Transcription: highlights from Timothy Morton’s Q&A session after ‘On Entering the Anthropocene’

On Friday, August 24th 2012 Tim Morton gave a rapid fire talked entitled ‘On Entering the Anthropocene’ as part of the launch of the new UNSW based journal of Environmental Humanities. I went along to the talk which was typical of Morton’s style, way too fast to keep up with (for me, at least). But after his short paper he spent a long period in discussion (though it was more like a discursive monologue with occasional input from those of us in the audience) that elaborated on some incredibly compelling ideas.

So taken was I by the Q&A section that I decided to transcribe some of the best portions of the talk (which ended up being, as you can see, quite a lot of it). The recording of the talk is available here, and the Q&A portion starts at around 30 minutes into the recording, so he spoke off-the-cuff in Q&A for far longer than the paper. The following transcription is riddled with the relics of spoken word, lots of pauses and ‘like’s and other phrases that don’r work as well in writing as they do in speaking, so your mileage may vary. The ideas Morton covered give, I suspect, a good idea of the direction he is going in with his forthcoming book Realist Magic, due out sometime next year, presumably. I have focussed solely on Tim’s answers, so refer to the MP3 for the questions that provoked these monologues, and the few timestamps I have included refer to that file. Because of the nature of transcription and because I focussed solely on the answers that most interested me, there are gaps and inaccuracies throughout. I encourage you to consult the original recording when in doubt or if anything seems mistaken, all transcription errors are my own.

Morton starts by answering a question from the audience…

****

[30:50]

“Ecological awareness, to me, is a kind of reflexive openness to… ‘strange strangers’. To these entities… DNA it’s made of things that aren’t DNA… rabbits are made of things that aren’t rabbits. So a rabbit is also a not-rabbit. In order to be a rabbit it’s also not-a-rabbit, it’s made of bones and… the legbone is connected to the headbone and the headbone is connected to the footbone… and the footbone is connected to the… toxic waste bone. And so… then we have at a slightly bigger scale… we have ecosystems, and they are sets of lifeforms aren’t they? And things that are made of lifeforms, like rocks, and things that are basically deposits of iron and oxygen, which is basically deposits of bacteria from billions of years ago. And these sets contain things that aren’t them… so it seems to me that lifeforms and the sets they comprise, like ecosystems and biomes… biosphere… exemplify Russell’s worst nightmare, which is the set of things that aren’t members of themselves. So in order to think ecologically we have to accept that some things, at least some things in reality are self-contradictory. This means that we need a logic that is not about reducing things to non-contradiction.

Section gamma of the metaphysics asserts that… something can’t be itself and not itself at the same time, but it’s never really been rigorously proved, people have just accepted this as a kind of rule of logic. And you sort of have to think, well can we have wisdom? When I hear wisdom, there’s part of me thinks ‘that means outside of logic’, but I think actually maybe we can have a logic that is not that way trying to boil everything down to non-selfcontradictory things. All the incredible discoveries of the 19th century, like Evolution… and also Cantor’s transfinite sets, are entities that you can’t directly point to, that consist of other entities that aren’t them. You can’t actually see the difference between a proto-parrot and a parrot, you can never see evolution happening. Nevertheless there are parrots and there are chimps and there are nematode worms. And there are discrete, unique beings. And the sort of joke…. If only Darwin had had emoticons it would’ve be easier for us to understand what he’s up to because he could have said, ‘The Origin of Species wink’ 😉 The punchline being there are no species and they have no origin.

