Tim Morton: The Interview

(Those who were kind enough to cross post the previous interviews are modestly asked to do so again. Cross-posted with realism course blog, realismcourse.wordpress.com)

This is the last in a series of interviews I have been conducting in and around the topic of realism for a class I have been conducting this Spring. I have an introduction to Morton here, though his new work has been widely discussed and will be, if plans go well, be the subject of a cross-blog reading group this summer, with us tandem diving into the mesh with Bennett’s Vibrant Matter. Before turning to the questions, let me thank

for their great kindness in doing these interviews, which will be placed together and reworked for the upcoming Speculations online journal. Morton’s interview brings together a lot of themes from these previous interviews and is a good capstone to this series.

1. We’re reading here your work alongside “speculative realists” and “object oriented philosophers,” as well as Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter. Your point of attack in the book is all manner of Heideggerian “deep ecology” as well as new age holisms so abundant here in California.  Perhaps I can begin by asking you summarize what brought you to this “pre-quel”…

The “prequel” emerged out of my first ecology book, Ecology without Nature. I realized that there was a larger view that it was necessary to express. In some sense it was impossible to think this before having done some demolition work on the concept “nature.” Yet the new project is more foundational. Hence the fact that The Ecological Thought is a “prequel,” hopefully not like The Phantom Menace

To some extent my thinking process mirrors what’s happening in the world at large, which is that humans appear to be in a kind of open window situation, in which we are noticing a lot of inconsistencies in old ways of modeling and mapping things—and it’s becoming clear that our maps are just that, maps and not the real thing. Something is emerging but it’s hard to give it a name.

If you like, the ecological thought is like a mathematical attractor in our future—it sort of pulls thinking towards it, though I might be unhappy with how teleological this metaphor sounds.

The other main factor in thinking the book was not wanting simply to kick over other models and walk away: it didn’t seem honest. As William Blake wrote, “I must create my own system or be enslaved by another man’s.” You are always carrying some kind of implicit ontology around in any case. It’s easy to hide behind the attitude that emerges when you undermine other models.

2. I like a lot about your book, but perhaps what I like most is your ability to find a language to talk about “interconnectedness” or assemblages of relations in terms of ecology without falling into the language of holism and deep ecology. What thinkers do you have in mind in the background here as you sound the depths without coming back to the surface with a deep ecology?

I’m glad you saw that. Holism—and the deep ecology that acts as a vector for holism—is ironically opposed to a truly profound ecological view. The reason is simple when you start to think about how according to holism the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. This means that at some level there is already fragmentation. It also means that the parts are ultimately replaceable. This gives rise to all kinds of ethical consequences, for instance the idea that it doesn’t matter much to Planet Earth if humans become extinct, or even the idea that humans are a kind of virus—a whole could have faulty components that might need to be cleansed or replaced.

Instead of feeling part of something bigger (holism), I’m going for intimacy: the others that inhabit Earth are already under our skin—they are our skin.

In the back of my mind there is Spinoza, who is arguing that matter moves all by itself and that there is only one thing. This one thing is indivisible in some sense—so it’s not a whole. (I’ll talk more about this in a moment when I talk about quantum theory.) Spinoza’s view is so profound because it combines materialism with something like theology—this combination being precisely why he got into such trouble with his Synagogue and with the Christian culture around him…

Whitehead is in the background with his astonishing reworking of matter as a relatively autonomous, abstracted moment in a flowing process (an “actual occasion”).

Then there is Deleuze, who modulates Spinoza and Leibniz in his own inimitable way. A lot of the work on infinity in the book was inspired by Deleuze on Leibniz.

And then we have Emmanuel Levinas, who puts totality into stark opposition with infinity. Holism would be totality, for Levinas. Thinking ecology involves thinking infinity, in many different senses.

And then there’s Derrida—I can’t help it! He is a modern Zeno, with powerful tools for showing how subdividing things gets you into all kinds of trouble. In this respect, his thinking is identical to Darwin, the one major textual source in The Ecological Thought.

