In Conversation + Mixtape: Timothy Morton on fusing pop music with philosophy
Timothy Morton is an object-oriented ontologist, which is to say he doesn’t think human objects, like you, are any more important than nonhuman objects, like a cabbage. He’s making a big stir in the art world at the moment, partly because his philosophy allows for the possibility that artworks are very, very powerful indeed. His lecture this spring at SCI-Arc, the Southern California Institute of Architecture in Downtown Los Angeles, had a kind of nightclub feel to it: there was a lot of noise online beforehand; the hall was fizzing with excitement; the crowd was young and weirdly sexy for a philosophy lecture.
During the talk Tim played a seven-minute remix (the “Subtle Abuse” remix) of Björk’s “Hyperballad” as part of an explanation of his concept of hyperobjects (objects so spread out across time and space that we cannot perceive them as a whole but can only perceive some of their effects, the classic examples of hyperobjects being global warming and Styrofoam), which was inspired by the original song. Taking forward this linkage between pop music and philosophy, Tim has made a playlist on the theme of new mythologies as an extension of the conversation that took place between us last month.
So, this was the sexiest crowd I’ve ever seen at a philosophy lecture. A young woman sat in the row in front of me ate an entire cucumber, without cutting or slicing, over the course of the evening. This felt appropriate because Tim’s conception of “Dark Ecology” (as explained in his latest book of the same title) involves not only tearing down the boundary between the human and natural worlds, the idea that there is any difference between us and everything else, but also finding a way to make ecology sexy and blissed out and pleasurable. It proposes a way of coping with an environmental catastrophe in which we’re all implicated and have been, he says, since the beginnings of agriculture in Mesopotamia over 12,000 years ago. Dismantling agricultural logistics and all its associated ways of thinking and returning to a pre-Mesopotamian way of life is, he suggests, the one thing that would end global warming. Dark Ecology is essentially a descent into joy in the hope of saving the world. The philosophy of Timothy Morton is a magical, sensualist sort of philosophy, one informed by romantic literature and pop music as much as Martin Heidegger. It asks us to make many leaps of faith and in return it promises us a bright and joyful future.
After our conversation he will fly to Arctic Russia, and then later to its border zone with Northern Norway for the Norwegian launch of Dark Ecology, during the White Night when the sun never sets (“there’s this uncanny cloudy, silvery quality to the sky,” he says) and this feels appropriate also because Dark Ecology is about the glowing, ecstatic light at the end of the tunnel. It’s a rare optimistic philosophy in an age of prevailing doom. To begin with, Tim explains how its approach diverges from that of conventional ecology.
The philosophy of Timothy Morton is a magical, sensualist sort of philosophy, one informed by romantic literature and pop music as much as Martin Heidegger. It asks us to make many leaps of faith and in return it promises us a bright and joyful future.
Timothy Morton: How do human beings – in particular human beings living in Western modernity, whatever that is – adjust in an age of ecological awareness? Because what we’ve done is started the sixth mass extinction event, which is basically what the Anthropocene really is. Dark Ecology is an exploration of ecological awareness through the years. We like to think ecological awareness is this utopian, happy-happy thing and it sort of is, but how do you get there from here? How do you get there from knowing what we know? You can’t wish yourself into a nice place about it but on the other hand you can’t do what other people are suggesting, which is collapse and just become very stoical, emotionally abstinent people. That’s not going to work very well either: not for humans but also not for polar bears. There you are nursing your wound.
Instead you have to explore the wound, explore the necessary feeling of shock and get past it somehow, but you can only really get past it by exploring it, from what I know about working with grief. We’re talking about a very deep-seated grief because we’re talking about a 12,500-year project which started in the Neolithic Period, the agricultural age when all around Earth, especially in Mesopotamia, human beings started settling down in cities and towns and farming. This age was marked by the severing of our ties to non-human beings, but those ties are biologically necessary ties. I wouldn’t be Tim unless there was a whole bunch of stuff in me that wasn’t Tim. Bacteria doesn’t have Tim DNA. In order for Tim to be Tim there has to be all this non-Tim stuff, let alone the rest of the biosphere.