I personally, I’m with Graham Priest of Melbourne who thinks that you can be perfectly logical and have self-contradiction. So within logic you can find this wisdom, but it means you have to go back, you have to go past, underneath, Aristotle, but it also means you have to accept some of the things that were discovered in the 19th Century, such as precisely these things that I call hyperobjects. Like the very first one, weather wise, was El Niño, this weather pattern in the pacific that creates all this trouble in America, it’s a symptom of global warming really, but it’s an entity you can’t actually see it but you can think it. Like the notion of rational vs real numbers. Somehow the set of real numbers contains the set of rational numbers but there’s no continuity between them. So we have a set of things that aren’t sort of… totally continuous. So this was Russell’s big problem…  And so if we’re going to have ecological awareness, we have to start accepting that things are sort of uncanny which also means familiarly strange, which means they are themselves and not themselves at the same time. So to me that is what wisdom would be. It would be accepting that it’s perfectly logical, it’s not outside of logic, to allow things to be self-contradictory. You just have to drop a prejudice that doesn’t work… the kind of metalanguage police of the early 20th Century, Tarsky, all those guys, tried to say “Oh well those sets aren’t really sets. They’re something else.” For Tarsky, the liar is…  is not a sentence. Because you have decided, metalinguistically, that it’s not a sentence. Okay great Mister Tarsky, now I can invent a sentence that will blow your one up: “This is not a sentence.” And so begins this kind of arms race between these viral, self-contradictory sentences, another example would be Gödel’s incompleteness theorem. Every logical system, in order to be true on its own terms, has to have at least one statement in to that cannot be proved. Something like “This statement cannot be proved.” In order to be TRUE!

And it seems to me that, also life-forms, and just regular, nonliving, physical objects have this kind of inner-fragility. There’s at least one magic silver bullet that could kill you. And death in this way, or destruction, just means you would become the other thing. When Wiley Coyote eats road runner, road runner becomes Wiley Coyote. That’s the definition of being destroyed. When the opera singer sings a certain frequency of note, the glass sort of shimmies a little bit and then… poof… it’s a not-glass. It’s been translated by the soundwaves somehow. So it his this kind of inner Achilles heel, a fragile sort of wound. And I think this wound is the difference between an object and itself. It’s that self-contradictoriness because, on this view things are not what they appear all the way down. So that even if they were…. Totally physically isolated they would be themselves and not themselves at the same time.

You can isolate a tiny, tiny object that’s actually really big from a quantum point of view. You can isolate a tiny little tuning fork that’s like 30microns long you can put it in a vacuum very close to absolute zero, that’s pretty much operationally closed… what you see is this thing sort of breathing.

This is Aaron O’Connnell, he’s got this Ted Talk ‘making sense of a visible quantum object’. It’s not quantum it’s actually macro scale, this shouldn’t work from a Neils Bohr point of view. What you see is this little tiny thing, you can see it with your eye…

[[ Tim then elaborated on the TED talk he mentioned, which I believe is this one ]]

“When you isolate a physical system it seems to go into coherence. Which means it’s here but also not here at the same time.”

“At bottom… existing means contradicting yourself. And ceasing to exist means becoming consistent.”

[42:20]

“Everything is sort of translating everything else.”

[[Gives the example of carpet ‘carpetromorphising’ me, me anthropomorphising carpet, etc.]]

[43:30]

“This kind of irreducible gap between the way something is and the way it appears, even to itself… the way something is is ‘futural’. Like think about reading a poem. You don’t know what it means yet, this is why you read it. Then once you’ve read it, you might have another reading of it. So the meaning of the poem is always in the future. I think it’s also the same with anything. It’s the same with grass. It’s the same with seagulls. It’s the same with my hair. It’s the same with moles, it’s the same with money. The essence of a thing is the future. And the form of a thing just is the past, on this view. The way something has been shaped, or moulded, the way something appears is the past. This makes sense from an Einstein point for view, but also an Aristotelian point of view. Formal causation just is the way something has been formed. So on this view, there’s a kind of temporality that doesn’t have the present… I’m sorry… now I’m doing ecology without the present… The present is a kind of optical illusion, it’s like a kind of relative motion. You’ve got these two trains… one is the past, one is the future, they’re sliding past each other they don’t ever touch each other because essence and appearance don’t touch… but the relative motion caused by both things sliding over each other is what we call present. And we can kind of metaphysically say, this is now, this microsecond, this dot, this atom of time… or this bigger thing, this blob, this year, this century, this millennium. Whatever we do is always a kind of arbitrary construct that’s always subject to sorites paradoxes. In other words, you can always do a Zeno on any atomic version of time where you’ve got little atoms of present’s moving one side to other… so if you drop that, you’ve got the past and the future moving.”

