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Hyperobjects, cynicism, and the post-left

Is a new kind of politics possible?

Published onApr 04, 2022
Hyperobjects, cynicism, and the post-left

In the introduction to their provocative book Hyperobjects, theorist Timothy Morton slips in a brief jab at what you might think are their natural political allies, warning, “if there is no metalanguage, then cynical distance, the dominant ideological mode of the left, is in very bad shape, and will not be able to cope with the time of hyperobjects.”

Though the book was written in 2013, its political observations are perhaps more relevant now than they were then, as today we find the American left splintering, like the famous Monty Python sketch, into endless subgroups, each attempting to be more cynical than the last. The natural end-state of detached leftist irony appears to have been reached in the so-called post-left, which has managed to convince itself that right populism is the true Marxism.

It’s easy to laugh at this seeming paradox (in fact, the lulz are the point), but you’ve likely already seen its effects at work. It’s present in the edgelord in the group thread who likes to start conversations by saying things like, “I think it’s odd that more of my pro-union friends aren’t in unions.” It’s in the radical Facebook groups you joined during the 2020 protests who have started claiming NATO wanted the war in Ukraine. It’s in the friend who regrams posts blaming the Democratic party for anti-trans laws.

To be totally honest, I understand and sympathize with these people and their arguments. There’s at least a kernel of truth to them all, and my imagined counter-arguments run a lot like Morton’s repeated theoretical exchanges with climate deniers throughout their book. For Morton, climate change (they prefer the more traumatic “global warming”) is the ultimate hyperobject: spanning time and space in ways that make it incomprehensible to the individual, and yet inescapably tangible, present in nearly every aspect of everyone’s daily life.

To take that particular example head-on, you might make the argument to one of your disengaged friends that they should hold their nose and vote for Democrats if for no other reason than to give us a chance to address the existential threat that is climate change. To which those people might respond (as many have already posted on social media) that the State of the Union featured bipartisan applause for releasing oil barrels from the strategic reserve and coal company-owner Joe Manchin has a veto over any possible legislation Democrats might enact. These observations are technically correct and quite depressing. But they’re also fatalist, cynical, even nihilistic to the point of being non-responsive to the argument. You’ve probably had, or imagined, a version of this conversation for every one of the structural crises we face. One begins to suspect some people prefer political modes that allow them to feel emotions whose valence and intensity can match the enormous absurdity of our reality — chiefly cynicism, outrage, and fear — than they do the only real alternatives, depression, despondency, or the dominant mode of the right, outright denial. I certainly empathize.

To make matters worse, as I discussed the other day, it seems unlikely that we can reason our way out of these types of dilemmas, either. The technology we need to address climate change already exists. Yet the closer we come to understanding the causes and possible solutions, the farther away we seem to be from understanding how to implement anything at all on a sociopolitical level. My outraged friends are, in this sense, right to doubt the ability of the liberal order, despite or perhaps because of all of its technological achievements, to do anything at all about the largest problems we face. The post-left is offering something in response to this absurdity, even if it’s ultimately destructive. Liberalism in some ways offers the most conservative response of all: denial that the absurdity exists.

Morton calls this the “Age of Asymmetry,” where, paradoxically, “increasing science is not increasing demystification.” They identify three core features of this age that we have already seen above: hypocrisy, in the post-left applying Marx to right-wing populism, in leftists arguing that the institutions opposing laws and wars are in fact in favor of them, in liberals running on an agenda they know they cannot fulfill; weakness, in the rationalist’s inability to sufficiently explain climate change, in the leftist’s inability to offer anything beyond outrage in response to current events; lameness, in everyone’s general inability to have any effect whatsoever on the course of events, no matter how strident their Tweets.

