by Lauren Umek
Those ecologists who study the beautiful things of nature: plants that produce gorgeous flowers or animals that are the regularly subjects of adorable YouTube videos find a receptive audience when presenting a case for conservation of these “charismatic mega-flora and mega-fauna.” When you move from the realm of the cute and cuddly to that of the creepy and crawly critters such as bats, spiders, and snakes, or the microscopic microarthropods, nematodes, fungi, and bacteria, that’s when your audience suddenly loses interest.
In my research, I investigate how restoration activities impact some of the beautiful, charismatic mega-floral communities – the Chicago region’s tallgrass prairie and temperate woodland. These ecosystems are either filled with flowers or are alternatively overrun by dense, brambly invasive shrubs. When I tell stories of plant invasion and restoration of these ecosystems, everyone is all ears. It’s not hard to understand that a sprawling field of flowers and tall grasses is a biologically diverse and a “healthier” ecosystem, than one that looks like you’d lose an eye or gain several scratches if you tried to walk through. My newest dissertation research topic, investigates what happens to these gorgeous prairie plants when they die and fall to the ground.
To me, this process of death, decay and devouring is a beautiful and essential process in which a season’s worth of a plant’s hard work gets reallocated to the cells of creepy, crawly critters as well as tiny molds, fungi and bacteria. Eventually, all of this death and decay results in essential resources for next year’s growth. Although this process is vital to all functioning of life on this planet and exemplifies the law of conservation of mass, it is not, however, sexy or cute or beautiful to the average person. As someone passionate about this process, I can find a lot of beauty in a mold covered leaf, but you may not, until you see these images. In collaboration with the nanotechnology lab at Wheeling High School in Wheeling, IL, I’ve been working with HS students to capture images of fungal growth on decomposing leaf litter using a Scanning Electron Microscope.
In capturing these images, I felt like we were a group of astronauts, exploring some uncharted planet landscape, rather than a grad student and 2 high school students exploring chunks of dead leaves. With this data, we are, in fact, charting unexplored territory; using SEM to quantify and explore a microscopic landscape.
These monochrome images are generated for scientific purposes, but I think can show true beauty in death and decay.
Andropogon gerardii, big blue stem at time zero (no decomposition). This image shows cell walls of the grass at 520x magnification
B. australis 1800x – Caption: Baptisia australis, or wild blue indigo at time zero (November 2012) at 1800x magnification.
B. austrais 3800 – Caption: Baptisia australis, or wild blue indigo stems after 6 months of decay at 3800x magnification. Fungal hyphae (stringy parts) and spores (inflated and deflated spheres) visible.
Last month I taught an accelerated – 10 weeks of content smooshed into 2.5 weeks of time – version of Philosophy and the Environment. It’s a way for undergraduates to pick up an extra course between terms, and satisfies either a general education requirement or an elective for philosophy and environmental studies majors. Because of the short time we would spend together and the fact it was a hybrid course (i.e., we met face-to-face and had online discussions), I decided to run it as if it were more like an upper-level seminar, with a focus on one topic – global warming – and one main text – Timothy Morton’s Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World.
In a November post I mentioned I had just read the book and was looking forward to working though it again with students. That process succeeded beyond my expectations. We had such productive discussions (both live and digital) that I couldn’t help but want to share some excerpts of the 261 contributions the group made. The students were down with this idea, so here are three discussion threads, subjected to minimal editing (mostly to preserve students’ anonymity). Individual entries are separated by a >. A pic of a nice final project can be found midway through. It’s kind of a lot, so grab a beverage and settle in.
Discussion 1 Prompt: CO2 Hits 400ppm – Does it Matter?
I was reading through the January issue of Discover Magazine and one article caught my eye: “CO2 Hits 400 ppm – does it matter?” The article takes a laid-back reaction to researchers in May 2013, atop a Hawaiian volcano, finding the atmospheric concentration of CO2 to be 400 ppm at that location! The author basically takes the stance that this number of 350 ppm that we talked about in class is a “fuzzy and artificial symbol as nothing fundamental actually changed in the Earth’s climate system when we hit it.” James White, a paleoclimatologist from University of Colorado says in the article that “400 ppm is a mile marker you pass on the interstate while flying by at 60 mph. [I would] not be surprised if we get to 800 ppm. That will be the next big milestone, and that’s a fundamentally different world.”
This article instantly made me think of Morton’s comparison to “Objects in Mirror Are Closer than They Appear.” Sometimes when parking a car, we might think we have more wiggle room than we really do to fit into a tight spot. I think that’s how a lot of the public, as well as the author of the Discover article, look at things – they think we have a lot more “room” to continue a passive approach to tackling global warming, when really the crisis is closer than “it may appear.” The article also coincides with Morton’s out-of-sight-out-of-mind barrier breakage. He notes on page 31 that when we flush things down a toilet, we like to think of them as Away (in another dimension), when really they are going into the waterways. Just because we can’t see a problem (ie when the CO2 level hit 400, no big red flashing siren went off), doesn’t mean critical, damaging and lasting changes aren’t happening as a result. How do you view global warming as we begin to dive into Morton’s book? Do you see it as an omnipresence surrounding us, like the Force in Star Wars, as he says? For me, this book is already beginning to make me consider more deeply the little things I do, like driving when I could walk somewhere and how it affects the Earth.
First I’d like to respond to this post in saying yes, reaching this mile marker does matter! I completely agree that global warming and its effects are a lot more problematic than most people think in today’s age, but I would also like to point out that reaching this level of CO2 may be even more detrimental in the future. The big catch about CO2 is that, as Morton points out early in the book, it does not leave the atmosphere for thousands of years. So, the CO2 we put in the atmosphere now will affect the earth well into the future and may have even more severe effects then. Many skeptics like to use the excuse that things have not changed much yet, and they therefore conclude global warming is not really as bad as people say it is (although they do this with very little statistical evidence). I think this this attitude can be applied to philosophy as well. Morton talks about how hyperobjects like global warming extend over massive space and time. Clearly, this is what people cannot grasp because they all possess anthropocentric mentalities rather than OOO mentalities. People see the world with themselves in the center, and they rank the importance of events on the basis of how important it is to human lives. But, when global warming expresses itself in space that humans cannot see, that does not mean that it does not affect other objects, which according to OOO should hold the same precedence as humans. In addition, since humans fail to see the expansive set of time hyperobjects inhabit, they fail to consider how future objects will be impacted by their actions. I think understanding these two aspects in light of OOO is a big part of beginning to understand the severity of global warming in a philosophical sense.
