WASH: Over the past 60 years or so, we feel that society has been dreaming its way forward towards utopia, only to now realize that our planet is headed towards destruction. Can you speak about this trend? Do you feel that we are currently realizing some nostalgic need to go back to the basics, and reset to a more primitive albeit less destructive form of being?
Timothy Morton: No, I don’t think we have anything like a need to do that. Sitting here in Frankfurt Airport, stuff seems to be happening as usual—which is a bit of a shame. If we transformed it, we wouldn’t be going back to anything.
There are no “basics”, unless you believe in some kind of religious fall narrative, which is the 1.0 version of how our society explains itself to itself. Neanderthals would have loved Coca Cola Zero.
There is only one direction possible: forwards. Forwards into an ecological future where we are enhancing, amplifying and multiplying pleasures for ourselves and other life forms.
Why don’t we build architecture with the frogs in mind?
That’s not hard. It’s because we don’t care about frogs as much as we do about humans. And the big reason why that is, is that we are anthropocentric. And the big reason for that is that we make a thin, rigid and untenable distinction between the human and the nonhuman. And the big reason for that is racism. In order that an entity such as R2D2 or Hitler’s dog, Blondi, be nice and cute and different enough from a “healthy human being” (as they say—what a spurious concept) to count as “natural,” there has to be what in robotics design is called an “uncanny valley,” into which racism throws all kinds of supposedly not-quite-human beings. This valley lies between the human and the German shepherd dog. From the human point of view, looking across the foreshortened valley, there seems to be a thin rigid line between the human and the nonhuman. But actually, it’s a valley. A racist valley.
We don’t build with frogs in mind because of a structural racism that maintains the human-nonhuman distinction. Time to stop that.
In a recent interview, you stated “you can’t point to nature anywhere because the distance has collapsed.” What did you mean by this?
Nature is a thing that is supposed to be “over there” somewhere. It’s in my DNA, it’s under the concrete, it’s “over yonder” in the mountains and stuff. Now we know that there’s no “away.” When you flush the toilet, whatever’s in there doesn’t go to some magical place called “away.” It goes into the ocean or into the waste water treatment plant. If there’s no “away” then there’s no Nature. Nature is just a stage set created by anthropocentrism so we can feel different from nonhumans. I like to capitalize the word to remind myself that it’s an artificial construct.
In short, given what I said before, Nature is a racist concept.
You once described our current situation—in the context of ecological systems in decline—as one where we find ourselves in a film noir, a film where a narrator discovers that he/she is the protagonist. Do you think that we are approaching that discovery?
We’ve already reached it. We know precisely that the very forces with which we tried to attain escape velocity from our material conditions have drilled down, quite literally, much more deeply into those conditions. Talk about an ironic twist of fate.
Humans experience a very specific universe, while perhaps ants have their own universe, and that is an ant universe. How can we design for the planet, the ants, the frogs, or even for other humans, if we are always fundamentally separated from them based on our own perception of reality? Does Object Oriented Ontology (OOO) propose a way to negotiate this gap? How can OOO look at the “other”?
It’s true that you can’t help being anthropomorphic, even when you’re trying not to be. Perhaps trying not to be is the most human trait there is! That’s very different from being anthropocentric, however. I’m holding a screwdriver (vodka and orange juice) in my right hand. My hand is anthropomorphizing the glass. Luckily, however, the glass is glass-morphizing my fingers, forcing them to hold it just so. Like a tennis racket tells you how to grip it, or how drugs tell you the best way to consume them, as anyone who knows about wine will inform you.
That doesn’t mean we’re totally shrink wrapped in our human world. All words are perforated. You can’t have a completely sealed-off world. It’s because your world involves time, and time has this gappy, not-yet quality that is full of holes, like Blackburn Lancashire in the Beatles song, “A Day in the Life.” You can share the world of a lion. Who cares if it’s only 20% sharing? It’s better than nothing.
Karl Marx writes that the best bees are always worse than the worst architects. The bee is simply executing an algorithm, whereas the architect is imagining things. Can algorithms be tools for finding creative solutions to the problems we face as architects, artists, and philosophers?
Of course, why not? An algorithm is a recipe. “Take an egg, put it in some boiling water, wait ten minutes, remove it” is an algorithm called “hard boiled egg.” There’s nothing special about algorithms. It’s how you fold the laundry, write a book or make a building.
