Issue 4/2017 - Global Limits

Dark Ecology

Interview with Timothy Morton on counter-productive environmental thinking, overcoming species fixation, and solidarity with the non-human

Christian Höller

“Ecology without nature”—that was the provocative call to arms from literary scholar and philosopher Timothy Morton a good ten years ago, shaking up a discursive field previously still dominated by a largely romantic image of nature and the environment. Even in contexts in which these terms were viewed primarily as cultural constructs, there was long an unwillingness to engage to any greater extent with facts such as global warming, growing mountains of waste or other impacts of the Anthropocene. Morton's attempted re-foundation of ecological thinking, which seeks to overcome the simple human-environment distinction, develops from precisely this vantage point: by taking account of massive phenomena such as the climate catastrophe or ongoing species extinction that demonstrate complex human entanglement, although simplistic perpetrator-victim schemata do not do justice to this ongoing process. Morton described such phenomena as “hyperobjects” in his famous book from 2013—as an “end” that already lies behind us and demands a much more fundamental rethink than previously assumed. As Morton has elucidated in his more recent books, this would have to start with a kind of terminological liberation from the fixation on “species” and the “human”—a liberation that reveals our fundamental entanglement with the non-human. In Morton's view—and here he readily draws on knowledge gleaned from object-oriented ontology —this is crucial to learn to understand the paradoxical withdrawal, ghostliness and “spectrality” that are inherent for example in global warming. In his most recent book, Humankind (2017), Morton further teases out this approach of—and call for—radical solidarity with the non-human. In the following interview he explains the preconditions, modus operandi and sinister side-effects of this “eco-communist” solidarity.

Christian Höller: A lot of contemporary ecological discourse seems to be predicated on the idea that the end is near, that we have destroyed our environment to a point of “almost-no-return” and that apocalypse is lurking around the corner. Your re-conception of ecological thought (a profound endeavor that has been developing for more than ten years now) takes a totally different starting point: “The end has already happened,” as you repeatedly say—the catastrophe lies behind us, so to speak. In what ways are we dwelling beyond the apocalyptic moment? Or what could be the theoretical gain when thinking about the contemporary moment in a post-apocalyptic vein?

Timothy Morton: Thanks for having me: it's an honor. Well, the simplest way to think about this is that an apocalypse is a singular event within an agricultural religion, and what we are dealing with is a series of ongoing events of uncertain duration, whose causes are in a deep sense bound up with the logistical operations of civilizations whose primordial explanation mode has been forms of agricultural religion. You can see the problem immediately: if we frame what is happening as an apocalypse, then we are using a vital aspect of the cultural or ideological structures of the societies that eventually required industry (hence fossil fuels, hence global warming) to sustain themselves.
An apocalypse is a violent event in which the supposedly superficial layers of reality are ripped away (apo-kalupto, I unveil). That is indeed happening; the layers of reality that civilizations took to be superficial (the things for example that economic theory calls “externalities,” in other words, the biosphere and ourselves as human symbionts within that biosphere) are indeed being ripped away by civilization's logistics. This is a bitterly ironic realization of the notion of apocalypse that has already started to happen, and it's not pleasant at all, because of course the veil is far from superficial. It is the biosphere as such.

Höller: A lot of current ecocriticism and eco-politics are based on a very specific, century-old idea of “environment” and “nature”—as if those were independent, sealed-off objects to which the human subject has done catastrophic harm. Your reformulation of ecological thought argues, among other things, for the complete uselessness, even harmfulness of these concepts. What are the deeper reasons for this, and how are we supposed to replace them when it comes to refocusing ecological awareness?

Morton: Nature is a construct designed to alienate the human symbiosis within the biosphere, so that it appears to stand opposite and against us. Nature is “over there,” humans are “over here.”
Nature is best imagined as a smoothly functioning periodic cycle, the cycle of the seasons for example in European medieval culture. This smooth cycling is indeed how the Holocene manifested, the geological era just before the Anthropocene. Some geologists argue that the very smoothness was enabled by human activities, which is ironic, because the continuation of these activities eventually resulted in a drastic disruption of the smooth functioning of the biosphere. Nature, in other words, is the Anthropocene itself in its disguised, smooth mode, not unlike what happens to a brain as it begins to have a stroke, or to tectonic plates when they begin to have an earthquake, or to a glass when it begins to resonate with an opera singer's voice.
Nature isn't just a concept. It's a concept hardwired into social and biospherical space, hardwired into human alienation. It's way past time to drop the concept.

Höller: One of the theoretical tenets with which you want to replace the old concepts of “environment” or “eco-system” is the notion of the symbiotic real. Its hallmark as laid out in your new book Humankind is, to oversimplify, that the human lifeform (a legitimate term?) is only one among many deeply intertwined and wildly enmeshed lifeforms. Where does this idea of an all-encompassing “symbiotic real” stem from? Where are its edges? And what exactly privileges this notion over a more ethically driven “ecological consciousness?”

