Burning questions: What is a hyperobject?
If you’re anything like me, you grew up somewhere in the United States over the last few decades with a set of givens nestled inside your brain like cozy birds: That ours is the greatest country in history and the answer to the millennia-old question of how humans should best govern themselves; that God created the earth and put man (and, peripherally, woman) in charge of it; that if you save up and go to college you’ll have a long, successful career; that human progress is inevitable and without significant cost.
And –most importantly—that there is no reason to question any of those givens.
Well, what if some –or even all—of those cozy nested givens were mistaken? What if the way we all grew up thinking about ourselves and the world turned out to be only a tiny sliver of reality, and a misguided one at that? What if, rather than masters of our domain, it turned out that we humans were just a small part of an enormous network of systems that is beyond our ability to truly understand?
Timothy Morton is an English professor at Rice University and a philosopher who coined a delightful and mind-bending term called “hyperobjects.”Morton’s definition, as referenced in his 2013 book Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World, describes them as “things that are massively distributed in time and space relative to humans.” They are things too vast for us to really get our heads around, and likewise too vast to touch or see in their entirety… but they are fully integrated into our existence, as we are into theirs.
The evolution of our awareness of the world and its workings is easily seen throughout our relatively short history, and the way our explanations of things have changed over millennia. Of course we used to think that god(s) lived in the sky; that is where we find the sun, the moon, thunder and lightning, rain and snow… But now we understand (somewhat, at least) the physical properties that create those life-giving –and sometimes life-threatening– phenomena, and we don’t feel we need to appease the god of thunder with a sacrifice when a storm comes. We just get a weather alert on our iPhones and slip indoors to ride it out with a Netflix show and some snacks.
And speaking of weather, Morton had this to say in Hyperobjects: “You are walking out of the supermarket. As you approach your car, a stranger calls out, ‘Hey! Funny weather today!’ With a due sense of caution –is she a global warming denier or not?—you reply yes. There is a slight hesitation. Is it because she is thinking of saying something about global warming? In any case, the hesitation induced you to think of it. Congratulations: you are living proof that you have entered the time of hyperobjects. Why? You can no longer have a routine conversation about the weather with a stranger.” (p. 99)
The term inspired prolific filmmaker Adam McKay to create a production company named after it (Hyperobject Industries), and the first film produced by the company was the wildly successful 2021 disaster comedy Don’t Look Up, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence. In a 2021 interview with Laura Hudson for Wired Magazine (At the End of the World, It’s Hyperobjects All the Way Down | WIRED) on how Morton’s “hyperobjects” inspired the name of his production company, McKay said, “‘You can feel your brain changing ever so slightly because you never even considered that possibility. That’s Timothy. Every page of their writing has that feeling.'”
Hudson expands on the concept further: “The word hyperobjects 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… 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.”
The concept of the hyperobject not only points to the confounding “super wicked problem” of climate change (a future Burning Questions column may explore this fascinating conundrum), but to the expanded thinking that the grasp of the concept requires.
While the concept of hyperobjects is disorienting and even unsettling, it can also be powerfully freeing and exciting. It can open one’s mind up to the possibility of a world –or worlds—yet to be explored and understood… and, strangely, it also opens up the possibility of a mutual intimacy with everything and everyone around us. It is a humbling, and exciting, prospect to contemplate.
Jaena Bloomquist is a Truckee resident and mother of two. She is a writer, editor, and climate advocate. She can be reached at email@example.com
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