Timothy Morton is Rita Shea Guffey Chair in English at Rice University. He has collaborated with Björk, Jennifer Walshe, Olafur Eliasson, Haim Steinbach, Emilija Skarnulyte, and Pharrell Williams. He is the author of “Being Ecological” (Penguin, 2018), “Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People” (Verso, 2017), “Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence” (Columbia, 2016), “Nothing: Three Inquiries in Buddhism” (Chicago, 2015), “Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World” (Minnesota, 2013), “Realist Magic: Objects, Ontology, Causality” (Open Humanities, 2013), “The Ecological Thought” (Harvard, 2010), “Ecology without Nature” (Harvard, 2007), eight other books, and 200 essays on philosophy, ecology, literature, music, art, architecture, design, and food. In 2014, Morton gave the Wellek Lectures in Theory. He was a keynote speaker at the 2018 TxA Design Conference, “Other Worlds: Chasing the Light and Other Mysteries.” Afterward, Texas Architect Editor Aaron Seward had the opportunity to ask Morton a few more questions about his ideas and their relationship to architecture.
Aaron Seward: You are perhaps most well known for the theory of Hyperobjects. It has inspired some architectural theorists. What are hyperobjects, and how have you seen the idea taken up by the architectural community?
Timothy Morton: A hyperobject is any entity that is so massively distributed in time and space relative to another one (say it’s humans) that the “other one” can only grasp pieces of them at a time. Precisely because they’re “everywhere,” even inside you, they’re very hard to see. Imagine all the microplastics on earth. All of them. Forever. Some are in my stomach as I type this. That’s a hyperobject.
I’ve heard about all kinds of architectural relations to this idea, but I tend to avoid dictating how to proceed in a domain that’s not my skill, so I’m not sure how to answer the second part!
Much of your work deals with Object Oriented Ontology (OOO), a recent school of philosophy that removes the human from the top of the ontological hierarchy. Why is it important to put non-humans, including inanimate objects, on a level playing field with humans? The very notion makes many people react violently.
I understand why: We have been so anthropocentric for so long, we think that this means a loss of power or some kind of zero-sum game. Not true at all. OOO isn’t saying everything has the same “right to exist.” OOO is saying that, if a thing exists, it exists in the same way as another thing. When we say thing, we mean sentence, idea, brick, pile of bricks, skyscraper, dust, quasar.
How do things exist? They exist in such a way that we can’t grasp them, entirely. Hyperobjects tell us something true about everything.
When we say thing then, we don’t mean objectified lump or preformatted surface that you can manipulate at will. So humans can be objects like that, right? Beings that you can’t manipulate, totally — that have some kind of inner elusiveness. We let humans be that all the time. Why not let snails be that, too?
There’s no good reason not to, and it doesn’t sound so bad — especially if you’re a snail, or if you’re an architect designing something with snails as well as humans in mind, which is called ecological architecture.
What did you mean when you said that humans and other objects are like Dr. Who’s Tardis: bigger on the inside than on the outside?
Well, nothing can exhaust what a thing is — even that thing. No amount of interviews will exhaust me! So a thing has uncountable qualities on the “inside.” That’s what infinity really means.
Your talk was titled “We Can’t Make Ecological Buildings.” This echoes a point Reinier de Graaf makes in his book “Four Walls and a Roof,” which is that there’s no such thing as sustainable buildings, just less harmful buildings. But are there some buildings that are better at coexistence than others?
That’s exactly what we’re saying. Being an ecological building is modal: It’s not a black-and-white thing, and it can’t cover every life form in its design.
This should be an immense relief — and a statement that there’s no excuse!
You said that architects are sort of like chameleons and that architecture is like camouflage. Can you expand on that?
If we can’t eat the world all up, then we aren’t like Pac-Man. Western philosophy for the last 200 years has argued that we are Pac-Man: We can’t help eating the universe, so, in the end, we are lonely, tragic beings.
But I think that’s completely untrue. Instead, we constantly let all kinds of things relate to us. Right now, I’m letting an iPhone screen, a can of cucumber fizzy drink, and my son relate to me —
The word for that is chameleon.
You also said that, since we can’t make ecological buildings, we’re going to have to change what we mean by “make.” At the end of the talk, you spoke about the need to “get friendly with our capacity to visualize.” Is visualization — the power to imagine a better future — the upgrade to “make” you proposed?
Absolutely — I think that doing is made of little dots of appreciating. Just ask a musician in the middle of a gig — well, maybe at the end …