Apocalypse then: worldliness after the end of the world

Image by Matthew Holland  Licensed under creative commons attribution 2.0 no-derivs generic

Image by Matthew Holland
Licensed under creative commons attribution 2.0 no-derivs generic

A (re)view of Timothy Morton’s Hyperobjects (University of Minnesota Press, 2013)

The opening montage of Lars Von Trier’s film Melancholia ends on an arresting slow-motion image: viewed from outer space, the earth crashes into, and is obliterated by, a larger planet (the eponymous Melancholia).  This planet, or so the narrative goes, is on an inevitable collision course with the earth, but has been concealed behind the sun. Although intimately close to the Earth, Melancholia is simply too large in scale for humans to see or fully comprehend until they are about to collide. This collision marks the end not only of the Earth, but of all life in the universe and every trace of its existence.

The fact that the film starts at the end (of the Earth) puts the viewer in an unusual position. It cuts short the sense of anxiety produced by most disaster films – that is, the fraught hope that the protagonists will survive, or even save the day. We know from the outset that everything will end, and are plunged into a cool, meditative space of certainty and, indeed, melancholy.

We are also forced into an eerie counterfactual mode of thinking that inverts standard understandings of time. Even though we watch  quite ordinary human events unfold – a wedding, quarrels between siblings, the habits of home-making – they are taking place in a world that has already ended. In other words, the present is already in the past. We are forced to see ourselves as immersed in the middle of processes so vast in scale that by the time we are aware of them, they have already happened.

This is precisely the kind of temporal shake-up that Timothy Morton’s new book Hyperobjects seeks to achieve. The book explores entities that are so large (or micro)  in scale and that so exceed  human temporality that we simply cannot grasp them, despite the fact that we are ‘in’ them, and they are in us.  Although we can never see them in full, these objects – whether global warming, nuclear materials or evolution – are always intimately enmeshed with us, and inescapable to us. One of these objects, Morton claims, is the end of the world, and, according to Morton, we are already in the midst of it.

Like Von Trier, Morton uses the end of the world as his opening gambit. This is a bold move that pulls the rug from under apocalyptic discourses, ecological or otherwise. These discourse impel us to ‘act now!’ in order to stop the world from ending. Apocalyptic narratives generate fear that can easily be channelled into reactionary politics. But they also propagate the myth that humans can, through their agency alone, ‘save the world’ (at least for themselves).  Instead, like Melancholia, Morton’s book asks how humans should act in a world that is (always-) already ending.

Melancholia gives us an account of four archetypal responses to ‘the end’, each represented by one of its central characters.  John (Kiefer Sutherland), the wealthy husband of Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), one of the two protagonists, engages in a kind of scientific denial. He encourages his wife and young son to dispel their fears of the end. Indeed, he urges them to view the confrontation between earth and the planet Melancholia as a scientific marvel that is ultimately subsumed under human knowledge and powers of prediction (only to kill himself when he discovers that he is wrong).

Claire, suspicious of John’s certainty, furtively downloads predictions about the apocalypse whilst maintaining the day-to-day running of the house and caring for her family. Her initial reaction to the certainty of the collision is to plan a ‘nice’ ending, complete with a glass of wine on the veranda. Yet, as her own worst fears become realities, she quickly descends into despair.  Leo (Cameron Spurr), the couple’s son, is insulated in a series of small, enclosed worlds: the remote estate where the family lives, the cocoon of his parents’ reassurances, and even the imagined ‘magical caves’ he hopes to build with his aunt.

Only Justine (Kirsten Dunst) knows from the outset that the world is ending. She dwells in a calm state of depression, unable to participate in social rituals that she knows to be pointless. She even refuses to mourn for a world that she sees as ‘evil’. When the end comes, she resists attempts to deny or palliate it and simply inhabits it.

Morton’s work elegantly deconstructs three of these positions. He undercuts scientific denialism by demonstrating that hyperobjects are neither the result of human cognition, nor subject to it. In fact, he avers, the more we know about hyperobjects, the stranger they become. Hyperobjects, he claims, are distributed across time and space, and emerge in a variety of manifestations – for instance, as a patch of spilled oil here, and an instance of cancer in humans there. Because they are so widely distributed, it is almost impossible to prove their causes through scientific evidence – a fact which gives free rein to denialism. Just like John’s expert calculations, the attempt to grasp hyperobjects through conventional science ends only in delusion.

Morton is also deeply suspicious of those who try to aestheticize ‘Nature’ in order to uphold a stable order in which humans are safely divided from their ‘environment’. According to Morton, ‘there is no there’ into which humans can banish dangerous objects such as toxic waste. Instead, he claims, we are interspersed with nuclear particles, biological waste, and everything else that we try to ‘flush away’. These objects, he suggests are ‘viscous’: they ‘stick to us’ and no amount of scrubbing can remove them.

