Timothy Morton: Ecology without Nature

We interview the philosopher Tim Morton, author of “Dark Ecology”, who proposes that we rethink the way we see ecology, anthropocentrism and art.
Timothy Morton. Illustration of José Antonio Soria, CC-BY.

Timothy Morton. Illustration of José Antonio Soria, CC-BY.

Is man still the measure of all things? The current environmental crisis underscores the urgency of moving beyond the anthropocentric frame of reference and understanding that we are not the ultimate object of the planet. In defiance of the paternalism of certain environmental movements, “dark ecology” defends irony and ugliness as means to raise awareness.

Timothy Morton is a philosopher and an expert in the literature of the Romantic period. His provocative and extremely personal work draws on a complex web of topics and influences – from Shelley to My Bloody Valentine, from Buddhism to DNA chains – and articulates ideas in fields as diverse as ontology, ecology, and aesthetics, to name just three. Along with Graham Harman, Ian Bogost, and Levy Bryant, Morton is a core member of the Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO) philosophical movement founded by Harman in 1999, which proposes a strongly anti-anthropocentric reinterpretation of our relationship with the world, objects, and hierarchies. Morton uses snippets of popular culture and a language full of poetic and ironic turns to sharply deconstruct the ecological crisis stemming from the anthropocene and introduce new philosophical concepts such as “hyperobjects”: objects so massively distributed in time and space as to be impossible to distinguish or detect directly, like the biosphere and global warming. Unlike traditional forms of ecocriticism linked to the late twentieth-century counterculture, Morton’s notion of “dark ecology” is a realistic stone thrown agaisnt the glass dome that still mentally isolates us (in an attempt to simplify and appease collective guilt) from that which we refer to as “the environment”. Filling in the gaps between assymetry, causality, phenomenology, coexistence, and temporality, Morton’s theories highlight the trauma inherent to our era, ideally in order to awaken consciousness and favour a reevaluation of humanity’s role and impact on the planet. Timothy Morton’s recent books include Realist Magic, Hyperobjects, and Dark Ecology.

Every summer, the Catalan government launches an awareness campaign about wildfires, for obvious reasons. This summer, the slogan was: “in a wildfire we don’t only lose a forest”, and it was accompanied by a photo of a burnt doll. And I think it’s things like these that really tell you how much we need to change our ways of thinking. Because if the only way to make people aware of how bad wildfires are is to conjure images of dead children, then we’re a bit screwed. As if a forest in itself was not enough of a loss. To a certain extent, this enhanced awareness that transcends our personal interest is very close to what you’ve been talking about since Ecology Without Nature. Can you give a brief introduction to your own idea of ecology, and the rather radical idea, at the time, of taking Nature out of the equation?

I’m not unhappy with the idea of appealing to people’s self-interest if that’s what makes them understand something about the non-human world. What’s interesting about it, actually, is that self-interest only seems to work with a very narrow – ecologically speaking – temporality window. It’s very difficult for us to think about actions that have a hundred-year, a thousand-year or, heaven forbid, a ten-thousand year scale to them. And something interesting happens at that scale, at the ten-thousand year scale. Two things are true: nothing about me in particular will be statistically or otherwise meaningful at that scale. On the other hand, every single little thing that I do will be incredibly important, and possibly even amplified ten thousand years out. So it’s a bit of a paradox: like me, myself, doesn’t matter, but everything that I actually do really does matter. So there’s this funny gap in me, between the person I think I am and the person I actually am, insofar as I have effects on other entities such as humans and non-humans. So there’s a very interesting paradox there to think about.

«Nature is a sort of anthopocentrically scaled concept, designed for humans, so it’s not strictly relevant to thinking about ecology.»

