At the End of the World, It’s Hyperobjects All the Way Down

1.

You might think, in this time of profound human and climate trauma, that the world is coming to an end. Timothy Morton disagrees: It has already ended, and not a moment too soon. Not because doomsday has arrived, Morton clarifies, but because what we call “the world”—a place that revolves around human beings and is defined by what we can see and feel—is simply too small to cope with reality anymore. Faced with massive forces whose impacts defy our physical perceptions, from global warming and extinction events to the Covid-19 pandemic, our parochial idea of the world falls away like the set of a movie being torn down.

Morton, a kind-faced, 53-year-old professor and author with uncannily penetrating blue eyes, has spent the past nine years teaching in the English department at Rice University in Houston, Texas. But they are known less for their contributions to Romantic scholarship—which are many and insightful—and more as a kind of poet-philosopher for our age of ecological crisis. In 2008, Morton was struck by a strange, existential feeling, one that helped them formulate a word for phenomena that are too vast and fundamentally weird for humans to wrap their heads around. If you’ve spent any time on more metaphysically inclined corners of the internet, you may have encountered the term: hyperobjects. When Morton sat down to write a book on the subject in 2012, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World poured out of them in just 15 days.

Examples of hyperobjects include: black holes, oil spills, all plastic ever manufactured, capitalism, tectonic plates, and the solar system. Hyperobjects are often ancient or destined to be, like the sum total of Styrofoam and plutonium we have littered across the Earth over the past century, which will remain for millennia. A human being may see evidence of hyperobjects—pollution here, a hurricane there—but try gazing off into the distance to see the totality of them, or to the very end of them, and they disappear into a vanishing point. Hyperobjects, as Morton says, emerge only in fragments and patches that do not always seem to connect up from our view on the ground.

It’s an enigmatic term, one whose meaning is by definition hard to grasp; it often seems more label than description. But it’s precisely those squishy, elusive qualities that give it its explanatory power. The word hyperobject offers a useful shorthand for why threats like global warming are so difficult to understand or accept: They threaten our survival in ways that defy traditional modes of thinking about reality and humiliate our cognitive powers, a disorienting shift that sends many people reeling into superstition, polarization, and denial. Hyperobjects speak to the immense, structural forces all around us, and even inside us, that we cannot see with our eyes but strive to comprehend through data or computer modeling. While they are not, in every case, bad things, the most talked-about hyperobjects tend to be the most vivid and disturbing, particularly as they clip in and out of our vision like malevolent ghosts.

Understanding these forces and responding to their urgent demands might be the greatest challenge of our time, and contemplating hyperobjects, while an often frustrating experience, can be an act of psychological reorientation. Once you grasp them, even loosely, they offer a philosophical escape route from the limitations of our poor little bodies, a way to make sense of a world that no longer makes sense, an alternative to the conspiracy theories and ­fingers-in-ears denials that have rushed to fill the void. Soon, you start seeing hyper­objects everywhere.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, reactions to Morton have been intense and polarized. Hyperobjects has (and hyperobjects have) been called “pessimistic,” “provocative,” “disempowering,” “groundbreaking,” “disturbing,” and just plain “weird.” At the same time, Morton’s ideas have found a passionate—and growing—readership outside traditional academia, drawing in everyone from artists and musicians to science fiction writers, architects, and students.

In the near-decade since its publication, Hyperobjects has been referenced in a ­Buddhist blog post about ecological crisis, a New York Times op-ed on digital privacy, and a BBC report about how concrete will soon outweigh all living matter on the planet. Technology writers invoke the term as a way to talk about the incomprehensibility of algorithms and the internet; science fiction author Jeff VanderMeer has said it neatly describes the bizarre alien phenomenon he wrote about in Annihilation, his surreal novel turned 2018 movie. The Icelandic musician Björk has reached out to Morton to talk hyperobjects, and their email correspondence became part of a MoMA exhibit. In 2019, Adam McKay, the former Saturday Night Live head writer and cocreator of a heap of hit Hollywood comedies, was so inspired by Morton’s work that he named his production company Hyperobject Industries. “You can feel your brain changing ever so slightly because you never even considered that possibility,” McKay tells me. “That’s Timothy. Every page of their writing has that feeling.”