Indeed, one of the main fallacies that Morton explodes is the idea that we can cleanse ourselves of hyperobjects.  Just as Claire attempts to maintain the aesthetic distance from the advance of Melancholia by continuing daily rituals (meals, bedtimes, and so on), Morton claims that those who believe in Nature are simply denying the fact that they are intertwined with everything else. They tend to adopt the problematic position of the Hegelian ‘beautiful soul’ who shields herself from the horror and harshness of reality, and criticizes others who acknowledge them and act upon them. This attitude, Morton contends, has contributed significantly to anthropogenic global warming and the threat of nuclear disaster.

Image by Jo Christian Coterhals. Licensed under creative commons 2.0 attribution non-commercial no-derivs  generic

Image by Jo Christian Coterhals. Licensed under creative commons 2.0 attribution non-commercial no-derivs generic

Perhaps the most vehement argument in Hyperobjects is waged against Leo’s position: the child cloistered from danger by the fantasy of enclosure and an ‘inside’ to which humans are admitted. Indeed, as discussed above, Leo is ensconced in a variety of small, seemingly stable, human-made ‘worlds’, which Claire seeks to protect right up until the end of the world.

For Morton, ‘worlds’ are akin to carefully-constructed scenes in fantasy films, simulacra that throw only a thin and misleading veil over reality. He uses the macabre image of the charnel ground to describe the conditions from which humans try to shield themselves with these ‘worlds’. According to Morton, the only truly ecological act is for humans to actively inhabit this charnel ground, to confront directly the other beings that help to constitute us and may simultaneously corrode us from within (whether toxins, viruses or the decaying bodies to which the metaphor refers). He urges us to stop trying to save a rigid and groundless notion of world and instead to accept that we are embedded within objects that are constantly changing, and which may be indifferent to our existence.

In other words, Morton places us in the position of Justine throughout most of Melancholia. He asks us to dwell in the contemplative space of the melancholic. But, in so doing, he takes a dangerous gamble and does not quite win it. Morton states from the outset of Hyperobjects (and in his other writings) that he is not an evangelist of hopelessness – in fact, he claims to be the opposite. Yet for all of its rich and textured thinking, Hyperobjects fails to carry out a promise hinted at in its first pages: to offer an ethos for living in a world that has ended, or is in the process of doing so. I take Morton’s point that neither apocalyptic scare-mongering nor scientific candy-coating is likely to produce sufficient human action to respond to the threats that face Earth. But he offers almost nothing concrete to replace these approaches. Specifically, he tells us what kind of conditions we exist in, but offers little indication of how we should be and act in them (aside from some suggestions regarding artistic practices).

What’s more, he works hard to dissolve one of the few concepts that could form a basis of an ethics for the end of the world. He focuses much of his attack on the concept of world, one of the few ideas powerful enough to harness human attachment and care on a large scale and to translate these affects into ethical action.

In fairness to Morton, he uses the term ‘world’ in a highly specific and well-delineated way – albeit one which is almost the diametric opposite from my own understanding of it. Morton adopts a Heideggerian notion of world as sphere to which humans have privileged (if not exclusive) access. ‘World’, from this perspective, is a reified object which floats in a metaphysical ‘void’, immune to the extrusions of other objects and to change. This is, from my viewpoint, an extremely limiting notion of ‘world’.

I prefer the non-metaphysical (and post-Heideggerian) conception of world developed by Jean-Luc Nancy (see my previous post on this topic). Nancy also believes that (the) world is being destroyed, or at least exhausted, by the processes of globalization and the over-saturation of meaning. But at the same time, he is concerned with understanding how a new world can emerge without metaphysical grounding. Like Morton, Nancy suggests that the ‘event’ (like the object) ultimately ‘withholds’ itself or ‘withdraws’, leaving a strange ‘absence of presence’. It is from this ‘nothing’ that ‘world’ cultivates itself, as a form of creation-as-being.  ‘World’ from this perspective, is being-with, or the direct relation of beings to one another. It has no outside, no metaphysics and no teleology.

It is also the condition of ‘being-toward’ – that is, the co-constitution of plural beings – rather than a metaphysical plane in which beings are separated. This seems to be very much in line with the object-oriented ontology that Morton espouses.

For me, a ‘world’ is an instantiation of the conditions of worldliness discussed here – just as, for Morton, what we see of hyperobjects  are instantiations of conditions like viscosity, nonlocality, temporal undulation and phasing. In other words, there are conceptions of ‘world’ that seem to fit very well with Morton’s notion of hyperobjects.

