Ben Carter Olcott

Just This


ISSUE 97 | PROPHECIES II | APR 2021

Read afterthoughts to this piece from Jules Joanne Gleeson.


Photograph courtesy pictures Jettcom licensed CC-BY 3.0

The unitalicized stanzas of the interstitial poem are composed of lines extracted from the “Non-locality” chapter of Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World by Timothy Morton. In Hyperobjects, earth is a haunted place where looming, supermassive, unknowable objects overlay the World we think we know. The “Non-locality” chapter presents the following strange reality: things don’t exist in a place so much as they compose it. Here, contextless, the words of this text extrude another kind of space, set against lines of another poem circling catastrophe.

It’s midday in Los Angeles, 70 in February, and a winter storm has overwhelmed the state of Texas. A Times article about fragile power grids leads with a photograph of a snow-covered street in Austin; a red brake light is the sole, ominous shine amidst the umbrage. It’s eerie, this photo, this event—there has never been weather like this. On the maps, the storm’s blue palm curves from the Arctic to El Paso, from Mississippi to the Rockies—as I stare at its expanse, it looks more like a scar, like an oil slick spreading blackly in the Gulf. A week passes. It’s midday in Los Angeles, again—70 in February. In Texas, people freeze to death; they boil snow on stovetops for clean water; they are charged thousands for fitful power; the cost of the damage is, as of yet, untallied. The World is in energy crisis. An article describes plans to blanket the Sahara with solar panels, which would illuminate the World but raise a desert heat that, when distributed across the planet, would desertify the Amazon, ensure the ice caps melt, and inflict an unending cyclone season on Vietnam. A panel-bound Sahara would raise the average temperature of Los Angeles, where, last summer, it rained ash. Back in Texas, people are thawing out in their cars. In Los Angeles, I wash the yogurt out of my plastic cup, hoping to make it more recyclable.

strange mutagenic flowers,
systems of correlation without causal link,
an ink of affects and effects,
results given by summing the wave—
that’s what solidity is.

the figure tattooed to a lip, the figure
ironed on a plain black tee.
heard-loved-spread the We in the whir of
everywhere machines a-chitter,
plucking the warp of the loom.

The Arctic is in Texas, the Sahara in LA; yet the snow melts in Austin, and it’s still 70 in February. There is a plastic island in the Pacific with a surface area of 1.6 million square kilometers, and I wash my cup so as not to be the problem—I wash it with more water. And with the thunk of plastic on my recycling bin’s mound of plastic, I think, can’t help but think, this is not enough. I am not doing enough.

precisely everywhere the reality things,
definition at the expense of
a form of auto-affection: one is
transparent, as if it didn’t exist at all.
reality is not a machine.

Timothy Morton’s Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World is in some sense about that inner admonishment, the feelings of “weakness, lameness, and hypocrisy,” as Morton labels them, that accompany the failure of our current solutions to global warming. We are weak—against a problem as large as global warming, we seem dismally, heartbreakingly small, hopelessly bound to the range of our senses, knowledge, and time. We are lame—we want to do something about this, but what, exactly, could that be when the scale of the needed solution is global, societal? We are hypocrites: to eat and drink and breathe is to inevitably over-consume some dwindling resource; existing alone leaves a carbon footprint; we are complicit in the process we wish to undo.

We should stop there for a moment. Morton assumes that people more or less share these negative feelings, relying on a generalized “I” and “We” to make many points about human behavior and conviction. But there’s no question Morton’s case is made against a specific, cosmopolitan, hegemonic view, one from which the reader will consider their own viewpoint more or less distinct. Hyperobjects risks universalization to arrive at a broader critique of society’s underdeveloped ecological awareness. That “broadness” emerges from Morton’s argumentative approach, which uses the tools of Western philosophy to attempt to break a paradigm of Western philosophy—to bend Kant, Hegel, Heidegger and co. to a topic they couldn’t have imagined. I’m sure those assumptions are worth dissecting; I’m less sure that these philosophers’ own ideas are the best scalpels for the task. As an object-oriented ontologist, Morton posits that “our” default manner of relating to objects is flawed, primarily in that “we” give far more weight to the human than the object itself. Morton eventually analogizes the ontological and ecological relationship over the course of the book—replace “object” with “lifeforms” in the previous sentence and you have a crude thesis. Morton’s “We” is intended to be much more conjectural than prescriptive—and yet inevitably, as the argument bends toward ethical considerations, those argumentative conveniences are strained. They might even prompt an impulse to defend oneself—I, Ben Olcott, felt that. But that provocation made me ask a question that Morton’s book as whole asks too: what am I defending? I believe it is my privileged selfhood, a basic right to personal self-definition. But Hyperobjects really has no quarrel there; it asks the reader to instead reimagine the scope of what is allowed to have a self. The resistance to this re-imagining is precisely what Morton attempts to excavate.