Now, on the subject of ecology, I’ve been holding for a while that the concept of Nature is a sort of anthopocentrically scaled concept, designed for humans, so it’s not strictly relevant to thinking about ecology. In fact, it might even be, for various different reasons, a bit of a disaster. The first way in which it’s a bit of a disaster is that it separates the human from the non-human world by sort of an arbitrary aesthetic screen. A little bit like all the non-humans are kind of behind the glass screen of our laptop – of course there are certain non-humans that we select to be inside human social space. “Cattle” is what they’re called in old-fashioned patriarchy. We’d also include women, of course, under the category of cattle – or “chattels”, as they used to say. And, you know, pets and so on, certain plants, agricultural products. Everything else is Nature, and it’s supposed to be somewhere else, other than this human space that we like to think of as exclusively human, an anthropocentric space. In other words, it’s in my DNA, it’s under the pavement, it’s over there, over yonder, as they like to say in English. Behind the mountain range, somewhere. And so it has this kind of irreducible quality of being somewhere else, and being something else. And it also has a quality, I think, of being not exactly static, but sort of constantly present, constantly there-there. This doesn’t apply either, because if you look at, for example, very basic science, if you just consider evolution theory, you can see how life forms, which is basically what Nature is, what the biosphere actually is, including a lot of the rock strata, life forms are never constantly present, even to themselves. So that doesn’t work very well either.

The other thing is that Nature is not just an idea. It’s something that is sort of hardwired into built space as well as philosophical, psychic and social space. It’s hardwired into actually existing cities, and the way we transact business between ourselves and between ourselves and non-humans. For example, the notion of air conditioning, which is about channeling vector flows of bad air somewhere else. Now, on a planet scale, “somewhere else” is just the same place, you’re just moving some kind of pollution around within a system, you’re not really doing anything. And what you’re actually doing, of course, is wasting energy. So there’s a way in which this concept, Nature, really affects. And compared to other things, that’s a very, very small example of how Nature affects built space. Not to say that air conditioning is trivial, but there are even more drastic phenomena that we can associate with this concept. So it’s not just that it is not a great concept, it’s that it’s toxically hardwired into social space.

Taking Nature out of the question also means leaving behind the old-fashioned distinction between natural and artificial. There is another word that we use all the time to refer to artificiality and that is “synthetic”. But since I am a musician and work with synthesisers all the time, I have this little personal crusade to make people understand that is not necessarily what synthesis means. At least not the way Bob Moog intended. He used the literal sense of the Greek word synthesis, meaning a combination of things and processes to make new things and processes, far from the connotations of artificiality that usually plague it. In this sense, Moog’s idea of synthesis is similar to your notion of the mesh, another central notion in your theory, which addresses interconnections, relations and entanglement. Can you describe this in relation to the anthropocene?

Trivially speaking, ecological awareness means realising that beings are interconnected in some way, but then we have to figure out what this interconnection actually means. At the moment, the phrase I’m using for the thing that ecological awareness names is “the symbiotic real”. What do I mean by that? I mean that ecological relationships are best described in terms of symbiosis, and symbiosis is a very interesting thing because it’s always a sort of fragile, contingent, uneasy relationship in which it’s impossible to determine which entity is the top entity. Symbiosis can fail in various different ways: if there’s too much stomach bacteria in my stomach, I might have some problems. If there’s too little, I might have some problems. There’s a sort of dynamic system there. And symbiosis goes all the way down to my cells, I have these mitochondria which contain DNA of their own because they’re basically symbions, they’re basically bacteria that evolved to live inside oxygen breathing life forms when they created their own ecological catastrophe called oxygen, about 3 billion years ago. And if we were going to rename that moment, we might decide to call it the bacteriocene, because it’s extremely like what happened with the anthropocene: unintended consequences of bacterial respiration, aka oxygen, resulted in the poisoning for bacteria of their environment. And so they were forced to evolve and, from then on, aerobic beings can breathe. What’s interesting about this phenomenon is that, in a way, the bacteriocene is happening now. It didn’t happen and then was finished at some sort of point in linear time. It started, it’s a catastrophe, at least for the bacteria, and we are inside that catastrophe. And the anthropocene is happening inside that bigger catastrophe called the bacteriocene. So human beings are not the only ones, to have, to use your words, “synthesised”, some stuff by creating some interrelationships between, in this case, chemicals. The bacteria were doing it too, so it’s not correct to say that human beings are different because they make environments and non-humans don’t do that. It’s also not true to say that human beings are artificial, whereas bacteria are natural. In a funny sort of way, what we’re both saying, in a certain sense, is that everything is artificial. But when everything is artificial, it’s impossible to maintain this distinction between Nature and artifice, so you have to do something with the notion of artifice there, and you can’t simply imagine that it means something like “illusion” or “construct” that makes sense from the point of view of some other entity, or something like that.