Most people in the West seem to have a capitalistic essentialism philosophy (whether or not they’ll admit that is a different story). When Morton talks about the BP oil spill (“Tony Hayward was the CEO of BP at the time of the Deepwater Horizon oil pipe explosion [...] Over here, where we live, is an oil spill. But don’t worry about it. The beyond will take care of it.”), he relates that it wouldn’t have mattered if the oil spill was bigger or smaller – Hayward still would’ve responded with the same lack of compassionate efforts. It’s all about the money – the same with the Rolling Stone article highlighting the fact BP and other oil companies are already counting how much they plan to make by extracting oil that is still underground, unprocessed.
Subscribing to an OOO philosophy – which may be what it takes to ‘save the planet’ – is not something most people are willing to do — stop eating animals, vast reduction of exploiting natural resources, etc. God forbid we see other sentient beings on this planet as more than just bar codes, trying desperately to figure out how we can use them for our benefit. I found it interesting to read about Timothy Morton’s vegan life style on his website, as I am also vegan: doing things like this isn’t easy all the time, but what happens in the present should be considered for what happens in the future. Making smaller choices like what to eat, where/whether or not to spend money, etc. are ideas Morton insinuates (at least in Part 1) through criticizing tycoons who do not subscribe to the OOO perspective and making us more aware of the ever-growing human footprint.
The first recollection I have of the global warming stems from 7th grade science class, where we watched An Inconvenient Truth. I don’t remember my initial reaction. I don’t remember discussing the issue with my peers or parents. I do remember classifying (at least not necessarily consciously classifying) global warming as a scientific issue. I do remember being confused on why there was so much political debate over what seemed to be objectively-presented evidence. As I make my way through the first chapters of Morton’s book, I still view global warming as a scientific phenomenon, as change in climate seems to belong to this field. I still see emissions from increased industrial production, transportation, and landfill waste as the main contribution to this phenomenon. However, where I once thought of “contribution” in a causal sense, I now appreciate the object-oriented ontology on which Morton is laying the foundation for his argument.
The notion of cause and effect, which has been widely explored in metaphysical inquiry, limits our view of global warming because causality requires discrete, isolated events. My initial alternative to a causal view is one of processes: The focus on isolated causes and effects blinds us to the overall processes. However as I reflect, I realize that expanding understanding to the overall processes is still limiting global warming to metaphysical terms. Morton’s OOO approach challenges me to understand global warming beyond the terms of conventional human understanding. Now, I can start to see global warming as a viscous force, and I can explore how this force interacts with all objects.
“The very tools we were using to objectify things, to cover Earth’s surface with shrink wrap, became a blowtorch that burns away the glass screen separating humans from Earth, since every measurement is now known as an alteration, as quantum-scale measurements make clear.” This sentence from page 37 helps me understand the implication of our new approach. The “glass screen” seems to refer to the human-world correlation we mentioned in class. I understand how OOO reduces this correlation to just another object-object relationship. The “very tools” seems to refer to methods we use to observe, measure, quantify, and qualify our physical and social worlds. It seems Morton is asserting that we can never truly objectify things because the very act of trying to objectify a thing alters the thing so it is not the same thing it was before we tried to objectify it? This is a bit difficult for me to understand, because I initially understood the claim of OOO to be that an object exists independently of another object, and its existence is consistent regardless of perception of the object by another object. To what extent is an object altered by interaction with another object? To argue the severity of global warming in these terms, it seems we will need to state its severe alterations to the objects with which it interacts.
I agree with these interpretations thus far, but they also seems to propagate an apocalyptic narrative, and brush past the onotlogical statement of “objects are closer than they appear.” Apocalyptic narratives have arguably been the cornerstone of Modern environmentalist writing and thought (think Bill McKibben). It instills fear in us, this idea that we must do something now, or else. In many ways this has been effective in creating political action (Carbon taxes, economic incentives, policy) as well as advocacy and activism (Occupy movement, Monsanto marches) etc. But it also maintains that humans have the power or the fortitude to ‘save the world.’ Yet from the opening pages, Morton writes that the ‘end of the world’ has already occurred, and we are enmeshed in it. Objects in mirror are closer than they appear because we are “in” them and they are “in” us, temporality as we know it is transcended. The question then (and I’m sure it will be further detailed as I move further in the book) is not how can we “save” the world by acting ‘now,’ but how does one conduct oneself in a ‘world’ that is always-already end(ed)ing–constantly changing? I think, maybe, it is not that we see the world anthropocentrically, because we are human after all– just as an ant can only think and act ant-ocentrically–but that we have to recognize that we are a part of an always changing, interdependent mesh, one that may be indifferent toward us, but that constitutes us at the same time, like the bacteria or viruses that make up our body, but will simultaneously lead to our decay.
Discussion 2 Prompt: “Meshy Ghost”
At risk of oversimplifying hyperobjects in a general and at the same time, specific statement, (although I do not think I am since what I am proposing is not necessarily a simple idea) it seems to me that all of the descriptions used to describe different aspects of hyperobjects are derived from or rather are also aspects of the complex notion of interconnectedness. A Hyperobject is not just one hyperobject independent of all other objects, it is a part of me and everything else. Everything is blended together in such a way that makes “me” indistinguishable from everything else. I am global warming and global warming is me. Therefore my actions do not only affect and partially constitute “me” but everything else as well. Furthermore, everything else also constitutes “me” and I constitute everything else.
Because of this complex, possibly infinite mesh, we cannot claim that this mesh exists as a whole in the sense that there is some independent unchanging entity and neither can we say that it is reducible to its parts. The parts are not wholes’, in fact it does not seem accurate to say that there are parts at all. If there cannot be a whole, then there cannot be little wholes that make up a big whole. The relationships between events give rise to the idea of a whole or a “me”. Thus an independent, unchanging self such as an “I” or a “soul” would be a concept used for conventional purposes (that perhaps is not all that convenient when it comes to a way of thinking in general or about global warming). Such a concept of an independent unchanging entity supposes that a person can know that entity, possible handle it, flip it over and toss it back and forth in one’s hands like a tennis ball. Interconnectedness supposes that you cannot know a given entity fully because there is no one given entity, attempting to grasp it would be like chasing a ghost so to speak.
To truly recognize this interconnectedness, and to think about hyperobjects, requires a change in thinking that is in accordance with interconnectedness and uncertainty. This change in thinking can perhaps be construed as a spiritual revolution, changing our way of relation to the universe and “oneself”, elicited by hyperobjects.
Who(what) is “I”, and is “I” no “one” or every “thing” or “neither?”
