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At the End of the World, It’s Hyperobjects All the Way Down

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You might think, in this time of profound human and climate trauma, that the world is coming to an end. Timothy Morton disagrees: It has already ended, and not a moment too soon. Not because doomsday has arrived, Morton clarifies, but because what we call “the world”—a place that revolves around human beings and is defined by what we can see and feel—is simply too small to cope with reality anymore. Faced with massive forces whose impacts defy our physical perceptions, from global warming and extinction events to the Covid-19 pandemic, our parochial idea of the world falls away like the set of a movie being torn down.Morton, a kind-faced, 53-year-old professor and author with uncannily penetrating blue eyes, has spent the past nine years teaching in the English department at Rice University in Houston, Texas. But they are known less for their contributions to Romantic scholarship—which are many and insightful—and more as a kind of poet-philosopher for our age of ecological crisis. In 2008, Morton was struck by a strange, existential feeling, one that helped them formulate a word for phenomena that are too vast and fundamentally weird for humans to wrap their heads around. If you’ve spent any time on more metaphysically inclined corners of the internet, you may have encountered the term: hyperobjects. When Morton sat down to write a book on the subject in 2012, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World poured out of them in just 15 days.Examples of hyperobjects include: black holes, oil spills, all plastic ever manufactured, capitalism, tectonic plates, and the solar system. Hyperobjects are often ancient or destined to be, like the sum total of Styrofoam and plutonium we have littered across the Earth over the past century, which will remain for millennia. A human being may see evidence of hyperobjects—pollution here, a hurricane there—but try gazing off into the distance to see the totality of them, or to the very end of them, and they disappear into a vanishing point. Hyperobjects, as Morton says, emerge only in fragments and patches that do not always seem to connect up from our view on the ground.

It’s an enigmatic term, one whose meaning is by definition hard to grasp; it often seems more label than description. But it’s precisely those squishy, elusive qualities that give it its explanatory power. The word hyperobject offers a useful shorthand for why threats like global warming are so difficult to understand or accept: They threaten our survival in ways that defy traditional modes of thinking about reality and humiliate our cognitive powers, a disorienting shift that sends many people reeling into superstition, polarization, and denial. Hyperobjects speak to the immense, structural forces all around us, and even inside us, that we cannot see with our eyes but strive to comprehend through data or computer modeling. While they are not, in every case, bad things, the most talked-about hyperobjects tend to be the most vivid and disturbing, particularly as they clip in and out of our vision like malevolent ghosts.

Understanding these forces and responding to their urgent demands might be the greatest challenge of our time, and contemplating hyperobjects, while an often frustrating experience, can be an act of psychological reorientation. Once you grasp them, even loosely, they offer a philosophical escape route from the limitations of our poor little bodies, a way to make sense of a world that no longer makes sense, an alternative to the conspiracy theories and ­fingers-in-ears denials that have rushed to fill the void. Soon, you start seeing hyper­objects everywhere.