Micah Saul: This project is built on a hypothesis. There are moments in history when the status quo fails. Political systems prove insufficient, religious ideas unsatisfactory, social structures intolerable. These are moments of crisis.
Aengus Anderson: During some of these moments, great minds have entered into conversation and torn apart inherited ideas, dethroning truths, combining old thoughts, and creating new ideas. They’ve shaped the norms of future generations.
Saul: Every era has its issues, but do ours warrant The Conversation? If they do, is it happening?
Anderson: We’ll be exploring these sorts of questions through conversations with a cross-section of American thinkers, people who are critiquing some aspect of normality and offering an alternative vision of the future. People who might be having The Conversation.
Saul: Like a real conversation, this project is going to be subjective. It will frequently change directions, connect unexpected ideas, and wander between the tangible and the abstract. It will leave us with far more questions than answers because after all, nobody has a monopoly on dreaming about the future.
Anderson: I’m Aengus Anderson.
Saul: And I’m Micah Saul. And you’re listening to The Conversation.
Aengus Anderson: Well, we’ve had eight phenomenal interviews
Micah Saul: Yup.
Anderson: I feel like I say this every time, but this will be like nothing else we’ve heard.
Saul: Yeah. Absolutely. Today we’re talking to Dr. Timothy Morton who for a few more days is in Davis and then will be heading down to Rice University in Texas. Dr. Morton was a recommendation from a friend.
Anderson: And a lucky recommendation that was.
Saul: Yeah. There’s no way in hell we’d have found him.
Anderson: No. You mentioned awhile ago the idea of the polymath. He’s a polymath.
Anderson: Like, we have not met yet. We’ve corresponded and we’ve done a lot of research on his work. This guy brings so many different fields of thought together. His background is in English. He studied Shelley, but he’s also studied sort of the social construction of diet. He’s studied ecology and ideas of—
Saul: Published two books on ecology.
Anderson: Yeah, two books. And he’s thought a lot about nature and the arbitrary divide between man and nature, and the ramifications of that. And he’s also put forth a theory of hyperobjects. I’m just going to throw this one over to you because I’m still trying to get my head around this so I can ask it least one intelligent question tomorrow.
Saul: As far as I can tell, hyperobjects are objects that exist on such large scale, be that temporal or spatial, that they become…you can’t talk about them in the same way you talk about other objects. And using the term “object” here sort of broadly, like maybe call them entities or even concepts, global warming being one of the big examples that he gives for a hyperobject.
Saul: Or plutonium radiation.
Anderson: So these seem like they’re very rooted in a modern technological world, at least in terms of our understanding that they’re even out there.
Anderson: They’re objects that need a new vocabulary, that really stretch the boundaries of our understanding as small organic people.
Saul: So it was his work in hyperobjects that led him to fall in with this group of people working in what they call object-oriented ontology.
Anderson: That sounds like a rough group.
Saul: Yeah, I think they probably have satin gang jackets and uh…
Anderson: They actually bowl together on weekends.
Saul: You know. If you piss them off they’ll…
Anderson: Deconstruct you?
Saul: But of one of the things that I think we’re gonna get from him, I think I think he’s going to throw our distinction of the anthropocentric and biocentric viewpoints… I think he’s gonna throw those out the window. And I think he’s going to be arguing that both of those are too shallow and that everything is related to everything else. And that seems to be the fundamental idea behind object-oriented ontology.
Anderson: This is going to be a wild ride for talking about where you get values in this universe. Especially is this purely physicalist? This seems very much secular and physicalist to me. I’ll be curious to know how he addresses the idea of value and morality. If we’re thinking about new things like hyperobjects. How do other people join that conversation? Is that conversation even something we can have? This connects to everything, like a hyperobject.
Saul: This is going to be so awesome, and I wish I was going with you.
Anderson: I think this is one we just need to plunge into and see where it goes.
Saul: Yeah. I think we’re out of our depth here, but I think it’s going to be fun.
Anderson: I think it’s possible that almost everyone listening will be out of their depth here, so I’ll try to ask the dumb questions for all of us, and we’ll see where it goes.
Timothy Morton: My background…dubious. I am a professor of English literature and also of ecology and philosophy. So I’m on your actual academic, you know. I’m sort of trying to talk to people who are not academics. Sometimes it succeeds because I actually manage to get in front of a group of people who aren’t actually students or colleagues or people who’ve come to hear me give a lecture. And I think it’s very important at this moment for anybody with a functioning nervous system to be able to say some words about the ecological emergency that we’re in. And I mean my take on it right now is that we’ve been in it for a very long time. We really have to make a very profound adjustment of how we see ourselves.