Ecology also means thinking what I call “very large finitude,” which in some respects is even harder than infinity since it doesn’t make us feel grand. Very large finitudes such as global warming and radiation, for instance: they outsize and outlast us and our descendants beyond anything meaningfully like “me” or “mine.” But they’re not fragments of some whole. If anything they’re more like the abortive fabrications of an evil god in some Gnostic system. I like very much the idea that reality is fundamentally incomplete in some sense. I was influenced to talk about radiation by Derek Parfit, a very surprising utilitarian. I’m not sure where very large finitude itself comes from—it might be homegrown…

3. Your book is wonderfully clear about the need to get unclear about traditional concepts. Let me play devils advocate for a moment: you might suggest you’re moving beyond a certain postmodernist moment in culture, but you still take language and how we know about “nature” as more paramount than
what it is. To give one example, you might be correct to point out how “wilderness” areas are “giant, abstract” constructions within modern culture (p. 7), but I wonder if the “wild” does not, like the infinite in Levinas you cite, end up being too wild a concept to control under the nature/culture divide. In other words, while someone may understand why you question the use of “nature” in political ideologies, they may be less sympathetic to your suggestion that it’s unusable as an ontological category specifying that which is “non-human” or at the very least independent of language and cultural constructs. I guess what I’m asking is whether you consider your project at the level of a “mesh” of concepts (epistemology, to use the old language) or at the level of the “mesh” of what is (ontology).

I’m touched that you think the book is clear. One thing I really like about Jane Bennett’s work is how lucid she is.

Thinking that language is limited to the human is precisely part of the problem, no? DNA is language. Human language is bacteria-filled breath moving out of my lungs, which evolved out of fish swim bladders. The not-so-great word “life” has to do with matter that is information, all the way down. Nothing is independent of language in this sense. This fact of matter as information (it’s even more the case as you get towards the Planck length in quantum theory) is deeply disturbing. We want it not to be the case, even if we are deconstructors.

What I’m doing is very much at the level of ontology, and it’s becoming more that way. In preparation for The Ecological Thought I tried to read everything I could read about evolution, in particular the sort of neo-Darwinism (Dawkins and Dennett for instance) that most left humanists wouldn’t touch with a bargepole. Maybe I’m just perverse but I thought it would be good to find strange ideas in unusual places.

I’m putting myself through quantum theory boot camp right now precisely because there is a deep ontology of physics that humanists (I used a bad word!) must understand and talk about. Physics implies ontology, even when it forbids it (as Niels Bohr et al. did, giving rise to the Standard Model of quantum theory).

The mesh is beyond concept in some sense—unthinkable as such, precisely because it is real. In the same way, phenomena such as global warming and nuclear radiation, massively distributed across spacetime, defy the kind of false immediacy on which dichotomies between human and non-human depend.

I really am arguing that there is no nature, not that the idea of nature isn’t working. You can sort of detect that it isn’t the case because of various linguistic and ideological problems, but these problems only exist because nature as such really does not exist…I very much oppose the idea that what environmentalism should be about is coming up with a new form of freshly convincing advertising language.

4. As we do this, there is quite a “hyper-object,” as you put it, heading toward the shores of the Gulf region of the southern United States. You talk about a “hyper-object” like plutonium as being a near-permanent production that will outlast us all. But this also, of course, is a spatial concept, right?

Yes! For instance, think of global warming. Global warming is happening all over the Earth right now, by definition, not just in your backyard. What does this mean? It means that the wet cold stuff that falls on your head in Boise, Idaho, is rigorously less real than something you can’t see directly, called global warming. Galileo et al. turned the notion of “sunrise” into a convenient abstraction, good enough to be getting along with in certain circumstances, while we know that it’s far more “real” that the Earth is rotating. In the same way, global warming science turns the weather into a false immediacy, an abstraction that seems real because it’s wet and cold, for instance.

The BP oil slick off the coasts of Louisiana and Florida is yet another example of a hyperobject, an object which, as you say, radically undermines our ideas of being in charge, that the world is happening to “me,” and so on. In this respect radiation is also spatial, since Chernobyl for instance taught us how it ignores national boundaries.

In the same sense, evolution and quantum phenomena (radiation is one, strictly) are also massively distributed in spacetime. We can’t see them but they are far more real than species, or atoms. They are more material than supposedly solid things.

What these hyperobjects do is upgrade our ideas about matter, the hard way. In the future, if there is one, people (whether human or not I’m not sure) will look back on our age and pity our lack of materialsm—our lack of a deep affinity for and even affection for matter. Oh sure, we are addicted to externalities, instant gratification and shiny plastic surfaces, and this gives us the BP slick, which gets everywhere, is far from bling-like, and is a real drag in the worst possible sense…

5. What do you make of this return to realism and/or materialism after the linguistic turn?

It’s fascinating. I think I’m part of it, but in a modified way, which I’d like to explain here. The word “after” in the question concerns me—hey wait! Slow down! And I’m not sure about the kind of labeling the definite article does in the phrase “the linguistic turn.” This version of “linguistic turn” might be a straw target—Saussure is very different from Lacan, who is very different from Foucault, and so on.

Calling it “linguistic” might be because deconstruction found a home in English Lit. departments more than in philosophy departments. When an English Lit. person hears “linguistic turn” she’s going to think structuralism, not deconstruction—the application of a certain form of linguistics to problems in the humanities.

