As we watched, Curtis told me about his admiration for the recent movie “The Big Short,” which tried to portray, for a popular audience, another facet of those invisible forces at work. “This is the whole thing about ‘good and evil’ — it’s a naïve view of the world. The problem is bigger, it’s a system.” Curtis and I briefly discussed a word coined by the critic Timothy Morton to describe a problem so vast in space and time that you are unable to apprehend it: a “hyperobject.” Global warming is a classic example of a hyperobject: it’s everywhere and nowhere, too encompassing to think about. Global markets, too. But naming a hyperobject alone is of limited use; human cognition knows all too well how to file such imminent imponderables away, on a “to-do” list that’s never consulted again.
“I thought it was a brave stab at it,” Curtis said, continuing his analysis of “The Big Short.” “But my argument would be that even the financial system they’re pointing to is only a component of something even bigger, that we haven’t really put together. That bigger thing: It’s my hyperobject.”
With each new bit of footage, a glance, a shy smile, Qaddafi’s human presence seeps unexpectedly into the viewer’s sympathies. Reagan’s does as well. Curtis’s politicians, ultimately, contend with their own bafflement in the face of the unseen forces shaping their world. They’re traveling with us, stuck inside the hyperobject.
“In fact, actually the great thing about human beings is that they’re protean,” Curtis told me, near the end, before I let him get back to his editing. “They can be anything you want them to be. They’re amazing. But we’re stuck with the idea that there is a fixed self. We’re stuck with the idea that there is a body mass index that you must have. We’re stuck that this is the food you must have. We’re stuck with the system of finance. It’s just stuck. And maybe, I’m part of the stuckness.” Several times, Curtis and I circled back to the notion of the “hyperobject” — that which is too big in time and space to comprehend. Perhaps this is merely shorthand for the sensation of apprehending that we are creatures born into a world that seems to demand our understanding, but will never grant it. “You have to recognize that you’re part of the thing,” he said. “But the point about journalism is to try to portray the thing you are part of. I think that’s the best you can do.”