Because I mean this is a thing. 1790-ish human beings begin to depositors a thin layer of carbon in Earth’s crust and this marks the beginning of what is now called the Anthropocene by the geologist Paul Crutzen. It’s now a pretty well-established fact. And it’s this moment in which, if you think about it, human history intersects with geological time, which is tectonic plates, lava, evolution. Billions of years as opposed to just a few thousand years, if you’re looking at “the history of civilization,” which would be kinda agriculture.
So there’s a big problem which is that we’ve we’ve actually now directly intervened in Earth’s crust. We’ve caused this kinda collision between human history and geological time. You know, I guess my job, if it is a job, is to get people over the sort of speed bump of denial. I think when something as colossal as this happens, when we realize actually that something as colossal as this has already happened, that it was always already the case that we were standing on Earth despite some of our philosophical views, right. That it was always already the case that we had directly intervened in Earth’s crust even at the very moment at which Western philosophy is saying, “Oh, you can’t talk about reality. You can only talk about your access to reality,” I see these things as sort of two sides of the same coin.
It seems to me that in that situation what humans are going through mostly is the denial phase of grief. Because we’re basically admitting that we kinda lost something that we didn’t ever really have in the first place, which was this external nature as this kind of solid, stable, secure environment that acted as a kind of background against which our actions became meaningful.
So I wrote these couple of books. The first one was Ecology Without Nature, and the idea of that was that basically if we want ecological awareness, then actually we have to drop the idea of nature, which is not the same as actual coral and bunny rabbits. It’s just a human concept that distinguishes between humans and non-humans, and that is precisely the problem, right. That we think that we’re really different from other beings and we think that we have some kind of pampered special access. Or the flipside with some kind of weird evil demonic thing that the rest of reality is totally bland and neutral or whatever, or good. Either way around it’s some kind of human specialness that’s clearly part of the problem.
Aengus Anderson: What is the crisis of the present?
Morton: Wow. what is the crisis of the present? Wow. Gosh, that’s a good way putting it. I mean in a way—
Anderson: And that’s of course assuming that is one night, right—
Morton: No, right on.
Anderson: —and I think a lot of really would actually dispute that idea on fundamental grounds.
Morton: Right on, but even if you don’t think there is one, you still might think that there is a crisis as to what constitutes the present. I mean, even if you don’t think that there is a crisis it’s because you precisely think that the present is not affected yet by something that you could consider to be a crisis, right. So even for that kind of person, there is a crisis in terms of the need to assess or reassess or kind of evaluate or discriminate, discern, what this thing called “present” is, right. And it pertains directly to this ecological issue. Does “present” mean you and me sitting here in this hour-long window, talking? Does it mean today? Does it mean this week? Does it mean the early 21st century? Or does it mean the Anthropocene, a geological period that we can horrifyingly date to 1790, this sort of uncanny accuracy? Or does it mean the last 3,000 years of human history that have been predominantly agricultural, agriculture being responsible for an embarrassingly large amount of global warming carbon emissions?
So precisely the problem, at whatever scale you think it, is a problem of the present. What is this thing called “present?” And it’s a problem in another sense. In a funny way, we have too much presence on the one hand, because the mercury doesn’t go anywhere when you throw in the bin. You know it goes to the dump, you know it seeps into the groundwater, then you know it comes back into your body. You know it goes into some fish or some bird. So there’s no “away” anymore. So there’s too much intimacy.
And at the very same time there’s also a sense of unreality. These two things go together, I feel. They go together to make this really uncanny sensation that I think is the key of ecological awareness. I don’t think ecological awareness is a sort of “happy happy joy joy, we are all earthlings” thing. I think it’s actually a kind of uncanny realization. On the one hand there’s no away, on the other hand what the hell is this? “This is not my beautiful waste. This is not my beautiful toilet. This is not my beautiful Pacific Ocean.” You know, all of a sudden these things become somehow not exactly what we thought they were.
Why is it uncanny? Because we can’t jump outside the system that we’re in, right. Say for example human beings decide, “You know what, the Earth is totally screwed. We’re going to go to Mars.” What do they have to do soon as they get to Mars, as Kim Stanley Robinson the novelist has so beautifully demonstrated? They have to create the biosphere. They have exactly the same problem as they did on Earth only magnified, because now they have to build it from scratch. They haven’t gone away. They’ve still got the same problem and furthermore there’s no reverse gear for knowing, and so you can’t sort of un-know global warming facts. You can’t un-know the half-life of plutonium, which is 24.1 thousand years.
