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Timothy Morton’s Hyper-Pandemic

In 2013, a philosopher and ecologist named Timothy Morton proposed that humanity had entered a new phase. What had changed was our relationship to the nonhuman. For the first time, Morton wrote, we had become aware that “nonhuman beings” were “responsible for the next moment of human history and thinking.” The nonhuman beings Morton had in mind weren’t computers or space aliens but a particular group of objects that were “massively distributed in time and space.” Morton called them “hyperobjects”: all the nuclear material on earth, for example, or all the plastic in the sea. “Everyone must reckon with the power of rising waves and ultraviolet light,” Morton wrote, in “Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World.” Those rising waves were being created by a hyperobject: all the carbon in the atmosphere.

Hyperobjects are real, they exist in our world, but they are also beyond us. We know a piece of Styrofoam when we see it—it’s white, spongy, light as air—and yet fourteen million tons of Styrofoam are produced every year; chunks of it break down into particles that enter other objects, including animals. Although Styrofoam is everywhere, one can never point to all the Styrofoam in the world and say, “There it is.” Ultimately, Morton writes, whatever bit of Styrofoam you may be interacting with at any particular moment is only a “local manifestation” of a larger whole that exists in other places and will exist on this planet millennia after you are dead. Relative to human beings, therefore, Styrofoam is “hyper” in terms of both space and time. It’s not implausible to say that our planet is a place for Styrofoam more than it is a place for people.

When “Hyperobjects” was published, philosophers largely ignored it. But Morton, who uses the pronouns “they” and “them,” quickly found a following among artists, science-fiction writers, pop stars, and high-school students. The international curator and art-world impresario Hans Ulrich Obrist began citing Morton’s ideas; Morton collaborated on a talk with Laurie Anderson and helped inspire “Reality Machines,” an installation by the Dutch-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson. Kim Stanley Robinson and Jeff VanderMeer—prominent sci-fi writers who also deal with ecological themes—have engaged with Morton’s work; Björk blurbed Morton’s book “Being Ecological,” writing, “I have been reading Tim Morton’s books for a while and I like them a lot.”

In 2015, sections of a sprawling e-mail exchange between Morton and Björk were collected as part of “Björk: Archives,” the catalogue publication accompanying her mid-career retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. “I really like your song ‘Virus,’ ” Morton wrote to Björk. “Virus” is not a pandemic story but a love song:

Like a virus needs a body
As soft tissue feeds on blood
Someday I’ll find you, the urge is here.
Like a mushroom on a tree trunk
As the protein transmutates
I knock on your skin, and I am in.

“Being alive means being susceptible to viruses and so on,” Morton wrote. “They are intrinsic parts of being a thing at all.” Morton admired Björk for letting her songs be remixed and remade by other artists, just as a virus “remixes” the components of the organism it enters.

Remixing, for Morton, is in some sense an ecological act: ecological thinking involves being open to and accepting of everything, even the strangest and darkest aspects of the world around us. “Earth needs this tenderness,” Morton wrote to Björk. “I think there is some kind of fusion between tenderness and sadness, joy, yearning, longing, horror (tricky one), laughter, melancholy and weirdness. This fusion is the feeling of ecological awareness.”

In the summer of 2019, before the pandemic, I e-mailed Morton to ask if they might drive me around and show me a few hyperobjects. They agreed, and so I flew to Houston, where Morton lives and teaches. I walked out the front door of my bed-and-breakfast to find them leaning against their Mazda 3, with their arms folded, smiling as I approached. When I extended my hand, Morton drew me in for a mildly sweaty hug. They were wearing a tattered T‑shirt and an old pair of jeans.

Morton has a soft, singsong voice. “Do you mind if we make a quick stop to feed my lizard?” they asked, as I slid into the car. “That’s not a euphemism.” We drove to Morton’s house, a nondescript bungalow in the Montrose neighborhood, in the center of the city. Inside, we traversed a few disarrayed rooms to find Simon, Morton’s ten-year-old son, kneeling on a chair above a terrarium. Inside was a beige, spiky lizard about the size of my forearm, illuminated by a strong orange light. The lizard’s name was Nicodemus, Morton said, and he was a gift from Björk’s close friend’s son. Simon handed me a jar of mealworms. While I dispensed them, he showed me the plastic arm of the Statue of Liberty that he and Morton had half-buried in the sand of the terrarium, as an homage to the film “Planet of the Apes.”

Morton thinks and talks in terms of cultural touchstones, and “Planet of the Apes” is one of their favorites. “I love the word ‘ape,’ ” Morton said. They suggested that I listen to “Ultrasong,” a mid-nineties house track by the forgotten group Floppy Sounds, which features an audio sample from the film—a line of dialogue uttered by Charlton Heston’s astronaut at the beginning of the movie, before he lands on the alien planet that is later revealed to be Earth in the distant future. “Seen from out here, everything seems different,” Heston says.