Ecological awareness comes first of all as a massive shock and as feelings of guilt and shame. How do you get through that or past that? You have to go down inside the darkness. As you go down further you realise ecological awareness isn’t always bad. It has a necessary weirdness to it, a strange quality to it, a kind of twistedness. You can enter a kind of ecological awareness that has to do with an intimacy with non-human beings in a way that is actually very joyful, but you get to this joy through the negativity and the weirdness.
Dean Kissick: Tim once tweeted: “You think ecologically tuned life means being all efficient and pure. Wrong. It means you can have a disco in every room of your house.” He believes that this joy, this delight in reality, is the way to cope with the terrors of the Anthropocene. But he also believes that this joy is what will save us. It’s a radically unusual viewpoint.
TM: I have this conversation with various people who either want to be horrified to the point of paralysis or want to be sad to the point of paralysis. Even if it’s true that Earth’s going to be destroyed, or we’re going to go extinct, I’m still going to be partying like it’s 1999. Ecological society isn’t about greater efficiency, it’s about greater and more kinds of pleasure and, actually, if it’s going to be about more efficiency rather than more pleasure I would like to be beamed back to the Starship Enterprise. If ecological society means an even worse version of the neoliberal controlled society wrong that we have now, I would ever so much like to exit Earth, please. That’s not my idea of fun. I think ecological society means non-violently existing with as many non-human beings as possible and with each other. That definitely means tuning pleasure so more kinds of pleasure-loads are possible, so you can do more relating to more kinds of beings. If you’re not harming any life forms then you can have more pleasure. If you were going to characterise me as a Marxist or Anarchist or something like that, you’d have to say I’m the kind of person who thinks not that capitalist society is wrong because it’s too much pleasure but because it’s too little.
Even if it’s true that Earth’s going to be destroyed, or we’re going to go extinct, I’m still going to be partying like it’s 1999.
The trouble is that ecological speech can so easily become a kind of puritanical guilt trip all about rubbernecking evil and in the end secretly enjoying it. That’s the whole trouble with Puritanism: it’s an upside-down way of enjoying yourself. Guilt is the price you pay for having a good time. Rather than enjoying myself in an upside-down way I’d rather just enjoy myself. In our haste to denounce the admittedly totally violent and toxic world that we’ve created we end up throwing this kind of pleasure baby out with the bathwater. Pleasure isn’t something to be constantly policed but more like something that needs to be explored and shaped. It’s that occult idea of ‘do what you will but harm none.’ All agricultural religions – Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam – have a kind of VIP lounge and if you qualify, if you’ve gone through enough steps, if you’ve been beaten down enough by the religious practices that you’re not going to be too much of a threat, they let you into the VIP lounge where they say that all this stuff about a guy in the sky wanting to kill you isn’t really true and you’ve got this thing inside you, whatever it is, and your job is to notice that.
In the end, above and beyond the esoteric VIP lounge aspects these religions are talking about is really something much more like – this is going to sound incredibly corny – but something like the Force [the metaphysical power from the Star Wars galaxy]. It’s the one thing you can’t really say as a scholar. You can talk about mindfulness now but you can’t really talk about Prana [the life force according to Hindu philosophy] yet without being seen to have exited academic space in the West. You definitely can’t talk about the Force. The Force is basically non-local causal energy. It is a profoundly non-theistic picture of the world [which is to say, a picture of a world that was not created by a god]. You’re basically talking about a Force that has greater and lesser amplitude. The dark side of the Force is really just a higher amplitude force that human beings have trouble handling without becoming a bit wrong.
So we’re talking about using energy, that’s what I really mean by pleasure: ‘pleasure’ is a (not necessarily great) term for something like ‘working with flows of energy’. Western society is just beginning to notice that this is something important, right. The last 200 years of philosophy including psychoanalysis have been about trying to police the intuition that this is what is being contained in agricultural age religion. Most forms of social justice at the moment, like Marxism and Anarchism, don’t have much time for wacky, supernatural, paranormal things like this but I feel this is exactly the sort of thing they need to start incorporating into their logic if we are in fact going to be transitioning from a non-ecological mode to an ecological one. I’m writing a book right now for Verso about how to expand Marxism to include non-human beings – a lot of people are going to find it unacceptable.
It’s the one thing you can’t really say as a scholar. You can talk about mindfulness now but you can’t really talk about Prana yet without being seen to have exited academic space in the West. You definitely can’t talk about the Force.