That’s the other thing. The present now includes the far future. I mean a hundred thousand years from now, 7% of global warming effects will still be around, slowly being absorbed by igneous rocks. And then there’s something like a 30,000 year timescale where you’ve got 25% of global warming effects. I mean, can you remember what life was like 30,000 years ago? That’s when they were doing the Chauvet cave paintings in that Werner Herzog film Cave of Forgotten Dreams. That’s the timescale of the half-life of plutonium, or 25% of global warming will still be around for 30,000 years.
So all of a sudden we got these huge timescales now that when you operate at that timescale, the following two things will be correct. Number one, nobody will be meaningfully related to you. So no being existing then will be meaningfully related to Aengus or Tim. Number two, everything single thing I do, including lifting up a glass of water, will have a profound impact that magnifies over time. So that’s uncanny, right, because on the one hand there’s nothing like you in the future to speak of. On the other hand, absolutely everything is influenced by the tiniest little thing you did.
So, we’ve got a big problem, you know. It’s bigger than just a social problem or just a psychological problem. Actually it’s a philosophical, ontological problem to do with what the hell is being, actually, and what does existing mean? What is this present, right? This is why as soon as I hear this phrase “crisis of the present” I think yeah, totally. It’s a subjective genitive. Not just objective genitive. It’s not that we know what the present is and there’s a crisis. It’s that we have a crisis precisely because we have totally lost the plot about what the hell the present is, you know.
I actually think that the reason why, it’s because we’re at the beginning of history. There’s some philosophers who go around saying, “Oh, it’s the end of history. It’s the clash of civilizations. The Soviet Union collapsed. Now is just going to be different ideologies fighting each other in a kind of Olympics,” you know, or some kind of postmodern pastiche, right. I think this is the beginning of history because this is a moment in which human beings, no matter who they are, where they are, make decisive contact with non-humans. It’s like kind of the aliens have landed, only they turn out to be fish and dolphins and microphones and lumps of plutonium.
Anderson: Why is this the beginning of history? Is this an awareness, a mindset change?
Morton: It’s not just a mindset change, it’s a sort of reality shift. Because we now know that human beings are intricately related with non-human beings. We know that there’s viral code insertions in our DNA that make us do things, right, all the way down to that level there are symbionts in our system, there are bacteria in my stomach. The reason why I can even be moving my lips on this semi-inane way is because there are these energy cells in my cells which are basically bacteria. They’re hiding in my cell because of the ecological catastrophe that they caused, the one we call oxygen. We know all this, right?
And whether we are hard-headed theists who believe in belief, in this kind of holding on way, or whether we hard-headed atheists who also believe in belief that way and think belief is holding on very tight to something, something has shifted, and even Pat Robertson and Richard Dawkins, who are both kind of—they sort of summoned each other into being… Even those guys have to put sunblock on their head, because the ozone layer is thin, or there’s too much ultraviolet light, or there’s too much heat because of global warming. No matter what you believe about belief anymore, there is this 100,000 year timescale we have to deal with, which isn’t the apocalypse.
I mean the idea that the world might be coming to an end… It’s already ended. This is the afterlife. The world ended in 1790 and then just to make sure we got the point, it ended in 1945 when The Gadget was exploded at Trinity. The idea of a background, of kind of neutral non-human bleah against which humans have meaning evaporates when you start directly interfering in Earth’s crust, right. There’s no background anymore, therefore there’s no foreground. That’s environmental awareness. All of a sudden there’s this is uncanny sensation of what the philosopher Heidegger calls angst. All of a sudden everything in your world goes totally, horribly, meaningless, like junk.
I’m a spokesperson for the kind of weird, slightly evil unreality feeling that happens in ecological awareness. Most people want to delete that. They want to say, “Now we are in an authentic moment where we truly recognize what’s really important.” The thing is that the first thing that happens when you go into an ecological age, I think, is a feeling of your reality just melted, in more ways than one. The the ice cap is melting, and your concept is melting. Your concept of the icecap is also melting. So we have to talk to that. We have to talk to the doubt. And we have to talk to the feeling of unreality, and we have to not push people. Instead you have to give people a sort of inner space, sort of equivalent feeling, of accepting something like global warming reality, which would be an extinction. Because of course the point about this is we’re going through the sixth mass extinction event. Five previous cataclysms is on earth. This is the sixth one. Predominantly human-caused.
