Of gap-sense: On Morton’s Of Planet-Sense

Tim Morton gave a talk at NIEA, Sydney, August 25, 2012 “Of planet-sense”. He offers a reading of the film Avatar as the successful completion of modernity, rather than its (hippie, environmental, etc.) reversal. All quotes below are to his talk, apologies in advance for any errors of transcription. The planet of Pandora with its ‘organic internet’ allows for the seamless movement of consciousness. Morton is concerned with exploring this seamlessness and arguing the case for ‘gaps’.

Modernity for Morton is the emergence of the Anthropocene (the direct human internvetion into geological time, by way of the depositing of a layer of carbon on the Earth’s crust) and the emergence of Kantian philosophy with its critique of human reason. Anthropocene is the “ironic name for a moment at which the nonhuman is discerned to be inextricable from the human”.

On the one hand is a (neo-)Heideggarian engagement with the film. Common reading of Heidegger is that humans are embedded in a ‘world’. Being and Time advocates an ‘awareness’ that is “frequently avoided at all costs”. A bit later Morton describes how humans are unable to access global warming directly, and resultant to how it takes the measure of us: “a tsunami assess the fragility of a Japanese town, an earthquoke probes the ability to resist the liquification of the Earth’s crust, a heatwave scans us with ultra-violet rays”. These harmful measurements direct out attention to human co-existence with other lifeforms inside a gigantic object. “What undermines [or underlines? underlies?] this sense of planet is a planet-sense, experienced by humans as physical in measurement”. This is not the political affect of Avatar.

On the other hand is a Spinozist logic of health and pathology, a continuity between mind and body, represented by the Navii and the planet “with no ontological gaps”. Morton argues that from this Spinozist reading “there is no evil, only inadequately expressed conatus — the will to exist that takes joy in imposing itself on the rest of the planet’s substance”. (It is unclear if Morton means the Spinozist sense of Joy as positive affection of the soul, that increases one’s capacity to act based on the agitations of reaching or yearning for a higher rationality, or if he means ‘joy’ in the sense of a narcissistic sadism. The use of ‘takes’ indicates a transcendental subject experiences their own sadism as joyful, hence Morton meant it in the second sense. In the first sense, Joy is the experience, and concurrent agitation of the soul; it is not ‘experienced’ as such, and that which is experienced certainly does not have to be ‘joyful’ in any subjective sense. [And listening further along in the talk, just after 33min, Morton does indeed invoke this notion of sadism.])

“There is no nothing, no nothingness in a reality that contains no ontological gaps”. For instance the gap between brain and mind, cinematic representation in Pandora as sentient world. For Spinozist the entity nothing is oukontic; “that is, not even nothing, sbstance everywhere without lack”. Morton goes on to describe another nothingness opened up since the time of Kant and the Anthropocene, a meontic nothingness. From theological philosopher Tillich:

  • Me On: (Greek) “Me on is the ‘nothing’ which has a dialectical relation to being.”
  • Ouk On: (Greek) “Ouk on is the ‘nothing’ which has no relation at all to being.”

(Also, see Morton’s brief remarks from a different context on oukontic and meontic nothingness.) Hegel’s nothingness was a reaction against Kant’s critique of reason that had discerned a threatening gap in the real “predicated on a reason that I cannot directly access”. Reason as an abyss. Morton asks the question, does not the planet Pandora invoke this meontic defintion and not the oukontic?

Jake Sully experiences that Kantian sublime atop of his reptilian winged beast. Sublime of science, plunging into the abyss of reason. Avatar of reason can be known, but it is severed from the real thing. Noumenal transcends the phenomenal. The thrill ride threatens the Spinozism continuum between mind-body. Or a materialism, Deleuze, Bergson, Whitehead “to paper over the crack with a spattle of matter”. Appeal of Spinozism in modernity, it allows for a pantheism not unlike an athesism.  Sully as a slippage between binaries. An excess of thinking [really? Part of the plot was Sully’s mind was ’empty’.]

[I enjoyed Morton’s rant against causality.] Science’s statistical appreciation of reality just is. There is no causality. Causal arguments are reductive in the sense that they are all equally premised on a correlation between statistics and reason; hence the hyper rationality of the fascist (of Creationists, of tobacco companies, of ecological denialists, etc.).

