Saturday, February 25, 2012

Interview with Timothy Morton

Tom Beckett: Where did/does poetry begin for you?

Timothy Morton: Shelley says something quite beautiful about poetry, which is that it's the root and blossom of human knowing. I’d like to turn that upside down for a moment and wonder whether that image is possible because rooting and blossoming are themselves a kind of poetry. A flower is a plant's poem about sex; a flower is a bee's poem about precious food. I mean this quite literally, which is to say, poetically, though in a greatly expanded sense. Bees and flowers have coevolved over millions and millions of years into what we might call an interobjective system. Causality itself—how a flower attracts a bee in order to have sex—is poetic in this sense, in other words, as I'm arguing these days in various places, the aesthetic dimension is the causal dimension.

When one hears the question, “Where does poetry begin?” one is prone to visualize things chugging along in their way, and poetry somehow arising out of the chugging, or being sprinkled along the surface of the chugging like sparks flying out of a complex grinding mechanism. But contemporary physics—going back now to 1900—tells us that the aesthetic dimension is not some kind of optional fireworks that happen if you're lucky and happen to have (human) ears, eyes and so on. Poetry is the blood of causality. A fruit fly smells not by inhaling some volatile chemical, but by detecting the quantum signature of a molecule: its shape, which is transmitted nonlocally to receptors in the fly's olfactory system. Shape, which Aristotle calls morphē, just is what Aristotle thinks as the essence of a thing. This ice cream, right here, this one in my hand—its essence is its form, not an idea in my head or in some transcendental ice cream parlor of the beyond. Somehow we have forgotten how important form is. Form got flushed out of the modern way of thinking about things as pure extension and nothing else—maybe with some accidental candy sprinkles here and there—machinating away in the void.

But this mechanistic view is no longer congruent even with science. Things don't carry on “in” time and space, like cogs in a clock. Time and space emerge from things themselves: planet Earth emits a gigantic spacetime vortex that has now been empirically detected using incredibly accurate gyroscopes, so that my watch runs faster in a plane than on the ground. The region “in front of” things is inhabited by time, space, causality—it is the aesthetic dimension, it just is how things appear, their form, morphē.

So we coexist in an all-encompassing bath of poetry. The kind that humans like about red roses and so on is just a tiny region of this colossal space of possibility.

Another way to hear the question might be, “How can we account for the beginning of a thing, if causality just is poetry?” What does beginning mean? As poets and students of poetry we have a considerable leg up on this problem. This is the phenomenon of aperture. How does a poem begin? Aristotle argues that plays have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and I used to think this was a daft waste of space. I mean, all you have to do is look at the first page, and the last page, then divide the total number of pages by two to get the middle, right? Wrong—what Aristotle means is that things have a feeling of beginning, a feeling of being in the middle (which I call development), and a feeling of ending (closure). Beginning, middle and end are aesthetic—so we can use them to talk about causality, since we have established that causality is aesthetic.

A poem begins when, all of a sudden, we have no idea what is happening. Some kind of rift has opened up in the midst of what appeared to be a smooth surface, like the blank of a page. Charles Bernstein's short poem is exemplary in this regard:


Where is the poem? When has it started? What counts as the poem in this sentence, if anything? All this uncertainty crashes into the blank space. It's like the beginning of a story. Who is the main character? What counts as an action or as a significant action? What is happening? Is this studio the focus of the entire novel, or is it adjacent to the main scene? And so on. Not having any well-defined coordinates is the mark of beginning. Realist narrators do this brilliantly with the use of the definite article. You could spend hours studying the first word of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray: “The studio ...” Which one? Evidently we are already there—but where is that? Something is already happening. This is the feeling of beginning. Something is underway, but we don't know exactly what. That feeling of a lack of coordinates is because there exists a rift between how things appear and how things are: and since we can't know how things are, especially since we've only just begun to read the story, there is a shifty feeling of paradox. The trouble with lying is, how can you tell whether someone is lying or not? Is there, or is there not, a difference between what is being said and the truth? This feeling, in all its poignancy, is the feeling of aperture.

I submit that when a thing begins, a rift is opened in reality, a rift between essence and appearance. I mean these two words precisely but not quite in the received sense. The essence of a thing is its withdrawn darkness, its intrinsic unknowability—I am what is now called an object-oriented ontologist because, like Graham Harman, Ian Bogost and Levi Bryant, I hold this darkness to be true of all real things whatsoever: old ladies sitting in a tea room, cups of tea, grains of sugar, stainless steel spoons and the core of the Sun. The appearance of a thing is its aesthetic form (morphē), which is part of a thing whether or not that thing is being experienced or used by something else. For a thing to exist is for there to be a rift between how a thing appears and what it is. A really existing thing, then, is a living paradox, rather like the Cretan who says “All Cretans are liars.” A teaspoon is a liar. The Sun's plasma core is a liar. We can't tell where the rift is. The rift is not “in” a certain part of space or time. It's like looking at a mask: is there something, someone, behind it? It's like looking at someone's eyes: are they windows of the soul, or just opaque blobs of jelly? The rift is real precisely to the extent that it can't be located.