If you just tell people that, they think that you’re fighting their belief system. Instead you have to work on the how. How do people believe? So I think that’s my contribution to this, it’s kind of working on getting people over that that little ledge of not accepting it because it’s very—I can only accept it for about one second a day
Anderson: To actually think of the scale.
Morton: Oh, the scale, yeah. Anything, just anything.
Anderson: And the responsibility?
Morton: And the responsibility. It’s absurd, right. It’s an absurd amount of responsibility. It’s responsibility based on just knowing something. I mean, say for example somebody’s running out into the street. And there’s a 10-ton truck hurtling towards them, and you just jump and save that person. You don’t stand there, normally, and think, “Is this the right thing to do?” You don’t analyze it carefully. “Is this person really in the street? You know, we need to have proof. There’s no proof. We only have statistical correlations.” This is how the tobacco and global warming denial industries all make their money. Because science just is correlation of statistics. You’ll never got a direct proof of a cause. That’s what scientific data is.
And so quite rightly, the denier can say that no direct link has ever been proved. Well, yeah, because David Hume blew that up. Basically, all we have are billiard balls the hit other billiard balls and they keep seeming to do it, but we called really truly know that it’s going to happen again exactly the same way. Science, yeah? God bless it.
So we can’t have science be totally responsible for telling us what we need to hear, because scientists are paid to be hesitant. They’re paid to say, Look, we don’t fully know.” It gives people a little bit of a sliver of an edge of like, “Oh, then maybe it’s not real.” Global warming science is based on unverifiability, right. I mean, the whole point is that once you save that guy who’s about to be hit by the truck, you can never check to say, “Well, would he have really been hit by the truck if I hadn’t saved him?” You just do it, right. Or you could stand there and say, “Okay, I know I should save the guy but why? He’s my cousin. He’s my grandfather. He’s my sister’s doctor’s hamster’s niece’s vet’s pediatrician.” You can widen the circle of self-interest as big as you want, but because no one is meaningfully related to you 24,000 years out, that’s not gonna work. You just jump into the street and save the guy for no reason, and in the process of doing that you think to yourself, “This is not my beautiful street. This is not my beautiful guy. This is not my beautiful saving act of amazingness.” Everybody’s become, yeah, David Byrne in Talking Heads in “Once in a Lifetime.” Everybody’s got that uncanny sensation of, “Oh, we suddenly found ourselves in the midst of our world, and it’s not really our world, and oh, weird.”
Anderson: Well, it seems like if you had a physical list attitude towards the world, this becomes…well, it’s watery. It’s difficult to pin down like, okay what’s the problem, and why should we care?
Morton: Right, right. Why should we care? Yeah, right. Why should we care? That’s the thing, you see, that we know how to solve the problem. And we know what it is. We know it’s global warming, and we know we have to stop carbon emissions. The problem is not a problem of knowledge. The problem is our us, right, in a very real way not just the fact that we did all that stuff. But the fact that we don’t have the motivation yet.
Anderson: Do you think we’re even biologically capable of thinking in scales this big?
Morton: Yeah, I truly do. I think we’re biologically capable of thinking in scales that are this big. I really do. I think we can certainly understand, with our reason, infinity, which is much bigger than any of these scales. I mean…this is Kant again. If you try to count up to infinity, you realize you can’t do it. And then you realize “Oh, but that is what infinity is. It’s a number that I can’t count up to. Oh my God, I’ve got it.” Even though I can’t see it or visualize it, I can think it, right. If I can think infinity I can so totally think a 100,000 years. You have the magic power.
But again, the problem is not so much our reason. It’s our motivation for connecting to it—
Anderson: Ah, so maybe the better question is not can we think on these scales, but can we feel on these scale.
Morton: Right. Can we feel on these scales, because the thing is data correlates together. That’s the Hume thing, that’s the scientific thing, right. But you never actually see cause and effect. What’s cause? What’s effect? There’s gap, right. There’s a crack in the universe. And so the question is can you somehow feel what’s beyond that crack. It’s like being stick people in a stick people world, knowing that there’s a 3D world. But how do you feel that 3D world?
Also, it’s like saying to somebody, “Just go and jump into this huge Arctic ocean. Because reason is extremely cold, and it’s extremely…a little bit toxic to humans. I mean, there are some things that reason can come up with, like nuclear bombs and cigarettes and Vicodin, that are very destructive to huma—reason is not necessarily human.
Anderson: Reason doesn’t necessarily seem reasonable—
Anderson: —because it doesn’t answer what is good.
