I recall, my final year as an undergrad, encountering Deleuze and Guattari’s What is Philosophy? for the very first time. This was the first text I managed to finally read by D&G. I had tried Difference and Repetition and the Logic of Sense, but at the time I could get no purchase on their work. But with What is Philosophy? a deep feeling of content and satisfaction came over me. For years I had struggled with the question of just what philosophy is. In light of the tremendous success of the sciences both in physics and the other hard sciences and in psychology and sociology, I was haunted by the question of whether or not there’s any place for philosophy at all in the contemporary world. I started the study of philosophy early, around the age of fifteen or sixteen, starting with Husserl’s Ideas, moving on to Heidegger’s Being and Time, and then moving on to Descartes’ Meditations, Spinoza’s Ethics (which obsess me still to this day), James’ Pragmatism, Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, and Whitehead’s Process and Reality. Yet still I found myself wondering just what philosophy is or whether or not there’s any place for philosophy in the world. I loved it but I didn’t trust it. Yet, in What is Philosophy?, I found an answer, for Deleuze and Guattari argue that philosophy is nothing more than the creation and critique, the invention, of concepts. And here, concepts precede, in their own way, any investigation of the world. Moreover, they made the strangest claim of all: concepts are not simply about something, they are something. For D&G, concepts are not ideas in the head, but are real things, real actors, real events, in the world.
If philosophy is the creation and critique of concepts, then the recent work of Timothy Morton certainly deserves to be called philosophical. This is one of the peculiarities of philosophy: philosophy seldom comes from the discipline of philosophy (though occasionally this happens), but most often comes from outside departments of philosophy. This can be readily verified by both the history of philosophy, but also contemporary philosophy as well. Until roughly the 19th century you would be hard put to identify philosophy as a “profession”. Spinoza, Descartes, Leibniz, Hume, and Locke certainly weren’t “professional philosophers”. Rather, they were people engaged with other things that were forced, by the necessity of their work, to engage in “meta” speculations to become philosophers. In the contemporary world, we seldom see philosophy coming from departments of philosophy, but rather see philosophy coming scientists in various fields, geographers, people working on literature, political activists, sociologists, media theorists, psychologists, etc., etc., etc. Sometimes, when I encounter fellows in the humanities, I’ll get the sense that they’re intimidated by the fact that I’m a philosopher. They simultaneously disdain us professional philosophers and seem to think us professional philosophers have a secret knowledge, a secret rigor, that they lack. Yet this always makes me chuckle to myself because philosophy doesn’t come from professional philosophers, but people who are engaging with an object other than the history of philosophy that come to necessitate metaphysical or metatheoretical inquiry that is at the core of philosophy. Philosophy is something that happens in the midst of revolution (whether social, political, or epistemological) leading to the genesis of new concepts, and therefore it is seldom professional philosophers that generate philosophers.
By contrast, professional philosophers are more like coroners. They are historians, forensic scientists, of traces of philosophy, who analyze, systematize, and critique philosophy that has happened without doing much philosophy of their own. Professional philosophers are more interested in talking about philosophers, than in doing philosophy. And if this is the case, then it is because philosophy, as such (to put a Derridean twist on it), is without an object. Here Badiou is absolutely right when he points out that philosophy articulates no truths. Truths always come from elsewhere, not from philosophy itself. At best, philosophy records and “compossibilizes” truths that come from elsewhere. Leibniz, for example, records the truth of the calculus, articulating what metaphysical implications follow from the calculus of which calculus is unaware. Dennett articulates the truth of evolutionary biology, articulating what metaphysical implications follow from it, but of which evolutionary biology is unaware because it is too busy working over its object. When philosophy does happen within the discipline of philosophy, it happens at the margins, in those small, “hickish”, frontier towns where the philosopher doing philosophy has the freedom to finally, at last, think and develop concepts without being a coroner of the history of philosophy, doing endless autopsies of bodies that are already dead. Because such thinkers at the margins have nothing to lose or gain by doing philosophy, they are freed of the obligation to be coroners to advance their professional career and can thereby discover objects, events, encounters, that provoke the invention of concepts. Rather than being tax auditors that are compelled to show that everything is in order within the framework of a reigning discourse, they can instead build. It’s not unlike gardening or poetry. If you haven’t traveled like Descartes or Lingis, been surprised by neurology, struggled with your sexuality, been exploited, seen the collapse of civilization or your life, suffered debilitating disease or psychic illness, or lived at the borders, been struck by the mystery of the Pythagorean theorem or the paradoxes of theory, encountered the circuits of a computer chip, or lived at the borders, it’s just damned hard to be a philosopher. As Roth’s novel American Pastoral suggests (yeah, I know, I hate him too, but sometimes he’s right), if your life is good, if it isn’t punctuated by encounters, you just don’t have much to think about and don’t have any impetus to invent concepts.
