with myself for having to repeat this hackneyed common knowledge, but there you go, it's my topic here. 
   Think about all those movies that were strangely predictive of 9/11. It was as if we were dreaming about it before it happened. Now back in the early 1970s the rock band Yes commissioned the painter Roger Dean to paint several of their album covers. One album, Fragile, depicts something like Earthrise: an Earth-like planet seen from space, a blue ball. Whole slices and chunks of this planet are separating from the main body.
   The Fragile cover was the first in a series that depicted a story not told in the lyrics, not until his solo album Olias of Sunhillow narrated it: a whole planet threatened with collapse, the flight to new worlds, galleons of refugees floating through space.
Then a chunk of Greenland broke off. The chunk, part of the Petermann glacier, is four times the size of Manhattan. Weirdly, it even looks like Manhattan.
NASA MODIS-Aqua satellite image 

Nature copies art, unfortunately 
   Another hyperobject to add to our collection. The momentum of the glacier is such that it can't be stopped (see my previous post on the difference between momentum and velocity). That means that if any oilrigs are in the way … you do the math.
     How strange that utopian prog rock and utopian eco-cinema visualized this moment before it happened. Like I say, poetry comes from the future. In a horrifying twist of Oscar Wilde's coy logic about nature imitating art, human “art” in its broadest sense (the sense that includes fossil fuels), may well have wrought this change in “nature.”
     My point stands even if global warming isn't directly responsible. We have built the frame in which such things loom into view. Our arts beam painful, unspeakable realities down from the future. Hopefully we can inspect and analyze them before they truly materialize. I wonder whether this argument will fly next time a humanist applies for funding …
     Here at the Contemporary Condition, William Connolly has a wonderful new post on fragility. The more we know, the more we realize how fragile we are and how fragile our world is. I've argued elsewhere that
fragility is what it means to be an entity in this Universe.
Earth and Moon from MESSENGER
     What a good place to start rethinking ethics and politics. I don't for a second buy into the story, promoted both by deep greens and by the right, that Mother Earth will just brush us off and recover. Faith in an all-powerful deity is precisely a way to ignore hyperobjects. Some people commented on my previous post on hyperobjects, wondering whether God could be considered as one. No. It is precisely when we start to notice hyperobjects that the idea of some transcendental beyond, inhabited by an all-powerful being, starts to melt, and we humans break loose from our island of certainty to float on the ocean of science.
How arrogant of us to think that we had reached the end of history in 1989. And how brittle of us. Little did we want to know how this posturing was actually a symptom of our own fragility. The good news is that we are at the beginning of history, like an exhausted newborn, stunned and breathing heavily outside the womb of concepts such as Nature and Progress. 

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