Speculative Realism and Literature

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climateSo, I have begun to think about the possible points of relationship between object-oriented philosophy and literature. And while there are seemingly many potentially interesting avenues of inquiry to follow, I think there is one that looks very promising indeed.

For me, what Timothy Morton does in his book Hyperobjects is well worth further thought. Trying to think ecologically through the lens of object-oriented philosophy, Morton outlines a new class of object – the hyperobject.

Morton says that hyperobjects are objects that are “massively distributed through time and space.” So, galaxies are hyperobjects, as are solar systems. But hyperobjects need not be of the cosmos. Morton explains that oil is also a hyperobject, as is Styrofoam. But I think it is fair to say that Morton’s real point of interest in his book is global warming.

For Morton, global warming is the hyperobject par excellence for it demonstrates beautifully the significance of all hyperobjects – that they impose themselves on the human. And, of course, this is where one detects the hand of object-oriented philosophy. When Morton makes this claim of hyperobjects he is at the same time saying that there is a world of things that (literally) operates beyond human perception. Indeed, it is a world that can make itself felt upon the human.

Pleasingly, all hyperobjects seem to share five basic qualities. They are:

1. Viscosity – this is the word Morton chooses to describe the fact that one cannot get outside or beyond hyperobjects. They “stick” to us whether we want them to or not. For those who are literary or philosophically-minded, it seems to me that this quality can be thought of in similar terms to Derrida’s formulation of aporia. Like aporia, hyperobjects are inescapable but necessarily that which must be travelled.

hyperobjects2. Phase – because of their magnitude (which is to recognise the fact that we can never hope to apprehend them fully), hyperobjects seem to come and go. That is to say, they seem to phase between the background and foreground of our consciousness. Think here of global warming. When consciously concerned with questions of ethics one brings things like global warming to the fore of discussion – other things (rubbish collection and recycling, for example) are organised around the fact thatĀ it is. Yet, I’m sure that global warming is not uppermost in our minds when we flick a light switch on in the morning in order to make a cup of coffee…

3. Temporal undulation – it is the fact that such objects phase shift that means they have an interesting temporal quality. Hyperobjects are massively distributed through time and that means that they are rarely morphologically stable. Think here of oil. The stuff we fill our cars up with was once walking around great plains, eating vegetation or other “terrible lizards” (dinosaurs). It is human perception that reduces it to the stuff we put into cars. Hyperobjects may assume many different shapes or forms, but it is the human that imposes an artificial immediacy on a temporal process that is necessarily beyond the human time-scale.

4. Inter-objectivity – in the same way that we have learned to understand that subjectivity operates inter-subjectively, hyperobjects operate inter-objectively. Morton calls this “the mesh.” And like chain-mail armour, it would appear that there is more to the spaces between the material than one would first imagine

5. Non-locality – this, I think, is the most important quality of hyperobjects to understand. The simple point to make here is that hyperobjects are so large that we can never experience them in full. We can only experience them a little at a time. Think here of global warming. It is obvious that we do not experience global warming, but we do experience the raindrop or the baking sun on our skin. It is in this sense that Morton thinks of hyperobjects as non-local – not that we are not always within the hyperobject, but that we only experience it in a very minimal way.

It is these qualities of the hyperobject, then, that I think we can bring to bear on literature. And interestingly enough, we can bring them to bear at both the textual and meta-textual level. Meta-textually, I think Morton’s discussion of hyperobjects would provide an interesting new language by which to think through some of the important observations already made in post-structuralist thought. For example, it is tempting to think of the ways in which Julia Kristeva’s reading of intertextuality would be affected by thinking instead of the inter-objective and non-local quality of Literature proper.

Textually, it means that one can begin to develop a reading strategy that concentrates on the way in which objects – hyper or not – impose themselves on characters. My first impression is that this imposition should be one that is largely beyond the conscious interest of the character (something that the character cannot apprehend fully). Immediately, I am drawn here to think about the way in which Shanghai imposed itself on J.G. Ballard’s writing in the days before Empire of the Sun (1984).

Nevertheless, it’s clear that the five qualities of the hyperobject as outlined by Morton offer interesting possible avenues for enriching this initial speculation.

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