In 2013, a philosopher and ecologist named Timothy Morton proposed that humanity had entered a new phase. What had changed was our relationship to the nonhuman. For the first time, Morton wrote, we had become aware that “nonhuman beings” were “responsible for the next moment of human history and thinking.” The nonhuman beings Morton had in mind weren’t computers or space aliens but a particular group of objects that were “massively distributed in time and space.” Morton called them “hyperobjects”: all the nuclear material on earth, for example, or all the plastic in the sea. “Everyone must reckon with the power of rising waves and ultraviolet light,” Morton wrote, in “Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World.” Those rising waves were being created by a hyperobject: all the carbon in the atmosphere.
Hyperobjects are real, they exist in our world, but they are also beyond us. We know a piece of Styrofoam when we see it—it’s white, spongy, light as air—and yet fourteen million tons of Styrofoam are produced every year; chunks of it break down into particles that enter other objects, including animals. Although Styrofoam is everywhere, one can never point to all the Styrofoam in the world and say, “There it is.” Ultimately, Morton writes, whatever bit of Styrofoam you may be interacting with at any particular moment is only a “local manifestation” of a larger whole that exists in other places and will exist on this planet millennia after you are dead. Relative to human beings, therefore, Styrofoam is “hyper” in terms of both space and time. It’s not implausible to say that our planet is a place for Styrofoam more than it is a place for people.
When “Hyperobjects” was published, philosophers largely ignored it. But Morton, who uses the pronouns “they” and “them,” quickly found a following among artists, science-fiction writers, pop stars, and high-school students. The international curator and art-world impresario Hans Ulrich Obrist began citing Morton’s ideas; Morton collaborated on a talk with Laurie Anderson and helped inspire “Reality Machines,” an installation by the Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson. Kim Stanley Robinson and Jeff VanderMeer—prominent sci-fi writers who also deal with ecological themes—have engaged with Morton’s work; Björk blurbed Morton’s book “Being Ecological,” writing, “I have been reading Tim Morton’s books for a while and I like them a lot.”
In 2015, sections of a sprawling e-mail exchange between Morton and Björk were collected as part of “Björk: Archives,” the catalogue publication accompanying her mid-career retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. “I really like your song ‘Virus,’ ” Morton wrote to Björk. “Virus” is not a pandemic story but a love song:
Like a virus needs a body
As soft tissue feeds on blood
Someday I’ll find you, the urge is here.
Like a mushroom on a tree trunk
As the protein transmutates
I knock on your skin, and I am in.
“Being alive means being susceptible to viruses and so on,” Morton wrote. “They are intrinsic parts of being a thing at all.” Morton admired Björk for letting her songs be remixed and remade by other artists, just as a virus “remixes” the components of the organism it enters.
Remixing, for Morton, is in some sense an ecological act: ecological thinking involves being open to and accepting of everything, even the strangest and darkest aspects of the world around us. “Earth needs this tenderness,” Morton wrote to Björk. “I think there is some kind of fusion between tenderness and sadness, joy, yearning, longing, horror (tricky one), laughter, melancholy and weirdness. This fusion is the feeling of ecological awareness.”
In the summer of 2019, before the pandemic, I e-mailed Morton to ask if they might drive me around and show me a few hyperobjects. They agreed, and so I flew to Houston, where Morton lives and teaches. I walked out the front door of my bed-and-breakfast to find them leaning against their Mazda 3, with their arms folded, smiling as I approached. When I extended my hand, Morton drew me in for a mildly sweaty hug. They were wearing a tattered T‑shirt and an old pair of jeans.
Morton has a soft, singsong voice. “Do you mind if we make a quick stop to feed my lizard?” they asked, as I slid into the car. “That’s not a euphemism.” We drove to Morton’s house, a nondescript bungalow in the Montrose neighborhood, in the center of the city. Inside, we traversed a few disarrayed rooms to find Simon, Morton’s ten-year-old son, kneeling on a chair above a terrarium. Inside was a beige, spiky lizard about the size of my forearm, illuminated by a strong orange light. The lizard’s name was Nicodemus, Morton said, and he was a gift from Björk’s close friend’s son. Simon handed me a jar of mealworms. While I dispensed them, he showed me the plastic arm of the Statue of Liberty that he and Morton had half-buried in the sand of the terrarium, as an homage to the film “Planet of the Apes.”