Then Covid happened, alongside an accelerating number of devastating natural disasters attributed to climate change, and Morton’s ideas got about as popular as it’s possible for enigmatic philosophical concepts to get. They even showed up in a Canadian parliamentary debate about the pandemic. “We see something bigger than us, something bigger than we could possibly imagine,” said Charlie Angus, a member of Parliament. “Timothy Morton calls it a hyperobject, something we cannot even completely comprehend. That is the power of this pandemic.” Desperate to understand—or accept that they couldn’t understand—these huge, interconnected forces, more and more people found resonance in what Morton had to say. “Hyperobjects were already here,” as Morton wrote in their book, “and slowly but surely we understood what they were saying. They contacted us.”

The message some readers heard in the arrival of these phenomena was a frightening one: Look upon our works, ye mighty, and despair. But there’s another message in Morton’s book, one that Morton is increasingly extolling as hopelessness threatens to paralyze so many: Our sense of “the world” might be ending, but humans are not doomed. In fact, the end of this limited notion of the world may also be the only thing that can save us from ourselves.

2.

“How do you tell someone in a dream that they’re a character in a dream?” Morton asks the first time I meet them. We are in the same small Houston neighborhood where I spent a year in pandemic lockdown with my brother. It’s August, and hot like Houston is always hot in the summer: so humid that walking out the front door feels like stepping into a blistering, slightly thicker dimension. Morton has picked me up in their kicky Mazda3, and we’re on our way to the Menil Collection, a museum and art collection housed in five buildings, including a chapel, across 30 acres.

Morton describes the origin of Hyper­objects as oracular—like a radio transmission sent from the future. 

Art by Frank Nitty 3000

Born in London and educated at Oxford, Morton—who moved to Texas in 2012 for the job at Rice—is soft-spoken but intense. On the day we meet, they’re wearing a shirt covered in green leaves that fade in and out of existence. There’s no way to persuade people in a dream to wake up, Morton tells me as we set out across sprawling highways, the stereo blasting a mix of ’70s prog rock, deep house, and shoegaze. “You can’t negotiate with them. You’ve got to blow their minds.”

Talking with Morton, much like reading their writing, is a slightly psychedelic experience full of poetic leaps and circumlocutory spirals through a dizzying array of topics: Star Wars, Buddhist meditation, Romantic poetry, David Lynch, quantum physics, The Muppet Show. One moment they’re talking about planet death and the finer points of Heidegger and Derrida, and the next they’re persuasively explaining to me why P.M. Dawn’s 1991 R&B hit “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss” is one of the greatest artistic achievements of all time, and why Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon is a radically democratic ecological being that “announces the possibility of a new age.” None of it is non sequitur, but the ideas can feel just out of reach, like a magic-eye picture that’s on the cusp of snapping into view. Because Morton so often talks about things that cannot be talked about directly, the only way to locate them is to orbit around them, gesturing with metaphors that almost touch but not quite.

Morton describes the origin of Hyper­objects as oracular. When the idea for it popped into their head, Morton says, it felt like a radio transmission sent from the future. Not a fully formed idea, but a sense of waking up inside a stack of looming, massive systems that surrounded them and penetrated them. “I was like, what the fuck is that?” Morton says, as we slow to a stop in the midst of Houston’s infamous traffic.

The word itself was inspired not by computer science—“hyperobject” is sometimes used to describe higher-dimension geometry in computer graphics—but by a more pop-cultural source: “Hyperballad,” an ethereal song by Björk. In it, the musician sings about cathartically throwing random objects off a cliff and imagining herself as the forks and spoons and car parts hitting the ground. To be hyper is to be or to come from beyond, much like the eccentric songwriter and her music. “I think I’ve had your music and words in me for decades,” Morton wrote in one of their emails to Björk. “You have so many nonhuman beings in your work.” Morton sees her as something of a kindred spirit. As Morton puts it to me: “I think she is from the future. I try to be.”