This post is very insightful. To delve into your overarching analysis, I will focus on a somewhat (sort of, kind of) specific aspect. It is said again and again: The problem today is that we “think too much,” or the problem today is that we “do too much.” Or rather, the argument persists: The problem with our problems–subjectively speaking for now– (i.e. global warming, toxic e-waste, poverty, twerking, income inequality) is consciousness.
Consciousness (still within human subjectivity) has likely been a part of human subjective thought since the rise of the genus Homo; even more so due to Hominid encephalization through evolution. There are many interesting viewpoints on consciousness, what is it? A ‘State one is aware of,’ or perhaps a Sentience or a Wakefulness–modern neuroscience builds on this with monitoring billions of firing neurons in our brain, for example, as I write this sentence–but to expand on the vastness of these ideas would be tiresome.
Enter OOO, now, in many ways–or rather, every way–consciousness is a hyperobject composed of, but not reducible to, other objects (even minute translated footprints of hyperobjects like global warming). The former human subjectivity is a part of the mesh, an object in the interconnected and interobjective mesh, phasing, nonlocal, viscous. (I think we will find that all objects are necessarily “hyper”). It is important, when thinking about OOO, that this mesh is not “one” or not “whole”–the concept of “one world” or a “whole” is deconstructed–the end of the world–, or at the very least spread impossibly far out like an intermittent high-dimensional goo consisting of interrelations.
It is also important then, not to think of OOO, or hyperobjects, as hierarchal. A “whole” view downplays the interconnectedness between and within objects–this is partially what Morton uses as the whoopie cushion to our anthropogenic humiliation: our consciousness, which we often take to be the representation or at least a foundation of “self” or “us” is obliterated in the realization of hyperobjects.
What does this mean then? It is the destruction of the ego, or of the perceived “self” and what Morton calls humiliating. “I” or “me” is in fact, a hyperobject. The very fact that we don’t know ourselves is for this reason; “I” am global warming, plutonium, pink styrofoam–“I” am strange strangeness. When thinking about global warming then, and ecological crises, we come to a point where “thinking” and “doing” may not be the answer, there will not be solutions by “understanding,” as the more we understand the more convoluted, complex, “punch-me-in-the-face confused” it all becomes–always out of mine, yours, our touch. “Thinking” and “Doing” may not be the answer, but rather “being,” in terms of experience, (which may very well be spiritual).
I think the thoughts on consciousness are very interesting, and like how this leads into a new way of approaching what we call a problem. Perhaps this way of being that may act as a solution, does not view global warming specifically as a problem. Perhaps, with OOO, the concepts of problem and solution are not thought of in the same way, since they are traditionally conceived of in an anthropocentric (in the sense of centering power and importance on humans) context.
I am very excited to read what else Morton has to say. I also find it interesting to try and think through interdependence as: non-foundational, strange, and an object. An object is strange insofar as it contains what it is not. Interdependence would seem to, by its very being, be undefinable. All of what Interdependence is, is other things that are also not themselves. When attempting to define interdependence you must say something like: “two or more things that are dependent on one another.”
However, if interdependence is everywhere and in everything and everything is in interdependence, then the “two or more things” that are dependent on one another are not actually complete things in themselves but are also what they are not.
Therefore, interdependence; is a thing that is not a thing in itself because it is dependent on another thing which is also not a thing in itself and so on (however not in a linear order but rather in a mesh). Thus interdependence is what it is not by its very being interdependent. Moreover, the concept of “in” becomes fuzzy–relating to what we discussed in class.
This is not to say that interdependence is the foundation of reality or the most real, because, how can something that is not itself be the foundation of everything else. Rather everything else, and interdependence, are interdependent, revealing no foundation at all.
This implies that we are not the “controllers” of our environment. In view of the “mesh” everything is laid out in a way that “objects” are not equal to, above or below, better, or worse, completely the same or completely different than any other object. Therefore, maybe global warming as thought of in the context of OOO is not something that we need to deal with and bring under our control but is rather to be approached in a different manner. What that manner is, will need to be explored further.
Discussion 3 Prompt: If in 2014 climate science were to show that global warming is not in fact due to human action, would this invalidate Morton’s theory of hyperobjects?
Although I have not finished the book yet, I don’t believe that showing global is not due to human action would discredit Morton’s theory on hyperobject. In the his very first chapter, Morton defines hyperobjects as “things that are massively distributed in time and space relative to humans.” He later states later on in the same chapter that they “cause us to reflect on our very place on Earth and the cosmos.” This suggests that the term “hyperobjects” can be applied to several fields of study, not just the climate or the environmment. This is made evident when he makes comparisons to quantum mechanics, where everything is quantized (having its own individual energy, mass, etc.), when he says everything is in its own right an object in itself.
On another note, I do not think that climate science can concretely prove that human action has not caused a direct correlation to global warming. I do think, however, that in 2014 global warming will continued to be downplayed in terms of politics, as we have discussed in class. In itself, climate is a hyperobject – and most people don’t really think in an OOO manner. Although I cannot preduct the future, I have the feeling that we’re going to have another year of “blind awareness.” In other words, another year of being aware of the problem but turning a blind eye towards true action.
I agree with you. The definition of hyperobjects is still relevant and I believe that it remains separate from any human action. Assuming the prompt is true and that humans have had no part in contributing to global warming, I do wonder if it would still hypothetically be possible for humans to play a part in slowing down or stopping global warming. I suppose that this might depend on the cause of global warming, but if for example, the cause was exclusively emissions from livestock, then maybe a worldwide wave of vegetarianism would address the problem.
Assuming we are in fact responsible for global warming, are we powerful enough to stop it, or would it take the disappearance of the human race for that to happen? The disappearance of the human race would halt the destructive industrial problems. No more drilling for oil, no more mining for precious metals, no more fracking, and no more clear-cutting of beautiful forests.
Or assuming that we aren’t responsible for global warming, would we be able to stop it? If we aren’t responsible, would this indicate global warming to be a larger or smaller problem than it presently is with the belief that we *are* responsible?
I agree with your first statements – that showing global warming is not due to human action would not discredit Morton’s theory. I think this is due mostly to the characteristics of a hyperobject though. It is something so massive and occupies space that humans cannot even perceive that it is almost difficult to trace back where this hyperobject may have come from.
I definitely agree that global warming will continue to be downplayed in a political sense and that this is an extremely important point because it is a hyperobject. I think it is easy for politicians to put in the back of their minds – primarily due to characteristics such as phasing and nonlocality – we can go long periods without noticing the effects of global warming and politicians can easily avoid a topic that hides in the background already. It is not something that I really thought about very often prior to this class – so I think many of us know how easy it is to forget about global warming no matter the size of the issue.