[[ Tim talks about hyperobjects, objects “so big and so futural” ]]

[46:20]

“Thinking into the future… this is my version of it… Art is like a message in a bottle from the future. It’s like Percy Shelly says, poems actually do come from the future, I truly believe that, I’m not just talking gibberish and I think I just explained why I think that’s true…

[47:00]

“Thinking is always into the future, in that sense, because there is always an encounter with non-identity in thinking. That’s where I actually really love Adorno, because his whole thing is that really thinking something is encountering something that’s not identical, otherwise you’re just moving pre-arranged stuff on a grid, that you’ve pre-established, that’s not really thinking that’s just manipulating pre-formed objects. Which is basically the past. They’re living in the past, from my point of view. So thinking is always into the future, I just think that ecological awareness – which is just realising that we coexist with many other nonhuman beings that are not necessarily living or sentient – is futural. So unlike Latour, I do think we have been Modern, we have been thinking we are just about to hit the… it was bad then, and now it’s gonna work, just another little final thing! …I think we really have been modern, and we are kind of waking up form that and realising that ever time we do that we were just going round this Mobius strip, not moving at all.

Thinking the future is thinking ecologically, and obviously it means transcending the horrifying stuff that’s happening right now… one of those things is the way capitalism is organised.

[49:00]

[[ At this point I asked Tim a question about his views on whether he is a materialist, what he thinks of matter, etc ]]

“When I hear the word matter what I hear is… a kind of… perspective trick. Matter is what something was made out of, but when I look for matter it’s the same as when I look for nature. Like when I look for nature I see bunny rabbits, trees, mountains, bacteria… but I never see this thing called nature, it’s always off the edge of the list somewhere… else. When I look for matter I see photographs of cloud diffusion patterns in cloud diffusion chambers, I see drawings of nuclei, I see stones, I see cement, I see flesh, I never see this thing called matter. Matter is the object that something was made out of (or objects). So on this view, materialism is a kind of correlationism, to be very technical about it. What materialism does is it both, in Graham Harman’s words, undermines things… to some smaller or larger thing that’s more real. Tables aren’t really tables; they’re actually made of wood. Then by definition the wood is more real than the table. Wood isn’t really wood, it’s made of cells. Cells aren’t really cells they’re made of molecules. Molecules aren’t really molecules they’re made of atoms. Atoms aren’t really atoms they’re made of quanta. Quanta aren’t really quanta, they’re made of fluctuations in the void. What have you just done? You’ve just gone to nihilism, because you’ve just decided that the most real and fundamental thing is this void, with quantum fluctuations. Or you can say that the  table is just an instantiation of a table process, or some kind of life force, or some kind of Bergson/Deleuze way of doing it… there’s this flow of something (Spinoza), as a substance and it extrudes itself as a table. The substance is more real than the table. So that would be undermining.

Then overmining… the table is a discursive produce of my cultural make up, or it’s a figment of my imagination or it’s a mind projection, or it’s a moment of my consciousness. Going upwards also you encounter the void, eventually. Because you say, well it’s not really a table it’s my positing of the table as a table, it’s not really positing, it’s my self-reflexive act of positing myself. It’s not really myself it’s a pure ‘I’ positing itself in a void. You’ve also gone to a void, upwards. So I think that in general, materialism is both those things together. It’s saying this thing isn’t really a thing, it looks like it’s a thing to you but actually it’s made of these other things that are more real because they’re smaller or bigger. And it’s just saying, well small things are better than big things, or medium sized things. Or big things are better than medium size things. And I’m sticking up for medium sized things, like people, chimps, bacteria, elephants, polar bears, ocean, y’know… just that idea. And so I’m happier with the idea that there’s a possible infinite regress. I thin the anxiety is “oh my god you never get back… you want to get back to the beginning”. But if we are trying to go past metaphysics you can’t have a beginning thing at all. So you have to accept the possibility that there’s an infinite regress of entities. It may not be the case, but it’s possible – it’s thinkable that there might be an inifintesimal, like liveness(???), number of little thingies inside me. That basically everything is a Tardis. Y’know Dr Who’s Tardis? … Everything is bigger on the inside than the outside. Everything is like that, from this point of view. And I’m happier with that than the idea that everything is made out of some primal thing. That seems to be a hangover from a kind of scholastic, Neoplatonic, Aristoteleanism. That saying there’s a kind of fundamental first cause that is the cause of itself. But this is what Hume and Kant just blew out of the water, this idea that you can just have these factoids like “Everything must have a cause!” Now what we have are just correlations of data. So you can’t really do that anymore, it’s just we’re really addicted to it. And the trouble is the addiction has political, social, therefore ecological consequences. So I think for example the Higgs-Boson, what did they really discover? They discovered some statistically meaningful data that fit with the standard model. But from my point of view, this Higgs-Boson is a kind of hysterical symptom of a correlationist view. Because from that kind of quantum theory, which is standard model, it’s saying the measuring device makes it real, there’s nothing really happening it’s just that when you measure it, it becomes real so…measuring it is more real than what’s measured. So you’re a metaphysician there. You’ve just decided that measuring is more real than what you’ve measured… so you’re an overminer from that point of view. But then if everything is like that, what’s holding it all together? And so along comes this Higgs-Boson, that somehow magically particles pass through this Higgs field, which just so happens to be evenly distributed throughout space-time so you can’t see it… well what does this remind you of? The ether. It’s back… partying like it’s 1759. But, with billions and billions of dollars! “We just need another… 4-more gig of electron volts and we’ll get it. Just give us another 60 million and we’ll find the ultimate particle.” And you can easily do a Locke on that, right. You’ve got this field of particles… and what’s surrounding that? The whole kind of deconstruction of the notion of the ether. The ether is made of particles at some point, well what’s the ether around those? You have some kind of infinite regress problem.