Morton: It it might actually be very unreasonable from that point of view. It might be a kind of nightmare abyss. This is the point. This is why we realize we’re in a nightmare. We know about atoms, we know about bombs. This is why we got into this ecological problem. The problem lies within reason, somewhere, you know.
Anderson: It seems like there’s something very deep and fundamental here like, this is a moment maybe where we start to look at reason as the problem, in a way?
Anderson: Or as a causal factor in the problem [crosstalk] when we always thought it was a solution.
Morton: Absolutely. That’s a beautiful way of putting it. Because it’s speaking to how reason is not outside of reality, it’s an aspect of reality. It’s how humans, or possibly anything with a nervous system or anything at least with a brain, is able to relate to things. So fundamentally it’s a problem of my relationship with whales, dolphins, trees, tobacco, other people. So the problem of reason is are kind of problem of interrelationship and ecology, from that point of view. Because this crack in the real is a crack due to the fact that there this giant ocean of reason behind my head that I carry around like an invisible balloon of infinity. We have this infinite inner space you know, like Hamlet says, “I could be bound in a nutshell and count myself the king of infinite space were it not that I have bad dreams.”
We could get along with ourselves and our capacity to think in this cold totally icy way, if we weren’t freaked out by the coldness. So how do we acclimatize ourselves to this coldness? That’s why my latest way of putting it is I’m calling it “dark ecology.” I think that we need to tune into the depression and the melancholia and the uncanny darkness that is just like, the chocolate wrapping around the sadness. Which is like the liquid center of where we need to be at. Is just coexisting for no reason, but like the chocolate coating around it, is shame and guilt and horror and disgust and you know, eugh. I don’t want to eat that.
Anderson: If we’re going towards this, how do we get questions of value there. Like why get to that point—
Morton: Right. I see what you’re saying.
Anderson: —if it feels like when you’re at that point… Like, what is better about being at that point?
Morton: Well, what’s better about it is that you are already at it, whether or not you pose questions of value, yeah? Whether or not you recognize it, whether or not you feel that it’s valuable to coexist with other beings, you do coexist with other beings. So I am a great believer in starting where you are. And I think that where we are is on Earth with billions of other lifeforms and non-lifeforms, right. And I think that that in itself is a kind of value. I mean, this is sort of where—
Anderson: So life, is that our our floor-level of value?
Morton: No, I would say coexistence.
Morton: Right. I think because life is a very dodgy concept for lots of different reasons. I mean, what counts as life? What counts as non-life? Endless interminable debates happen in that region all the time. What we really need to be doing is thinking about coexistence beyond life.
Anderson: You’ve thrown anthropocentrism and biocentrism out the window.
Morton: Right. Right on.
Anderson: Both of them.
Morton: Right on. Both, totally. Because to me…that’s amazing. Thank you for that. Because to me they’re both two sides of the same coin. That there’s a value over here and everywhere else is defined as not being there, but since that becomes unthinkable when you start to think about interrelationships between beings, any kind of centrism doesn’t work anymore because what we’re dealing with is a system that has no center or edge. There’s no center to the life thing. I call it The Mesh. That this idea of an intricately noted surface that has no center and there’s no edge, either. Like, okay the biosphere, but the biosphere is enabled by the sun, which is enabled by the solar system, which is enabled by the galaxy. I mean there’s no edge to this.
Anderson: So it makes no sense to draw the ring around the idea of life.
Morton: It makes no sense. Right on. So all of a sudden it makes no sense. Since it makes no sense, getting back to your question, which is very hard for me to do. (Terrible digressive guy…motormouth.) Getting back to this question of value… Value comes out of coexistence for no reason. Your anxiety, precisely is, what’s the reason? We’re all thinking that right now. “Why do I care,” you know. That’s the anxiety. And that is precisely the problem. The solution is coexistence is already its own value. Just like in the same way you can kinda get ethics from beauty, from Kant’s point of view. I can’t eat the Mona Lisa, because if I do it’s not the Mona Lisa anymore, it’s me. So I can’t enjoy it. I have to coexist with it, which means non-violence.
So this experience of beauty is a kind of non-violent allowing something to exist. Then everything becomes political. Because it’s like, what do I allowed to exist, and what do I excise my need to manipulate. And now all of a sudden it’s very irritating because we have to consider frogs, monkeys, polar bears.
Anderson: It makes me think of Jainism in a very extreme way. But then, if you’re sort of at that point, you can accept that kind of coexistence, but there’s still a real…subjective quality of perception, still. So like, if the environment is is changing, is that bad anymore?