So back to Morton. Morton has been on a tear lately, and particularly so with his concept of “hyperobjects”. Often Tim frustrates the hell out of me. Where I strive to be a systematic and deductive thinker, showing how one thing follows from another thing, Tim is a poetic, allegorical, and intuitive thinker. He first gets an image, an intuition, a sort of privileged example, and then begins to embroider around that concept, gradually unfolding it, like origami in reverse, deepening it, and detaching it from its origins and conditions. Tim’s favored method is the poem and the quasi-koan, whereas mine is the geometrical deduction. It literally drives me up the wall– especially the playfulness and happiness of it all (I’m dark and pessimistic) –but the two of us often work quite well together, me feeding off his intuitions and poetic sparks, him, I hope (!), gaining something from my compulsive-obsessive need for deduction and systematicity.
One of the common criticisms of OOO is that it tends to privilege the objects of lived experience, mid-level objects like trees, pomegranates, coffee cups and stars, to the detriment of the very small and the very large. As this criticism runs, OOO thereby confuses objects produced by the synthetic activity of mind, with reality itself. Is there any reason, the criticism goes, to really consider a tree an object? This was already unfair for while, rhetorically, Harman often uses mid-level objects as his favorite example, he is adamant in the claim that objects exist at all levels of scale and that every object is an object wrapped in an object wrapped in an object. In other words, Graham’s mid-level objects are a rhetorical device designed to give us an intuition of withdrawn objects, they are not exhaustive of what objects are.
Enter Morton’s “hyperobjects”. Morton’s hyperobjects are borne of not, as he sometimes suggests, a “conversion” to OOO, but rather an encounter with his object of investigation: ecology. In a recent post, Morton writes:
In a previous post I argued that hyperobjects are viscous—they adhere to you no matter how hard to try to pull away, rendering ironic distance obsolete. Now I’ll argue that they are also nonlocal. That is, hyperobjects are massively distributed in time and space such that any particular (local) manifestation never reveals the totality of the hyperobject.
When you feel raindrops falling on your head, you are experiencing climate, in some sens [sic.]. In particular you are experiencing the climate change known as global warming. But you are never directly experiencing global warming as such. Nowhere in the long list of catastrophic weather events—which will increase as global warming takes off—will you find global warming.
Morton’s encounter with OOO arises from the strangeness of an object like “climate”. Massively distributed in time and space such that they are everywhere and nowhere, objects like climate challenge the Lockean conceit– and I say this with trepidation as my variant of OOO can be described as “Lockean” –that objects are individuated by occupying a particular place in time at a particular place. Rather, hyerobjects are everywhere and nowhere. When we encounter weather, Morton argues or intuits, we are not encountering an object, but rather, to use my vocabulary, a local manifestation of climate. Climate as such, to put, once again, a Derridean spin on it, is forever withdrawn. Climate can be inferred, it can be deduced, it can be “abducted”, but it can’t be encountered. It is radically withdrawn. And, to make matters even stranger, objects that interact with climate are nonetheless independent of climate. Carbon emissions, for example, influence the local manifestations of climate, but are not themselves climate.
Morton’s hyperobjects are thus like our experience of a pool while swimming. Everywhere we are submersed within the pool, everywhere the cool water caresses our body as we move through it, yet we are nonetheless independent of the water. We produce effects in the water like diffraction patterns, causing it to ripple in particular ways, and it produces effects in us, causing our skin to get goosebumps and, if you’re a man, for parts of you to inconveniently shrink, yet the water and the body are nonetheless two objects withdrawn from one another interacting only vicariously.
Understandably, due to his research, Morton is focused on climate, yet, as he argues in The Ecological Thought, the concept of ecology is broader than that of climate. Climate is one object among other objects. What Morton’s concept of hyperobjects opens is the possibility of thinking the fraught interactions of a variety of different hyperobjects such as economy, technospheres (Stiegler), culture, language, and so on, and how they enter into both conflictual relations with one another while also locally manifesting one another in a variety of ways. We get a rich ecological concept of (non)-relations among different objects at all levels of scale without being able to reduce any one object to another. Along the lines of Althusser, we are assisted in thinking the interaction of a variety of different strata in relations of overdetermination, without any sort of reduction. Such is the genesis of a philosophical concept that opens the way to thinking the manner in which concepts are not simply about something but are something, or how concepts too acquire the capacity to act on a world of discrete substances by virtue of being one substance among others.