Morton: No zero sum either/or choice is intended between ecological consciousness and the symbiotic real. The symbiotic real is the being of which ecological awareness is conscious! The term was the most elegant one I could think of to substitute for the alienated concept of Nature, which I spell with a capital N to emphasize its artifice.
Symbiosis is an uneasy alliance between two or more lifeforms, an alliance that could come apart, that contains potential hostility. Without this uneasiness, the concept collapses into old and violent holist ideas of “life” and so on.
Solidarity is the phenomenological “noise” made by the symbiotic real. Solidarity implies non-humans and is the cheapest, most readily available affect, underneath sympathy and empathy. One doesn't need to manufacture anything to attune to it.

Höller: The particular kind of object that forms a central “chunk” or “heap” within the notion of the symbiotic real is the category of “hyperobject,” famously introduced in your 2013 book of the same title. It is a particularly stubborn kind of object since it resists being directly perceived or subsumed within orthodox mental or conceptual categories. Can you point out, for instance when it comes to paradigmatic hyperobjects like global warming, what its practical advantages might be? In what ways can it help us to come to terms more effectively or deal more deftly with oceans heating up, sea levels rising, and soon?

Morton: It's great to have a single word for phenomena that are hard to think, hard to commute, and that consist of an exceedingly large number of parts. “Hyperobject” is a term for an entity massively distributed in time and space relative to the being that is perceiving, measuring, thinking about, undergoing or otherwise accessing it. Humans are part of a number of intersecting hyperobjects, such as the biosphere, climate and neoliberal capitalism, conceived as a set of physical and symbolic interactions that now cover a large swathe of Earth's surface.
Treating global warming as a single entity, a special “heap”-like one, as you say, whose boundaries are real but fuzzy, allows us to figure out ways of relating to it altogether. For example, since we are inside it, there can be no top-level “solution” to it that would not involve drastic and irreversible violence that we might not be able to predict. Geo-engineering is very tempting as human technical power tries to grasp this top level. But it would be catastrophic. The hyperobject concept enables us to think this very clearly.
Since hyperobjects are very long-lasting compared with humans (the time-frame of global warming is up to 100,000 years), we can be sure that ourselves as individuals don't matter much to it, but that our actions, whether intended or not, accumulate vast consequences on the large timescale of the hyperobject. Social planning can take advantage of this insight. One good thing about “not mattering” is that there are so many more things about being a single human being than being a symptom of a biosphere or a participant in global warming. I can be a member of a book club or an anarchist commune. I've given a name to this property of the parts outrunning the whole: subscendence. It means that things are possible, that novelty is possible: and we desperately need wiggle room and novelty.

Höller: Rethinking not only ecology but what you lay out in the new book as the reformulated idea of eco-communism, requires developing, at the most basic level, “solidarity with non-humans.” How could one go about defining this kind of solidarity in a non-anthropocentric way, given that its genealogy clearly stems from man-made political discourse (reaching back to the French Revolution)? And the second question is how to demarcate it intelligibly so that it does not cross-over or “bleed out” into a kind of all-encompassing mythical holism?

Morton: I've talked a bit already about how solidarity is the noise the biosphere makes. This means that you can only think it if you include the non-human! Revolutionary action, therefore, must fail if it doesn't include the non-human. Perhaps this is one reason for failures thus far.
I am a holist! It's just that the kinds of holism on offer are artefacts of agricultural religion. They are claiming that the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts, which is in fact not mystical in a good way at all: it means that the parts are mechanical, replaceable components.
What we require is a holism in which the whole is always less than the sum of its parts. This is implied by symbiosis. The parts can come apart, which means that the whole is fragile. I know what you're doing right now: your mind is busy deleting what I just said. This is because we have a kind of Stockholm Syndrome that forces us to believe in the bad, “explosive” holism.
You have to be a holist of some kind if you believe in things such as “society.” It's just that explosive holism contaminates these beliefs.

Höller: A central aspect of both rethinking ecological hyperobjects as well as ecological subjects intuiting them is the idea of a profound spectrality or hauntedness of human and non-human beings alike. All entities, human or non-human, are hence characterized by a particular withdrawal of their respective essences, a specific non-fullness or perforated-ness. This seems to suggest that we are to a certain extent always dealing with “ghosts” when it comes to thinking about ecological disasters, environmental threats, or “endangered species,” for that matter. Can you briefly elaborate on that ghostly, non-material dimension and the question of what its political gain might be?