Morton’s frenzied two-week composition of Hyperobjects involved no notes and gushed out of them like sweat, full of tactile metaphors that tried to capture the experiential strangeness of what it means to be inside one. “I feel like Neo in The Matrix,” Morton wrote in the first chapter, “lifting to his face in horrified wonder his hand coated in the mirror-like substances into which the doorknob has dissolved, as his virtual body begins to disintegrate.” Morton, who had spent much of their early career writing about Romantic literature and food, had already been interested in ecological theory, but now they were moving into even wilder territory: a controversial philosophical movement called object-oriented ontology.

According to this school of thought, everything that exists is an object—forks, spoons, car parts, cats, America, global warming, human beings—and all objects are equally deserving of attention. The stance rejects humans as the super-special only children of the universe, instead favoring a kind of equality between all things. As Morton looked deeper into object-oriented ontology, they realized it was part of what they had been thinking and feeling all along. They quickly became one of the most prominent thinkers in the field. “I’d never been a part of a little group like that,” Morton says. “I’ve usually felt pretty different from people.” Suddenly everything fell into place: “Click click click.”

Lots of Morton’s readers felt that way too. “I said the word, and then everyone said, ‘Can you come to our school and say the word hyperobjects, please?’” Morton recalls. It was the concept that everyone had been missing, the one that pinned down the overwhelming feeling of something so big and complex that you can’t see it, even and especially as it surrounds—and often terrifies—you.

When I picked up Hyperobjects for the first time, during lockdown, I was struck by the holy dread that permeated almost every page. Hyperobjects were “demonic,” “monstrous,” “menacing,” “traumatic,” “humiliating,” and “horrifying,” akin to the skin-crawling, non-Euclidean monsters of H. P. Lovecraft, creatures so alien and disturbing that to look upon them could shatter the mind. It wasn’t light reading, particularly during a deadly pandemic while isolated in a strange city that, itself, seemed to be falling apart. (This past February, a cold snap took out Houston’s inadequate power grid, killing hundreds.) Hyperobjects often felt like a ghost story: tales of otherworldly yet deeply familiar horror that I would stay up late to read.

I wasn’t alone in this feeling. Some of Morton’s loudest detractors accused Hyper­objects, with its talk of looming, invisible aliens and impending disaster, of being too bleak and pessimistic—the end of the world was right there in the subtitle, after all. As the academic Elizabeth Boulton put it in 2016, trying to sum up the reactions with scholarly neutrality: Morton’s work is “intended to awaken people abruptly, but debate exists as to whether Morton’s approach is too harsh and disempowering, or whether it is the spur required for humans to adjust cognitively and emotionally to a new climate reality.” It was a fair question, and one even Morton began to ask themself. What, in the final analysis, was the impact of their work? Were they waking people up or just scaring the shit out of those who were already suffering?

3.

Morton and I make our way across the impossibly perfect grass outside the Menil Collection and into the main gallery space, where we pause before a work called Turbulence (black), by the artist Mona Hatoum. Thousands of variously sized glass marbles, arranged on a dark, round mat, seem to undulate like boiling water, or maybe spacetime in a black hole. “This could be an example of hyperobject art,” Morton tells me. “It looks like everything is moving.” Morton loves movement, depth, and the beauty that comes out of it. “The beauty of hyperobjects always has this spooky uncanniness … It’s spooky edging on fear.”

When I mention the visceral chill of dread I felt while reading Hyperobjects, Morton looks me deeply in the eyes, their face serious and empathetic. “How much money can I give you to apologize for this fear?” They are kidding about the money, probably, but not about their sense of responsibility to me and to their many other readers—and particularly to the younger generation, including their 12-year-old son and 17-year-old daughter. “History is weighing on them so much more than anybody else, and they need to know that they’re not going to die inside,” Morton says, their voice cracking with emotion.