the entity that for all my face is
yours, mutuality that blank blank operates, mutual
the blank blank
nullifies in unison—We are no
holocausts on Earth, We sang in cut time.

this works to an arbitrary distance.
biology discovers how entangled lifeforms are,
a tiny fork vibrating and not vibrating,
rather aesthetic forms of these fields
just as ocean waves subside.

Morton’s argument is top-down, and it begins with a notion that the negative feelings described above derive from the strain global warming puts on our sense of the “World.” This capital-W World, Morton argues, is generally not the Earth itself, not soil, plants, insects, fish, birds, bees, mammals, blood, organs. This “World” is the result of a way of seeing and valuing that allows us to imagine Life as a human-centered or human-privileged event, to instrumentalize Earth for the benefit of humanity. Both World and Life are capitalized like God is capitalized to emphasize that we think of them similarly: World and Life and God coexist on a transcendental plane, they are away, made somewhere else in our mental picture of things, a place of special and exclusive quality. In the World, we can safely place everything behind a veil of abstraction. “Living in the World,” according to this way of thinking, has little to do with the dirt scooped up from my front yard, little to do with Chernobyl’s Exclusion Zone, thermophilic bacteria in lava vents, or earthquakes. It has everything to do with creating an ontological separation from Earthen beings, Earthen objects. Global warming collapses the World because it’s no longer possible to think of the sea without the microplastics destroying its fauna, no longer possible to consider air without the pollution and ash that cause chronic disease. Those earthen objects are not away, anymore—they’re here, all the time, in the real Earth. The capital-W World in which humans are inevitably centered, in which our objects—organic and inorganic alike—appear as mere implements of our desire, is over.

We clipped the mute canopy,
for-Nature made of sugar plus spice,
confection-forms. the red muscle named
desire eliminated received music
We yearned We deracinated We sheared.

The World has ended because global warming’s dire consequences interact and coalesce beyond human governance—we are now forced to recognize the Earth has business other than humanity’s pleasure. Global warming is interrupting the Gulf Stream, and this has grave consequences throughout the world, wherever we are—it does to me, sitting at a desk in LA, as a third snow storm threatens my parents in New Jersey. When I hear of an oil spill in the Pacific, I am concerned about the record-breaking typhoon season that will spread it to the California coast; I am concerned about the thousands of marine species going extinct, the acidification of the oceans. When I hear about multiple tropical storm systems in the Atlantic, I think of the tornado season that has just ravaged the Great Plains. I think of desertification that has driven Afghans from unfarmable lands. I think of the air quality in San Francisco and Beijing. I think of colony collapse and the disappearance of butterflies. I think of COVID surges in Brazil and Germany and Egypt and Los Angeles County. Polar bears on meager ice floes. The climate has gone rogue; what we’re really learning is that it was never “ours.” The destruction of the abstracted, transcendental World leaves us with a supermassive, interconnected, and uncontrollable object—the Earth and its global warming climate system. Morton calls such a system a hyperobject. Morton posits that in the Anthropocene, we are surrounded by them.

another modulation of mechanism: you aren’t
made of rotations within rotations.
it’s a statistical performance,
the future state even in principle,
what might be just pure relationships.

We—We more clarified than
simple sound, We no more present
than a hulking stasis, picture
perfect-present in a sensory instance.
We knew We were instruments to whelm by force

not material but aesthetic shape,
precisely textuality from which seeming
a play of difference out of meaning—
being located at all is only
deeper more implicate order.