Morton: Even the thought, “Why should I care?” in that rigorous, cynical way (which I’m not saying you believe believe but you’re voicing it there) which is “why the hell should I even care?” Even that is having an effect at this level. So for example, I drive a Prius. I know it’s not going to save Earth. But it’s probably better than not driving a Prius, and it’s much better than cynically attaching wheels to my leaf blower and driving it around as a kind of ironic, bitter statement as to the impossibility of saving Earth. I know that big corporations need to get with the program, but that doesn’t sort of let me off the hook. I’m a big enemy of cynicism. I think our problem of our last two hundred years has been a problem of increasing cynicism. And cynicism is defeated by hypocrisy, which is the feeling of being unable to rise above your own stupidity in some way. You can’t get out of the loop. There’s no place outside of reality to judge it from cynically, because you’re in it, because you are it.
So even the cynic, from that point of view, is a kind of hypocrite. Because the cynic believes that if he vomits disgustingly enough, somebody might change their mind, right. If I just am so sick and fed up with things, maybe it’ll spark something in somebody. In other words the cynic has some kind of hope.
Anderson: Yeah, there’s…a closet optimism.
Morton: So the cynic is a hypocrite about his hypocrisy. I’d rather be a straightforward hypocrite than a hypocritical hypocrite. Now we’ve gotten rid of cynicism, because there’s now only two options. There’s hypocrisy or hypocritical hypocrisy.
Anderson: But that’s still sort of assuming that there is a better thing we’re striving towards, right? But if you just took the the notion that—
Morton: Well, no we don’t, you see, we can’t that. What we can know instead is that there are these coexistents. There are these beings like bougainvillea and frogs. And we just love them. We’re not doing it anymore because of some reason, we’re doing it because we just love them for no reason. And it doesn’t make any sense to say frogs, from a strictly evolution point of view. It doesn’t make sense to do anything. We’ve reached the point where our reason cognitively crashes any ethical kind of decision.
Anderson: So we need something else.
Morton: We need something else which funnily enough, though, is discovered within the ocean of reason, you see, which is this unconditional coexistence. If you push it all the way down, you get to just coexisting with another being for no reason. And that is good enough. One teacher that I really like says, “All the reasons in the world are not reason enough to love.” You can come up with so many different reasons why, but in the end none of them are as adequate to just giving someone a Popsicle on a hot day, because it’s hard. And that realization is occurring to people, I think. Slowly but surely, they’re realizing, “Wow, everything I do feeds back in to the system because I’m inside it.” Basically, there’s no perfect anymore. There’s just varying degrees of stupid and imperfect.
So the next step for humans is to be cognitively really awake, with an understanding that we’re all clowns. It’s very different from what we want to be. What we want ecological awareness to be is to feel plugged into something bigger than me, that will take all my problems away. What it is instead is intimacy. I think that’s the problem with a lot of ecological propaganda, if you like. Often it’s saying, “If you just believe in this thing that’s much bigger and more real than your puny little tiny thing, everything will be okay.” And quite rightly, most people here that as this guy’s trying to run me over with a tank.
If instead we can just meet people and go, “Hey, how are you doing,” and just kinda join them in a kind of unconditional act of coexisting, we will be performing the essence of ecological awareness there.
Anderson: So, it seems like there’s there’s a level of the good being a greater awareness of a need to coexist. And it seems like there’s maybe an… I don’t like the tone of the word “acquiescence,” to the existence of things.
Morton: No one does. We’ve all had a number done on us by Hegel and then also Nietzsche. And we’ve all decided that acquiescing, at the back of your head, what do you picture there? Some kind of weird Buddhist. That was their public enemy number one in that period, which is still out period, was this acquiescent person who just gives up. And we mustn’t by all means not do that. The horror of just letting go. The total horror of not gripping onto things really tightly, because heaven knows it could all disappear and it’s all coming out of the void and I have to hold onto it. There’s a certain hypocrisy there because that belief that we have to keep on keeping on is nihilism. This idea that there are these weird Oriental people who just sit around like statues doing nothing and that’s a weird spooky thing, they are like the nightmare image of what’s already installed in Western philosophy, which is this idea that things just sort of happen for no reason. We already know that. All the nothingness stuff, we’ve got all of that down. What we need to do is acquiesce, actually, I think. I like how provocative it is, this idea of you just acquiesce to reality.
James Strachey, the translator of Freud, says that life strives towards the quiescence of inorganic life. And quiescence, as in acquiescence, a kind of peacefulness. Life isn’t peaceful. Life is inconsistency. To exist at all means to have a kind of little knot in your being that I call fragility. That you could fall apart at any moment because something in you doesn’t make sense.