Again, as poets and students of poetry we have an advantage, because we deal with shifting, seductive lies all the time. We have a high tolerance for things saying one thing and meaning another. Think about a poem. It's just some words waiting to be read. You don't know what it means—yet. This not-yet quality is what the poem plays with. The definition of a good poem is one whose inner rift has not yet collapsed. It is “timeless” because it has not yet been exhausted. Its essence is its future. We can't locate the essence anywhere: what we have is appearance, just these words, this lineation, this rhyme, these images, that rhythm. We have form: form is the past.

Crash! Suddenly my hand is filled with splinters of glass. What happened? My son must have dropped the light bulb he was trying to throw in the trash, onto the smooth concrete floor of the garage. There are at once these new beings in the world, these shards of crushed glass in my hand. There is a new rift, a rift that can only be experienced backwards, with 20–20 hindsight (or less, but never with foresight).

So to answer the question more directly, poetry begins for me when there is a fresh ripple of uncertainty in things that marks the inception of a new entity. I can never identify the “moment at which” the beginning lies, because time itself is part of the appearance of things, not the essence, and since time emerges from objects, and there are new objects, these glass splinters, there is a host of fresh temporalities that fail to correspond to the ones with which I've grown accustomed.

We find this difficult to accept, but only because of the ubiquity of affiliations we humans have made with quartz crystals and their peculiar oscillations, which force us into the totally calculated Busby Berkeley musical called modern life. So despite what Einstein tells us, and poetry, and now object-oriented ontology, we think that time is still a hard Perspex container in which everything has a defined place, like cogs suspended in a paperweight.

One consequence of this way of thinking is that beginnings don't just happen for me, or for humans, or even for sentient beings. They happen for trashcans and garage floors. If all that is required is the opening of a rift between essence and appearance, then the smooth concrete floor of my garage also undergoes a beginning when its surface tinkles with the tiny percussion of glass shards. I'm not strictly saying that my garage floor is alive, but that in most ways, how I experience a breaking light bulb is on par with a concrete slab. I find this to be a very elegant and efficient way of thinking, since I'm not required anymore to draw or police distinctions between human and nonhuman, or between sentient and insentient, or alive and inanimate. If that makes me sound like an Aboriginal Australian, that's not so bad.

TB: The idea that “nature isn’t natural” didn’t originate with you or Graham Harman. Gertrude Stein said the same thing decades ago in her novel Ida. You, however, have fleshed the idea out to astonishing effects in Ecology Without Nature.

What I especially value about EWN are the ways in which you braid literary, philosophical, artistic and ecological thinking. ( The ways in which you upbraid each category of thought, too.)

I’m wondering if you could talk a bit about how you have come to understand “the environment.”

Timothy Morton
: Your question follows “naturally” (haha) from the first one, I think. This is because when we talk about Nature (I'm going to write it in capitals to make it obvious we're talking about a construct), we are talking about a set of things that evoke it. Implied in this notion of a set of things is the fact that the set has to have an outside, things that are not Natural or unnatural in some sense, or supernatural, preternatural, and so on. Nature is shorthand for a set of things whose boundaries are policed. Nature is a line drawn around a group of affiliated things—a more or less loosely bundled interobjective system, that is, a set of appearances. Appearances, not essences—even when these things are seemingly real and palpable and urgent.

That book, Ecology without Nature, got me into some trouble, because it was easy to say “Oh, he's a postmodern nihilist, he doesn't think anything real exists,” or something like that. No: it's precisely because I do think that real things exist that I'm not willing to use the concept Nature. I am for coral and bunny rabbits and polar bears, but against Nature. Why?

Well, let's try an experiment. Make up a list of things that are Natural: trees, bunnies, coral, ants, mountains, ocean. Evidently the list is incomplete. Let's try another one: trees, bunnies, coral, ants, mountains, ocean, humans, toxic waste, plutonium. Now we are stretching Nature to breaking point but the list is still incomplete. Something must be left out for this list to be a list.