Morton thinks and talks in terms of cultural touchstones, and “Planet of the Apes” is one of their favorites. “I love the word ‘ape,’ ” Morton said. They suggested that I listen to “Ultrasong,” a mid-nineties house track by the forgotten group Floppy Sounds, which features an audio sample from the film—a line of dialogue uttered by Charlton Heston’s astronaut at the beginning of the movie, before he lands on the alien planet that is later revealed to be Earth in the distant future. “Seen from out here, everything seems different,” Heston says.
“Planet of the Apes” appeals to Morton because it is about flipping the script: it uses a moment of crisis to transform our thinking. It’s Morton’s belief that, as we approach the ecological precipice, it is becoming easier for us to see our reality differently. Reality, Morton writes, is populated with “strange strangers”—things that are “knowable yet uncanny.” This strange strangeness, Morton writes, is an irreducible part of every rock, tree, terrarium, plastic Statue of Liberty, quasar, black hole, or marmoset one might encounter; by acknowledging it, we shift away from trying to master objects and toward learning to respect them in their elusiveness. Whereas the Romantic poets rhapsodized about nature’s beauty and sublimity, Morton responds to its all-pervading weirdness; they include in the category of the natural everything that is scary, ugly, artificial, harmful, and disturbing.
The next day, I assumed we would begin our quest to find signs of hyperobjects in and around the city of Houston. Instead, I ended up accompanying Morton and Simon as they took their cat, Oliver, to the veterinarian. Oliver seemed out of sorts, displeased with something happening toward his back end. We carried him gingerly into the car. Simon calmed Oliver with a steady stream of praise: “It’s O.K., Oliver. You’re a really good guy, Oliver. I’m sorry that this is so confusing for you, Oliver.” Morton looked over at me as we drove through the quiet streets of Montrose. “Oliver is very important to us,” Morton said. “Also, he’s my conscience.” Morton seemed to enjoy saying mysterious sentences without explaining them.
In the veterinarian’s office, we crowded into a tiny examination room. “I’m worried that Oliver may have fallen down and hurt his spine,” Morton said, to the veterinarian. The vet began massaging Oliver’s rear area and yanking at his back legs. Then he started picking at something in Oliver’s fur. He pinched out a few small black specks, which he immediately placed on a plastic tray, squirting some liquid over them. “Yep, it’s flea poop all right,” he said. “I’m afraid that Oliver has quite an allergy to the fleas who are currently biting him on the ass.”
Simon packed Oliver gently back into his carrier. As we dropped Oliver back home, I remembered a passage in Morton’s book “Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence,” from 2016. Cats, Morton writes, “weirdly symbolize the ambiguous border between agricultural logistics and its (impossible to demarcate) outside. I mean we don’t let dogs just wander about. It’s as if we want to use cats to prove to ourselves that there is a Nature.” Perhaps Oliver was a bridge between the human and the nonhuman; he blurred the false boundary between Nature and Us.
After the vet, we went to pick up Claire, Morton’s fifteen-year-old daughter, from a friend’s house, then stopped at Flo Paris, a coffee shop on the campus of Rice University, where Morton is the Rita Shea Guffey Chair in English. Over coffee, I asked Claire and Simon whether they’d ever read any of Morton’s sixteen books. Claire looked slightly panicked by the question.
“I’ve read some of ‘Hyperobjects,’ ” she said, finally.
“And?” I pressed her.
“Well, mostly I use a printout of the book as scrap paper for drawing and other projects.”
“And what of global warming?” I asked Claire. “What do you and your friends think about it?”
“We’re scared,” she said. “Terrified. We make dark jokes about it. Every sip from a straw is another murder. You can count the dead turtles, or whatever, as you sip.”
Morton was born in England in 1968, to musician parents who met playing for the Bolshoi Ballet. Morton’s mother was a violin teacher, then a social worker and a psychoanalyst. Morton’s father was also a violinist, and Morton speaks with some pride about their dad’s solo on the King Crimson song “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Part I.” The family split up when Morton was a child; for a time, their mother depended on welfare to support herself and her three sons.