Death is consistent. When I die, I become your memory of me, and bits of clothing. I disappear into appearances. There’s no gap anymore between those things and what I am, or who I am. So existing means there’s a gap in the world. So existing is intrinsically odd. I think there’s a whole Groundhog Day situation going on, where in modernity we’re constantly trying to get on top of the problem, you know. But that is the problem. Ecology must mean making friends with death. Which means that you have to allow that things are fragile. Which does mean acquiescing. You’ve already given up at some level, you know. You’re not going to go on forever.
Anderson: We’ve talked about sort of the crisis of the present. We’ve talked about a paradigm shift that leads to a different way of thinking about the future. We’ve talked about why that’s good. Where does this get us?
Morton: It looks like not moving forwards anymore. But why does history have to be about moving forwards? You see what Darwin actually blew up was teleology, the idea that things are linearly always pointing that way and that the point of them is to point that way. There’s no point in me being white, right. Like he writes The Descent of Man to argue against this view of humans as having race because there’s a point of it. And his whole thing was, the reason why I’m white and I have reddish facial hair is because somebody thought it was sexy three million years ago, and they probably even didn’t have a choice.
And so there’s no reason why. And then all the way down sexual selection, Because it goes all the way down to butterflies and beetles, there’s no reason. In fact, curiously, butterflies therefore (This is just Darwin; he argues this.) must have some sense of beauty. And maybe it’s not more primitive than ours. Maybe complexity isn’t the most important thing in the world. Maybe unconditional coexisting is. Because when the butterfly finds something beautiful, you know, who’s to say that that’s not just as profound as when I find the Mona Lisa beautiful.
And also my experience of the Mona Lisa is very simple. I can’t isolate any element of the Mona Lisa that’s beautiful, it’s just a quantum. It goes pow!. So there’s simplicity because it’s one, right. When the butterfly has that that’s probably exactly the same. So, I think complexity…we’re excited about it because it kinda makes us think, “Oh my gosh, maybe we could square the circle. Maybe we could have extreme power and an extreme feeling of rightness about our power at the same time. Maybe we can get rid of this anxiety that we have.” But the trouble with it is, it’s so teleological and like I say, evolution just isn’t. I mean, I’m not more complex in a way than a protozoan. I’m just another sort of bleah of the genomics mutation that is always random with respect to current need. So there’s no teleology there. The DNA isn’t trying to be better. It’s just the case that if you have and you’re not dead, then you could have sex with something that’s kind of almost like you. They can keep your DNA.
There’s this lameness about evolution which I find deeply attractive. It has nothing to do with striving forwards into the more and more perfect.
Anderson: Are you optimistic that we can actually like, as a society, get to the point where we think like that?
Morton: Yeah. I am. Because I think that we know that reason is infinite. That might be also a crushing thought, but the crushing might also result in us hurting each other less. So either way I think it’s going to be okay.
Anderson: So you don’t foresee some sort of worst-case scenario where we mismanaged things in such a way that…
Morton: Yeah I think all that stuff— I think what’s more likely is that it’s going to be a very boring, slightly painful to say the least, few hundred years with no huge apocalypses happening. And no obvious savior. And no obvious sudden solution to everything. And that’s what paradigm shifts really are. It’s when your whole world evaporates. So you have no measuring stick. You can’t know anymore what counts as an amazing revelation.
Anderson: Does does the Conversation matter in that case?
Morton: Yes, it does matter hugely. What else is there to do, you know, if you’re in the middle of a giant warzone of reality with bits of dead finger lying around and zombies walking through, and…what else can you do but have some kind of support group where you just raise each other’s consciousness about what the hell is happening, and try not to go too berserk?
Anderson: Do you think that’s something that we need to make happen, or is that something that just organically happens? Or is that something that’s always in a moment of happening?
Morton: No. There needs to be some conscious input. That’s what’s boring about it.
Anderson: To actually try to make a conversation?
Morton: Yeah. There needs to be some [inaudible]. That’s why I’m happy with what you’re doing. Because, I mean, consciousness sucks. Let’s face it. Acting out is so much more pleasurable than being conscious. “Okay, I know where this is going. I’m going to refrain.” Think about it. It’s so much more pleasant to roll down the window of your car, flip the bird with the road rage, yeah. But you see, that just reproduces the problem. So there has to be some conscious input. We can’t just do it on auto-pilot. It’s not just going to emerge out of nothing. We’ve got to deliberately decide, like you, hey I think I should interview this weirdo in Davis and we should have this conversation. And somehow that’s part of the actual intention of that. Is in itself a kind of entity that has a very powerful effect in the world. Because it’s it’s actually creating a moment at which there is some kind of promise that at least we’re going to try not to ignore each other, or hurt each other for a few more minutes.
