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“Several thousand years from now, nothing about you as an individual will matter. But what you did will have huge consequences.”*…

In 2013, a philosopher and ecologist named Timothy Morton proposed that humanity had entered a new phase. What had changed was our relationship to the nonhuman. For the first time, Morton wrote, we had become aware that “nonhuman beings” were “responsible for the next moment of human history and thinking.” The nonhuman beings Morton had in mind weren’t computers or space aliens but a particular group of objects that were “massively distributed in time and space.” Morton called them “hyperobjects”: all the nuclear material on earth, for example, or all the plastic in the sea. “Everyone must reckon with the power of rising waves and ultraviolet light,” Morton wrote, in “Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World.” Those rising waves were being created by a hyperobject: all the carbon in the atmosphere.

Hyperobjects are real, they exist in our world, but they are also beyond us. We know a piece of Styrofoam when we see it—it’s white, spongy, light as air—and yet fourteen million tons of Styrofoam are produced every year; chunks of it break down into particles that enter other objects, including animals. Although Styrofoam is everywhere, one can never point to all the Styrofoam in the world and say, “There it is.” Ultimately, Morton writes, whatever bit of Styrofoam you may be interacting with at any particular moment is only a “local manifestation” of a larger whole that exists in other places and will exist on this planet millennia after you are dead. Relative to human beings, therefore, Styrofoam is “hyper” in terms of both space and time. It’s not implausible to say that our planet is a place for Styrofoam more than it is a place for people.

When “Hyperobjects” was published, philosophers largely ignored it. But Morton, who uses the pronouns “they” and “them,” quickly found a following among artists, science-fiction writers, pop stars, and high-school students. The international curator and art-world impresario Hans Ulrich Obrist began citing Morton’s ideas; Morton collaborated on a talk with Laurie Anderson and helped inspire “Reality Machines,” an installation by the Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson. Kim Stanley Robinson and Jeff VanderMeer—prominent sci-fi writers who also deal with ecological themes—have engaged with Morton’s work; Björk blurbed Morton’s book “Being Ecological,” writing, “I have been reading Tim Morton’s books for a while and I like them a lot.”

The problem with hyperobjects is that you cannot experience one, not completely. You also can’t not experience one. They bump into you, or you bump into them; they bug you, but they are also so massive and complex that you can never fully comprehend what’s bugging you. This oscillation between experiencing and not experiencing cannot be resolved. It’s just the way hyperobjects are.

Take oil: nature at its most elemental; black ooze from the depths of the earth. And yet oil is also the stuff of cars, plastic, the Industrial Revolution; it collapses any distinction between nature and not-nature. Driving to the port, we were surrounded by oil and its byproducts—the ooze itself, and the infrastructure that transports it, refines it, holds it, and consumes it—and yet, Morton said, we could never really see the hyperobject of capital-“O” Oil: it shapes our lives but is too big to see.

Since around 2010, Morton has become associated with a philosophical movement known as object-oriented ontology, or O.O.O. The point of O.O.O. is that there is a vast cosmos out there in which weird and interesting shit is happening to all sorts of objects, all the time. In a 1999 lecture, “Object-Oriented Philosophy,” Graham Harman, the movement’s central figure, explained the core idea:

The arena of the world is packed with diverse objects, their forces unleashed and mostly unloved. Red billiard ball smacks green billiard ball. Snowflakes glitter in the light that cruelly annihilates them, while damaged submarines rust along the ocean floor. As flour emerges from mills and blocks of limestone are compressed by earthquakes, gigantic mushrooms spread in the Michigan forest. While human philosophers bludgeon each other over the very possibility of “access” to the world, sharks bludgeon tuna fish and icebergs smash into coastlines…

We are not, as many of the most influential twentieth-century philosophers would have it, trapped within language or mind or culture or anything else. Reality is real, and right there to experience—but it also escapes complete knowability. One must confront reality with the full realization that you’ll always be missing something in the confrontation. Objects are always revealing something, and always concealing something, simply because they are Other. The ethics implied by such a strangely strange world hold that every single object everywhere is real in its own way. This realness cannot be avoided or backed away from. There is no “outside”—just the entire universe of entities constantly interacting, and you are one of them.

… “[Covid-19 is] the ultimate hyperobject,” Morton said. “The hyperobject of our age. It’s literally inside us.” We talked for a bit about fear of the virus—Morton has asthma, and suffers from sleep apnea. “I feel bad for subtitling the hyperobjects book ‘Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World,’ ” Morton said. “That idea scares people. I don’t mean ‘end of the world’ the way they think I mean it. But why do that to people? Why scare them?”

