- Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World by Timothy Morton
I would have thought that the days of trashing deconstruction (accusing it of relativism) and blaming it for bad behavior were over. That would be too hasty. Zadie Smith, imagining explaining herself to a future generation for whom the world is almost over, falls back on the notion of a bad relativism that precluded us from facing up to the cold hard facts of climate change. Yes, the world can change radically, and perhaps it was over-theorizing that precluded us from confronting the inconvenient truth of that reality:
This will no doubt look very peculiar to my seven-year-old granddaughter. I don’t expect she will forgive me, but it might be useful for her to get a glimpse into the mindset, if only for the purposes of comprehension. What shall I tell her? Her teachers will already have explained that what was happening to the weather, in 2014, was an inconvenient truth, financially, politically—but that’s perfectly obvious, even now. A global movement of the people might have forced it onto the political agenda, no matter the cost. What she will want to know is why this movement took so long to materialize. So I might say to her, look: the thing you have to appreciate is that we’d just [End Page 309] been through a century of relativism and deconstruction, in which we were informed that most of our fondest-held principles were either uncertain or simple wishful thinking, and in many areas of our lives we had already been asked to accept that nothing is essential and everything changes—and this had taken the fight out of us somewhat.(Smith 2014)
Smith concludes her elegy by looking to the future: what shall “we” do? Even though she provides no answer to that question, her prior diagnosis and accusation make this much clear: rather than theory and relativism we need to confront reality, and the reality is that we are losing the nature that was once normal, and arriving at a “new normal” of climate volatility where seasonal rhythms are gone forever.
All this seems worthy, admirable, urgent, and properly future-oriented, unless of course we take seriously Tim Morton’s recent work on the “end of the world.” Morton, too, has turned from a version of deconstruction toward a new realism, or speculative realism. But this shift toward reality and objects (or the object-oriented ontology that responds broadly to Quentin Meillassoux’s claim that we need to move away from correlationism to an absolute that is not an absolute for us) does not take us away from relativism to a world of human things. On the contrary, it ends the world. This is why Morton writes after the end of the world, by which he means the world of phenomenology, or the claim that what is real is real because there is a world, or a unified whole of interrelated forces that constitutes a genuine reality that exceeds any finite observer. That world is over; what is left are hyperobjects that we experience as both part of our world (the raindrops of climate change or the oil we put in our cars) but that exceed anything like a world: raindrops are aspects of weather patterns and oil is an effect of a changing, transforming, and fluctuating reality that includes what we knew as nature but that also includes the reality of nature’s nonexistence. Our world emerged in a finite time that is far more disturbing than infinity: the infinite stretches out before us, eternal and superhuman:
These gigantic timescales are truly humiliating in the sense that they force us to realize how close to the Earth we are. Infinity is far easier to cope with. Infinity brings to mind our cognitive powers, which is why for Kant the mathematical sublime is the realization that infinity is an unaccountable vast magnitude beyond magnitude. But hyperobjects are not forever. What they offer instead is...