‘A reckoning for our species’: the philosopher prophet of the Anthropocene
The long read: Timothy Morton wants humanity to give up some of its core beliefs, from the fantasy that we can control the planet to the notion that we are above other beings. His ideas might sound weird, but theyre catching on
A few years ago, Bjrk began corresponding with a philosopher whose books she admired. hi timothy, her first message to him began. i wanted to write this letter for a long time. She was trying to give a name to her own singular genre, to label her work for posterity before the critics did. She asked him to help define the nature of her art not only to define it for me, but also for all my friends, and a generation actually.
It turned out the philosopher, Timothy Morton, was a fan of Bjrk. Her music, he told her, had been a very deep influence on my way of thinking and life in general. The sense of eerie intimacy with other species, the fusion of moods in her songs and videos tenderness and horror, weirdness and joy is the feeling of ecological awareness, he said. Mortons own work is about the implications of this strange awareness the knowledge of our interdependence with other beings which he believes undermines long-held assumptions about the separation between humanity and nature. For him, this is the defining characteristic of our times, and it is compelling us to change our core ideas of what it means to exist, what Earth is, what society is.
Over the past decade, Mortons ideas have been spilling into the mainstream. Hans Ulrich Obrist, the artistic director of Londons Serpentine gallery, and perhaps the most powerful figure in the contemporary art world, is one of his loudest cheerleaders. Obrist told readers of Vogue that Mortons books are among the pre-eminent cultural works of our time, and recommends them to many of his own collaborators. The acclaimed artist Olafur Eliasson has been flying Morton around the world to speak at his major exhibition openings. Excerpts from Mortons correspondence with Bjrk were published as part of her 2015 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Mortons terminology is slowly infecting all the humanities, says his friend and fellow thinker Graham Harman. Though many academics have a reputation for writing exclusively for their colleagues down the hall, Mortons peculiar conceptual vocabulary dark ecology, the strange stranger, the mesh has been picked up by writers in a cornucopia of fields, from literature and epistemology to legal theory and religion. Last year, he was included in a much-discussed list of the 50 most influential living philosophers. His ideas have also percolated into traditional media outlets such as Newsweek, the New Yorker and the New York Times.
Part of what makes Morton popular are his attacks on settled ways of thinking. His most frequently cited book, Ecology Without Nature, says we need to scrap the whole concept of nature. He argues that a distinctive feature of our world is the presence of ginormous things he calls hyperobjects such as global warming or the internet that we tend to think of as abstract ideas because we cant get our heads around them, but that are nevertheless as real as hammers. He believes all beings are interdependent, and speculates that everything in the universe has a kind of consciousness, from algae and boulders to knives and forks. He asserts that human beings are cyborgs of a kind, since we are made up of all sorts of non-human components; he likes to point out that the very stuff that supposedly makes us us our DNA contains a significant amount of genetic material from viruses. He says that were already ruled by a primitive artificial intelligence: industrial capitalism. At the same time, he believes that there are some weird experiential chemicals in consumerism that will help humanity prevent a full-blown ecological crisis.
Mortons theories might sound bizarre, but they are in tune with the most earth-shaking idea to emerge in the 21st century: that we are entering a new phase in the history of the planet a phase that Morton and many others now call the Anthropocene.
For the past 12,000 years, human beings lived in a geological epoch called the Holocene, known for its relatively stable, temperate climes. It was, you might say, the California of planetary history. But it is coming to an end. Recently, we have begun to alter the Earth so drastically that, according to many scientists, a new epoch is dawning. After the briefest of geological vacations, we seem to be entering a more volatile period.
The term Anthropocene, from the Ancient Greek word anthropos, meaning human, acknowledges that humans are the major cause of the earths current transformation. Extreme weather, submerged cities, acute resource shortages, vanished species, lakes turned to deserts, nuclear fallout: if there is still human life on earth tens of thousands of years from now, societies that we cant imagine will have to grapple with the changes we are wreaking today. Morton has noted that 75% of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at this very moment will still be there in half a millennium. Thats 15 generations away. It will take another 750 generations, or 25,000 years, for most of the those gases to be absorbed into the oceans.