Morton remembers a sickly childhood, and a year of bad tonsilitis, and growing up “on bare floorboards.” Morton didn’t fit in well at school but did well in English class. (Today, their writing is praised and sometimes held in suspicion for its poetic quality.) Morton won a scholarship to the prestigious St. Paul’s School, where John Milton was educated, studied English as an undergraduate at Oxford, and got a doctorate from the same university. They struggled during the early period of their academic career, eventually landing an adjunct gig at N.Y.U. “I do think of America as the country of the second chance, especially for someone with a mum from the Welsh lower gentry who was married, basically, to Jack Nicholson from ‘The Shining,’ ” Morton said.
In 2007, while a professor at the University of California, Davis, Morton published “Ecology Without Nature,” which was noticed and praised by the philosopher Slavoj Žižek. Morton had shifted from being a literary scholar of British Romanticism to a philosopher of ecology, interested in fundamental questions about how human beings relate to one another, the planet, and the cosmos. Over the next decade, Morton published seven more books that escaped easy categorization. Books such as “Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People” and “Dark Ecology” offer a sometimes bewildering mix of literary references, philosophical argumentation, scientific speculation, and memoir. “Dark Ecology” is dedicated to “Allan”—Allan Whiskersworth, Morton’s cat, run over by a mail truck. In interviews, Morton has been known to veer from physics to music to poetry, their hair unbrushed, their T‑shirts rumpled.
Morton describes themselves as an ecologist, but is one only in a special, extended sense. They are a city person to their core; they love Houston. Their idea of an ecological outing is an art exhibition followed by a visit to a techno club. Being ecological, for Morton, is not about spending time in a pristine nature preserve but about appreciating the weed working its way through a crack in the concrete, and then appreciating the concrete. It’s also part of the world, and part of us.
Houston is a festering sauna in August. The next day, the temperature hit the mid-eighties by mid-morning. In search of hyperobjects, Morton had booked the four of us on a boat trip down a wretched waterway in the middle of the city’s busy industrial port. We drove to the port through the Fifth Ward, past the historic Evergreen Negro Cemetery—the last resting place of former slaves, buffalo soldiers, and veterans of the First World War. As we drove, the neighborhoods dwindled, and empty, forlorn stretches and heavy industry took over.
The problem with hyperobjects is that you cannot experience one, not completely. You also can’t not experience one. They bump into you, or you bump into them; they bug you, but they are also so massive and complex that you can never fully comprehend what’s bugging you. This oscillation between experiencing and not experiencing cannot be resolved. It’s just the way hyperobjects are.
Take oil: nature at its most elemental; black ooze from the depths of the earth. And yet oil is also the stuff of cars, plastic, the Industrial Revolution; it collapses any distinction between nature and not-nature. Driving to the port, we were surrounded by oil and its byproducts—the ooze itself, and the infrastructure that transports it, refines it, holds it, and consumes it—and yet, Morton said, we could never really see the hyperobject of capital-“O” Oil: it shapes our lives but is too big to see.
We parked the car in a lot surrounded by twisted metal, piles of scrap, and anemic plants. Bobbing in the water not far away was a medium-sized passenger boat with dozens of plastic chairs arrayed on its upper deck. After standing in line for a half hour in the sun, we walked on board, moving to the bow as the boat headed out into the water. We passed extensive ruins of concrete warehouses at docks no longer in use. Morton pointed toward the long, flat, horizontal line of bunker-like structures. “It’s like a skyscraper lying on its side,” they said.
The port seemed to fold civilizational thriving and collapse together into one spooky continuum. Giant tankers drifted by in an endless procession. Several were docked at huge plants composed mostly of pipes of various sizes. Massive tubes shot flames into the sky. In the spaces between the plants, oil silos dotted the landscape.
“Look,” Claire said, pointing to a little stretch of green along the shore. A few guys sat in the grass with fishing poles. Just behind them, another plant loomed. A screaming sound seemed to be part of its production process.