Morton’s hyperobjects are entities “massively distributed in space and time relative to humans.” Climate is one of these—it happens everywhere on planet Earth at all times and is influenced by entities millions and millions of miles away, like the Sun. Climate also persists into the future. On a human scale, climate appears to us as weather, which we must predict to avoid catastrophes small and large. Weather makes clear something obvious but important: the present is an unreliable basis for knowledge because the future is always coming. That “futurality” is even more pronounced when it comes to global warming: some pollutants we are currently emitting will remain in our air for hundreds of years. As Morton pithily puts it: “global warming covers the entire surface of Earth, and seventy-five percent of it exists five hundred years into the future.” They add, “Remember what life was like in the 1500s?” We can’t—and that’s the point. Hyperobjects exist beyond the full scope of human perception—thus it is almost impossible to know about them, and even harder to care about them. They must be believed in, or calculated by intelligences beyond human capability—and even supercomputers can model climates only semi-effectively. Hyperobjects are God-like in their distance from us, except they are undeniably real—they are even partially perceptible. That is, perhaps, the reason for their profound strangeness: they are both here but not, seeable but too big to delineate. They rise into a smoke that is the very limit of human comprehension.

We wondered how We were about how We were,
then exiled We to the museum shop,
conversed about geophysical force,
then became it,
the great ripping start.

now-points “in” time or space.
heavy rain, simply a manifestation—
“I refute it thus,” no longer,
“Well it’s snowing” in Boise, Idaho,
this ontological genie in the bottle

Global warming is not the only hyperobject—it is simply the most dangerous example, the one that makes us quake. Evolution is one; so is capitalism. Hyperobjects all share a property that is not just true at a conceptual level, but which describes the way they really are: hyperobjects withdraw when you consider them. An essential aspect of the whole removes itself no matter how the object is perceived or conceived. In the case of Evolution: when I think of Evolution as a whole, individual species and their variations disappear; when I think of rhesus monkeys and their phenotypes, the entire process of Evolution is invisible. I cannot see the million-year-long process of natural selection when I watch a rhesus monkey play in front of me. And when I look backwards in time, I lose sight of this individual—I see all the potential properties this species ever had; I imagine natural selection operating on jaws, claws, and teeth; I see Evolution again. And so in capitalism: an individual gives me no hint of the shape of a market, but when I look at a market, I do not see individuals, I see swaths of behavioral choice. An individual is a unit within capitalism, but it is not capitalism itself. Neither is labor, alone, capitalism; it is the manipulation of labor; the thing, and the process that moves it, at once. Global warming is just like this: when rain falls on my head, I do not feel global warming. I feel water landing on my scalp—and that is all my senses can tell me. Yet that isn’t everything that’s happening in the droplet: it was brought here by insensible but real forces—climate forces—that are an essential part of its being-there at all.

We double-truthed and double-spoke
better metaphors and worse ones
from catacombs
environing local tombs, a local legend
like a reverb in a cloistered We town.

never the case these raindrops
all these little squiggles that you thought
before we look too close to the bomb.
a care of human silence, their testimony,
distance close. The same time, the same reasons

the seasons changed out of season.
an augured incoherence
brought new language to the language
We once knew as interstitial.
the We understood this.

Hyperobjects, because they are so large and so out-of-time, point out what Morton calls, after Heidegger, the Rift—the gap between how things appear and what they are. Individuals alone can’t operate on a scale that influences global warming itself—and yet global warming is constantly influencing me: it throws back dangerous weather, food shortages, mass extinction. Morton goes further: they suppose this gap is a true property of our relationship to all objects. The computer I am typing on, for example: I can feel the keys on my fingertips, hear the clicking sounds as I depress them. But those feelings and sounds—are they the computer? They seem to exist in me, not in the computer itself. So I try to think of the object. It is silvery, furnished by Apple, made of some metal. Inside the metal shell is a machine that computes at astonishing speed. That astonishing speed is generated by circuits etched on silicon, electrons flowing in patterns that translate to binary codes, interpretable by other components of the machine. All this is made possible because of the nature of electrons themselves, how they flow well within certain materials—and this has to do with properties of particles bequeathed by quantum mechanics. All of this allows me to access the Internet, another hyperobject. I have now bumped against another massively distributed system—but have I even gotten to “computer?”