Modern philosophy is a reaction against nothingness, meontic angst; “what is required for thinking is not wish away the ocean [abyss of reason, from an earlier extended metaphor] that provides the reason for the problems identified in Hume, as if we could unthink the fact we are three dimensional beings [Morton here is referring to the ocean of Reason being like another dimension in a world of stick people]”. According to Morton, “Heidegger correctly saw that the task was a voyage beneath nihilism, not to take flight above it or to circumvent it. The ocean of reason seaps through the cracks of pre-packaged facts.” Kant argues that the human-world correlate is what gave reality to things.

OOO etc extending this relation to all things, a “riot of anxiety, we I confront the full uncanniness of all things”. There is a “Pandora’s Box full of gaps”. [Another account of this.] To summarise Morton’s argument for the next 10-15min or so: the concept of ‘world’ is backformed from the Kantian gap, and therefore it is insufficient as a conceptual apparatus for accounting for all the worlds that belong to all the different objects. Not only is there a gap for each and every object there is also an abyss of reason (but not reason, because ‘reason’ is human-centric) for each of these objects. Objects withdraw into this abyss; objects withdraw from themselves. Agriculture is a prototype for a certain engagement with Earth because agriculture turns it into an aesthetic product; a “full world of distances and horizons” this aestheticisation gathers speed in the Anthropocene. This is the meontic world glimpsed by environmentalism; “a pair of cats eyes, ‘Tiger, tiger, burning bright’.”

Some thoughts in response:

After hearing this talk, I’d like to see Morton engage with Deleuze’s Logic of Sense. Why?

Morton is very good at laying everything out, not only in the sense of his actual presentation of the talk (and the beat poet-like presentation), but in the presentation of certain arrangments of non-relations. Arranging specific non-relations between objects and themselves, the non relation between objects and their worlds, and the non-relation between the infinite multiplicity of object-worlds. In as much as this is an ontological flattening (or, to be inspired by Morton’s use of puns, perhaps ‘flattering’ for objects), Morton indicates our world is actually a non-world of a multiplicity of distances and horizons. For Morton these horizons are all horizons of being to presence and presence to being. Yet, there is another gap, between Harman’s Object and Morton’s Hyper-Objects, that has a non-spatialised temporal dimension.

A non-spatial gap is what Massumi calls a non-local linkage (between assemblies of experience) or what I’d call, largely derived from Deleuze’s LoS in an attempt to move away from familiar Aristotlean conceptions, a problematic contiguity (the ‘between’ or ‘middle’ of events). This is a shift from a concern with a non-temporal is. I am assuming that objects withdraw in non-relations in different ways; that is, no two withdrawals (and correlative presence) even of the ‘same’ object are equivalent. The gap here is intensive; the differentiation serves as the ontology of the event. This is only the first part of the gap between Harman’s object and that of Morton’s hyper-object (based on Morton’s talk); its non-spatial (and non-extensive) location. It is temporal in the sense that a difference is differenciated, and therefore if spatialised can be counted (in the mathmatical sense), and because it produces a rhythm in the world (another ‘count’).

The other part of this non-spatial gap is very similar to the way Morton describes the kind of invasion of aliens. The non-human scale of Morton’s hyper-objects is in some ways no different to a sympathetic reading of Harman’s argument for objects. The big advance that Morton provides for OOO is to finally escape from the human-centric version of objects (and I mean in a really stupid, knee-jerk sort of imagining what is an object). Similarly, the ontology of events is indicated by the ‘holely space’ of temporal architecture distributed, as Morton notes in his talk, according to statistical regularities, but they are not premised on them. To think events on a non-human scale is to admit that the distribution of distributions is necessarily incomplete. The ‘thisness’ of an event is characterised by a diverse array of differentiations but all of these differentations can never be known as such. That is why there is a difference between the first-person subjectivity that perceives the object as an event (as determined by perception and discourse) and the fourth-person singularity that takes the entire chaosmos as its ‘world’: in between is a concrescence of impersonalities. These impersonalities do not have a correlative ‘personality’ (ie an ‘object’ in OOO sense) in any normative sense. (See my notes on Esposito’s reading of haecceity for a thoroughly Deleuzian appreciation of part of this problem.)


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