You say art comes from the future, how?
What does this poem mean? I don’t know…yet…This not-yet quality haunts the poem like the moon seems to follow you when you drive, however fast you’re driving. That’s what we call futurality, a quality of “future-ness” that is intrinsic to the essence of a thing.
Actually, it’s better to put it much more strongly than the way the question puts it. Art is the future.
You once participated in a panel called Creativity in the Face of Climate Change. At that event, you referenced Adorno and said that the “highest form of philosophy would be a scream that would be perfectly articulated with footnotes and… one could completely understand it but it would still be a scream. [And in the face of climate change] we should scream with intelligence.” If this perfect scream could be articulated, what would it sound like? And if it can’t be articulated, should architects and designers still try to hear and incorporate it into the physical “reality” of space?
Well, it would sound like a scream of horrible pain. But I don’t think architecture should illustrate concepts. There’s been enough of that kind of architecture. Concepts are not better than blocks of concrete or the smell of dust on wet glass.
OOO deals with concepts like “hyperobject” and “mesh.” Can you give us some brief definitions of these concepts?
A hyperobject is an entity that is so massively distributed in space and time that you can’t point to all of it at once. Even if you use very advanced prosthetic devices like fast supercomputers, it might still be difficult to map one. The biosphere is a hyperobject. Climate is a hyperobject.
The mesh is the interconnectedness of beings in the biosphere. Nowadays I have a higher resolution image for this: I call it the symbiotic real. It’s a loose network of precarious affiliations between beings where who’s “the top” and who’s “the bottom,” who’s “the friend” and who’s “the enemy,” is always in question. It’s a whole that is always less than the sum of its parts, however weird that sounds.
Are mega-cities becoming less like a distinct thing we can point to, and more like the aurora? Some mysterious, ambiguous, yet somewhat defined, shining-sparkling-filmy and luminescent mist we somehow live in? How can we understand the city as such?
(laughs) I think Houston would be proud to be compared with an aurora! We never really know how to define the boundaries of a megacity if we think that the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. We love to say it, of course, because it makes us feel clever. Prove it.
Can you talk about how parts of a megacity can subscend that megacity? How can we design for a city in a state of subscendence?
The idea is that to be a thing means that you exist in the same way as another thing. A sentence, a virus, a building, a city, all exist in the same way (I’m not the object police, I can’t tell you that these things really exist: I’m an ontologist, which is about examining how things exist).
Suppose football players exist. It’s pretty likely. Suppose football teams exist. That’s likely, too. A football team must exist in the same way as the players in the team. The team is ontologically one: there’s one team, right? The players are more than one.
Therefore, the whole is always less than the sum of its parts. I can hear you hitting delete on this idea because the opposite concept, which I call “explosive wholism,” has taken over your head, because at heart, we still believe in an alien version of our superpowers, a white guy with a beard who mostly wants to kill you and who is much more real than you because he’s omnipresent.
OOO proposes that each entity is potentially made up of an infinite number of other entities. This line of thought seems to annihilate the notion of specialty. We can no longer be like mechanics and understand things in isolation. Your muffler is broken. We can fix the muffler without having to know anything about the transmission or engine. Instead, it seems we need to be like system theorists. This Anthropocene isn’t working, we need to fix it, but how? As architecture students who want to graduate and change the world, is there any hope for us? Can we (or anyone) really expect to make any positive impact when we are specialists that are now required to operate in a world where everything involves everything?
Why does it annihilate the notion of special-ness? As anyone who’s been in love with anyone knows, infinity is different from permanence. Permanence is a myth of going on and on and on the same forever. Infinity means you can’t count it, you can’t speak it. That sounds pretty special to me.
Timothy Morton is a professor and Rita Shea Guffey Chair in English at Rice University. A member of the object-oriented philosophy movement, Morton’s work explores the intersection of object-oriented thought and ecological studies. Morton received a B.A. and D.Phil. in English from Magdalen College, Oxford. His doctoral dissertation, Re-Imagining the Body: Shelley and the Languages of Diet, studied the representation of diet, temperance, and consumption in the works of Percy Bysshe Shelley.www.ecologywithoutnature.blogspot.com