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‘A reckoning for our species’: the philosopher prophet of the Anthropocene

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Alex Blasdel writes in the Guardian:

A few years ago, Björk began corresponding with a philosopher whose books she admired. “hi timothy,” her first message to him began. “i wanted to write this letter for a long time.” She was trying to give a name to her own singular genre, to label her work for posterity before the critics did. She asked him to help define the nature of her art – “not only to define it for me, but also for all my friends, and a generation actually.”

It turned out the philosopher, Timothy Morton, was a fan of Björk. Her music, he told her, had been “a very deep influence on my way of thinking and life in general”. The sense of eerie intimacy with other species, the fusion of moods in her songs and videos – tenderness and horror, weirdness and joy – “is the feeling of ecological awareness”, he said. Morton’s own work is about the implications of this strange awareness – the knowledge of our interdependence with other beings – which he believes undermines long-held assumptions about the separation between humanity and nature. For him, this is the defining characteristic of our times, and it is compelling us to change our “core ideas of what it means to exist, what Earth is, what society is”.

Over the past decade, Morton’s ideas have been spilling into the mainstream. Hans Ulrich Obrist, the artistic director of London’s Serpentine gallery, and perhaps the most powerful figure in the contemporary art world, is one of his loudest cheerleaders. Obrist told readers of Vogue that Morton’s books are among the pre-eminent cultural works of our time, and recommends them to many of his own collaborators. The acclaimed artist Olafur Eliasson has been flying Morton around the world to speak at his major exhibition openings. Excerpts from Morton’s correspondence with Björk were published as part of her 2015 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Morton’s terminology is “slowly infecting all the humanities”, says his friend and fellow thinker Graham Harman. Though many academics have a reputation for writing exclusively for their colleagues down the hall, Morton’s peculiar conceptual vocabulary – “dark ecology”, “the strange stranger”, “the mesh” – has been picked up by writers in a cornucopia of fields, from literature and epistemology to legal theory and religion. Last year, he was included in a much-discussed list of the 50 most influential living philosophers. His ideas have also percolated into traditional media outlets such as Newsweek, the New Yorker and the New York Times.

Part of what makes Morton popular are his attacks on settled ways of thinking. His most frequently cited book, Ecology Without Nature, says we need to scrap the whole concept of “nature”. He argues that a distinctive feature of our world is the presence of ginormous things he calls “hyperobjects” – such as global warming or the internet – that we tend to think of as abstract ideas because we can’t get our heads around them, but that are nevertheless as real as hammers. He believes all beings are interdependent, and speculates that everything in the universe has a kind of consciousness, from algae and boulders to knives and forks. He asserts that human beings are cyborgs of a kind, since we are made up of all sorts of non-human components; he likes to point out that the very stuff that supposedly makes us us – our DNA – contains a significant amount of genetic material from viruses. He says that we’re already ruled by a primitive artificial intelligence: industrial capitalism. At the same time, he believes that there are some “weird experiential chemicals” in consumerism that will help humanity prevent a full-blown ecological crisis.

Morton’s theories might sound bizarre, but they are in tune with the most earth-shaking idea to emerge in the 21st century: that we are entering a new phase in the history of the planet – a phase that Morton and many others now call the “Anthropocene”.

For the past 12,000 years, human beings lived in a geological epoch called the Holocene, known for its relatively stable, temperate climes. It was, you might say, the California of planetary history. But it is coming to an end. Recently, we have begun to alter the Earth so drastically that, according to many scientists, a new epoch is dawning. After the briefest of geological vacations, we seem to be entering a more volatile period.

The term Anthropocene, from the Ancient Greek word anthropos, meaning “human”, acknowledges that humans are the major cause of the earth’s current transformation. Extreme weather, submerged cities, acute resource shortages, vanished species, lakes turned to deserts, nuclear fallout: if there is still human life on earth tens of thousands of years from now, societies that we can’t imagine will have to grapple with the changes we are wreaking today. Morton has noted that 75% of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at this very moment will still be there in half a millennium. That’s 15 generations away. It will take another 750 generations, or 25,000 years, for most of the those gases to be absorbed into the oceans.

The Anthropocene is not only a period of manmade disruption. It is also a moment of blinking self-awareness, in which the human species is becoming conscious of itself as a planetary force. We’re not only driving global warming and ecological destruction; we know that we are.

One of Morton’s most powerful insights is that we are condemned to live with this awareness at all times. It’s there not only when politicians gather to discuss international environmental agreements, but when we do something as mundane as chat about the weather, pick up a plastic bag at the supermarket or water the lawn. We live in a world with a moral calculus that didn’t exist before. Now, doing just about anything is an environmental question. That wasn’t true 60 years ago – or at least people weren’t aware that it was true. Tragically, it is only by despoiling the planet that we have realised just how much a part of it we are.

Morton believes that this constitutes a revolution in our understanding of our place in the universe on a par with those fomented by Copernicus, Darwin and Freud. He is just one of thousands of geologists, climate scientists, historians, novelists and journalists writing about this upheaval, but, perhaps better than anyone else, he captures in words the uncanny feeling of being present at the birth of this extreme age.

“There you are, turning the ignition of your car,” he writes. “And it creeps up on you.” Every time you fire up your engine you don’t mean to harm the Earth, “let alone cause the Sixth Mass Extinction Event in the four-and-a-half billion-year history of life on this planet”. But “harm to Earth is precisely what is happening”. Part of what’s so uncomfortable about this is that our individual acts may be statistically and morally insignificant, but when you multiply them millions and billions of times – as they are performed by an entire species – they are a collective act of ecological destruction. Coral bleaching isn’t just occurring over yonder, on the Great Barrier Reef; it’s happening wherever you switch on the air conditioning. In short, Morton says, “everything is interconnected”.

As Morton’s work spreads beyond cultural hierophants such as Björk to the pages of major news outlets, he is arguably becoming our most popular guide to the new epoch. Yes, he has some seemingly crazy ideas about what it’s like to be alive right now – but what it’s like to be alive right now, in the Anthropocene, is pretty crazy.


In the course of its young life, the Anthropocene has grown into a concept as grand in its scope as any other world-historical paradigm worth its salt (which, if it’s sea salt, now includes a good dose of synthetic waste in tiny particles called microplastics). What began as a technical debate within the earth sciences has led, in Morton’s view, to a confrontation with some of our most basic ways of understanding the world. In the Anthropocene, he writes, we are undergoing “a traumatic loss of coordinates”. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 June 2017 at 12:40 pm

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