«It’s not correct to say that human beings are different because they make environments and non-humans don’t do that. It’s also not true to say that human beings are artificial, whereas bacteria are natural.»

Anyway, the anthropocene is just the name that we gave for the fact that there are now, in the top layers of Earth’s crust, human-made materials such as all different kinds of concrete, which are now thought by geologists to be a new kind of mineral. And all kinds of plastics. Which in a certain other sense are also another kind of mineral. And radionucleotides, in particular carbon. There’s a thin layer of carbon in Earth’s crust. It started to be laid down in 1784, after the patenting of the steam engine, which allowed industrial society, both capitalist and non-capitalist, to emerge. And it’s a global phenomenon. People are always looking around for one particular group of people to blame, but this creates all kinds of problems and paradoxes. For example, you might decide to blame the Americans because they do the most, and they started doing a lot of things like air conditioning first. But it turns out that just being the first chronologically doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re logically the first. We all sort of like air conditioning. Indians like air conditioning, Chinese people like air conditioning. Are we actually arguing that they shouldn’t have air conditioning, or that they are not suited to having air conditioning because they are somehow less artificial than Americans or something like that?

You define the anthopocene as a truly anti-anthropocentric concept. Can you elaborate on that?

What I mean is that it refers to the way in which how we are a a species, touches the symbiotic real. All that stuff buried in Earth’s crust is unintended stuff to a certain extent. We didn’t deliberately create holes and dig stuff in and go “oh, this will look really good in two hundred thousand years time”. We just sort of did it and it just sort of happened. And while this layer is anthropomorphic, because humans put it together, it’s not anthropocentric, because it’s not about setting humans like the lords and masters of everything. In fact what it’s saying is that human beings are a species among other species, who happen to have done this thing that’s very, very classic. They happen to have started global warming and, as a consequence, mass extinction – the sixth mass extinction of the planet. That’s not an actual anthropocentric concept, that’s a concept that actually turns us away from thinking that the human being is the center of everything.

Which kind of  brings us to your take on irony, I guess. Can you explain how you relate ecological awareness to irony?

There’s various different types of irony. One type of irony involves achieving a kind of escape velocity from the phenomena that you are finding ironic. And another type of irony involves realising that you’re caught in these phenomena in some way that’s inextricable. And that’s the kind of irony that I’m talking about. So ecological awareness’ irony is downwards in direction, rather than upwards. We like to think in our anthropocentric way, that irony means that you transcended something, but actually what it means is that you’ve realised that you’re stuck in something and you have this kind of uncanny awareness of that, and there’s not much you can do about that feeling of stuckness.