We don’t necessarily even have to figure anything out. We just have to coexist in an intelligent way, with some irony, some humor, and some slight refraining. And then it all becomes magic.
Micah Saul: Oh my God.
Aengus Anderson: That seems to be a common reaction we’re having to listening to some of this raw audio, but this was a particularly overwhelming conversation.
Anderson: In the best possible way.
Saul: So it’s obviously going to get cut down massively, but I feel like we should say that it was a 160 minutes prior to cutting.
Anderson: Yes. It was great. I mean, this was something that we both knew in advance this would be really different, and it felt like I needed the first hour to kind of get my brain going fast enough to even be able to ask respectably stupid questions, you know. And I felt that as we went along I started to get more and more of what Tim was saying.
Anderson: As you folks are listening to this, hopefully I’ve edited it in such a way that the essence of that conversation comes through.
Saul: Maybe we should, just real quick, run through the essence of that conversation, or at least our understanding of what the essence was.
Anderson: I think probably the place to start is that we’ve had all of these conversations thus far that really get into the idea of biocentrism and anthropocentrism.
Saul: Which for Tim is…well, he calls them both two sides of the same coin, and he’s thrown the coin out.
Saul: Because they both imply a center, and in his mind there is no center.
Anderson: Life ceases to be a really meaningful category of analysis.
Anderson: Because it’s so integrally connected to all of these things that we wouldn’t call alive. He throws out the idea of nature at all when he’s talking about the sense of oneness. There’s no comfort necessarily in being one with everything else. This isn’t like you go back to your roots and you get to be one with nature and feel some assurance there.
Anderson: This is like, you are connected to everything else in a way that is very strange, and not reassuring. Did you find his argument for feeling that way, was that compelling for you?
Saul: It was compelling, but at the same time I think it is an emotional response. I mean, it’s uncomfort. That is inherently an emotional response. But can you imagine being…and actually at one with everything is incorrect, because you are still a discreet component.
Anderson: So it’s more like knowing that you’re connected [crosstalk] to everything.
Saul: Knowing that you’re connected to everything.
Anderson: But knowing that you have no idea how that system works.
Anderson: And maybe that’s where the [crosstalk] weirdness comes in.
Saul: And that’s, I think, where weirdness comes in.
Anderson: It’s out there, but you can’t know it. But you know it’s out there and that makes you uncomfortable. Just saying that makes me uncomfortable. I mean, at the end of the day as as we talk over this interview, there are a lot of ideas that seem like they always float intention. I think there are a lot of amazing challenges here. I don’t really know where we go from this alone. And I don’t think I was ever quite clear on that. Do we all acquiesce to the sort of coexistence with other things? How is that not just resignation? Why’s one state better than another?
Saul: I think he was using acquiescence in a different way. I don’t think for him it had the connotations of giving up. Maybe it did. Cut that. Never mind. I don’t actually know how to get there, how to do that.
I actually feel like some of this stuff should be included.
Anderson: It probably should, because we don’t know how to talk about this.
Anderson: And there’s a lot for us to think over.
Saul: Yeah. I mean, we knew going in that this was going to be one of the most challenging conversations we had.
Anderson: It was.
Saul: That was definitely proven correct.
Saul: I listened to a little bit of this yesterday, and I listened to all of it today. I’ve been reading one of his books. And I’m…getting there? But I’m still not there.
Anderson: Are these ideas that are actually beyond the common language? Like, I feel that our incompetence in discussing his conversation almost reflects that we don’t quite have the language to talk about these concepts.
Saul: So, I would really like to see a conversation on the site around this one. More than any other so far.
Anderson: This is going to take the brain trust. Folks, we need you in our brain trust. You probably don’t need us in your brain trust.
Saul: Probably not.
Anderson: Actually, that’s been amply proven at this point
Saul: Yeah, exactly.
Anderson: So, next we will be talking about education with Lisa Petrides.
Saul: Sounds good.
Anderson: So we’ll be back soon.
That was Dr. Timothy Morton, recorded in Davis, California on May 29, 2012.
Anderson: So thanks for listening. I’m Aengus Anderson.
Saul: And I’m Micah Saul.
This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.