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Materialism Expanded and Remixed

Materialism Expanded and Remixed

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Published by Timothy Morton
A talk to be given at Johns Hopkins University in April 2010. What are the implications of new phenomena such as global warming, plutonium, and nonlocality, for our understanding of the nature of matter?
A talk to be given at Johns Hopkins University in April 2010. What are the implications of new phenomena such as global warming, plutonium, and nonlocality, for our understanding of the nature of matter?

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Published by: Timothy Morton on Jan 26, 2010
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Materialism Expanded and Remixed Timothy Morton

Now is a very good time to rethink what we mean by matter, as Jane Bennett's highly engaging study argues. The time is ripe for several reasons. The current ecological crisis, far from imminent but rather fully underway, has given rise to predictive and mapping instruments that can measure climate in real time. Being a very complex derivative of weather, real time climate mapping requires terabytes of RAM per second processing speeds, which means that it quite a way beyond the capacity of an individual human brain. This would explain a lot about global warming deniers, no? Climate is not a palpable thing but it will kill you just as surely as a train with a constant momentum will kill you, even if it slows down, if you're tied to the tracks. Wet, palpable stuff like snow is now less real, in quite an obvious sense, than something you can't see or feel. Something that affects everywhere all at once.

2 The creation of what I've called hyperobjects also causes us to rethink materialism. Hyperobjects are things that massively transcend human historical time scales. Plutonium, for example, has a half-life of 24 100 years. This means that it will remain dangerously radioactive for longer than all of recorded history thus far, doubled. Thirdly, developments in quantum theory—finally an ontological view is beginning to emerge from the welter of pragmatism, seriously addressing at last the issue of nonlocality—require us to rethink matter at the most profound scale we have yet imagined, outside of esoteric religion. I could go on—you could easily come up with fourth and fifth (and so on) examples of disturbing new materials in our era. The three phenomena I've sketched are in the newspapers, let alone in the academy. The humanities can probably ignore science, as it often does, and some humanists can turn a blind eye to philosophical developments such as the Deleuzian rapprochement with Leibniz and Spinoza (and so on). But global warming and hyperobjects, not so much— and nonlocality, which is the quantum issue, means that you don't have to go to a Tibetan monastery to find out this kind of stuff. Someone down the block from you on campus is thinking about it, right now. My colleagues in my wing of the university tend to be sticks in the mud, for whatever reason—in particular the ones who say they are materialists. This has

3 something to do with an institutional anxiety, and a fascination for things that seem more “real” than literature and art: humanities scholars can be far more scientistic than scientists. But it also has to do with a phobia for subjectivity as such, masquerading as a disdain for “religion” and “religious experiences.” At a Marxism seminar at Oxford in the late 80s I remember one rather belligerent fellow guilting us out for even thinking about deconstruction—“Reality as I see it is like a boring painting, but you make it sound like an acid trip.” The funny thing is, the current state of physics means that the view of matter as shiny pingpong balls, with a separate self viewing them, is the hallucination. In any case, these developments are 1) Real, 2) Pressing and 3) They severely limit (or in the case of nonlocality, profoundly undermine) a materialism consisting of little shiny pingpong balls, bundled with the attitude of subject–object dualism, in particular, the mind–matter manifold that has done some damage (shall we say) in its rather brief historical run. Of course, the devil is in the details, and how human beings progress to a point at which they are ready to drop the shiny pingpong balls might look paradoxically like a walk through the darkness of the valley of dualism—of which more later.

4 All such developments have been tracked by art, consciously or unconsciously, such that there exist in contemporary art forms numerous examples of the kind of expanded, remastered materialism that we require. Art can help us to think more clearly and in a greater number of experiential dimensions about the matters at hand—and, in a sense, art is philosophy by another means and has its own theories to lay out. In this paper I'll be discussing some of the ways in which art deals with expanded materialism, but first some words about the implications of the three phenomena I've sketched: climate, hyperobjects and nonlocality. What these phenomena have in common is interconnectedness. Each phenomenon makes us think deeply about how absolutely everything is absolutely related to absolutely everything else. Each one poses deep challenges to our ways of thinking about identity, selfhood and what is called Nature. Global warming means that what humans have taken to be the background of their world, against which socioeconomic events took place has dissolved: nature, typified by the weather, actualized in those redundant phatic conversations with strangers that you can now no longer have, because at least one person is thinking of global warming. What emerges in its place is the outlines of what elsewhere I am calling the mesh: a total interconnectivity that goes beyond normative vitalist images of the