the energy flash, the disorientation
of scale. “Reflected … in the corridor”
the nonhuman sees us, hotter than the sun.
weird cyclone, oil slick,
something uncanny most poignant

We focused on the weapon, lastly.
We focused on the consequence, lastly.
We focused on shocking shape of it, lastly.
We focused on delivery, sickening, lastly.
We focused on not alleviating sickness, lastly

“Computer” is all of these things and none of these things—the computer recedes from perception as I start to consider it. Although I can sense the computer, I cannot think it directly—put another away, I cannot exhaust everything the computer is just by perceiving it and its relations to other objects. Even as I start to interrogate my senses, I am forced to recognize their individuality: the sense in my fingertips is that of my skin touching plastic. It is not skin touching computer. Objects seem to withdraw from us, according to Morton, because they generate an infinity of other objects—objects throw more objects back at us. The computer threw feelings, sounds, silveriness, Apple, and metal back at me—and each of these objects was deeply entangled in other objects that compose it. Feelings are part of neural systems, sounds are vibrations moving in space, silveriness is determined by properties of light and the structure of my eye, Apple is a company massively distributed in capitalism, metal is created by punishing processes in the Earth’s mantle. The computer’s generated objects just generated more objects: neural systems, vibration, properties of light, human anatomy, economy, and tectonic plates. Where does it end? It doesn’t. It is objects, each withdrawing from other objects, all the way down. At this level, there is nothing a human mind can do to intervene with organization, sense—the enmeshing-repulsing web of things is beyond us, hopelessly strange and infinite.

like The Prelude in which
strange parallax effect won’t
wound a mind which secreted memories
“abandoned object cathexes,” a poem
about the Hyperobject Earth.

the memories of the last effect were
gathered by the armful, litter in the charnel
ground of change. We had all these
tokens, We were salesmen at this place
like it was fucking Chuck E. Cheese, of all places

in hot deep rocks, genotoxic
silicate replicators, the liar paradox.
yet a solution the stain of itself
results due to more than a little
death flesh is heir to always talking

and in that moment, selling. in that moment,
selling We weren’t there,
the best We could say,
We weren’t there, but there was such sun,
orbing in bittersweet light.

As we tunnel into the depths of Morton’s thinking, the distance between the World and Morton’s object-oriented, superabundant, and uncontrolled hyperobject reality is clear—but also uncomfortable. Morton calls the feeling “uncanny,” because even with hyperobjects in mind, it is hard to fully let go of the World—the two realities sit side-by-side. I imagine myself walking along the Santa Monica pier, overwhelmed by industry, sensation, people. I’m in the thick of the World, here—inside a human-defined space designed primarily for human mollification built literally on top of an endangered habitat—but I know, too, that two degrees of warming would cause a sea-level rise that could destroy this place—and I know global warming is happening. Yet, if I were to return to the pier tomorrow, it would appear more or less the same—the pier busier or slower, the weather sunnier or grayer, the tide higher or lower. But global warming tells me, insists to me, there is a process happening that will rapidly destabilize the pier, transform it entirely, destroy it. The pier will flood—it’s happening right now, in fact. The future overlays the present; the flooding of the pier has begun. Yet when I return to Santa Monica to corroborate this, there is nothing to corroborate. People mill about the pier, enjoying the sun. I can even take the temperature, look up the history of temperatures in this place and on this day and say, definitively, that today’s temperature is no higher than average. Hyperobjects—and Heidegger’s Rift, in general—turn normal entities into species of undead, zombies infected with futurality. Objects cease to be the objects we believe they are, but they look just like them. The World ceases to be the World, but it looks like I’m still living in it. There is something alien about the world around us—all the more disturbing because it sits right on top of the familiar, because it is so intimate. The disjunction is made all-too-clear in the case of nuclear weaponry—it is easy to tell ourselves we do not live in a World that includes the irrevocable stain of this sound, a thermonuclear test at Bikini atoll (be careful listening to this, keep your volume down.) But we do—we have in fact “become death, the destroyer of worlds ” as J. Robert Oppenheimer prophesied (after the Bhagavad-Gita; according to some, a better translation of the sanskrit might be, “I am all-powerful Time, destroyer of worlds.”). This commingling of broken present and real future does not arrive at comfort—but it arrives at a kind of alien-intimacy that Morton suggests is the basis of burgeoning ecological awareness, “a sense of being close, even too close, to other lifeforms, of having them under our skin.”

never talking, awash with cyanide.
Extraterrestrial level—geotrauma under
our feet, delirious prose, upsurge
itself. Snow falls in a poem
the poem is not here.

and We too were sad to hear it. everything before proved
uneventful against the event.
the photo of a man taken against the wall,
expressionless—even somber,
evinced by shadows, the artist.