I don’t think it would necessarily invalidate his argument, just not make it as plausible. Because, all his definitions of hyperobjects don’t directly say that they were caused by humans, yet throughout the book (I haven’t finished it yet) I assumed that they were mostly man made and caused because of human activity. For example, when I think of viscosity I think of human reminisce always being around and not being able to be removed. I also think that as long as humans are around they will impact global warming no matter what, it is just a matter to the severity of which they impact it. This reminded me of when Morton mentioned objectors to wind farms not saying “save the environment” but “leave our dreams.” Wind farms are beneficial to the environment by reducing CO2 emissions, therefor “reducing global warming” they can also be negative by killing birds or disrupting the environment; it really just is a matter on which one is more beneficial to the environment because wind farms or not: they both have an impact on global warming.
This is a very tough question, and I think it coincides with the other prompt about what is means to be a human in a world of hyperobjects. Hyperobjects are tricky because we can never know them completely. Although we have statistics and technology that point to the high probability of humans as the cause to global warming, the truth of the matter is we will never know that for sure because there is so much about global warming that we still do not know. For example, did anyone know that although global temperatures have risen steadily every year since the 1970’s, they have remained relatively steady the last 10-15 years. Scientists still do not have any definite explanation for this. That being said, there could come one shocking day where we discover that we have not been the creators of global warming after all. Does this invalidate Morton’s theory of hyperobjects? I do not think so, because like the other girls mentioned, hyperobjects do not have to be created by humans to stretch across time and space, be viscous, be nonlocal, etc. etc. We have already mentioned some in other posts, for example, the Yangtze River and rocks, which were originally not created by humans. In addition, if you think about it, there would still be a climate with or without humans, and I believe that would still be considered a hyperobject.
This brings up another point, though, which is related to what is means to be a human in a world of hyperobjects. Some people mentioned that it is our duty as creators of global warming to stop it, or at least try to slow it. But do we know for sure if we really created it? Is it our duty to stop it if we did not create it, if it is just the natural process? Even if we did create it, should we try to stop it? Even though global warming is “bad” for humans and many other objects around us, it is not bad for all objects. Some animals and plants are thriving because of global warming. So do humans have the right or the authority to try and stop the conditions that make life great for mosquitoes? We are almost caught in a similar situation to when life on Earth first began. Before photosynthetic organisms evolved, anaerobic organisms (organisms that do not need oxygen to live) covered the planet. When photosynthetic organisms came into the picture and began releasing oxygen, though, many anaerobic organisms died because oxygen was toxic to them. This was clearly a devastation to the world that existed at the time. Yet also as a result of the oxygen revolution, more and more aerobic organisms (organisms that need oxygen to live) were permitted to evolve, and well, here we are today. In this case, was it the photosynthesizers’ job to stop what they had begun just because it created an atmosphere that was different from what existed the last couple million years? Did they have an obligation to slow their release of oxygen just because the new atmosphere was not beneficial to the majority of the species that existed?
There are so many positions you could take with this question because there is still so much we cannot answer. This is why I think it is so hard to say what it truly means to be a human in the world of hyperobjects, but I think there is definitely more to it than simply stopping what we have created. What that “more” is, though, is a mystery to me.
Because I see global warming as a human induced issue, I feel it is our responsibility to help the planet as best as we can, even if ultimately our methods turn out to be futile.
If global warming were miraculously found to not be caused by humans, I think it would be still just as terrifying though to come to terms with. If it was a naturally occurring cycle, I would think that would mean it would 100% impossible to stop or reverse, while if it was human-caused, it means we probably have a fair chance of reversing it (call me optimistic!). My reasoning is that we can’t stop a tornado or a hurricane – we can only hide from them or run away, but we can generally work to reverse things that are man-made, like a broken engine or faulty electric wiring. Maybe, I’m oversimplifying too much but perhaps the reason I have any hope at all about the global warming crisis is that it is man-made so we can do something about it.
I definitely see where you are coming from here and I do think since we created global warming we have some sort of obligation to do something about it. Just to play devil’s advocate, though, you mentioned how we cannot stop or reverse a hurricane or other “natural” storms of the like because they are not man-made. But if we created global warming and global warming creates these extreme storms, are we not in a sense the original creators of those storms? It is just an idea, but I figured I might as well throw it out there.
Just going back to what I said earlier, though, I think Morton maybe explains it better when he states, “Inside the hyperobject, we are always in the wrong” (pg. 154). As of right now, there is no right, or easy choice in regards to global warming in which no one gets hurt. Our lack of knowledge of global warming then makes our decisions that much more difficult because we will never know if the actions we take to reverse global warming are even more detrimental. This is more what I was getting at earlier and this is why I think it is so difficult to determine our place in the world of hyperobjects.
That’s a great question! I had trouble with his idea of “we are always wrong in the hyperobject” but I can definitely see the idea of everything looping back to a human cause – ie we created the storms because we created global warming. If we really wanted to stretch that idea I think we could even say something like humans, given their “dreadful ecological power” (p 200), ignite every object on earth’s movements… by our collective choices, we impact the migrations of other species, the extinction of others, and so forth…. what is really even natural anymore now that we have extended our power to every object? A tree grows in a park and we think of it as natural – by the above argument, is that even natural anymore? Now that we have pulled out every unwanted tree and left only parks for them to grow in – ipso facto even the growth of this seedling is human-caused or at least human-supported.
That is so true! And I think you just brought up a concept that even Morton failed to question in his book. Are human beings as a whole a hyperobject?! In Morton’s book he focuses on how hyperobjects massively affect everything around them, and is that not what we have done? Everything on Earth nowadays seems to have a human fingerprint on it, whether it appeared through direct or indirect forces. We “stick” to everything around us. One cannot pinpoint the exact time and location of all human beings at one time, so in a sense we are nonlocal. Morton already established that our “zones” or our spheres of influence will continue on thousands of years into the future even if real human beings do not exist. If we paint it like that, we are massively distributed in time as well as space. Just like we experience hyperobjects in the aesthetic realm, other objects experience us in the same manner. So just like global warming is the beast we created, we too are a hyperobject, a beast that was created… perhaps that is what Morton was alluding to in his final pages when he calls humans, “the most dreadful thing.”
Good point. I completely agree that the notion of the human race is a hyperobject. While an individual person isn’t really immortal, some of the actions we take or don’t take will be immortalized.