5 web of live to include, for example, non-living beings, or beings that do not easily fall on one side or the other of the life–nonlife boundary, such as viruses and artificial life. Plutonium means that future beings are implicated in our decisions, future beings to whom we have no meaningful obligation in any ethical theory based on self-interest, no matter how openly or loosely defined. Some of these beings include myself in the future, who in this view might as well count as a different person. So, among their many effects, hyperobjects eat away at the person–nonperson boundary in highly disturbing ways. We are connected intimately with beings who are not related to us in any meaningful sense, yet we owe them an enormous obligation. Nonlocality means that phenomena are far more deeply interconnected even than the mesh concept I've just outlined. In the mesh, things are deeply contiguous and symbiotic. In nonlocality things directly are other things. This has to do with what physics calls entanglement. Physicist Alain Aspect and others have established that the Eisntein-Podolsky-Rosen paradox concerning quantum theory is not only valid, but empirically the case. When two particles become entangled, you can separate them as much as you like, and they will respond to information about the other one as if that information had been sent instantaneously. Not many physicists

6 like the idea of breaking the speed limit of light—an instantaneous message would break this cosmic speed limit. Please be clear that “separate the particles as much as you like” means by a few feet, or by a few hundred yards, or by a few thousand miles, or by a few million miles, or by as many light years as you want. It actually means that. Little shiny pingpong balls are decidedly located in space and time. So nonlocality means that something is profoundly wrong with atomism. Now there are various ways to proceed. One is the standard model, derived from the Copenhagen synthesis spearheaded by Niels Bohr. Copenhagen is basically saying that wondering about why nonlocality is the case makes no sense. Quantum theory is extremely good as a heuristic tool, but don't ask it to tell you what it all means. Questions about what it all means are impossible and absurd. The other possibility is the one advanced by David Bohm and others, which some call (wrongly, I feel) the “ontological interpretation,” for reasons that I trust will become clear in a moment. In other words, nonlocality is telling us something about reality. The speed of light is still the cosmic speed limit. The reason why the message appears to be instantaneous is that the “particle” doesn't truly exist—it's only an abstraction of a deeper reality that Bohm calls the implicate order, “implicate” in the sense that everything is folded into

7 everything else. We are not really observing two particles—we are seeing an unfolding of the implicate order, which in a sense is “one” thing in that it's undivided, but not a thing or “one” in a more precise sense, since for “one” to exist there must always be an other. We are indeed at a point in the argument at which words become difficult, which might have something to do with the way our mind works—as Bohm, who likes thinking things to the end, goes on to say. After all, standard quantum theory shows how mind is implicated in the reality we observe—this is what Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle means. Now I know what lots of you are thinking— oh my God, it's only x am and Professor Morton has already gone off the deep end into woo-woo land. I put it to you that you might be thinking this because of academic rituals of exclusion, of course, but also, and this is a deeper reason, because it's just not very gratifying not to have words or concepts for things—or at any rate, something you can hold on to— especially if fixating on things, which is basically what academics do, is what you get paid for. I know, I'm in the same boat. Like some interpretations of deconstruction, the Cophenhagen synthesis sets an arbitrary limit on what thinking can do. The trouble with this view is that it's self-defeating. First of all, the view is a view—even though it proclaims itself not to be one. In the Heideggerian–Lacanian sense

8 that “there is no metalanguage,” that is, one can never jump outside of one's universe to make statements that do not themselves have an implicit view hardwired into them, saying “Move along, there's nothing to see at the quantum level” is saying that there's something to see. Lacan and Derrida point out that all statements with grammaticality of some kind, that is, statements that are consistent, must also be incoherent in at least one sense, because grammar as such always contains implicit metaphysical systematizing. The language in which you say something is already a philosophical view—of course, there is a softcore nominalist version of this, but I'm talking about the hardcore one, which is really saying that signs and the ideas and attitudes they code for are not like icing and cake: like if we could ice the cake differently, it might taste better. In this respect, Lacan and Derrida are repeating in linguistic terms what Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem states in mathematical terms. Funnily enough, this is to the chagrin of the same kind of person—the Whiteheadian (and subsequently, Deleuzian) totalizer who thinks that she or he has done an end run around the metaphysical, that is, totalization. The view of no-view, then, is like the Cretan liar paradox: it says things at once, because statements have two levels (the statee and the stater as it were). And this brings up the second self-defeating fact about