Since around 2010, Morton has become associated with a philosophical movement known as object-oriented ontology, or O.O.O. The point of O.O.O. is that there is a vast cosmos out there in which weird and interesting shit is happening to all sorts of objects, all the time. In a 1999 lecture, “Object-Oriented Philosophy,” Graham Harman, the movement’s central figure, explained the core idea:
The arena of the world is packed with diverse objects, their forces unleashed and mostly unloved. Red billiard ball smacks green billiard ball. Snowflakes glitter in the light that cruelly annihilates them, while damaged submarines rust along the ocean floor. As flour emerges from mills and blocks of limestone are compressed by earthquakes, gigantic mushrooms spread in the Michigan forest. While human philosophers bludgeon each other over the very possibility of “access” to the world, sharks bludgeon tuna fish and icebergs smash into coastlines.
We are not, as many of the most influential twentieth-century philosophers would have it, trapped within language or mind or culture or anything else. Reality is real, and right there to experience—but it also escapes complete knowability. One must confront reality with the full realization that you’ll always be missing something in the confrontation. Objects are always revealing something, and always concealing something, simply because they are Other. The ethics implied by such a strangely strange world hold that every single object everywhere is real in its own way. This realness cannot be avoided or backed away from. There is no “outside”—just the entire universe of entities constantly interacting, and you are one of them.
The next morning, I was eating a leisurely breakfast at my B. and B. when a young woman sat down at the same large wooden table. I assumed that she was in Houston to do something artsy in this part of the city. “Are you visiting the Menil Collection?” I asked her.
“No,” she said. She was a scientist in Houston for business; she worked for one of the largest petrochemical companies in the world.
“Are you here for the Menil Collection?” she asked, in return.
“No,” I said. “I’m here to meet Timothy Morton.”
I told her about Morton and hyperobjects. She nodded along indulgently, then told me more about her work, which revolved around the difficult task of improving plastic. She pointed to the corner of the breakfast room. “It’s a completely different matter to get plastic to be brittle and hard like that trash can over there, versus making it get supple and strong and stretchy like the bag inside the can,” she said. I asked her if she felt bad about working for a giant petrochemical company. Her brow furrowed. “I wouldn’t say that,” she said. “I just think maybe it’s worth something to make plastic better, more efficient, less wasteful.” She seemed to be gauging my reaction, staring at me intently over the lip of her coffee cup.
I was suddenly curious about what a conversation between a plastics scientist and an eco-philosopher might sound like. “Will you come to Galveston with me and Simon and Tim?” I blurted.
“Absolutely,” she said, jumping up from the table. “Just give me a couple of minutes to get ready.”
In Morton’s Mazda, we zipped along the massive highway linking Houston and Galveston, which is in the area that the Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca called “the Isle of Bad Fate.” There, we saw a giant yellow phosphorescent pile of sulfur; a building complex containing three massive glass pyramids; Halliburton, or at least a sign pointing to Halliburton; and a Second World War submarine credited with having sunk one of the Japanese aircraft carriers that attacked Pearl Harbor.
We stopped for lunch at the Black Pearl Oyster Bar, a seafood restaurant that evoked a hypothetical diner inside the film “Pirates of the Caribbean.” The place was full of customers, their plates piled high with critters pulled from the Gulf of Mexico and tossed immediately into a deep fryer. Morton ordered oysters. “I love the objectivity of science,” they said, turning to the plastics scientist. “I love the rigorous way that you can ask questions and then get answers.”
She nodded. “But polymers are tricky,” she said. “Polyurethanes behave in downright magical ways.” She picked at a salad layered with tentacles.
“But there’s a method,” Morton insisted, beginning to progress through a dozen oysters.
“Sometimes it seems more art than science,” she cautioned. “I have deep emotional commitments to plastic.”
Listening to their discussion—about art and science, logic and emotion—I understood an argument to which Morton often returns. We are not getting rid of the hyperobject Plastic anytime soon, or of any of the other hyperobjects that are the result of our industrial practices. We are deeply involved with all of them now. We might as well admit our commitment, physically, practically, and emotionally.