Growing up was a struggle for Morton, perpetually unsure about where they belonged. Gender was especially confusing. They didn’t identify with maleness, particularly the locker room vibe of their British private school, but weren’t romantically interested in boys either, so “gay” didn’t seem to fit. Over the years, they’ve accidentally bought women’s clothes or shoes, and only realized it later by the odd looks they got from other people. When the word nonbinary made its way into mainstream consciousness, it hit Morton like a thunder­clap. “I saw it in The New York Times and thought, ‘Oh my God, that’s me,’” Morton says. Everything made sense, and the procrustean constraints of gender fell away. Like Neo, Morton says, they got to wake up. They cried with relief. Click click click.

Although most of their friends, family, and students were supportive when Morton came out, strangers were not always so kind. After wearing sparkly silver nail polish to the supermarket one day, Morton acquired a stalker. They woke the next morning to find a newspaper on their porch, open to a story about a 19th-century woman who dressed as a man. Someone had also crept inside Morton’s carport and left a bag of feces for them to find. It happened several more times.

“In any other previous society, I would have been executed, I think,” Morton says, “for my gender and for the thoughts in my head.” The sense of incongruence, of not fitting into the categories and dogma that seemed to define the world, was often punishing—but also, perhaps, led them more intuitively to boundary-pushing philosophical spaces that others might never have imagined, or might have feared to tread in. The humbling, bizarre, destabilizing nature of hyperobjects was always going to be something that many people wanted to reject on its face. Indeed, many have.

When Morton began talking about hyperobjects a decade ago, their goal was to offer people a dose of disquietude in hopes of inoculating them against the growing weirdness and terror of being alive, while startling them awake to the unprecedented geotrauma taking place around them. “I wanted people to feel some anxiety,” Morton admits. “Some people on this planet need to transition to a horror space” in order to get to a new way of thinking, of seeing, of taking action.

But by 2020, the horror space had arrived all on its own in the form of fire, flood, and deadly plague. As Morton tried to cope—and watched students and other young people do the same—the idea of jolting people awake felt unnecessary, even cruel. While working on a BBC radio series in 2020 titled The End of the World Has Already Happened, Morton says they met a member of the youth wing of the environmental movement Extinction Rebellion who told them, “You can’t say that to us. There has to be a world. You can’t say that to Generation Z.”

Morton wouldn’t write Hyperobjects again today, they say, or not the same way. They don’t want to scare people anymore—things are already scary enough. Morton starts to choke up again as they talk about how badly they want something better for the next generation. Morton, too, has suffered from depression, even struggled with suicidal thoughts; they know how dangerous despair can be. “How dare I patronize people who are suffering?” Morton says. “How dare I make them feel powerless and evil one more second? I know what that feels like in my own life.”

4.

Despite Morton’s concerns, I don’t think of Hyperobjects as an entirely pessimistic book. Even though certain parts of it leave me haunted and a little bit freaked out, there’s something about discovering the language for a feeling, being able to name it, that is empowering—a way of finding a handhold in the dim light of confusion rather than scrambling around in the dark.

Beyond the existential terror that hyperobjects can inspire, another common criticism is that the term is so sweeping and inclusive that it could be applied too broadly, to any object of sufficient size and complexity. Depending on your perspective, almost anything can be a hyperobject, can be inside one, or both. That doesn’t make the concept meaningless, though; it means that the deep reality of your everyday world is quietly full to bursting with the uncanny, both familiar and alien in equal measure. If you start recognizing hyperobjects everywhere you go, then Morton has, on some level, succeeded—in changing your perspective, in reorienting your ontology.

