by Mike Meyer ~ Honolulu ~ October 18, 2020
We have so many problems, but we’ve always had problems big and small. As much as we try to figure things out using our hard-earned problem-solving skills, nothing seems to work. Part of our population has become dangerously irrational, and what they are saying makes no sense. Because they have lost touch with reality and repeat only lies and nonsensical conspiracy fantasies, it is impossible to understand why they do these things. We cannot seem to get a handle on what is happening, let alone why.
That leaves us exhausted, anxious, and fearful as a small band of these people have taken over the government in the US, several states, and a few other nations. The pending US election, already badly corrupted by lies and manipulation, is seen as the last hope for saving the country from fascist-style authoritarianism or outright insanity.
All of this is a direct and immediate threat to our wellbeing. But that immediate threat exists within the black cloud of an unending pandemic and escalating climate disaster that will destroy our assets and force a complete transformation of our economy to survive.
Ironically the planetary pandemic is the easiest to understand. The SARS-CoV-2 virus and its COVID diseases, not all understood yet, are coronavirus variants, and such epidemics have destroyed kingdoms and empires throughout history. We know that to control this will take at least two years, even with the tremendous efforts to produce a working vaccine. But we also know that these do not go away but, even if controlled, will return in new forms. So being easiest to understand doesn’t improve things very much or make them go away.
That also emphasizes how hard the other things are to grasp. But hidden in that little understanding, we have the very frightening realization that these things are all connected. The pandemic and our history of increasingly severe variations over the last twenty years are directly related to our economic conquest of the planet and global warming resulting from the techniques that allowed that conquest.
It has taken me several years to be able to state this as I have done here. This entanglement of problems, disasters, and multilevel interactions is why nothing makes sense in a way that allows us to think we understand what is happening. But we cannot give up, and we need to act with confidence, or idiots will overrun us. In these situations, the success of incompetents and idiots is their surrender to lies and conspiracies that pretend to answer everything.
For the majority of the population that recognizes the lies and fantasies, they require a better understanding of the problems and potential solutions to find the confidence to act. That is the product of knowledge and, in some cases, wisdom. We need to make sense of this tangle, so how do we do that?
We need some new words
Where do we go to get new words? New words are what we use to describe new things. Those new words allow us to define problems in a new way to understand those problems better. But who makes new words when we need them?
You may wish to make sure you are comfortably sitting down, and your mind is open. In our world, the one that just ended, but we will come back to that, new words tend to come from two sources: writers and thinkers. I’ve separated those two to make the medicine go down a little easier. The distinction is between artists and philosophers.
As you may be aware, a significant part of the English language we use came from William Shakespeare four hundred years ago. While you may not read Shakespeare’s play for pleasure, you use his words every day. If you click on the link and look at twenty of his words, please imagine if you did not have those words. That is the situation we are in today. We don’t have the words we need to quickly and efficiently discuss the problems we face.
The other side of this process is philosophical thinking. The popular meaning of the word philosophy, specifically in the American culture, has been denigrated to the point that few want that label. But while artists as writers often invent new words and new ideas, people who think about what happens around us and how we understand it needs to both event new words and carefully define their meaning.
When things are working smoothly, there is not much general interest in new words, new ideas, or new definitions for already understood things. The modern world worked well for about four hundred years and was able to add new ideas and new words steadily at an accelerating rate. But the basic structures of the world held up and adapted themselves.
The essential definitions that evolved saw the world scientifically and as resources to be exploited for profit. The emphasis became increasingly focused on material reality via science and technology, profits for those that could invest in resource exploitation, and work with some entertainment for most everyone else. That image of the world hit its peak about sixty years ago.
The problems that we are failing to figure out how to deal with are unanticipated consequences of the modern world as defined. To illustrate this, the invention of the steam engine, by Thomas Savery, of England, in 1698 with necessary modification by Thomas Watt patented in 1769, began seriously pumping carbon into the atmosphere, initiating global warming.
In the late 20th century, sources of profit moved steadily away from material resource exploitation and physical production to financial manipulation of capital (finance) and human exploitation to provide services. It was easier for those with wealth to let that capital generate income than to invest in producing things. For service industries, the only way to continue to increase profit, other than market share, became the reduction in worker cost by either automation or a return to piece work pay now defined as contract gig workers.