But I don’t want to gloss over Morton’s rejection of ‘world’ as a matter of a difference in rhetoric or interpretation. When Morton says that ‘the world’ has ended, he is certainly referring to the notion of ‘a’ metaphysical world. This is also the case in Nancy’s work. But Nancy also urges humans should address themselves to (not produce) a new world emerging in the wake of this ending. If I understand him correctly, Morton argues that humans should do away with worlds and world-making altogether – in other words, that world can only be a metaphysical concept.

This, I think, is throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Certainly, we can and should do away with the idea that there is ‘a’ stable, unchanging world, a separate ontological plane reserved for humans. But can we really exist without the notion of attachment to and care for other beings that shapes  non-metaphysical notions of world?

I think not. One of the main reasons is that, even if we are able to grasp, at least to some extent, other temporal and physical scales (whether macro or micro), we still experience ourselves, along with other living beings, in a meso-level in which we perceive some degree of stasis or consistency. In other words, even if we can try to see our lives from the perspective of a planet (like the fictional Melancholia), we cannot actually live in that spatio-temporal scale.  Instead, we live in a scale that allows, and also forces, us to overlap with the lives of other beings.

This means that we can experience attachments to other beings, even if these attachments are temporary. Simply because these beings (and we) will not exist in the future does not mean that we should not care for them as they are now.  This is akin to saying that we should love in the full knowledge that we will lose the beings we love, or that they will change irrevocably.

In other words, we should not try to ‘save the world’ by attempting, in vain, to arrest change, or by denying finitude from behind the windshields of fantasy worlds. But there is nothing wrong with remaining attached to our world(s) in a melancholy way: that is, caring for them in the full knowledge that they are finite.

From this perspective, it is crucial to hold onto a sense of worldliness at the end of the world. This enables us to avoid the two horns of apocalyptic reasoning: the reactionary and futile desire to capture the world in a freeze frame; and the nihilistic attitude that nothing matters unless it is ‘forever’. Instead, we need an ethics of care for finite and dying worlds, and for the attachments between beings that constitute them.

At the end of the day (world?), it is these attachments that save us from falling into the paralysis that grips Justine in Melancholia. She spends a great deal of the film inert, unable to eat, move or think. She even plunges into a dark mood in which she claims that ‘no one will mourn the Earth’ or the ‘evil’ life that it fostered. In short, she is aware of her conditions but can not find a way to be within them. I worry that banishing world as a concept will produce precisely this mood.

Image by  NASA's Marshall Space Flight Centre. Licensed under creative commons 2.0 attribution non-commercial no-derivs  generic

Image by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Centre (shows the ‘collision zone’ in north Sudan). Licensed under creative commons 2.0 attribution non-commercial no-derivs generic

That’s why it’s interesting to follow Justine’s arc throughout the film. At various points, she tries to merge with the Earth, whether by lying naked in the moonlight or immersing herself in a creek.  And at the end of the film, as Earth is pulled into Melancholia’s gravitational field, she mourns the planet to which she initially denies any attachment. This is reflected in the tears running down her face in the final scene, and the force with which she grips the hands of her sister and nephew. Despite her attitude of fatalistic acceptance and her rejection of redemption, she faces the end of the world by building a small world – the ‘magical cave’. She co-constitutes this tiny world with her loved ones  –  along with some sticks, soil, trees, grass and air which are just as integral to the magical cave as the humans that sit inside it.  In so doing, she makes one final attempt to co-constitute a world in the face of absolute finitude.

I suspect (although I may be wrong) that Morton would see this  as a collapse into the fantasy of world-building in the face of terror. But I think it’s something quite different. Justine creates this world, and fully experiences it, knowing fully that it will not save her or anyone/thing else. It is an ethical act without instrumentalism, without an end. It is an expression of love for, and in, an ending world.

This, from my perspective, is an attitude that can ground ethics in the face of radical finitude. Only with a melancholic sense of the world, and love for it, can humans confront the enormity of the challenges that face them without being paralyzed by fear or nihilism.

So I leave Morton’s work puzzling over several questions. Namely, what does it mean to act ethically in a world that is (always) ending? What forms should ‘protection’ take in these conditions? Can we still love (in) a world that has already, at some temporal scale, ended? And how can we maintain ethical attachment and openness to other beings in these conditions?  These are the questions that will need to be answered if Morton’s brave and dangerous work is to make good on its promise of waking us up in the middle of the void without putting too strong a damper on hope.


7 responses to “Apocalypse then: worldliness after the end of the world

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