Friday 21 February 2014

Morton's Hyperobjects and Pluralism

It occurred to me yesterday after reading Timothy Morton's Hyperobjects just what a postmodernist text it is in terms of style and construction.  It's really no different in how it's put together from the old 'all the world's a text' school of culture studies bricolage.  Bits and pieces of pop science mixed with every kind of cultural artefact (and, in all fairness, some genuinely earnest political musings) all jumbled together and loosely assembled with the help of some all too chunkily chopped and, for my tastes, rather undercooked object-oriented philosophy (garnished with wilted affectations of scientific realism...).  A thought salad, if you will.

It's a writing style that presupposes a flat ontology – i.e. a monism – i.e. a situation where a single vocabulary, a single style of speech, a single mode of assembly suffices to address any kind of thing wheresoever, whensoever, howsoever, whatsoever.  Heterogeneity without plurality.

It matters little in practice whether this monistic plane is discourse, object, language, network...  The world becomes a frozen lake across which the bricoleur glides, slides or tumbles, depending on his skill.  The relational labour required to forge any particular connection seems minimal, almost inconsequential – it is enough that the words are on the same page, conjoined by puns.

This can be a very exciting way of moving around, no doubt, but, read in book-length, it strikes me as shallow, superficial and reductive.  To address climate change, Dr Who, early 1990s British indie bands, aboriginal art, nuclear waste, Aristotle and so on all in the same mode of address, all in the same tone of voice, the same frenzied, impatient blur of the hyperactive scholar-magpie – it makes for an interesting read but ultimately an unrewarding one.  And it's difficult to swallow the dogmatically asserted 'realism' (proclaimed, never argued) when there is so little attentiveness to the specificities of all these things, when their bumps, grooves and all manner of details are smoothed over in such dramatic fashion.

It is as though the materials themselves offered no resistance, objection or direction to how they are spoken, stretched, compressed, displayed; they impose no obligation on the articulator as to the way in which they must be articulated.

This, it seems to me, is the importance of the pluralist project, philosophically (and realistically) speaking: to compel attention to the specific ways in which different things must be addressed in order to be properly articulated in their own terms.  This is what OOO, etc. can never do because it is essentially monist: there is one way of being and all further distinctions are subcategories of that one mode.

In establishing a 'universal equivalence' between all things (everything equally an object) it makes everything articulable all-together with a minimum of complication.  And this is not without value but nor is it innocent.

One interesting thing with Latour's modes project is that [net] permits this scholar-magpie approach since it self-consciously disregards the nuances of individual forms of being in order to string together as many relations (and thus to forge the thickest of descriptions) as quickly, easily and simplistically as possible.  So, the fast, loose thrill-ride of the monist is seemingly permitted but it is relativised, deprived of its innocence – it compels a choice, a decision to be made: why this mode, why this movement, why not another?  In other words, the very partiality of the pluralised network mode demands passing by the way of another mode [pre] (and from there to any number of others); plurality demands decision and hence responsibility.

And this, I think, leads to a more convincing 'realism' than that of Morton et al., for whom this becomes little more than a badge to pin to one's lapel and strut around, chest puffed out – proud.  That is a good name for it: proud realism, a realism of pride.  Science, in this 'realism,' becomes not so much a process that is implicated in any event of thinking the worlds around us in particularly productive ways but simply an honoured and honorific background process that gifts us lists of objects that we are entitled, since they are scientifically certified, to assert as 'out there, whether you like it or not.'  Science is a research and certification process: if it's on the list we can let it into our ontologies without another thought.  ('And if you're not on the list you're not coming in!' – for doormen-realists this is the main point: the authority to refuse entry.)

Thus, with Morton, we can stand there in the rain, feeling it falling on our head and imagine the vast, sublime, oceanic climate system whirring and whooshing over our head and think 'climate change is raining on my head' (he actually writes this) and think that this is a meaningful sentence, in all disconnection and transcendence from the scientific institutions that stabilise climate and climate change as objects of cognition.  And then we can denounce those who would insist that dynamic, ongoing scientific processes are essentially implicated in this event, in this actual occasion as lava lampy relationalists.

There's nothing more lava lampy than the manic postmodern stylings of cultural studies bricolage – and this is a style that Morton excels at.

To move with [net] is to move laterally; that is, across the frozen lake, traversing the flat ontology.  And we don't need to watch the Winter Olympics to know what stunningly graceful high-velocity ballets this freedom of movement can sometimes produce.  But this is not the only way of moving.  To pretend otherwise is irresponsible.

Pluralism is not an alternative to realism.  It is simply realism without its chest puffed out, showing off.  Pluralism is realism that recognises the multiple paths that any trajectory can follow and the beautiful plumage that can grace any mode of existence.

In that sense there is nothing much to it; it might be counter-intuitive but it's not especially complicated.  Perhaps one day it'll even be common sense.