The kind of irony that typifies ecological awareness is what literary criticism calls romantic irony. That has nothing to do with romantic love, it has to do with romantic poetry. And in romantic poetry, they developed a very interesting kind of irony. In this irony, the narrator of the poem figures out that she or he is a character in the poem. Or a character in the poem figures out that he or she is the narrator of the poem. A great example of this would be the movie phenomenon of noir, where, for example, the detective figures out that she or he is one of the criminals. The greatest example for me would probably be Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner, where Deckard, the detective, figured out that he’s one of the replicants that he’s trying to pursue and kill. Ecological awareness is like that because of unintended consequences. It’s as if we woke up one day – “we” meaning roughly white Western patriarchy, and when I say Western I mean cleaving to notions developed within modernity, in particular Europe and the USA, but it’s global now, right? It’s sort of like waking up realising that you’re holding the murder weapon, and that you must have committed some kind of murder but you didn’t quite realise what it was. So it’s a little bit like noir because it involves being caught in a loop and, in particular, historically, the loop has to do with a desire of some human beings to transcend their material conditions. This desire, which we call the Neolithic, resulted in the end in a much more intense drilling down, quite literally, into those material conditions that we call the anthropocene. You see, the funny thing is that this kind of agricultural mode that I associate very much with the development of the concept of Nature, that started in Mesopotamia but also in Latin America, China, Indonesia, Africa and other parts of the world around 10,000 BC, was designed to allow people to get a handle on mild global warming, otherwise known as the holocene, which is the period before the anthropocene. And as a consequence of the logistics that began to run or operate, like a computer program, that are still running, that kind of agriculture eventually creates enough people that industry is required to make it go, and therefore you get industrial society. Those logistics have very successfully created even worse global warming, so the funny kind of not very nice ironic sentence that you could make, might say something like: “in order to avoid global warming, humans created worse global warming”. That’s the kind of loop that we’re in here.

«In order to avoid global warming, humans created worse global warming.»

More deeply, in a way I think that existing at all is a little bit ironic, and you can glimpse this when you think about life forms. Because ecological beings such as life forms are never exactly coincident with how they are, they always contain a little bit of extra to them. Some kind of x-factor that doesn’t coincide with what they are as a species, and this is how evolution works. So this uncanny non-coincidence of the way they appear with what they are is due to the fact that things in general are like that. This is because I’m an object-oriented ontologist and I believe that things are exactly as they are, yet never exactly as they appear. Things are sort of living, walking contradictions where the appearance of the thing is kind of glued inseparably to how it is, but nevertheless it’s different. And so there’s this kind of ironic gap between a thing and the appearance of a thing that you can’t locate anywhere inside or on the surface or in the depths of the thing.

Could you to talk about the notion of dark ecology? After suggesting an ecology without the need for Nature, then you reformulated the very concept of ecology, which the collective mind keeps linking to Nature, hippie activism, Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis and so on. Your ecology is way different because it not only eliminates nature but it does not attempt to make everything pretty and fairytale-like. And it’s dirty and gooey and twisted.

“Pretty” is an anthropocentrically scaled concept, usually. If you think about Immanuel Kant’s discussion of beauty, it’s quite clear that he tries to scale it in such a way that humans, and in particular a certain kind of human, probably some kind of bourgeois human, can tolerate it. So all kinds of things about the beauty experience are sort of shaved off. When you include non-human beings in the beauty experience, when you realise that there’s not one particular scale that is the top scale, or the best scale, when you realise that the human scale is just one scale among many, many, many, many… You know, there’s rabbit scale, and crocodile scale, and biosphere scale, all different kinds of scales, and none of these are the top scale. When you realise that, then you see that, actually, beauty doesn’t go away, exactly. What it has is a kind of fringe of uncanniness, or weirdness, or even disgust, which you can’t actually edit out, right? And so it’s not true that ecological action has to do with making things pretty, that’s a holdout from some kind of picturesque aesthetic of mid-to-late eighteenth century Europe. Ecological awareness doesn’t really mean expanding human awareness to include non-human beings, without that awareness itself becoming radically destabilised in some kind of way.

Can you also talk about some of the influences behind your whole  imaginary, be that fiction, theory or something else?

One influence would be life sciences. I do a lot of reading in the life sciences and I think about the life sciences a lot. In particular I tried very hard to understand evolution. About ten years ago, I read everything of Darwin very carefully and tried to figure out what he was really saying. And then, in terms of humanistic scholarship, I suppose what happened to me is that I trained as a deconstructor, in the lineage of Heidegger and Derrida. And without losing the edge of deconstruction, I ended up kind of backing into object-oriented ontology, which, in a way, is carrying that lineage of deconstructing deconstruction, insofar as what we’re trying to do is disrupt what deconstruction calls the metaphysics of presence: the idea that to exist is to be constantly present. This idea, as I was trying to say earlier, is hardwired into social space and it’s roughly the concept of Nature, which is one of the reasons we’re in such big trouble, and why Earth is in such big trouble. So I suppose you could say that deconstruction and object-oriented ontology, coupled with a certain commitment to all kinds of left theory, such as Marxism and anarchism, would be the kinds of thought that are in the background of this particular mode of ecological philosophy.