We are living, breathing bodies composed of fleshy alienness, composed of Other—hyperobjects bestow this knowledge upon us. This is not a judgment, this is not a doom, this is not an apocalypse: this is a widening, a letting-in. Morton calls for a “tuning” to this other reality, the reality in which other lifeforms exist, are beyond human governance, but are nonetheless our intimates. A true acceptance of that intimacy requires a view of self that permits equal sovereignty with the non-human—and better yet, that abolishes sovereignty altogether. Morton earnestly asks you to believe there is no categorical difference between you and your desk succulent; both you and the succulent are struck through with hyperobjects: evolution, capitalism, global warming. You are intimately close in a way you didn’t expect to know, the succulent is your close relation in an ontological sense. You occupy a nearly identical spacetime, you have cohered from similar quantum waveforms—you exchange atoms, your DNA evolves, its price and your dollars entangle. This kind of radical humility reverses our typical way of seeing the World: we are the same because we are similarly influenced, not because of my perspective on you as a human being. You, my succulent, are my comrade in arms against the enormous tempest of force and process that acts upon us incomprehensibly. Hyperobjects instructs us to hunker down with our brethren—the animal, the plant, the mineral, the element.

place makes worlds flimsy,
the viscous melting mirror takes
all a bardo, the relationship,
cancer the expression, story of lymph
from the standpoint of

five hundred thousand. there is no other way to say
five hundred thousand.
and no method no excavation
for five hundred
thousand dead, We three million dead.

and end of the universe, equally
soft tissues invisible, covers plain
ephemeral expression, an extended phenotype
comprised by particular, droplets
flows, rivers considering temporality.

How are we supposed to love the alien-Earth enough to save it? Is consideration of starling murmurations in suburban twilight, coral reefs slowly shunting water through their bodies, rocks eroding in the desert winds, or spiders laying their eggs enough? Hyperobjects doesn’t come to a neat conclusion on this. On the one hand, it seems impossible that a new ontology could make the difference—why quest after “being” when there are wildfires to put out, levees to rebuild, and people to find new homes for? When Texas needs new power lines and a fossil fuel revolution? On the other hand, a quest for being—ontology itself—is a quest for definition, for a relationship. The imperative set before us is to redefine and reform our relationship to Earth. Hyperobjects is most convincing in its attempts to transform our resistances into revelations—turning the “uncanny” into a kind of ecological listening, complicity into an ecological humility. We have to find ourselves meeting Earth-as-it-is, have to find ourselves accepting a fundamental equality with everything we must save but don’t understand—that acceptance works, for me, as a basis for sustainable reverence. That those things are alien to us does not mean they can’t be loved—they are our intimates by association, analogy, and inference, not by abstracting, instrumentalizing human knowledge. We must feel deep intimacies with these unlimited details that compose but do not equal Earth—even if the consequence is humanity’s loss of status, a true deference to the life of the trees, an acceptance of the limits of soil. We must accept and take on a love that is defiant of analysis, that is contradictory, that is self-submerging. If we are to save the planet, we must learn to earnestly love ourselves-as-Earth. We have to love the truth that we are the iron ore, the palm trees, the Amazon rainforest—Mount Everest, culture, the Everglades, beluga whales, cockroaches, the Indian Ocean, and the ground beneath your feet. There is another way to be here. It begins with an effort of unknowing—of allowing in the wild untameable strange that is our home and always was.

certain provocative images of We were banned,
looking too alien to disseminate
as an American plan. there was no abstracting it.
We didn’t know enough about it.
it was done anyway—We carved up this abyss
with indifference.
We are not this abyss.

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