Reading your post made it feel like, in a way, winning the lottery the day I was born a human being, rather than born a rabbit, a cockroach, or a salmon…. what I mean by that is that humans have the power to influence every other being/object on this Earth — unlike any other species. That said, as in line with the idea of OOO, we aren’t “special” in comparison to say, roaches or rabbits, but we do have a special responsibility, I think, as humans. We should take care of these other objects on the planet since we do have such a great amount of influence on them.
Not only can we not ever know hyperobjects, we can also never know ourselves: a key distinction in approaching global warming.
Also, just a comment on this idea so-called “steady temperatures”: Climate deniers constantly cherry pick data (it is one of the issues of statistics), for example, in the graph below, if I were to pull points from any given 10 or 15 years and put a trendline through it, I will most likely find steady temperature data, in some instances there may even be a decrease in temperature. However, add a trendline through the whole data set reaching even far beyond 1850 (although it isn’t necesary), and we find that the 10 or 15 year trend is not steady at all, in fact, it is possibly even inceasing at a higher rate than the years preceding it. Although the last 10 or 15 years have decreased in rate of warming, they are still rising relatively so. Pulling 10 or 15 year trends from long-term climate data and claiming “truthhood” and knowledge is akin to saying you intimately know how a novel ends, even though you’ve only read half of the prologue. It is a sneaky trick in statistics, and one that often gets represented to the public through the media as truth. Last bit, because all of this isn’t terribly relevant, why has the rate of warming decreased over the last 10 or 15 years? Most likely because of the ocean sequestering CO2, it is the largest carbon sink after all, this means Doom for the ocean in many ways, but as long as it’s not an issue of the atmosphere, for some reason deniers seem okay with this, it is in fact, “away”…
That’s an excellent point. I was just reading some surprising polling statistics that showed that a lot of Americans still do not believe in global warming! I figured the only way people could not believe in such obvious data is by looking at cropped/edited graphs that show partial data.
On a side note, if I had a dollar for every person this week who has joked, “Here’s global warming for ya!” in reference to all the snowfall in Chicago….
Neoliberalism and Our Collective (selective?) Future
Last week members and friends of DePaul’s Institute for Nature and Culture gathered to watch and discuss a keynote lecture given by economic philosopher Phillip Mirowski delivered at the Life and Debt: Living Through the Financialisation of the Biosphere conference held at the University of Technology in Sydney Australia in 2012. Mirowski’s talk was eye-opening and compelling, provoking a spirited discussion, so much so that we thought we’d invite our readers to join us in discussing the critical issue raised by Mirowksi—and that is, neoliberalism.*
Mirowski is Carl Kroch Chair of Economics and the History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Notre Dame. His books include: More Heat Than Light: Economics as Social Physics (1989); Natural Images in Economic Thought: Markets Read in Tooth and Claw (ed.,1994); Machine Dreams: Economics Becomes a Cyborg Science (2002); The Road From Mt Pelerin: The Making of the Neoliberal Thought Collective (with Dieter Plewhe, 2009) and Science-Mart: Privatizing American Science (2011). Mirowksi’s latest book, previewed in his keynote, was published this year: Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown (Verso, 2013).
“In this lecture, Professor Mirowski responds to the question of how it is that science came to be subordinate to economics and the very future of nature to be contingent upon the market.”
The lecture was brought to our attention by Tim Morton, who posted a link to it on his blog in early November commenting:
I wonder whether, given this talk, neoliberalism is a kind of monotheism of the hyperobject, where there is only one true hyperobject (the market). To counteract that, of course, requires not necessarily atheism but non-theism or something like polytheism.
“One true hyperobject”? Strong words and a couple of us here at INC think that’s an accurate description of our current condition. So please watch the lecture—60 minutes—and tell us your thoughts. What does a world mediated by markets qua markets look like: ecologically, politically, socially and morally? For a few thoughts about that you might want to check out Liam Heneghan’s essay, Only Mars Can Save Us Now for his keen reporting on a conference he attended in Boulder, Colorado in September (EC/Three Quarks 9-23-2013).
Are we inextricably bound to neoliberalism? If so, then what to do? One INC participant described neoliberalism as a “secular religion”. So what might a polytheism look like—especially one that can break the hegemonic hold of neoliberalism? What might Bruno Latour, another thinker the INC discusses often, add? In The Politics of Nature (Harvard 2004), Latour proposes an ecology of a collective—a democratically decided future unbounded by a hegemonic notion of nature. Does Latour’s thinking play into the hands of the neoliberal thought collective? Breakthrough (Houghton Mifflin 2009) authors Shellenberger and Nordhaus employed Latour’s work to proffer a “politics of possibility”—which seems to pave the way for a neoliberal future. What does ecological restoration mean in a neoliberal frame? Are proponents of novel ecosystems (e.g. Hobbs, Marris) actors bound within this hyperobject? In all these kinds of conversations, aren’t we talking about power? Who has it and how did they get it? How do they use it and why? And finally, is this something we can all live with, and well?
This seems to be a critical issue: what the environment is and what it will be depends on the forces involved. Neoliberalism is a mighty force, undetected by many. Please tell us what you think.
*In the lecture Mirowski uses Naomi Klein’s Capitalism vs. the Climate as a foil (The Nation, Nov. 9, 2011). Though not necessary to grasp Mirowski’s thesis, you can read the essay here.
**You can read a concise summary of Mirowski’s thesis in this essay, Beyond Denial: Neoliberalism, Climate and the Left (Mirowski, Walker, Abboud. Overland Journal Autumn 2013)
This post is the first of what we hope to be a regular stream of contributions from recent alumni of DePaul University who are off doing interesting and valuable work.
Hemal Lalabhai Patel was fortunate to have spent a portion of the past year living and working at a game reserve in South Africa. Here are some of his reflections.
Yesterday I got a call asking me to remove a python from behind the bar in the lodge. When I had arrived at the scene with a bag – actually a pillow case – a group of fifteen workers stood by laughing, gasping, and screaming as the snake coiled itself around an electrical box.
The python was about four feet long and two and a half inches thick – a young one that simply wanted to get warm by wrapping its body around the white box. I needed a snake-catching staff. I went back outside and found a dried out piece of bamboo, cut the branch of a silver clusterleaf tree so the end of it resembled a wishbone, then stuck that piece in the hollow bamboo shoot. I knocked the snake off the box and tried to pin down the head with the v-shaped end. In its cunning it avoided the stick the first a couple of times and continued to strike at me until I finally succeeded. Stepping lightly over the back of its head I then started to twirl the stick near its midsection. The adolescent python coiled itself around the stick which made it possible for me to lift and bag it.