Dark Ecology is an international art project that explores the relationship between humans, things and nature, as well as current ideas on ecology.

You just mentioned the idea of being caught in a loop, which plays an important role in your description of our ecological crisis. Is awareness enough? Is awareness action, or is there something an individual can do? Or is this loop totally inescapable? In other words, is it always too late? You maintain that “this is the afterlife”, after all.

You’ve just said it, actually. You’ve just named this binary which needs to be deconstructed. It’s the difference between being passive and being active. And one thing that ecological politics requires is a whole new theory of action that isn’t based on what is fundamentally a Neoplatonic Christian concept of activity. A Christian Neoplatonic concept, furthermore, that affects all kinds of discursive domains that would never dream they were theistic. For instance, Marxism and  its contemporary theory of the event, is deeply wedded to Neoplatonic theories of activity, multiplied by a toxic strain of Hegelianism, which I think is basically a bug in Marxism that needs to be fixed rather than a feature that you have to just get used to.

There’s not that much of a difference between awareness and action. In fact, in a funny way, you could say that awareness was a kind of quantum of action, sort of like zero-degree action, because when you are aware of something, you are with it in some physical sense, as well as some sort of more ethereal sense. Even if that thing is not located anywhere in your vicinity. All you have to do, to think about this, is to think about art. When you think about your favourite piece of music, or your favourite installation or whatever, that installation or that piece of music isn’t strictly there, nevertheless you were just affected by it, by visualising it. Art has a nonlocal cause and effect. And what art actually is, is directly tampering with cause and effect, as I try to argue in my book about causality, which is called ‘Realist Magic’.

This is actually in accord with contemporary theories of science which base themselves on Hume’s philosophy, which blows up the idea that causality is a kind of mechanism churning away underneath appearances. And Kant’s reasoning as to why that’s true, is that reality doesn’t really become realised until it’s accessed by another entity. In his case, it’s the transcendental subject, and in the case of Hegel it’s spirit, and in the case of, say, Heidegger, it’s dasein, and in the case of object-oriented ontology it’s any entity whatsoever. We’ve sort of removed the anthropocentric copyright control on who gets access, and we’ve removed the idea that thought, in particular human thought, is the top or only true access mode. So I think awareness isn’t simply a prequel or not to action. I think it’s a kind of action, and that we actually need to soften the notion of what action means, and sharpen the notion of what be aware means. And the two have much more in common than you might think.

The other thing is that intellectuals love being anti-intellectual and they love beating up on thought. Even the most theoretical ones. In fact, it’s very common to find this self-destructive streak in intellectuals. And we like to say things like “how are we going to stop having this conversation and actually get up and do something?”, forgetting, of course, that having a conversation is doing something. And that, actually, real action has a kind of self-reflexivity to it as well. What in some Marxism is called “praxis”, has a theoretical reflexive awareness side to it. And so I’m disinclined to say that I’m only about raising awareness, as if raising awareness was some kind of less important thing that you needed to do before you did an important thing.

You have collaborated with artists a lot. Art is a huge space for freedom which on one hand is very inclusive but on the other it also sort of cancels the capacity for action or agency, precisely because, some people will argue, “it’s just art”. The paradox is that, in that sense, collaborating with artists could be seen as a counterproductive strategy for actual change, but at the same time it’s a really interesting way of reaching huge audiences and spreading theories in a really wide sense.