9 Copenhagen, which has to do with the attitude or subject position that the no-view view implies. If you throw in the towel and say “Ho hum, can't make anything of that, never mind, pass the salt,” shouldn't it be okay for others to keep trying? Why do you have then to police what others such as David Bohm say, decrying it as love and lighty? Wouldn't it be more efficient to let them get on with it, since reality as such is an impossible, unthinkable, unspeakable affair? After all, these guys are only making themselves look stupid, according to you. Why should you be so scared of them? The trouble is, you don't believe me because I'm a humanities guy, so if I say reality qua me and you and this cup of coffee over here doesn't really exist, I'm some kind of nihilistic deconstructor or (worse) a New Age whacko in academic drag, while my colleague in the physics building can get away with saying that basically the Universe must be a three-dimensional hologram projected from an inscribed surface, possibly inside a black hole—that the extent to which we exist is not unlike the extent to which the image on your credit card exists. Bummer. Why holograms? Bohm uses the analogy of a hologram to describe the implicate order. Images taken with a lens give us a sense of single, solid, independent things that can be “captured,” as they say, separate from other

10 things. A hologram can't be seen directly: it's simply a mesh of interference patterns created by light waves bouncing off the object to be imaged and light waves passing through a beam splitter. When you pass light through the interference pattern, a three-dimensional rendering of the object appears in front of the pattern. Weirdly, you can cut a little piece of hologram out—or shine light through a little piece of the pattern (same thing), and you will still see a (slightly more blurry) version of the whole imaged object. Every piece of the hologram contains information about the whole thing. Bohm argues that this must be the case with reality as such— every piece of it enfolds information about the whole. Bohm means the hologram to stand metaphorically for something far less reified, though it is interesting to see how current physical models also think about holograms more literally. Recent results from gravity wave detectors have revealed a suspiciously regular pattern emanating from the cosmic background radiation, as if at some level reality were pixilated—made up of regular little “dots” of information: exactly the kind of information you'd expect to see if you really were a projection of an actual hologram. Take a moment to mull over what this means. Nonlocality means that “Here” and “there” are superficial labels. Thus “myself,” located here and now in spacetime, is a rather abstract generalization, like “weather” as

11 opposed to “climate.” In truth, then, we are “in” something (if “in” has any meaning here) that has no center or edge. We are certainly not pieces in a jigsaw puzzle that's larger than all of us put together. This kind of view, known as holism, means that there is a whole greater than the sum of its parts. This holistic whole remains separate from its parts in some sense. The holistic jigsaw puzzle view depends upon an outside and an inside, and jigsaw pieces whose external edges are related to one another like cogwheels. Both of these requirements are only superficial ways of generalizing about phenomena. Let's just pop the love and light balloon right here. The trouble with the holographic view is that it's bad for holism as well as for atomism. You are not part of a larger whole: you are that whole, directly. This means that there is, again, no background against which our thinking makes sense. This is it, folks. The holographic view, or implicate order, is not a view of oneness or harmony—there's nothing to become one, nothing to harmonize. Since the whole is undivided, there is nothing to compare it with: it is utterly singular, which means that it can never violently express itself as One, as the One (Derrida, Archive Fever). Everything is enfolded in everything, which means that at this level (if “level” is the right word here), everything is “flowing movement” as Bohm says.

12 The difficulty faced by holographic models of matter strictly resembles the difficulty facing deconstruction. Isn't it the case that deconstructors and anti-deconstructors set limits on what deconstruction can do, limits that Derrida himself did not respect? Derrida didn't say, late in life, “Oh well, ho hum, might as well throw in the towel; nothing means anything.” Despite popular caricatures, this is the absolute opposite of how Derrida proceeded. Meaninginfulness multiplies in Derridean thinking—it doesn't wither and die. Deconstruction discovers all kinds of entities appearing between or beyond or within existing metaphysical categories. Deconstruction is not destruction. It would likewise be a big mistake to throw in the quantum towel and go “Ho hum, can't make anything of that, never mind, pass the salt,” like the physicist who said that his experiences in the lab were hermetically sealed from his everyday experiences of life. The “ho hum” attitude conceals a profound taboo, and a policing of boundaries on numerous levels (academic—who gets the grants and who doesn't; personal—the difference between “my ideas” and “my life”; philosophical— the refusal to think beyond a certain limit, and contempt for those who try). It's been my general experience that you can say almost anything in the academy, but if you say something love and lighty, you get creamed. My question as to why the left dropped the ball on ecology in the 60s was

13 regularly answered with “Well, ecology was a hippie thing” (and thus beneath contempt). Now a conference on non-Marxian materialism should take this very seriously, because the left argued themselves into a box by reproducing— perhaps accidentally—the attitude that comes bundled with the normative materialist software. Deconstruction is not claiming that nothing means anything; deconstruction is claiming that meaning only arises because of a play of difference, not because of some intrinsic meaning. The sub-quantum level that Bohm hypothesizes is very much this play of difference. It would be a mistake to associate Bohm with say a form of negative-theological hyperessentialism (see Derrida's essay on negative theology), let alone with holism, which Bohm directly critiques as yet another conceptual box. Bohm is always tentative and subjunctive about the implicate order; but let's assume that he isn't, or that this tentativeness isn't relevant (it is relevant, in fact, because Bohm, having discovered the implicate order, realizes that at this level how you speak of it drastically affects our (mis)understanding of it). The “it is unspeakable” is not a taboo against speaking of something that is so essential that words slip off it; you can speak of it all you like, just remember that words risk putting it in a box.