Both of these problems are very large and are structural to the world as defined. We don’t have words to talk about any other way of organizing work, society, or climate disaster. As a result, those people most committed to the way things were or least able to understand the changes required have decided to deny everything. If there is no easy way to make sense of new things, the market for conspiracies and fantasies explodes.
What I have just written is the best I can do with existing words (concepts) to explain what is happening, That doesn’t give us any new understanding of the problems we are facing. Fortunately, there are many people over the last fifty years and before that, back to the 19th century, who could see aspects of these problems and worked to understand them.
That is something that you may want to look into but is an academic discussion with the negative American connotation to ‘academic’ as probably worthless. Let’s stay focused on new words and see if they work.
What is a hyperobject? It is a suggested term for those things we cannot get our minds around. Hyperobjects are too big or too small or too strange to grasp. Yet these objects have some common characteristics that suggest they are real. The word ‘object’ is another word for a thing that exists. Hyper means over, beyond, or above and we use it commonly in terms such as hyperactive describing kids after eating a lot of sugar.
Global warming is a hyper object. It is an authentic object but very large and complicated to touch directly. It is so massive that it is difficult to divide up into pieces. We are experiencing it very intimately with heat, drought, increasingly violent storms, changing wind patterns, crop failures, rising sea levels, melting icecaps, and forced migration.
Planet Earth is a hyperobject, as is the climate of that planet now, including things like oil fields. Timothy Morton, who invented the term hyperobjects, describes them as:
A hyper object could be a biosphere or the Solar System. A hyperobject could be the sum total of all nuclear materials on Earth or just the plutonium, or the uranium. A hyperobject could be the very long-lasting product of direct human manufacture, such as Styrofoam or plastic bags, or the sum of all the whirring machinery of capitalism. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology.
That intimacy of experiencing a hyperobject has a name, viscosity. These things are sticky, and once involved with them, we can’t escape. They change the nature of our reality because we cannot deal with them as subservient to humans.
The scientific basis of the modern age is the universe’s division into material objects and human things. We control or can control the objects around us, and we determine their roles and value. There is a clear qualitative distinction between humans and all other objects and emphasized on scientific objectivity that gives us command over non-human things. Objects don’t talk to us and tell us what to do until hyperobjects began to arrive and explain to us that we are working with things we may never be able to understand.
Hyperobjects are objects in a different sense than we have used that word previously. This word ‘object’ comes from Object-Oriented Ontology, . . . an emerging philosophical movement committed to a unique form of realism and non-anthropocentric thinking. This movement sees us as removed from the center of things and being called to task by forces instigated by our choices. Objects have abandoned our old world and are talking back to us.
Hyperobjects have other characteristics. Morton identifies these as nonlocal just as quantum entanglement creates “spooky action at a distance,” as Einstein complained about quantum mechanics. Any local manifestation of a hyperobject is not directly that hyperobject. They have different temporalities than the human scale of time. Some very large hyperobjects such as planets generate spacetime vortices distorting both space and time in their vicinity.
These objects exist in high dimensional phase space, making them invisible to humans in their entirety but appearing in confusing and incomplete forms. Just as three-dimensional objects may appear distorted in two-dimensional form, hyperobjects may be only partially visible from our perspective.
No wonder we are confused and can’t understand what is happening. We are dealing with a new kind of object that is not subservient to humans, exists only partially in the fact space that we consider normal, and are the unintended consequences of things we have done for hundreds of years. In one sense, this is very much a Frankensteinian problem. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein wasn’t the size of a planet totally beyond our ability to do more than struggle to understand and influence.
There is much more to this than highlighted here. My goal is to introduce a new word and concept with related terms and ideas that have helped me understand what we are facing and why our problem-solving solutions don’t work anymore.
The foundation of this is Object-Oriented Ontology, and that is a new form of realism, sometimes called speculative realism. This movement is not your old-fashioned philosophy but part of a growing and concerted effort to build the language tools to handle the most significant challenges our species has ever faced. These are not answers to big problems but ways to think about those problems to help us manage them and act to restore sanity and wellbeing to this planet.
I will be writing more about this and related movements. If you are interested in exploring further, I strongly recommend reading Timothy Morton’s Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World.
If you are ready for the underlying thought behind hyperobjects, read Graham Harman’s Object-Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything. Harman does an excellent job of introducing these things in an understandable form while introducing many new thinkers struggling with defining new ways of seeing realism and materialism in a non-human centered universe. We need to get this working again because the alternatives are terrible.