I drove down to the dam thinking that the tall grass and water would provide the snake with a good habitat. I had never had a fear of snakes but when I emptied the contents of my pillow case I felt more uneasy then when I had captured it. I watched it slither away hoping that it would look back at me one last time.
It was cool day with plenty of rain. By midday the clouds began to scatter letting sunlight warm the surface of the reserve. I went out with guests on an afternoon game drive, and earlier in the day I had noticed that a sable had come down from the mountain to graze and sip some water from our lake. We were in search of the sable when we saw in the distance a zebra nursing a baby. I knew at a moment’s glance that the mother was not nursing her own offspring – the infant was too small and had no stripes. I pulled up to a distance of 20 meters and we watched, instead of a young zebra, a baby blessbok happily suckle on the zebra. The zebra would often lower her head lick the blessbok with a sense of motherly love.
All of a sudden a battle ensued for the protection of the baby blessbok. The infant’s birth mother blessbok had returned. Every ten minutes or so she would try to collect her baby. However the zebra was being extremely protective of the baby and would chase the mother off with threatening kicks. We turned away and resumed the drive. I returned to the site the next couple of days, and the threesome had moved on. I wonder if the zebra grew bored or finally understood that kidnapping is a crime.
Wildfires. Luckily controlled burns thwart their power of destruction. During these winter months the land becomes dry and arid; fire can be started from a cigarette butt, a lightning bolt, or most commonly, the all-powerful sun.
The southwest corner of the reserve is charred and black from a controlled burn that we did a week ago. New green shoots are springing to life only to be fed on by the grazing animals that roll around in the charcoaled aftermath of a blazed grassland.
I know nearly nothing about Australia. Though many seem captivated by the distant continent—the land, the culture, its bountiful and diverse flora and fauna—I’ve always thought of the place as the prison colony it once was now crassly packaged and commercialized, just for us, here in America. I never wanted anything to do with “firing up the ‘barbie’”, or drinking Foster’s too-big can-o’beer, or least of all, an Outback Steak. And except for an occasional empathic embrace of Indigenous movements attempting to redress that ignominious birthing of colonization (is there any other kind?), I basically ignore the place. And truthfully, my concern for the native population there has been intermittent, at best. The first time was in the eighties when Midnight Oil released their hit single, Beds Are Burning. It was such an impassioned polemic for aboriginal rights that I found myself dancing extemporaneously in my living room like a white man set free to participate in the service of human rights. Everywhere. The lead singer Peter Garrett, a veritable white giant—long-limbed and gangly, bald headed with a hard-chiseled face—could be seen on MTV leading the band with pounding feet and flailing limbs in an ecstatic dance that was altogether an emotional appeal, a prayer, and a demand to recognize the rights of aboriginals in their own land.  “How can we sleep?” he asks when we’ve done such harm to the people and the planet. That’s a tough question, but only for those whose affective, specifically empathic, ability remains intact. The remedy, as unsurprising as it is necessary, is to right the wrong.
The time has come
To say fair’s fair
To pay the rent
To pay our share
A fact’s a fact
It belongs to them
Let’s give it back 
The album was a result of ethnographic research, aka, the “Blackfella/Whitefella Tour” in which the band travelled the Outback to learn about the indigenous population and their struggle to survive in an increasingly hostile manmade environment (social, political and natural). Unsurprisingly, again to those who can feel, the band was moved by “the great pride and resilience of the Indigenous people and embraced their stories,” and the people as their own. It turns out the western desert lives and breathes, just like the rest of us, but out there in forty five degrees (centigrade mate).
A few years later I was excited to read accounts of the band parking a flatbed semi-truck in the heart of Manhattan right in front of Exxon’s headquarters to perform a demand that the giant global oil company take full responsibility for the Exxon Valdez’s egregious fouling of the Prince William Sound.  It was part of their Blue Sky Mining tour, a continuation of their increasingly globalized work for social and environmental justice. Peter Garrett, though now diminutive at the foot of the Exxon edifice, rose to dance as a righteous Odysseus, come up from Down Under, thrusting himself into the eye of the shameless hegemon to demand restitution, penance and forbearance from Polyphemus, a prevaricating pleonexic giant, hell-bent on the for-profit wanton destruction of the Earth. Fair’s fair. Cheers all around! Of course, Exxon would have just as soon eaten the little rover bastard—or have him arrested—but the NYC cops were reportedly taken in by both the band’s audacity to do such a thing (in NYC, chutzpa) and their music, and so the band played on making headlines for the cause of civil society everywhere. 
Today I find myself rooting for descendants of the colonists, good people by all appearances and accounts, against an insatiable intruder who won’t take “no” for an answer. McDonald’s wants to build one of its indelible “restaurants” in Tecoma, Victoria at the edge of the Dandenong Mountain Range—a place beautiful and precious to many—and no doubt sacred to some. But to an insatiable global corporate giant it is a place lacking the mark  of development, the homogenized yellow shit-stain of a Maccas, which is what the people Down Under call McDonald’s unmistakable “Golden Arches”. It is a heraldic flag that signals, well conquest. According to the people of Tecoma, their home is a place,
…where Melbourne’s leafy eastern suburbs meet the mountains and forests. Protected parklands and National Parks preserve the beauty of this area which includes valleys and hills covered in thick temperate rainforest and dense ferny undergrowth. It’s a bushwalking and cycling paradise with extensive trails through lush vegetation…the surrounding villages offer boutique accommodation, galleries, markets, beautiful gardens…The Puffing Billy steam train runs between Belgrave, Emerald and Gembrook, taking in the scenic landscape of the Dandenong Ranges…tourists visit the Dandenong Ranges…to experience life away from suburbia, away from mass development, noise and pollution. Locals live there for the same reasons. 
Wow! Such a lovely, and diverse, nature-culture mash-up; maybe I’ve been wrong about the place. And such a shame the descendants of the colonists are now being colonized themselves—this by yet another giant with no shame.
I found out about this in a most amusing way. Several weeks ago I was flipping through the pages of the Chicago Tribune and came across a half-page add with a headline addressed to McDonald’s directly: “Sorry McDonald’s, You’re Not Welcome in Our Town” it said, ever so politely. The ad featured a picture of an elderly gentleman in a dark jacket, distinguished and proud, with Anglo and Indigenous features, a light scarf knot round his neck, head tilted slightly, stern grimace and a piercing straight-ahead look in his eyes. This guy had seen some shit and wasn’t having any more of it. Visible behind him was a softly blurred crowd holding images of Maccas overlaid by a circle with a diagonal slash-line, the universal symbol for “No”. The ad took the form of a letter. The salutation, “Dear McDonald’s CEO Don Thompson,” was personal and proper, and the text remained civil yet firm throughout, while disclosing that “McDonald’s continues to try to bully and intimidate us with lawsuits and bulldozers,” even though they have amassed “almost 100,000 signatures asking [McDonald’s] to stop this development.”
