Unconventional wisdom: The philosopher

Timothy Morton holds the Rita Shea Guffey Chair in English at Rice, where he also is the director of English undergraduate studies. Since coming to Rice in 2012, Morton has been building programs in ecological theory, energy and sustainability. He is the author of many books, including “Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World” (2013) and blogs daily at www.ecologywithoutnature.blogspot.com.

Timothy Morton

In 2015–2016, Morton will co-direct the Humanities Research Center’s yearlong Rice Seminar, “After Biopolitics.” He spent the past year collaborating with Björk on the collection “Björk: Archives,” which was published to coincide with the Museum of Modern Art’s retrospective on the artist and singer. The following is an edited interview conducted by Michael Hardy ’06 last spring.


I decided to work with food, which is of course ecological — it comes out of the ground and it involves nonhuman beings. But it’s a particular angle. I wrote two books about food and two collections of essays and texts on food. I was gradually trying to figure out how to write more directly about ecology per se, and it took about 12 years, from 1990 to 2002, to get my mojo together in that regard.


My first ecology book, “Ecology Without Nature” (2007), rather counterintuitively said that in order to have ecological awareness, philosophy, politics, ethics and aesthetics, you have to drop the idea of nature, which is this static “thing” over there, under here, in me. It’s in the DNA. It’s in the atoms. Ecological awareness is just the opposite. It’s the realization that my whole body is full of mercury right this minute. I started to think in a more ontological way — What is? What are the criteria for existence? And then somebody told me that this idea was called “object-oriented ontology.”


I’d already decided that the difference between life and nonlife isn’t very rigid, so why can’t I talk about coffee cups and spoons? There is a spoon, but the spoon isn’t directly present to me. I can’t directly access the spoon. There is a spoon — it’s not a knife — but when I look for the spoon all I find is spoon data: it’s metallic, it’s shiny, it’s a certain size. Nev­ertheless, the spoon is not an octopus; I’m very firm on this.


When you go through the rabbit hole of object-oriented ontology, the first thing that happens to you — and this happened to its founder, Graham Harman — is that you’re like, OMG, I’m surrounded by all these things and permeated by them. I’ve got eyebrows, and in these eyebrows there are little crustaceans, and in these crustaceans there are these other things. I’m penetrated and permeated and surrounded by these objects — I can’t get them off me! And that’s ecological awareness, realizing that you have poisons and toxins and bacteria everywhere and you can’t get them off.


Some of these things are actu­ally symptoms of other things I can hardly see. Like, I probably have all this scar tissue in me from radiation — ultraviolet light, X-rays. This is evidence of something that’s real, but I can’t see it or touch it. So I started thinking, what’s a good word for that? Like, all the styrofoam in the world — think of the Pa­cific garbage patch. I’m going to call it “hyperobject.” It’s hyper because I can’t see it or touch it, but it’s an object because it’s actually physical and real. But it’s not my granddaddy’s real.


[The term hyperobjects] is a very good way of talking about ecological things. We don’t really have language for the climate — we can’t point to it. So global warming deniers have a point, which is that we can’t see it anywhere. It gives a word for something that’s real, even though you can’t see or touch it.


I was just checking my inbox one day last July, and I found an email: “Good evening, my name is Björk.” It was pretty amazing. Of all the people I would have liked to work with since graduate school, she would be No. 1. And then we began this three-month email dialogue, a kind of a mind meld. It’s really the nicest thing I’ve ever done, both in terms of the experience of it and the writing.


Björk expresses really profound and vulnerable things to mil­lions of people. It has to do with all forms of perceiving and all forms of technology, whether it be the singing voice or the latest computer technology. She’s working with some really deep things. I’ve always seen it as a kind of ecological art.


Something about the chemistry of Rice and Houston allows for eccentric weirdos such as myself to be semi in charge of stuff. Something about the fact that this is not the East Coast or the West Coast actually al­lows people to be a little more creative on the humanistic side. I feel like there’s a conversation that we could have at Rice, pos­sibly better than anywhere else, between humanistic research and science and engineering.


I like being in a place where there’s that much connection to oil. Ecological politics is always hypocritical, because you can’t be nice to everything at the same time. You can’t be nice to the bunny rabbit parasite and the bunny rabbit. You’re always going to be doing something “wrong.” We play this game of spot-the-hypocrite, whether we’re on the right or the left. But once you know that everything’s interconnected, then everything you do is a little hypocritical, because if you do this you’re not doing that.


There’s a kind of can-do, let’s get it done attitude. If you want to save the world, you might as well get some Texan guy. The Brits are good for emergen­cies — everybody be calm, let’s proceed in an orderly way to the exits — but if you want to save the world you need someone who’s willing to bend the rules a little bit.

—This story first appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of Rice Magazine.

About Special to Rice News

The Rice News is produced weekly by the Office of Public Affairs at Rice University.