“Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature,’ as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another, it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them” — William Morris

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Waking Up Inside an Object

Karen Jacobs, scholar of visuality, literature and postmodern culture, is the author of the fantastically titled The Eye's Mind. Karen has asked me to present on postmodernism and space at the next MLA. In for a penny, in for a pound—I'm already going there and Karen is a good friend. Here is what I'll talk about.

Waking Up Inside an Object
Timothy Morton

Looking backwards, it seems as if postmodern art was weirdly predictive of the age of ecological emergency we have now decisively entered. My favorite example would be David Byrne's and Brian Eno's song “The Overload” (on Talking Heads' Remain in Light). In the song, the phrase “A terrible signal, too weak to even recognize” could mean at least two things at once, giving rise to a disturbing image of horrifying weakness. The “signal” could either be a sign of some kind coming through some medium or other; or it could be the medium itself, experienced as a substance in its own right.

This superimposition of background and foreground, giving rise to a disturbing of expected relationships between sound and noise, and between sign and medium, is a common trait of environmental art that explores ecological awareness in form as well as in content. The creeping realization that global warming is real, running parallel to this kind of environmental art, is also the uncanny sensation of waking up inside an object. “Climate” is a massively distributed object that surrounds Earth and that includes the Sun and greenhouse gases in the upper atmosphere. “Too weak to even recognize” from a human point of view (it requires terabytes of RAM processing speed to model in real time), global warming has real, devastating effects on all parts of Earth's surface.

Humans no longer live in a “world” or in an “environment,” and certainly not in “nature.” Global warming spells the end of the world, not in an apocalypse but in an abject living-on in the absence of a meaningful lifeworld bounded by a distant horizon. We have realized that the “world” is actually a gigantic object in which we exist like Russian dolls inside a larger Russian doll. With its uncanny shadows and densities, postmodern culture is far more predictive of our contemporary awareness that we exist inside an object than traditional ecological culture, with its images of interconnected webs and holistic oneness.

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