14 There is no attempt to establish, in the negative, some essence, like shading around the outline of a form to make the form appear on paper. There is a confusion because of Derrida's use of “ontotheological” to describe a certain set of metaphysical gestures, and Bohm's use of “ontological” to describe the implicate order; what if the implicate order were not strictly ontological? There is a further confusion because of the New Age appropriation of Bohm, and academic prejudices against New Age (some valid, some less so): the naive optimism of New Age dies a death in the bright fluorescent lights of academic mind—quite possibly a premature one; the millenarian, manipulative and technophilic aspects of New Age wither in light of Marxist critiques of the “dialectic of enlightenment.” I wager that we should keep the optimism of New Age, if it helps us to develop a view that is congruent with our ethical and political needs—we can drop the manipulativeness, but on academia's side, the critical attitude, which too often is only a legitimated form of cynicism, can also be dropped. Now you may wonder, how come someone is opening a conference on materialism by talking about attitudes—talking, in short, about mind? Here's the issue. New theories of materialism seem eager to ascribe to objects precisely those things academics have recently become nervous about ascribing to subjects: agency, reflexivity, a complex, fluid relationship

15 with one's environment, and so on. At the very moment at which it has become uncool or even taboo to talk about subjects, we are beginning to talk about objects in precisely the same way. I find this more than strange. Is it simply a case of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic of dualism? Or is this rethinking an opportunity to rethink what we mean by “subject,” refraining, in effect, from throwing the baby of subjectivity or consciousness or whatever out with the bathwater of essentialism or anthropocentrism or whatever? In which case, wouldn't this conference be an ideal moment to reflect on the nature of mind? Or are we so hopelessly caught in subjecthood—or so afraid or guilty or ashamed of it—that this question becomes either dangerous or absurd? And wouldn't this inconsistent mix of danger and absurdity press every ideology warning light on your control panel if you saw it with reference to something other than subjectivity as such, say with reference to gender or race—viz. the standard homophobic meme that being gay is ridiculous and threatening, simultaneously? Evidently we would then be up against something like subject-phobia, and as is well established, it is phobia as such that fixates on a phenomenon, reifying it into an object. A specter is haunting new materialism: the specter of the subject.

16 This specter is precisely what emerges from a study of contemporary art forms that give a sense of very large finitude or massive interconnectedness, such as our emerging awareness of the half-life of plutonium or global warming, or a sense of infinity on this side of things, not in some beyond, such as our emerging awareness of nonlocality. I'm thinking in particular of electronic music by the French composer Eliane Radigue, and also of La Monte Young's Theater of Eternal Music, Dream Houses, and works for “justly tuned” instruments. These works are very, very long, very simple from the point of view of narrative—they have no beginning, middle or end, but rather are just tones, and vocal or instrumental tuning to those tones—and highly educational about the deep implication of our nervous system and perceptual apparatus in what they perceive. Such artworks are hyperobjects—massively larger and more immersive than we are accustomed to perceiving. They also function as ways to think the even greater interconnectedness of nonlocality. They beam us directly into a nonlocalizable, vast ocean of interference patterns like sonic Bridget Riley paintings or the raw materials of a hologram, created by precisely tuned sine waves, using in Young's case whole number values (instead of equal-temperament fudging) to achieve a maximum spread of harmonic frequencies rather than a nicely rendered world of

17 brown where brown things happen in a brown way to brown people—the Romantic narrative or program music model, to which Adorno was unfortunately too attached. It's like going inside matter, as if the shiny ping-pong balls were hugely amplified until they ceased to be spherical or shiny. They induce a sense of wonder—“What am I hearing? Good heavens, so that's the limit of my auditory system I'm hearing”—and boredom, simultaneously, a combination evocative of meditation states, which could also be seen as an attunement to materiality (of the breath and of one's body—in Sanskrit this tuning is called yoga, which means yoking or joining). They demonstrate categorically how subject and object are deeply entangled, just as, when one looks at Bridget Riley, one is seeing one's own optical system. “Drift Study,” for instance, is a precisely tuned pair of frequencies that change as you move around them—you are hearing your ears. This kind of thing immediately brings to mind the question of consciousness—what is it? Where is it? Like any attempt to think outside the Marxist box, they land you in a hippielooking place. The question is, do we scholars then run away, like Scooby and Shaggy?

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