What is the deep reason for this? Nature is Nature-for. It's someone's or something's Nature. Nature is normative, because Nature is based on appearances, which just are appearances-for. You decide on a set of relationships and take those to be more real or more proper than others. Nature is a question of taste. You think that bread and marmalade go together naturally, not bread and peanut butter. Peanut butter is an illegal immigrant into the world of bread and marmalade, which must be policed from invasion by unnatural things such as raspberry jam and Nutella. You have said nothing deep about marmalade or bread by calling them Natural. You have only decided that this relationship is the true religion.

Nature is held to be real, but I argue that it's the greatest fiction. We intellectuals constantly love to accuse each other of being too intellectual: we should go outside and smell Nature, stop being so narcissistic and weird and feminine. In part my motivation has been to stick up for this narcissistic, weird, femininity. I think the world right now could do with a lot more human gentleness, weakness, lameness, hypocrisy—these are now quite well worked out categories in my new book project!

What ends Nature, once and for all? Quite simply, ecological awareness. What we know is that we live inside a gigantic entity called biosphere, which envelops another gigantic entity called Earth. Weaving in and out of this pair of beings is another being, called climate, which is a high dimensional beast we can only glimpse in patches, like when it rains or snows or when there is a drought. Scientific instruments now make these gigantic beings visible to us humans. Indigenous cultures have had pretty good names for gigantic beings that wrap around us like this: Yggdrasil, the Rainbow Serpent. Nature is not one of these names. Nature is a small island of Western human normativity in a gigantic ocean of strangeness. Now we know the gigantic ocean in which bunny rabbits and clouds have their being, drawing lines around certain appearances of things and fencing them off and policing them becomes impossible.

In short: Nature seems huge and valuable and real, but in fact it's a meager human reflection of an appearance of a small selection of beings.

Of course this doesn't mean we shouldn't struggle against the Keystone XL pipeline or against nuclear missile silos or shrinking icecaps. What it means is that we need a new reason to do so. Using Nature as the reason is like using a slightly broken Christmas ornament to fight a huge well-equipped army: this antique looking, but really quite modern, Western consumerist product. What we need to use instead is the idea of coexistence, which is much easier, because it's based on fact.

The term environment is an upgrade of Nature, sort of Nature 2.0. But it suffers from the same bugs. We might admit that nonhumans also have environments, or worlds, or what have you. But do we really want to go around saving things because they have worlds? The Nazis had a world, for sure. There was a world of witch ducking in the Middle Ages. However we broaden the category of world or environment to include nonhumans and perhaps even nonsentient beings, it isn't enough. This is fundamentally because world and environment are appearances. They are worlds-of, environments-for. It's like arguments for preserving the humanities because they are meaningful-for certain beings. “Oh please, preserve these candy sprinkles, they are so delicious and make the boring cupcake of science taste really good, for a moment.”

Rather than deciding in advance what counts as meaningful, or genuine, we simply need to notice that we coexist inextricably with other beings. All that Nature speak leaves most of modernity intact.

I was speaking with this biologist who works in the Everglades, Joel Trexler. He knows ways to restore the Everglades to certain kinds of appearance: how they looked in the 1950s, how they appeared 500 years ago, and so on. Preserving Nature in this way becomes a form of art restoration. It has nothing to do with coexisting with actual beings. It's just about taste. Of course, Nature-speak advertises itself as anti-taste, which is the ultimate aesthetic sophistication, like eating sushi: “This is pure, raw, realness.”

Environment and world are more up to date, 3D, surround-sound versions of Nature. That's even a term that some environmentalism uses: “the surround.” What is being preserved when this kind of world is preserved? Just a virtual experience-for some (human) being. It's virtual reality. The trouble is, this virtual reality is structuring the real. Think about a National Park: you go there to experience “away,” you drive to it in your SUV which is like watching a widescreen movie of Nature, on a comfy traveling sofa. Even when you are two inches away from Nature, you are distant from actual beings with whom you coexist. Nature is like looking at something through the wrong end of a telescope.

One thing that attracts me very much about object-oriented ontology is that we're arguing that we are not inside a total virtual simulation. There is a reality, but this reality is shifting and weird and elusive. The illusion quality of things is evidence of their reality. It's a very nice philosophical somersault. Nature is one of these ideas that was built up around the time philosophy decided that all it could talk about was human access to things, not things in themselves. It's very hard to convince people about Nature, though, because Nature is taken to be hard and real and wet and aggressively rugged. Gaia is going to punish you if you continue to burn plastic, and so on. But even there, with that idea of the revenge of Gaia, we are trying to watch our own funeral on some virtual TV set in the future after we have become extinct. There is a kind of vicarious thrill in that, which I see in some forms of speculative realism too. It's not really realism, I claim. It's sadistic thrills: watching yourself being wiped out from some impossible outside point of view. It's like watching a cartoon of Tom getting flattened into a pancake by Jerry or whatever.