Signing the document, “Sincerely, The Community of Tecoma, Australia,” continued the townspeople’s exemplary manners and civility. All of which multiplied the impact of urging Tribune readers to:
“Sign the petition at—www.change.org/burgeroff”! 
Well I love a good pun as much as I dislike a bad one—so this one had me laughing out loud, both for its slight vulgarity, but especially for the chutzpa to say such a thing in a newspaper! And the ad wasn’t just a gratuitous Monty Pythonesque fish-slap in the face. It was an announcement that a delegation of Tecomaians were on their way to Chicago bearing those 100,000 signatures under their “Burger-Off” banner to stand face-to-face with the corporate giant in its headquarters to demand they do the right thing, the civil thing: to not force themselves where they weren’t wanted; to have the common decency to burger-off. Is that too bloody-much to ask mate?
And note: this group represented no small minority of hippie-dippie castaways, animal rights folks, peaceniks and women with nothing better to do. No sir. Nearly everyone, 9 of 10 of the 2085 residents of that fair hamlet, does not want the burger monster in their town—and the entire city council voted unanimously that McDonald’s please move on.
Well, McDonald’s didn’t and won’t. The company appealed their case to the regional Victoria authority—which in a stupefying perversion and inversion of “democracy” ruled that the “overwhelming objections of the local community [were] ‘irrelevant’, and granted McDonald’s planning permission,” which, as you might imagine, really pissed people off. Hell the rights of the Maccas supersede the rights of people? Excuse me but, huh? The good people of Tecoma love their diverse nature-culture mash-up, and know creeping homogeneity when they see it. And they object to the junk McDonald’s sells as food. Can’t they do that?
Apparently not, for a couple of reasons: first global proliferation of the idea that development, as defined by the biggest developers, is an unadulterated good. And this is undergirded by the similarly viral “principle” of creative destruction—which in grand irony springs from an observation by Marx portending the end of capitalism—capitalism will destroy itself, he argued. And so the idea was creatively co-opted by the 20th century economist Joseph Schumpeter and brought to a contra-Marxian and oxymoronic conclusion. By some magical self-referential transubstantiation—capitalism is good so what it does is good—destruction becomes a good thing…so let’s have at it! Nowadays, development and creative destruction are built into our laws and “regulations” at all levels of government. These are more accurately understood as rent-seeking rules that privilege development and developers. Since it is the “developers” who are doing the destruction in the name of creation, they “are gifted the ability to receive concentrated benefits through government actions, the costs of which are dispersed throughout the whole of society.”  This is, in short, how government works.
Folks in Tecoma were so taken aback by such an unjust ruling that four days later “600 local residents united to ‘Reclaim Tecoma’ and planted a Community Garden on the proposed site,”—which I thought was an absolutely brilliant idea. And this was followed by a “24 hour peaceful vigil” in which residents sustained themselves, at and in the garden for a month until they were evicted by the police.  Sound familiar? It should. I have no idea whether these folks were influenced by Occupy, but I’d find it hard to believe they weren’t aware of it—even down there, in a place I ignore. They were simply, Occupying a space—presently an act of civil disobedience, but like Occupy, may wind up being part of a movement towards political disobedience in which the whole system is reveled as incorrigibly corrupt. In any case, the attempted colonization of their little bit of land by a mega-corporate giant has these new-natives more than restless.
It has them feeling like a community.
Building the community garden. http://www.burgeroff.org/
Coming soon: Part III
 See Tangel: Of Black Holes and Alternative Universes: A Requiem for Commons? EC August 12, 2013
 Picture credit: Peter Garrett, by Paul Natkin in Rolling Stone magazine http://www.rollingstone.com/music/pictures/midnight-oil-photos-20001207/gallery3-midnight-oil-69951990
 Beds Are Burning lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC http://www.lyricsfreak.com/m/midnight+oil/beds+are+burning_20093267.html
 Midnight Oil performs John Lennon’s Instant Karma at Exxon protes in Manhattan May 30, 1990 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RMyQSeOoYDw
 Pleonexia, often translated from ancient Greek as “greed” is better understood as “insatiability” that moreover leads to injustice. See Hesiod, Plato and Aristotle; and Jesus Christ. For some excellent contemporary analysis see the work of Arthur Nikelly, PhD, a recently deceased professor of psychology at the Univ. of IL. The Pleonexic Personality: A New Provisional Personality Disorder, Nikelly, Arthur G.Individual Psychology: Journal of Adlerian Theory, Research & Practice, Vol 48(3), Sep 1992, 253-260.
 Interview: Midnight Oil vs. Exxon: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F1HWripf6zE
 This is a wonderfully useful word. As a verb it means to “make a visible impression or stain) on” something, or as a “symbol…typically for identification”…which can be a means to “separate or delineate”; it can threaten, as in “’you mark my words!’” and it can “honor, celebrate,” and of course it could flunk you out of school, etc. http://oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/mark
 I can’t seem to find a link to the ad online but it appeared on page 15 in the Chicago Tribune, Section 1; Thursday, September12, 2013.
 Indigogo Thanks: Video of spokesperson in Chicago, “These people have no ethics whatsoever.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Vd9HmEjahw&feature=youtu.be (0.1.33)
 The phrase, “Women with nothing better to do” is quite intentional. My activism experience is rife with industry, government and institutional representatives denigrating citizens’ groups in just this way.
 Adler, Jonathan H. Clean Politics, Dirty Profits, from Political Environmentalism: Going behind the Green Curtain, T.L. Anderson editor. pg. 4. Hoover Institution Press 2000 (and it is ironic that I’ve used his quote). And for Schumpeter reference see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creative_destruction
 For an enlightening distinction between the two, see U of Chicago professor Bernard Harcourt’s essay Political Disobedience in Occupy: Three Inquiries in Disobedience, University of Chicago Press 2013
I’ve been spending time recently with Tim Morton’s new book Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. I ordered it as the main text for a course on philosophy and the environment I’m teaching in December. The course lasts only two weeks and is two-thirds online, so I thought it would be a valuable exercise to focus intensely on one topic: the meaning of global warming. What could be a better book to use? Well, last night while struggling to write the introductory lecture, I found myself echoing Morton in quoting a Talking Heads song, muttering to myself, “my god, what have I done?”