For me, anyway, all of these examples have the general effect of feeling, to use Morton’s language, strange and uncanny. Everyone knows their utopian political project is impossible, yet we continue to tell stories from those universes as if they exist. Everyone knows that there is no single, simple root cause of or solution to democratic backsliding, or misinformation, or climate change, yet we continue to ask ourselves to find them. Everyone knows that we need to act more grandly and swiftly than our political systems are capable of, yet we waste limited time arguing over the smallest details in non-binding agreements and incremental legislation.

It should be clear at this point that I am no theorist nor philosopher. But the more my political consciousness develops, the more I start to grasp how the world truly seems to work, the less confident I am that anyone, left, right or center, has any fucking clue, pardon me, what’s actually going on. The less confident I am that there is any prescription that will fix anything, or that, indeed, there is anything meaningful out there that is fixable at all.

As it turns out, accepting this realization is Morton’s prescription for moving forward in the age of hyperobjects. Rather than pretend that some day we will figure everything out and, in so doing, solve the impending apocalypse, they urge us to admit that every answer we have is wrong, embrace our hypocrisy, weakness, and lameness, and consider the idea that the world, in the sense that we have understood it since the industrial revolution — or maybe, as Harvey Cox has argued, since the rise of monotheism — may have already ended.

Despite what it may seem, this isn’t a fatalist call to action. In rejecting the very existence of a world from which to detach ourselves, Morton offers us a chance to ditch fatalism, cynicism, and nihilism entirely. Without a world full of its forces, animals, and environments to be separate from, our political project cannot be to sit above it all and try to understand the clockwork in the hopes that we might one day intercede and control how it ticks. Instead, the end of the world demands that we de-center ourselves, sublimate our own interests, and start to experience how all objects — human and not, hyper and not — effect us through what Morton calls the “zone of forces” that every object emits.

It is in some ways incredible that we have managed to make it so far without fully acknowledging the ways in which objects, particularly hyperobjects, interact with and leave their marks on us. The language of the modern left is full of gestures towards it — the way white privilege corrupts, the way climate change induces overpowering anxiety — but it ultimately ascribes the causes of these effects not to the objects themselves, but to a never-ending nesting doll of what Morton calls “deep structures” — capital, history, states (guilty!) and so on. It’s no wonder that reactionary movements like anti-woke are so quick to form. It’s easy to look at the left’s tendency to obsess over the mechanisms of objects, rather than the objects themselves, and decide that it’s ridiculous. Think having Ross Douthat on your podcast and asking about his views on theory rather than the harm he has wrought through his intellectually inconsistent career at the country’s newspaper of record.

Instead, I wonder if, somewhere in Hyperobjects, there is a foundation for a politics that acknowledges the absurdity of reality and decides to try to cope with it, rather than deny it or interrogate it. In the years since writing their book, Morton has continued down the same path, most recently with the idea of hyposubjects, a sort of sketch of a humanity that has adapted to the Age of Asymmetry. Hyposubjects, they and collaborator Dominic Boyer write, “do not pursue or pretend to absolute knowledge or language, let alone power. Instead they play; they care; they adapt; they hurt; they laugh.”

There are clear similarities between hyposubjects and one of my favorite political movements, solarpunk, which attempts to imagine plausible climate futures we might actually want to live in. One of the most refreshing, core tenets of solarpunk is that it eschews the empty, but soaring symbolism of much climate discourse in favor of action. Or as Jay Sprinket, one of the movement’s founding members, put it, “Solarpunk is more concerned with delivering the practical things that you can do on route to a better world, rather than the gestural things…you can't LARP Solarpunk because LARPing Solarpunk is going out and planting a garden.”

The seeds of a new politics may lie in the radical humility of the hyposubject and the solarpunk. What form might a political movement take where we embrace our relative hypocrisy, weakness, and lameness? Where we admit that we don’t know, and may never know, how everything works, but commit to trying to move forward anyway? Where we stop centering ourselves and our narrow interests and start thinking in relation to the objects, time, and space around us, within us, and encircling us?

I have absolutely no clue what form it takes. But for the first time, I feel like a lack of understanding isn’t a barrier, but an opportunity.

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