Of course, it’s never just art. And this idea that it’s just art is not the artist’s problem and it’s not my problem, it’s a social ideological problem that we need to fix, and one of the ways that we can fix it is by arguing that the aesthetic dimension, which is where the art happens, is actually the causal dimension. So that art is in fact actually literally tampering with cause and effect. So it’s very, very important. And, you know, you take an artist who seems, according to convention, to be doing something apolitical, such as Olafur Eliasson, and you realise quite quickly that, his art is actually deeply political, because it’s literally transforming social space. You might not like the way in which he transforms social space, but it is political insofar as it’s actually doing that. I’m deeply happy to collaborate with him in any way that I can on transforming social space in that way, because I believe that the social space we have isn’t that nice. In particular, not that nice to non-human beings.

«Art is a pretty good tactic, because instead of holding up a poster and complaining outside a bank, this is much more like the anarchist tactic of occupy – you just model a different way of inhabiting social space.»

So I work a lot with architects, I work a lot with some composers. I’m working with Jennifer Walshe right now on some things pertaining to these things which I like to call hyperobjects. And I’ve worked with Björk, we wrote a little piece together. I’ve worked with a Lithuanian artist called Emilija Skarnulyte on an installation that she did in Vilnius last year, for which I did a lecture and also helped her to think through some of the conceptual underpinnings of the show, and that is still somewhat of an ongoing project. I’ve worked with Haim Steinbach, basically a contemporary of Jeff Koons who sort of fell in love with object-oriented ontology and wanted me to come and help him understand more about it, and we’ve collaborated a couple of times on some things.

So there’s a lot of stuff happening. I’m very happy about it and I think that, you know, it’s a pretty good tactic, because instead of holding up a poster and complaining outside a bank, this is much more like the anarchist tactic of occupy – you just model a different way of inhabiting social space.

Much of the ecological crisis we’re in is directly related to our ways of thinking, which allowed the existence of what you call “agrilogistics”, as our main way of dealing with the environment. And it’s too late. This is the afterlife and all that. But I wonder if we can make small changes by adjusting the way we think about things. It may be too late for me cause I grew up thinking about Nature as a thing, as a backdrop. So what can we do to change that perspective in future generations? So far I’ve been pretty successful in telling my 3 year old about the world without mentioning Nature or certain ideas which i think are at the center of this problem, but I’ll soon fail when he starts shooting harder questions. Do you have any tips for me?

I think we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves because I think that, as Wittgenstein said, “explanations come to an end somewhere”. And failure is built into explaining things. Failure is built into acting on things because failure is built into being a thing at all. A thing always contains some kind of inner flaw that, in the end, means that it will self-destruct. It doesn’t really need anything else to do it for it. So what to do? What tips… You know, there’s this part of me that  likes Trevor Horn, the 1980s music producer, and I’ve always been particularly fond of his approach to what is called “wall of sound”, where every single instrument, from the smallest triangle to the most powerful bass, is audible, roughly at the same volume level, at least in a sort of audio illusion. What do I mean by that? I guess I mean wall of ecological action.

«Hyperobjects are things that are so big in both time and space, that you can’t touch them, you can’t grasp them completely, you can only see little distorted pieces of them at any one time.»

Very small things are great, and very big things are great, so making sure that human beings in general transition from using fossil fuels to using solar and wind, et al. is of great, great importance right now. Getting very angry about mass extinction is of great, great importance right now. Changing social space so that it’s less misogynistic and more friendly towards non-human beings and first peoples would also be a great thing to get involved in doing. But you know, there are very simple things too, like taking off your shoes.

When Hyperobjects was published, I wrote to all the people who contributed the most to the way I like to think about these things. Hyperobjects are things that are so big in both time and space, that you can’t touch them, you can’t grasp them completely, you can only see little distorted pieces of them at any one time. Things like global warming, things like the biosphere, actually. These are really really big physically, but actually sort of manageable in some way. And one way that you can become directly aware of the fact that you’re living on a planet without having to use the concept Nature, is just to take your shoes off and feel the carpet, or the wooden floor, or the concrete. Or maybe the grass. And I encouraged all the people who contributed to my thinking to do that on the day that it was published. And I got a lot of nice responses back saying how somewhat revelatory this very simple action could be.

View comments0

Leave a comment

Timothy Morton: Ecology without Nature