What Morton means by “the end of the world” is that a world view is passing away. The passing of this world view means that there is no “world” anymore. There’s just an infinite expanse of objects, which have as much power to determine us as we have to determine them. Part of the work of confronting strange strangeness is therefore grappling with fear, sadness, powerlessness, grief, despair. “Somewhere, a bird is singing and clouds pass overhead,” Morton writes, in “Being Ecological,” from 2018. “You stop reading this book and look around you. You don’t have to be ecological. Because you are ecological.” It’s a winsome and terrifying idea. Learning to see oneself as an object among objects is destabilizing—like learning “to navigate through a bad dream.” In many ways, Morton’s project is not philosophical but therapeutic. They have been trying to prepare themselves for the seismic shifts that are coming as the world we thought we knew transforms.

For the philosopher of “hyperobjects”—vast, unknowable things that are bigger than ourselves—the coronavirus is further proof that we live in a dark ecology: “Timothy Morton’s Hyper-Pandemic.”

* “Several thousand years from now, nothing about you as an individual will matter. But what you did will have huge consequences. This is the paradox of the ecological age. And it is why action to change global warming must be massive and collective.” – Timothy Morton, Being Ecological

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As we find our place, we might send classical birthday greetings to James Clerk Maxwell; he was born on this date in 1831.  A mathematician and and physicist, he calculated (circa 1862) that the speed of propagation of an electromagnetic field is approximately that of the speed of light– kicking off his work in uniting electricity, magnetism, and light… that’s to say, formulating the classical theory of electromagnetic radiation, which is considered the “second great unification in physics” (after the first, realized by Isaac Newton). Though he was the apotheosis of classical (Newtonian) physics, Maxwell laid the foundation for modern physics, starting the search for radio waves and paving the way for such fields as special relativity and quantum mechanics.  In the Millennium Poll – a survey of the 100 most prominent physicists at the turn of the 21st century – Maxwell was voted the third greatest physicist of all time, behind only Newton and Einstein.

225px-James_Clerk_Maxwell

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“Poetry is the art of creating imaginary gardens with real toads”*…

Olivia Fanny Tonge , A Toad, c. 1905

Before the swallow, before the daffodil, and not much later than the snowdrop, the common toad salutes the coming of spring after his own fashion, which is to emerge from a hole in the ground, where he has lain buried since the previous autumn, and crawl as rapidly as possible towards the nearest suitable patch of water. Something – some kind of shudder in the earth, or perhaps merely a rise of a few degrees in the temperature – has told him that it is time to wake up: though a few toads appear to sleep the clock round and miss out a year from time to time – at any rate, I have more than once dug them up, alive and apparently well, in the middle of the summer.

At this period, after his long fast, the toad has a very spiritual look, like a strict Anglo-Catholic towards the end of Lent. His movements are languid but purposeful, his body is shrunken, and by contrast his eyes look abnormally large. This allows one to notice, what one might not at another time, that a toad has about the most beautiful eye of any living creature. It is like gold, or more exactly it is like the golden-coloured semi-precious stone which one sometimes sees in signet rings, and which I think is called a chrysoberyl…

From George Orwell (in 1946): “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad.” From The Orwell Foundation, via Berfrois.

* Marianne Moore

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As we appreciate amphibians, we might we might recall that it was on this date in 1913 that cartoonist John Randolph (J.R.) Bray first exhibited his animated film, “The Artist’s Dream” (later retitled “The Dachshund and the Sausage” for reasons that will be obvious).  Bray was not the first animator; indeed, he was following purposefully in the steps of fellow cartoonist Windsor McCay, who had added animations of “Little Nemo” and “How a Mosquito Operates” to his stage presentations.  But Bray earned a place in the history of the art by being among the first– arguably the first– animator to organize his work and his studio according to the principles of industrial production (that’s to say, with division of labor)– an approach that has survived to this day.

Bray

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“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it people like me”*…

The Cummings Center for the History of Psychology has a large collection of some of the most important apparatus and objects related to psychological science and practice covering the past 150 years.  There are brass chronoscopes from the 1800s that measured reaction time in one-thousandths of a second.  There are a variety of rat mazes, tachistoscopes, and Skinner boxes.  The “shock” machine used by Stanley Milgram in his famous obedience studies is in the Center’s collections as are a Bobo doll from Albert Bandura’s research, guard uniforms from Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford prison study, a surrogate monkey head from Harry Harlow’s studies of love in monkeys, and one of B. F. Skinner’s air cribs.  The Center is always looking to add to its collections, including items that were of questionable scientific value.  One such item is the Psycho-Phone [pictured above].

