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.

Saul: Yes.

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. 

Anderson: Okay.

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.

Saul: Right

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

Morton: Right.

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?

Morton: Yes.

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.

Anderson: 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.

Saul: Yes.

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.

Saul: Right.

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.

Anderson: Yeah.

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.

Saul: Right.

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.

Saul: No.

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.

Saul: Right.

Anderson: And maybe that’s where the [crosstalk] weird­ness comes in.

Saul: And that’s, I think, where weird­ness comes in.

Anderson: Yeah

Saul: Yeah.

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.

Saul: Right.

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: Absolutely. 

Saul: And…

Anderson: It was.

Saul: That was def­i­nite­ly proven correct.

Anderson: Yeah.

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 292012.

Saul: This is The Conversation. You can find us on Twitter at @aengusanderson and on the web at find​the​con​ver​sa​tion​.com

Anderson: So thanks for lis­ten­ing. I’m Aengus Anderson.

Saul: And I’m Micah Saul.

Further Reference

This inter­view at the Conversation web site, with project notes, com­ments, and tax­o­nom­ic orga­ni­za­tion spe­cif­ic to The Conversation.