What we have to do, instead of beating ourselves up over and over again with the frying pan of Nature, is disarm this sadism that seems to be tangled up with modernity, including modern aesthetics or ways of seeing and appreciating things. This involves a nonviolent practice of accepting that we already coexist with other beings. This has nothing to do with being in some special game park called Nature or world or environment, or even with abstract concepts such as species. It has to do with this actual polar bear, let's call him Frank. Frank is about to drown because his ice is melting. What are you going to do? Teach him to swim? Have him over to your place? Feed him? It becomes a political problem. Nonhumans are already on “this” side of social, philosophical and psychic space. Our job is to notice that, again and again, and get used to it.

TB: Politics, ideology need to be explicitly addressed. Don’t you think?

Global capitalism operates on the principle of the never ending expansion of markets, coupled with the homogenization of culture(s). Doesn’t this create special problems for ecological thinking?

Timothy Morton: Perhaps there is a very succinct way to answer this, which follows somewhat from what I've said already. It's this: simply that Nature just is this “homogenization” performed by capitalism. Nature is never this actual bunny rabbit, this actual cloud, this plutonium pellet.

I'm not even sure I believe in ideology any more. It seems too easy to condemn people for thinking there is no ideology—to say that this belief is the very quintessence of ideology. I believe in confusion and ignorance and I also believe in unconscious motivations and patterns. And I think that many of these patterns are produced in interactions between humans and non-humans, so that they're not strictly just ideas in (human) heads. My friend Levi Bryant likes to give the example of rice, a labor-intensive crop that necessitated the emergence of strict social hierarchies in China and elsewhere.

In another sense, I think our conversation is already addressing politics since politics just is how we coexist together, how we organize our enjoyment together.

I just read a very interesting argument about the economy, that is, the human circulation of goods and services and money and debt. We are currently heading towards some kind of productivity ceiling that can't be sustained by this planet. It will happen within the next forty-eight years. What we do about that goes beyond politics as usual. It must be to do with realizing that nonhumans are already on “this” side of social space. Ideology theory is born in an age when nonhumans are relegated to “that” side, “over yonder,” otherwise known as Nature. Ideology theory might be exactly the wrong instrument to get us from A to B. A being the collision course with the finitude of Earth.

TB: A final question. Near the end of Ecology without Nature you write: “Ecological politics has a noir form. We start by thinking that we can ‘save’ something called ‘the world’ ‘over there,’ but end up realizing that we ourselves are implicated. This is the solution to beautiful soul syndrome: reframing our field of activity as one for which we ourselves are formally responsible, even guilty.” Would you expand on this?

Timothy Morton: What I love about noir type movies such as Hitchcock's Vertigo or David Lynch's Twin Peaks series is that it turns out that the good guy, the detective, is implicated. Why? It shows that there is no outside, nowhere to jump, nowhere that is sanitized and safe and free of things. Freedom must be sought, struggled for, within the ecological mesh in which we find ourselves implicated—implicated means “folded into.”

Environmentalist language takes one of two forms, quite commonly. Sometimes you can find them combined in the same prose, like an emulsion—they are opposites but if you mix them together violently they form a sort of environmentalist vinaigrette.

The first form affirms that there is somewhere to stand outside reality—poor pathetic humans are judged from an outside point of view, we salivate over the revenge of Gaia (James Lovelock) and so on. We look on ourselves from the far future, as if we were watching a video of our own funeral. Of course you can do this in narrative but you can't do it in real life. What is particularly galling is that this exquisite artifice is said to be on the side of Nature, speaking for the trees like the Lorax.

The second form asserts that yes, we are immersed in ecological reality. But it takes delight in this, it is happy and sunny and beautiful. The immersion language is correct but the affect is wrong. It is not particularly joyful that I am infinitely responsible for the beings that coexist with me, for the simple, formal reason that I can understand this sentence. It isn't particularly good news that mercury is coursing through my blood or that we have created plutonium. It's also not so great that I am a product of evolution whose two outstanding human contributions, from that point of view, are sweating profusely and throwing things. I mean, I'm immersed in nonhumans to the extent that 35% of my genome is also daffodil DNA. Great—am I supposed to be happy about that? My brain is a kluge of sorta kinda functional adaptations to problems for sponges, ichthyosaurs and voles. Great—that makes me feel nice…

So I think the primordial ecological awareness affect is the kind of Marlowe the detective, hardboiled melancholia: “There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge…” (from “Red Wind”).