Similar in principle to audio devices today that play messages during a person’s sleep, for example, alleging sleep learning, the Psycho-Phone was the invention of Alois Benjamin Saliger (1880-1969) who patented his machine in 1932 as an “Automatic Time-Controlled Suggestion Machine.”  The device was essentially an Edison-style phonograph with a timer that played the contents from a wax cylinder during the period of sleep.  Saliger believed that the messages delivered during sleep would enter a person’s unconscious and have a powerful influence on the individual’s behavior…

The machine was quite expensive, selling for $235 in 1929.  That would be the equivalent of $3,250 in 2017.  It came with several wax cylinders, each with messages relating to a different theme; one was labeled “Prosperity”, another “Life Extension,” and a third “Mating.”  Eventually Saliger expanded the record library to more than a dozen titles, even one in Spanish.  According to a story in The New Yorker in 1933, the message on the Mating recording included the following statements: “I desire a mate.  I radiate love.  I have a fascinating and attractive personality.  My conversation is interesting.  My company is delightful.  I have a strong sex appeal.”  Saliger was convinced of the effectiveness of the Psycho-Phone noting that 50 of his customers reported finding a mate…

From the annals of self-help: “The Psycho-Phone.”

[TotH to Ted Gioia (@tedgioia)]

“Stuart Smalley”

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As we get better every day, we might recall that it was on this date in 1934 that Mandrake the Magician first appeared in newspapers. A comic strip, it was created by Lee Falk (before he created The Phantom)… and thus is regarded by most historians of the form to have been America’s first comic superhero.

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“Agriculture engenders good sense, and good sense of an excellent kind”*…

In an influential 1943 essay, Polish economist Michał Kalecki staged a contest between capitalism’s pursuit of profit and its pursuit of power. While the benefits of government-sponsored full employment would benefit capitalists economically, Kalecki argued, it would also fundamentally threaten their social position—and the latter mattered more. If wide sections of the country came to believe that the government could replace the private sector as a source of investment and even hiring, capitalists would have to relinquish their role as the ultimate guardians of national economic health, and along with it their immense power over workers. Kalecki thus saw how the desire to maintain political dominance could override purely economic considerations.

This analysis finds a striking illustration in historian Ariel Ron’s award-winning new book Grassroots Leviathan, which advances a major reinterpretation of the contours of U.S. political economy and the origins of the U.S. developmental state—the government institutions that have played an active role in shaping economic and technological growth. In Ron’s revisionist account, the groundwork for the rapid economic development in the second half of the nineteenth century was less industrial and elite than agricultural and popular. “Despite the abiding myth that the Civil War pitted an industrial North against an agrarian South,” he writes, “the truth is that agriculture continued to dominate the economic, social, and cultural lives of the majority of Americans well into the late nineteenth century.” This central fact—at odds with familiar portraits of a dwindling rural population in the face of sweeping urban industrialization—carried with it shifting attitudes toward the state and the economy, dramatically altering the course of U.S. politics. Far from intrinsically opposed to government, a consequential strain of agrarianism welcomed state intervention and helped developed new ideas about the common good…

How a grassroots movement of American farmers laid the foundation for state intervention in the economy, embracing government investment and challenging the slaveholding South in the run-up to the Civil War: “In the Common Interest.”

Joseph Joubert

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As we hone our history, we might recall that it was on this date in 1952 that Mylar was registered as a DuPont trademark. A very strong polyester film that has gradually replaced cellophane, Mylar is is put to many purposes, but main among them– given it’s strength, flexibility, and properties as an aroma barrier, it’s widely used in food packaging.

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Written by LW

June 10, 2021 at 1:01 am

“Custom is the great guide to human life”*…

Which graph to use for which type of data

The r/coolguides page on Reddit has lots of fun and useful stuff to browse through from guides on wilderness survival to vintage instructions about talking on the telephone. I hope I never actually need to refer to the one about “how to make seawater drinkable”, but I do think it’s a good skill to know, just in case I find myself stuck in a rubber boat with Tallulah Bankhead and William Bendix. I have similar feelings about the “Circles of Hell in Dante’s Inferno” guide, but it’s probably wise to have it on hand, just in case I need it as a map one day… 

Source (see also here for a different map of Dante’s Hell)

Guides– lots of guides. Via Boing Boing.

David Hume

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As we find our way, we might recall that it was on this date in 1523 that the Parisian Faculty of Theology fined Simon de Colines for publishing the Biblical commentary Commentarii initiatorii in quatuor Evangelia by Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples, a “guide” to the four Gospels. Lefèvre d’Étaples, a theologian and a leading figure in French humanism, whose work anticipated the Protestant Reformation, was frequently ruled heretical– though he remained within the church throughout his life.

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