So I think… you always end up with… you need something to fill in the gap in the theory. Unless you just accept there are quarks, there are giraffes. Giraffes are not reducible to quarks, and so… there’s a kind of tardis quality to a giraffe. I’m happier with that. So I’m not a materialist.

[57:50]

“There’s this conversation with nihilism going on. Everybody’s terrified of it, or embracing it, or something. And it seems to me that once you’ve decided there’s a gap between how thing are and how they appear you’ve let the nothingness genie out of the bottle. You’ve decided there’s a lot of little holes in reality and now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall, and it’s all very disturbing. And I used to think that nihilism was a problem that we had to kind of surmount. But now I think it’s more like a problematic that we have to kind of go underneath-through… underneath it. And so basically this is a long way of saying ‘I haven’t got a clue. I’m just road-testing it.’”

[1:00:30]

“Since there is no real rigid boundary between life and non life, in my view, all entities are kind of ‘un-dead’. So a more accurate picture of reality would not be nature in particular, or even environment, but something more like a charnal ground. There’s a sort of thing that many different styles of Tibetan Buddhism do, in particular Turd(??), which is generated by Madrick Labdrun(??) who is one of the Sidhes (which means ‘highly accomplished people’, in what we would call the middle ages) and their whole thing was to try and stay in these horrible places… I’ve been in some, you’ve got bits of limbs. They just chop you up and leave you there for the vultures. It’s the ultimate ecological burial… There’s this guy called the Sky Butcher and he just chops you into little pieces, there’s no burning. So there’s all kinds of ideas that there’s these demons and ghosts and the whole idea is to kind of co-exist in that space. And I think… Nature and human are like small, rather arbitrarily constructed regions of this much bigger space which is more like… the modern would be an emergency room. There’s lots of blood, and there’s lots of pain. As a depression person… I think that…

[1:02:00]

[[ Tim then talks about Goths and depression (as one stage of grief) ]]

“Depression could be, to go back to the wisdom thing, it could be sort of frozen wisdom. I’m just a traditional Freudian, I think melancholia is a default state of being something at all, because to be something is to be marked by something else. You have inner wounds, which just are your ego. As Freud says the ego is the precipitator of abandoned object kathexies…

[1:03:30]

“I’m just trying to trick americans into it… trying to find some kind of clever way to get Americans to give a shit… about reducing their carbon footprint… inside the depression is what I’m calling ‘sadness’ which is the sort of feeling of connection with at least one other entity. But unconditional. Like when you examine Kantian beauty, it’s an experience of an object-like thing, but… you can’t point to it, but it’s not objectified, but it’s not you… it’s a footprint of something non-human inside your psychic space. And it’s sad, by definition, because you can’t hold onto it, it’s ungraspable. Like if you could specify ‘oh, it’s the smile of the Mona Lisa that makes it beautiful’ you could make a million Photoshop versions… jpg’s of the smile, and that would be a million times more beautiful than the Mona Lisa. Or if you could say, “Oh it’s actually my brain chemistry, I’m getting off on my brain”, then you could isolate the active ingredient of that, you could make a little pill… lets call it MDMA. Just arbitrarily… you take a thousand of those it’s a thousand times better than the feeling of beauty, but that doesn’t work either.