Then this morning something clicked. I recalled the Dr. Suess book, The Cat in the Hat Comes Back. It may have had special resonance growing up in wintry Wisconsin, where the prospect of interminable show shoveling had us understandably longing for a felis ex machina to relieve us of finger-numbing duties. You may recall the basics of the plot: Two kids are directed by their mother to shovel the walk while she goes shopping. The Cat in the Hat shows up (again – the same dramatis personae were in the original), snow-shoeing into their house and promptly helping himself to a piece of cake while reclining in a warm bath. That impertinent behavior causes a pink bathtub ring which the Cat removes with the mothers’ white dress. The pink spot is “re-moved” to, in turns, a wall, shoes, a rug, and a bed. With the help of littler and littler alphabetized cats emerging from his headwear, the pink spot is transferred to a TV, a sauce pan, and finally fanned outside to the snow in the yard. Attempts to eradicate the spot by pop gun, rake, and baseball bat only serve to spread the mess until the last anti-spot combatant-in-hat, the microscopic Little Cat Z, deploys the magical “Voom” to successfully clean up all the pink. When all the snow is restored to its original whiteness the Cat and his re-hatted assistants depart with the open offer of future spot therapy.
Theodore Geisel’s The Lorax gets all the attention as an environmental cautionary tale, but I think this one is the more interesting. If we’re truly living in the age of hyperobjects, per Morton – things that are massively distributed relative to humans: viscous, nonlocal, generating their own time and space – then even the wisdom of the Lorax is going to look quaint and inadequate. Let’s assume the pink spot is analogous to something like nuclear radiation, a persistent reality resistant to remediation. Both spread from a localized, background space to ubiquity. They can’t be wiped away or moved away. Did Geisel mean to say that, like Heidegger, only a god-like power from elsewhere can save us now, called forth by the spread of doom we’re within? Or did he want us to not give up the hope that we can solve our environmental problems with enough imagination (“maybe we can engineer some Zoom!”)? The Cat in the Hat is undoubtedly a beautiful soul, so helpful and all, but is that what we need?
I think I need to get my students to help me figure this out.
By Rick Elmore and Jon Elmore
Recently, while composing an essay on animal perception in H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau, we had the pleasure of encountering Philip Armstrong’s book, What Animals Mean in the Fiction of Modernity (2008). In this text, Armstrong argues that the stories we tell about non-human animals in modern fiction are closely aligned with the framework of modernity and, particularly, the modern subject. In this sense, Armstrong’s work takes its place alongside a number of recent texts such as Kelly Oliver’s Animal Lessons: How They Teach Us to Be Human (2009), which argues that non-human animals have been fundamental to our conception of the human in ways that have gone previously unacknowledged. It’s an important point and worth repeating. However, one of the things that struck us most forcefully in Armstrong’s book was a claim he makes about anthropocentrism.
A few pages into the introduction, Armstrong notes that in general to speak of non-human agency is to invite the charge of anthropomorphism: “Surely such a notion imputes to non-humans a capacity—traditionally considered unique to human beings—for conscious planning, decision-making, and choice” (3). It is commonplace when thinking about issues of animality to assume that any claim to non-human agency must be fundamentally anthropocentric, insofar as such claims seem to attribute aspects of human agency to animals. Although Armstrong here only addresses claims to animal agency, one sees this kind of critique in other aspects of animal studies, positing the notion that any thinking about other animals cannot help but engage in a violent “humanizing.” Behind such claims is the assumption that to begin from a human standpoint dooms us to the all too human limits of that standpoint. This logic is not unrelated to the basic ethos of Speculative Realism, insofar as there too the question (or one of them) is to what degree starting from a human or correlationist standpoint necessarily taints one’s analysis in an anthropocentric or correlationist way. There are, of course, good reasons to worry about anthropocentrism and about the potential for violence in our thinking about animals (and the rest of the world for that matter). Although Armstrong is certainly not the first thinker to challenge this kind of blanket concern over anthropocentrism, he questions it in an interesting way.
For Armstrong, following the work of Jonathan Burt, Chris Philo, and Chris Wilbert, the basic problem with this charge of anthropocentrism is that it assumes that “agency” is a fundamentally human concept. Yet speaking of animal agency does not necessarily suggest “assumptions about what specifically constitutes animal subjectivity or interiority” (3). There seems no reason to assume that all agency, subjectivity, or interiority need be human or similar to the human. In fact, it seems far more plausible that engaging with non-human animals challenges rather than reinforces our conceptions of agency, subjectivity, etc. Hence, these questions, “turn[s] the charge of anthropomorphism on its head, asking instead whether evidence of animal resistance in cultural texts and practices might not destabilize taken for granted assumptions about how agency works in the first place” (3). For Armstrong, the notion of animal agency, thus, leads not so much to anthropomorphism as to a critique of anthropocentrism.
Armstrong’s point is that, in principle, the claim to animal agency remains anthropocentric only so long as one assumes that the notion of “agency” being discussed is somehow related to human agency. Yet, this need not be the case; rather, the possibility of exploring other forms of agency challenges the hegemony of “human” agency. Hence, Armstrong’s analysis of non-human agency and its implications for our understanding of anthropomorphism and agency leads him to a kind of call to action: “A reconceptualization of agency [...] might facilitate a mode of analysis that does not reduce the animal to a blank screen for the projection of human meaning, and might offer productive new ways of accounting for the material influence of the non-human animal upon humans, and vice versa” (3). This is, of course, no easy matter, and he spends the rest of his book working through such “modes of analysis” in literary studies, exploring some of the most well-known, non-human animals of modern fiction: the whale in Moby Dick, the creature in Frankenstein, the Houyhnhnms in Gulliver’s Travels, and so forth. However, what we found so interesting in Armstrong’s analysis is the way in which it points to a certain anthropocentrism at the very heart of the concern for anthropomorphism.
One of the interesting insights springing from Armstrong’s argument is that the charge of anthropocentrism rests, ironically, on a profound privileging of the human. The notion that all human engagements with the world must always entail the “humanizing” of the world posits the world as something that cannot but conform, in some basic sense, to the human. In such a worldview, every engagement with the world is always already “human” in a way that forecloses in advance the possibility of access to any truly non-human world. Hence, in a somewhat strange turn of events, the worry over anthropocentrism ends up positing a remarkably anthropocentric world, a world in which every statement, analysis, experiment, and fact about the world ultimately figures the human. There is, of course, much that can be said about this kind of worldview, but the very first thing that must be said, it seems to us, is that it just can’t be right.
Borjan Bonaque, http://www.borjabonaque.com/portfolio/animal-agency/