Morton: I'm not sure it's non-material! I'm not sure it's “material” in some obfuscating “solid” way either. Spectrality is a category that undoes such distinctions.
Lifeforms just are spectral. Stop the tape of evolution anywhere and you will find a species shadowed by some mutant power, like the X Men. Say it's a fish who can breathe out of water for five minutes. It's a fish, it's not a bacterium. But it's not quite a fish all the way down.
The basis of speciesism—distinguishing dramatically between humans and non-humans—is racism. Racism is exactly defined as an attempt to delete the uncanny spectrality of being human, relegating it to a sort of invisible mass grave where abject beings (objects of anti-Semitism, zombies, androids) have been thrown, in order to set up the racist (and “ableist”) concept of the “healthy human being.” Hitler was fond of his dog Blondi and promoted animal rights not in spite of but because of his anti-Semitism. Blondi-like beings are different enough from the “healthy” fascist for him to extend condescending sympathy to them, reaching out to them “over there”—over the seemingly thin and rigid boundary, which is in fact an “uncanny valley” filled with humanoid, hominid, “inhuman” beings from which the “healthy” one has distinguished himself or herself.
Becoming human in an ethical sense requires acknowledging an irreducible “inhuman” uncanny spectrality.
We are also required to pay less attention to rigid distinctions between life and non-life. Remember that Marx himself says that the way commodities become computer screens for displaying exchange value is weirder than the idea of dancing tables. This implies that if commodity fetishism is real, the idea of “inanimate objects” might be unreal.

Höller: In Humankind, you suggest a new theory of (environmental, political) action crucially based on the idea of, again reformulated, kindness. Can you shortly point out how our standard concepts of empathy or (intra- as well as inter-)species sympathy need to be reformulated in order to arrive at a more encompassing notion of kindness? Or should empathy and sympathy perhaps be eliminated from political discourse altogether?

Morton: Kindness is an attunement mode as much as it is an action. The difference between “act” and “experience” or active and passive is based on the difference between “act” and “behave.”
And this is an untenable anthropocentric difference. Kindness is attunement to the solidarity-noise of the symbiotic real. Acting is made of quantized bits of appreciating or tuning: just play music with someone to figure this out.
By contrast, empathy and sympathy are more expensive: you need to cook them up a bit. We don't need to get rid of them at all, though they may imply power relations that we might want to get rid of. I'm just arguing that it's less intensive just to notice what is already the case: solidarity, a concept that sits strangely between acting and appreciating.

Höller: One of the more surprising ideas to pop up in your theory of a more proper “ecological attunement” is the notion of ennui. This comes as a particular surprise since the standard belief would be that ennui is a particular feature of consumerist or capitalist discourse and that to “save the earth” (whatever that might amount to) should by all means be severed from consumerist deliberations. Furthermore, ennui appears more like the distinctive habitus of the “1 %” than as a potential basis for human/non-human solidarity. How would you respond?

Morton: Unfortunately for standard, religious environmentalisms, consumerism contains the phenomenological basis for relating to non-humans in a non-coercive way. No one is forcing you to prefer Coke to Pepsi. And the Coke bottle “asks” you to handle it a certain way. Anyone who has taken drugs will tell you that there's a right way to consume things, dictated by those things.
This is the flipside of the consumerist space we find ourselves in, where it appears that we can sadistically format things just how we like.
The problem with capitalism isn't that there's too much pleasure. That's a religious hangover. The problem is that there isn't enough. We can handle Coke bottles nicely but not frogs. A more “ecological” society would not be more “efficient:” it would be more pleasurable, for more beings, who after all are already part of social space whether we want them to be or not: flies, stomach bacteria.
Attempts to escape from consumerist space are also performances within it, so a paradoxical approach is required. Otherwise we are left with the logic of the sell-out versus the authentic (that goes on forever) or the logic of complete identification with consumer space (think Andy Warhol). There's a middle path that isn't a compromise but rather a paradoxical exit route, and this is modelled by Baudelaire's ennui. In ennui, I find myself surrounded and penetrated by (spectral) non-humans, and I can't determine in advance whether this is pleasurable or disgusting. In other words, ennui models for us exactly what ecological awareness is like!

Höller: A very prominent position amidst your on-going theoretical elaboration is held by various artistic forms, ranging from literary practices dating back to the 19th century through diverse avant-garde or electronic musical forms to recent science-fiction movies. In what ways do these art forms provide particular test cases for overcoming the traditional subject-object divide and thus exemplify our entanglements with non-human entities? How would you outline the contours of a non-anthropocentric aesthetic?

Morton: Art holds open the possibility that the future can be different. Who knows what the meaning of this poem really is? It's just out of reach... When you appreciate art, you are having some kind of mind-meld (like Mr. Spock) with a being that probably isn't alive, let alone conscious. So the basic flavor of the art experience is solidarity with non-humans. And because of the intrinsic futurality, this solidarity is unconditional.

Höller: Coming back to the sinister realm of current political developments, how would you assess the prospect for human/non-human eco-communism (as outlined in Humankind), especially with regard to powerful politicians who view e.g. the Paris Climate Agreement as something like a big hoax?

Morton: The current president of the USA has positioned himself in opposition to all lifeforms. We are many, he is one.

Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics was published in 2007 by Harvard University Press; Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence came out in 2016 with Columbia University Press; Humankind: Solidarity With Nonhuman People was released in August 2017 by Verso. Timothy Morton’s blog can be found at