[1:05:00]

“There’s a certain je ne sais quios, you can’t point to it, you can’t impose it on anybody, so there’s a certain sadness in the feeling of beauty. You can’t hold onto it. And that’s coexistence, underneath. I think that the human experience of this is like a chocolate, you’ve got the frosting on the outside which is guilt, inside that is the shame… then inside that is the depression, which is the frozen liquid centre the cherry flavoured… inside that is the real liquid, which is the sadness… that’s what it mostly depends on. Just coexisting with 1+n other beings. And that’s what we need to hit, or to tune to, or allow to tune us, if we’re to get through this thing we created… and also other species.”

[1:09:00]

[[ Tim gives the example of a “chimp” and the only thing that a chimp needs to do to ‘evolve’ is to pass on its DNA/genes, etc. ]]

[1:12:00]

“But I’m trying to convince… pseudo-sophisticated nihilists inside the American academy that it’s really cool to think that was, not really primitive…”

[1:12:50]

“You can have even more irony when you have a trickster nature… underneath the tragedy level, underneath the sadness even, there’s a kind of comedy level.”

[[ Underneath the tragedy sadness level, Tim suggests is a comedy level ]]

[1:13:00]

“Trying to trick people into that, rather than saying “you must abandon all your modern stuff” …people go into defiance when you tell them directly the modern age is all fucked up… or tey get really religious about that…”

“I must totally change my entire way of being!” Well that is just modernity.

[1:17:00]

[[ Around this point I asked Tim a question about the best way to convince Americans in love with the notion of individualism to believe in collectives, aggregates, and objects that are larger than single human entities ]]

“How do you convince individualists they’re actually a part of something larger than themselves… well they actually love that feeling, a certain version of that (which is basically Fascism)… which is a feeling of being part of something bigger.

“There’s basically two views of religion: Battaille, philosophy of religion, he says you can think relgion means feeling that you are part of something bigger, and I’m totally integrated into that… now in my view you can never be totally integrated into something bigger, there’s always a gap between a chair and a set of chairs. So there’s America and there’s capitalism and there’s me, and then there’s groups within that and they’re all discrete in some strange way, and there’s the biosphere… but it’s not a completely functioning, totally integrated holistic machine. But Americans actually love that, they love the idea that they are totally dissolved like sugar in water, into something bigger. So you’ve got to defeat that one…

What both those thing are warding off is what Battaille says religion actually is, which I think is really cool. Which is that it’s a kind of search for a lost intimacy. It’s intimacy. Intimacy is not feeling part of something bigger, it’s coexisting in a vulnerable fragile sort of way with at least one other entity. And intimacy is what we need in ecological awareness, not feeling like we’re part of something bigger, we need some kind of intimacy.

[1:19:20]

“What we’re warding off in that joyful, ecstatic immersion in the Big Other is the uncertainty of just encountering a unique being. So the basic message of Levinas or even some forms of Christianity or some forms of Buddhism is an intimacy with another being… which could be yourself. Like the basic definition of meditation, which is getting used to reality, which isn’t you. The Tibetan for it is ‘Gom’ which means becoming accustomed to or acclimatised to. So your basically just getting used to reality. You are being intimate with… it… for as long as you can stand…”

[1:20:50]

“So you have to deal with non-violence, which is allowing things to coexist, including yourself, on a very fundamental level… with a lot more different beings than just humans, and even nonhumans, even non-living or non-sentient beings. So… you have to tap into… if it’s about convincing Americans… you have to tap into the quite cool aspect of Americanness, which is “Just let us be weird, anarchsitsitc, weird puritans in the forest, being weird… Just let me be weird on my own, I’m not bothering anybody… just let me be a weird non-violent guy with a big beard”. If you tap into that it sort of works a little bit, because they get the anarchy thing. But they love the totality thing, which is a symptom of the individualism…

“Individualism is different from uniqueness… there are rules about what constitutes an OK lawn…”

[[ Apparenty in some states you can be arrested for lawns that are not regulation – wtf? ]]

[[ Tim thinks there should be more public spaces where you can be introverted in public ]]