Global warming might be a hyperobject, then, but so are the Florida Everglades, Earth’s biosphere, and perhaps the infrastructure of the internet. “They’re not necessarily evil, hyperobjects,” as Morton points out. “Some of them are causing a lot of damage, but they’re titans; they’re not gods. They’re really big, but they’re finite, so they can be defeated.” On a collective scale, human beings can even create new ones that have the power to push back. The #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, and climate movements are hyperobjects, too, that Morton says “showed up right on time” as human-led, planet-scale mobilizations ready to transform society. Although hyperobjects may insist that we understand, or at least live within, a world where humans are no longer as powerful as we once imagined, no longer the protagonists in the story of creation, they also offer something in return: intimacy.

“The feeling of connecting to people, of being connected and enjoying it—from there, you could launch a bigger, less violent revolutionary politics,” Morton says as they drive me home at the end of our eight-hour day together. Anxiety about things like climate disaster, Covid, or structural oppression may be inevitable, but rather than wallowing in fear, guilt, despair, or soul-crushing statistics, Morton hopes we’ll consider new ways of coexisting, both with other people and with all other beings on the planet. If we can find it in ourselves to give up our need to dominate, control, and exploit everything around us, Morton says, we might find a way to care for and take more pleasure in each other, in the world around us, and in life itself. “Traumatized people like me are actually really helpful for this moment because they understand what it means to live in survival mode,” Morton says. “We can help people by modeling how to step away.”

There’s even levity to be found in this reorientation. As McKay—whose latest film under his Hyperobject Industries production banner, the apocalyptic comedy Don’t Look Up, comes out in December—tells me, “Sometimes I’m just laughing when I’m reading Timothy’s work—they’re really funny. Laughter is one of the best tools to get near this mouth-agape, unabashed confusion.” Or, as Björk puts it when she explains Morton to her friends: Morton is “swerving the apocalyptic angle into hope” and “has a lot of humor too, which is incredible.”

In recent months, Morton has expanded their ideas into new areas of thought, publishing books like All Art Is Ecological, a survey of their ideas that examines how art can help us cope with and reimagine the world; Spacecraft, which explores the Millennium Falcon as a metaphor for the things that can help us make the jump to a more progressive space; and Hyposubjects (cowritten with the anthropologist Dominic Boyer), which considers what a new kind of existence could look like in the times to come. In true Morton fashion, hyposubject is another enigmatic, Greek-plus-Latin term, and one that’s still in development. But as far as I can tell, it refers to the opposite of the sorts of humans who have ushered in the age of hyperobjects. Rather than domineering bullies who “get very high on the supply of their own dominion” or greedy vampires who suck the world dry for personal gain, they’re outsiders who live in the cracks and often stealthily dismantle the systems that are killing us. “They play, they care, they adapt, they hurt, they laugh,” Morton and Boyer write. Above all, hyposubjects reject the myopic, comforting myth that any one person is over here while everyone and everything else is over there.

Although Morton has grown to love Texas, they marvel at how often Texans seem to think their connection to the world begins “only when you leave the front door,” Morton says. If the radical, “rugged” individualism of the state, and America at large, insists on anything, it is that our fates and our suffering are defined only by our personal choices, not by invisible, systemic forces pressing down upon us or the people and things around us. This can make us feel powerful and in control; it is also what alienates us from each other and leaves us ill-prepared to cope with hyperobjects. Perhaps that’s why some people react so angrily to Morton’s work, to the idea that we are bound inextricably to each other. It makes us vulnerable.

But embracing this kind of intimacy may not be as difficult as we think, or only as difficult as we think; realizing that we are all in this hyperobject together—potentially, ultimately, as modest hyposubjects—does not require a deep spiritual conversion or an arduous journey. We do not need to walk on our knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting, as the poet Mary Oliver once wrote, to exist in solidarity with other beings. We already do, and we already are. We just need to accept it. As Morton says, “We’re being born now”—standing on the precipice not of becoming post-human, but of becoming truly human for the first time.


Grooming by Stefani Pitts
Source Images: Getty Images

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