Like I say the phrase might be a straw target. It might be the case that some philosophical milieux never went through a linguistic turn at all—thus making their use of the phrase disingenuous.

The idea of “after” could easily mark a regression to naïve empiricism, dressed up in fancy language. The epistemology–ontology split could indeed be a feature of this kind of empiricism (consider the “fact–value” dichotomy, for instance).

There’s a long-standing resistance to “theory” (i.e. Derrida) in England and in Anglo-American philosophy, where some speculative realism is coming from. I’m a little afraid that some of this might be just old wine in new bottles.

The idea that real things are non-linguistic or unspeakable reminds me of Doctor Johnson refuting Berkeley by kicking a stone: “Thus I refute him sir!” To me, the sound of a boot contacting some crystalline particles is not an argument.

Beware, Derrida is not a nominalist or an idealist! Doctor Johnson’s boot would have had even more trouble with him…

In a sense new materialism is also “after” various forms of Marxism. And relativity and quantum theory. In these respects it’s very, very interesting. Are we finally beginning to realize that Newton didn’t have the last word on everything—that matter isn’t little shiny ping-pong balls acting externally on one another in predictable ways in a neutral box of absolute time and space?

6. We should turn to your concept of the “mesh,” which is picked both to denote on the one hand this “interconnection” while also not falling into a vitalism. Someone like Jane Bennett, for example, is willing to risk using the language of vitalism, though of course she is as interested as the “inorganic” in any life as she is in any supposed lifeform as the basis of existence. Where do you find yourself in this debate?

Great question. Materialism is at a very interesting point. To sum it up I think we are generating more and more ways to think matter without teleology. As in evolution, matter, even the laws of physics themselves, evolve, sometimes in irreducible unpredictable ways. Causality and even math and logic might be immanent to the Universe, not outside it in any meaningful sense.

If you are honest, then you realize that materialism can’t mean believing in some hard little balls, totally separate from your mind, which underlie everything. This means that those of us who have called ourselves materialists and have used Marx must do some serious thinking. How far down into Marxism does the mechanistic view, based on Newton, go? How does this affect Deleuze and Guattari’s “everything is a machine”?

The other problem is that it’s traditionally been idealism, not materialism, that has used vitalism. The Naturephilosophers were all about some squishy, palpable snot-like stuff—protoplasm.

Mind you, it’s incontestable that the quantum universe is much more like something living than like a machine. It’s a profoundly ecological view, a kind of super-mesh in my terms (I’ll explain the mesh in a moment). In quantum theory the very existence of an entity such as an electron depends upon the environment around it—and so on around a massive mulberry bush without center or edge.

From this point of view, even protoplasm is mechanical. The snot is located in spacetime, while quantum phenomena can’t be isolated in this manner. Quantum phenomena are entangled with the equipment that observes them (at that level, they are the same thing), whereas snot does its thing no matter what you’re using to measure it. If you really want something like a vitalist view you should go down towards the Planck length.

What is the case is much more like standing waves than little balls or even blobby balls. The new scanning tunneling micrographs of atoms display nice shiny eggs in rows, presumably because nanotech is about to make lots of money selling versions of them. I like the older field ion micrographs because they reveal a world of ripples and blobs. I know that there’s a wave–particle duality, sure, but it’s heuristically very helpful, at least, to unthink ping-pong balls via waves.

Think of nonlocality, which is now uncontroversially a fact of our Universe. It doesn’t make sense from a ping-pong point of view. But it does make sense if, Spinoza-fashion, reality is one thing, modulated in a wavelike way. You can easily imagine two pieces of the same ripple glinting in the sunlight. On the other hand, two particles doing the same thing while arbitrarily far apart sounds suspiciously like a miracle.

Now, going up several scales to the level of life forms, we discover what I’m calling the mesh, which is simply the fact that life forms and non-life forms are entangled with each other inextricably, because of the nature of life forms themselves. I find this idea more persuasive at this level than vitalism, because it doesn’t depend on locating some ghostly source of “life.” The proximity, even at times identity, of the nonhuman with my humanness (and of everything in everything) is incontestable. For example, I drive around using crushed dinosaur parts as fuel. Most of the iron in the Earth’s crust is distributed bacterial waste, as is the oxygen. I am typing this because the mitochondria in my cells give me energy. They are bacterial symbionts hiding from their own global catastrophe, the one called oxygen. You are reading this because ERV-3, a virus in your mom’s DNA caused her not to spontaneously abort, you because it coded for immunosuppressive properties of the placental barrier. And so on.

So perhaps vitalism is valid, but strangely at a far far deeper level than we used to assume, and not at all on the level of life forms!