Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. By Timothy Morton, 2013. Hardback, 240 pp, 23 plates. ISBN 9780816689224.
In this book, Timothy Morton explores the connection between objects and ecology at a time of environmental crisis that is increasingly being referred to as the “Anthropocene”. From his disciplinary roots in literary criticism, Morton expands his analysis over a strikingly broad range of knowledge fields including philosophy, science and music. Morton’s key concept – introduced in earlier writings but here given a detailed treatment – is the “hyperobject”. Hyperobjects are “things massively distributed in time and space relative to humans” (1). Many of the examples proposed by Morton are clear products of the Anthropocene, including fossil-fuel induced global warming, plutonium and Styrofoam; yet others, such as the Aboriginal Dreaming, are not clearly linked to any historical stage and some hyperobjects such as black holes are not anthropogenic.
For Morton, hyperobjects are real things and yet are intrinsically difficult for humans to fully experience or understand. Morton’s approach draws on the new philosophical field of object-oriented ontology, in particular Graham Harman’s critique of Heidegger which argues that there are “real things whose core reality is withdrawn from access, even by [the things] themselves” (15). The result is a profound de-centering of the human, a positioning that for Morton is the essence of ecological thinking yet which raises clear problems for disciplines, such as archaeology, that focus on humans and human activity. One of the basic problems of hyperobjects is distance: they are both too close and too far from us to be easily comprehended. Such thinking would immediately seem to limit the common ground between archaeology and hyperobjects. Archaeological objects usually come from a time and place that is distant from the observer, yet for that very reason archaeological methods aim to reduce and manage the distance between past and present. For Morton, however, it is impossible to achieve the scientific or aesthetic distance normally required to analyze a Neolithic pot or a medieval sword, not because of the textbook archaeological problem of their distance from our experience but rather because they are too close to us: “The more I struggle to understand hyperobjects, the more I discover that I am stuck to them. They are all over me. They are me” (28). Hyperobjects are like the mirror in the movie The Matrix: they do not reflect reality (as archaeologists hope) but rather dissolve their object-ness while sticking to our hands upon touch (34–35).
Archaeology has always concerned itself with the history of objects, employing ideas from Marx and others about how human work transforms nature into artifacts. It would be incorrect to say that history is not important to Morton but he does not really discuss what motors historical change. Archaeologists – like most people – see objects primarily in terms of how they can be used to further human life and well-being. But Morton essentially denies the role of self-interest theory, meaning that he does not really consider how objects are used by humans, how the knowledge to make and use objects is generated and reproduced, or how the occupations or activities associated with the use of objects may be related to human security and well-being. In arguing that everything is bigger or smaller than the human, Morton assumes that very long timespans are impossible for humans to process. Frequent rhetorical questions such as, “Remember what life was like in the early 1500s?” assume that “no” is the only real answer. Archaeologists and historians do not individually remember the past before they were born but they use available records to invigorate a socially remembered past, and such scholars often feel a close affinity with periods even earlier than 1500.
Another topic which finds little discussion in this book is the role of culture, including the traditional archaeological problem of how objects contribute to both individual and shared human identities. Morton continues the work of twentieth-century scientists such as Albert Einstein and Max Planck, who discovered that time and space were not just containers for objects but are affected by those objects. Morton dismisses the very concept of world (102–108) and develops a very fluid conception of the relationship between things: “no matter how hard we look, we won’t find a container in which [things] all fit. […] What we discover instead is an open-ended mesh that consists of iron ore, Popsicles, sunlight, the galaxy Sagittarius, and mushroom spores” (129). On a philosophical level, we know that Morton is right here. But we also know that human ethnic/cultural groups utilize “containers” to organize social life (cf. Moffett 2013). Those containers are fuzzy and certainly not static but are important enough to be managed with aggression and violence under certain circumstances.
In focusing on differences between a “traditional” archaeological approach and Morton’s concept of hyperobjects, the tone of this review has perhaps been rather negative. However, the “differences” that I have raised are not necessarily criticisms. As archaeologists, we need to think about how the concept of hyperobject might transform our approaches to archaeological artifacts. In a recent essay, I have already suggested that Morton’s concept of hyperobjects is important to an understanding of the unusual nature of artifacts in/of the Anthropocene (Hudson 2014). I expect that this book will be widely read by archaeologists interested in the modern period. To what extent it is also relevant to earlier periods awaits further thought. In his recent book Entangled, Hodder (2012: 10) has attempted to write about “the relationships between humans and things from the point of view of things.” Morton’s Hyperobjects certainly achieves this goal, but in ways that are profoundly disturbing for archaeology. The question for archaeology, and indeed other human sciences, is how to re-imagine the human within such a radically object-centered view of the universe.
Hodder, I. 2012. Entangled: An Archaeology of the Relationships between Humans and Things. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.
Hudson, M.J. 2014. “Dark Artifacts: Hyperobjects and the Archaeology of the Anthropocene.” Journal of Contemporary Archaeology 1(1): 84–88.
Moffett, M.W. 2013. “Human Identity and the Evolution of Societies.” Human Nature 24(3): 219–267.
Professor Mark Hudson
Research Institute for Sustainable Environments and Cultures
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