DK: Where do spirituality and philosophy and art collide? Earlier this year when Prince passed away, Tim wrote a melancholic blog post about how great Prince was as a performer and a musician. “We're talking about Gnosticism,” he said. “We're talking about Tantrism. We're talking about fusion of spirituality with sexuality, a magical combination that can truly eject you from the cycle of suffering, and something sadly lacking in the metallic plastic sex pop of now.” Prince was important to him, not least because he was bringing so much pleasure into the world.
TM: I don’t know if I’d like to say to people at a dinner party, ‘I’m a very spiritual person.” I’d be more interested in talking about pop music. Which is why I’m happy you brought up Prince because from quite an early age Prince modelled for me how to integrate ‘spirituality’ into very natural, tangible, experiential domains. Lovesexy is almost like a Bible for me, it’s got this sacred quality to it. I feel a lot of the artists that I really love go there. Björk for example totally goes there. She’s got this amazing fusion. She talks about it in terms of technology and science and what she’d like to call nature – which I take to be pagan Icelandic indigenousness which has to do with elves and fairies, these spirit beings. It has something magical about it, this fusion of magic and science, of things that are thought of as paranormal or psychic with things that are thought of as algorithmic and made of plastic. It’s not just charming, it’s incredibly good. She’s providing a way to live something that is very, very ecological.
DK: Pop music and dance music and ecstatic dancing and clubs have long been a powerful and formative influence on Tim’s life. After the massacre at Pulse nightclub in Orlando he tweeted how he was “horrified by what happened in Florida in my most important kind of space. In the 80s it was called House because... Jesus Christ.” He has brought some of the most moving songs from his own life directly into his philosophy, and not just “Hyperballad”: his paradigm-shifting introduction to Realist Magic: Objects, Ontology, Causality incorporates a structural analysis of P.M. Dawn’s “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss” alongside a deeply personal story about how his youngest brother would listen to it over and over again whilst descending into schizophrenia. From the outside it seems that he has somehow turned listening to pop music from a sensuous experience into a philosophical pursuit, but then…
I don’t know if I’d like to say to people at a dinner party, ‘I’m a very spiritual person.” I’d be more interested in talking about pop music.
TM: Philosophical pursuit versus sensuality – that’s not how I’m wired. Not with art that profoundly affects me, and it does profoundly affect me, especially music. My whole family are musicians, my dad played for The Beatles, he was the go-to violinist for the psychedelic and prog bands of the late Sixties and Seventies: Soft Machine, a huge great big jazz band called Centipede, he played with the Sex Pistols, Mike Oldfield, there’s an unreleased version of “Riders On The Storm” by The Doors with him doing a violin solo on it, he did the violin solo on “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic” by King Crimson. So when I hear a musical note, like most people in my family, I am teleported immediately to the outer moons of Saturn very, very fast. I find it transportational and opening, soul opening, to the point where it’s actually incredibly difficult to function. When I write music, which I do, I’ll start working at 5pm and then all of a sudden I’ll look at my watch and it’s 5am and I’ll feel like all I’ve done is pressed a few buttons in Logic. For me music is a very powerful, almost dangerous, Force-like phenomenon that rips me open completely and takes me to a very transpersonal space. Immense pleasure to the point of bliss, pain, ecstasy. Almost anything could do that to me. I have to be very careful to what extent I subject myself to it.
If I was going to be super honest one of the things on my playlist would be – and it’s very corny – Rachmaninoff’s Paganini variations because the midsection of that where Rachmaninoff inverts the tune has a devastatingly powerful effect on me of basically opening up this joy space that’s way, way threatening to your ego. Maybe that’s one thing we should say about pleasure: ultimately bliss is interesting because it’s threatening to your ego, it’s much more threatening to your ego than discomfort or mind-blowing concepts. I can’t help hearing things. I’m a sort of moth going towards a flame, I’m a Dionysian kind of guy when it comes to the music. I like allowing myself to be melted. It’s going to be a funny old list. If it’s going to be about new mythologies then it’s got to be about transcending what we’ve got right now and creating a world where contemporary technological society isn’t just in the service of destroying Earth and psychic space. It’s a challenge actually. It’s like asking somebody to splatter their inner core onto a piece of paper that other people are going to see.
Dean Kissick is a writer based in LA. He has contributed to Spike Art Quarterly, Art Forum and i-D magazine.