In “Dark Ecology,” Morton writes that we must cultivate a “spirituality of care” toward the objects of the world—not just the likable parts but the frightening ones. Morton suggests that, instead of burying nuclear waste, we might store it aboveground, in a visible place, where we can learn to take more responsibility for it—perhaps even building an aesthetically interesting enclosure. The kind of care Morton envisions is as interested in piles of sulfur as in trees; it is concerned with both polar bears and circuit boards. Morton wants us to care for plutonium. At a minimum, Morton thinks that this kind of caring could cure us of the idea that we are in control; it might show us that we are part of a vast network of interpenetrating entities that come to know one another without dispelling their mystery. At a maximum, Morton seems to feel that this omnidirectional, uncanny form of care could help save the world.
Later that afternoon, we dropped the scientist back at the B. and B. I prepared to head off to the airport. Morton insisted that I have their friend Ron Texada drive me there. “Nobody knows the city as well as Ron does,” Morton told me. Morton kept talking about Ron. “Ron can drive through a parking lot in the middle of Houston and then emerge, magically, closer to the airport than the laws of physics would otherwise allow,” they said. “Ron listens to the most amazing gospel music.” Morton drew out the word “amazing” for several beats. “Ron’s car”—now Morton was almost whispering—“is filled with gold.”
“Houston is a great city,” Ron told me, once I was in the car. “People don’t realize it, but it’s a people city.” As I was listening to Ron, I noticed something glinting in the car. I looked more closely at the indentations of the puffy handle on the inside of the passenger door. They were filled with Werther’s candies, in their shiny golden wrappers.
Nearly a year after my trip to Houston, I called Morton on the phone. It was April, 2020. COVID-19 was tearing through the U.S.
“Is COVID-19 a hyperobject?” I asked them.
“It’s the ultimate hyperobject,” Morton said. “The hyperobject of our age. It’s literally inside us.” We talked for a bit about fear of the virus—Morton has asthma, and suffers from sleep apnea. “I feel bad for subtitling the hyperobjects book ‘Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World,’ ” Morton said. “That idea scares people. I don’t mean ‘end of the world’ the way they think I mean it. But why do that to people? Why scare them?”
What Morton means by “the end of the world” is that a world view is passing away. The passing of this world view means that there is no “world” anymore. There’s just an infinite expanse of objects, which have as much power to determine us as we have to determine them. Part of the work of confronting strange strangeness is therefore grappling with fear, sadness, powerlessness, grief, despair. “Somewhere, a bird is singing and clouds pass overhead,” Morton writes, in “Being Ecological,” from 2018. “You stop reading this book and look around you. You don’t have to be ecological. Because you are ecological.” It’s a winsome and terrifying idea. Learning to see oneself as an object among objects is destabilizing—like learning “to navigate through a bad dream.” In many ways, Morton’s project is not philosophical but therapeutic. They have been trying to prepare themselves for the seismic shifts that are coming as the world we thought we knew transforms.
I’ve thought about Morton and their ideas often since we met. In 2017, my spouse and I purchased an old house not far from downtown Detroit. In the empty lots behind our house, we’re creating a community garden. Across the street from the lots stands the giant, crumbling ruin of what was once a factory. Kestrels sometimes fly out from gaps in the concrete blocks that seal its windows. In the spring, a two-foot-tall ring-necked pheasant likes to stand on a pile of discarded tires and squawk. Late at night, I’ve seen a single coyote moseying down the middle of the street, on which there’s never much traffic. Digging a hole to plant a tree, I once unearthed fragments of old bottles, plastic children’s toys, and hard-to-identify mechanical parts that I think might be pieces of a car still buried down there.
Our neighborhood was once dense with homes and businesses. Most of them have now been reduced to foundations, and are grown over with grass and weeds interspersed with layers of garbage. So many lives and stories are buried beneath the ruins. The landscape is uncanny, strange, trashy, and wild—Mortonian. I return to that line that Morton wrote in one of their e-mails to Björk, describing the “fusion between tenderness and sadness, joy, yearning, longing, horror (tricky one), laughter, melancholy, and weirdness.” Sifting through the rubble at the back of our house, as the sun sets pink and fierce behind the smokestack of the moldering factory, I often find myself struck by the world’s all-pervading, surprising, and mysterious beauty.
A previous version of this article misstated Olafur Eliasson’s nationality.
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