“Planet of the Apes” appeals to Morton because it is about flipping the script: it uses a moment of crisis to transform our thinking. It’s Morton’s belief that, as we approach the ecological precipice, it is becoming easier for us to see our reality differently. Reality, Morton writes, is populated with “strange strangers”—things that are “knowable yet uncanny.” This strange strangeness, Morton writes, is an irreducible part of every rock, tree, terrarium, plastic Statue of Liberty, quasar, black hole, or marmoset one might encounter; by acknowledging it, we shift away from trying to master objects and toward learning to respect them in their elusiveness. Whereas the Romantic poets rhapsodized about nature’s beauty and sublimity, Morton responds to its all-pervading weirdness; they include in the category of the natural everything that is scary, ugly, artificial, harmful, and disturbing.

The next day, I assumed we would begin our quest to find signs of hyperobjects in and around the city of Houston. Instead, I ended up accompanying Morton and Simon as they took their cat, Oliver, to the veterinarian. Oliver seemed out of sorts, displeased with something happening toward his back end. We carried him gingerly into the car. Simon calmed Oliver with a steady stream of praise: “It’s O.K., Oliver. You’re a really good guy, Oliver. I’m sorry that this is so confusing for you, Oliver.” Morton looked over at me as we drove through the quiet streets of Montrose. “Oliver is very important to us,” Morton said. “Also, he’s my conscience.” Morton seemed to enjoy saying mysterious sentences without explaining them.

In the veterinarian’s office, we crowded into a tiny examination room. “I’m worried that Oliver may have fallen down and hurt his spine,” Morton said, to the veterinarian. The vet began massaging Oliver’s rear area and yanking at his back legs. Then he started picking at something in Oliver’s fur. He pinched out a few small black specks, which he immediately placed on a plastic tray, squirting some liquid over them. “Yep, it’s flea poop all right,” he said. “I’m afraid that Oliver has quite an allergy to the fleas who are currently biting him on the ass.”

Simon packed Oliver gently back into his carrier. As we dropped Oliver back home, I remembered a passage in Morton’s book “Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence,” from 2016. Cats, Morton writes, “weirdly symbolize the ambiguous border between agricultural logistics and its (impossible to demarcate) outside. I mean we don’t let dogs just wander about. It’s as if we want to use cats to prove to ourselves that there is a Nature.” Perhaps Oliver was a bridge between the human and the nonhuman; he blurred the false boundary between Nature and Us.

After the vet, we went to pick up Claire, Morton’s fifteen-year-old daughter, from a friend’s house, then stopped at Flo Paris, a coffee shop on the campus of Rice University, where Morton is the Rita Shea Guffey Chair in English. Over coffee, I asked Claire and Simon whether they’d ever read any of Morton’s sixteen books. Claire looked slightly panicked by the question.

“I’ve read some of ‘Hyperobjects,’ ” she said, finally.

“And?” I pressed her.

“Well, mostly I use a printout of the book as scrap paper for drawing and other projects.”

“And what of global warming?” I asked Claire. “What do you and your friends think about it?”

“We’re scared,” she said. “Terrified. We make dark jokes about it. Every sip from a straw is another murder. You can count the dead turtles, or whatever, as you sip.”

Morton was born in England in 1968, to musician parents who met playing for the Bolshoi Ballet. Morton’s mother was a violin teacher, then a social worker and a psychoanalyst. Morton’s father was also a violinist, and Morton speaks with some pride about their dad’s solo on the King Crimson song “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Part I.” The family split up when Morton was a child; for a time, their mother depended on welfare to support herself and her three sons.

Morton remembers a sickly childhood, and a year of bad tonsilitis, and growing up “on bare floorboards.” Morton didn’t fit in well at school but did well in English class. (Today, their writing is praised and sometimes held in suspicion for its poetic quality.) Morton won a scholarship to the prestigious St. Paul’s School, where John Milton was educated, studied English as an undergraduate at Oxford, and got a doctorate from the same university. They struggled during the early period of their academic career, eventually landing an adjunct gig at N.Y.U. “I do think of America as the country of the second chance, especially for someone with a mum from the Welsh lower gentry who was married, basically, to Jack Nicholson from ‘The Shining,’ ” Morton said.

In 2007, while a professor at the University of California, Davis, Morton published “Ecology Without Nature,” which was noticed and praised by the philosopher Slavoj Žižek. Morton had shifted from being a literary scholar of British Romanticism to a philosopher of ecology, interested in fundamental questions about how human beings relate to one another, the planet, and the cosmos. Over the next decade, Morton published seven more books that escaped easy categorization. Books such as “Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People” and “Dark Ecology” offer a sometimes bewildering mix of literary references, philosophical argumentation, scientific speculation, and memoir. “Dark Ecology” is dedicated to “Allan”—Allan Whiskersworth, Morton’s cat, run over by a mail truck. In interviews, Morton has been known to veer from physics to music to poetry, their hair unbrushed, their T‑shirts rumpled.

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