Animism for the Anthropocene: A Hyperobject-Oriented Analysis

[The following is a proposal for a paper in a panel on new materialism and its significance for religion, affect, and emotion in the Anthropocene.]

Articulating multifarious ways that agency is distributed across all things—human and nonhuman—various theoretical schools are emerging that move beyond the anthropocentrism for which affective agency is solely or most fully embodied in humans.  Including (but not limited to) new materialism, speculative realism, object-oriented ontology (OOO), and actor-network theory (ANT), each of these schools affirms the vibrant dynamics and unique capacities of nonhumans.  They are particularly timely insofar as they address the challenges of the emerging geological epoch, the Anthropocene—a time when human actions, magnified by technoscientific media, are so pervasively intertwined with Earth’s systems that it is becoming increasingly superfluous to attempt to neatly separate humans from nonhumans. Among these new schools, object-oriented approaches stand out for their provocative claim that adequate theories must focus on objects—things.  That contrasts starkly with more common theoretical orientations toward relations, processes, events, networks, biopower, and material conditions.

This paper provides an object-oriented account of affect in the Anthropocene, drawing specifically on Timothy Morton’s (hyper)object-oriented ontology and his claims that the Anthropocene is the age of ecology without nature and the age of animism without animism, that is, animism “under erasure” (sous rature).  To facilitate an exploratory engagement with animistic affects in the Anthropocene, this paper presents Morton’s conception of objects, elucidating his relationship with new materialism, speculative realism, and ANT, and indicating how one can develop an intimate feeling for a hyperobject like global climate change by attending to the lameness, weakness, and hypocrisy of coexistence in the Anthropocene.

Morton’s approach to object-oriented ontology can be summarized with his concepts of the mesh and the strange stranger.  The mesh refers to any network of relational interactions between things, whereas the strange stranger is a thing in its irreducible alterity, withdrawn and completely other (like Derrida’s arrivanttout autre).  A strange stranger is a real object, and the mesh is the process-relational network wherein the object is mediated and translated, entering into or breaking away from connections with other objects.  This is substance metaphysics, a “weird Aristotelianism” for which reality is composed of substantial units, yet the classical distinctions of natural/artificial or individual/composite have broken down.

Everything is a substance: a human, a stone, a table, an army, an atom, an idea, a conference, etc., and each thing has agency.  Objects here are not the opposite of subjects.  Each thing has subjective or agential capacities for feeling itself and others, capacities for meshing around, forging or breaking bonds.  Moreover, nothing has unmediated access to itself or anything else.  OOO follows a line of thought from Kant to Heidegger and poststructuralism arguing that things have an exorbitant reality to which humans have access only indirectly through our interpretations of how they become present to us; the things themselves are withdrawn, never present.  The difference is that OOO claims that all things undergo this problem of access, not just humans.  Just like a person swimming in a lake interprets the lake (somatically if not theoretically) but never fully grasps its radical alterity, a fish and a boat also interpret the lake, and they likewise never grasp its alterity.

Although new materialists share with OOO an affirmation of the distribution of agency across human and nonhuman bodies, the former undermine the specificity of things by reducing them to underlying processes or relations, as if a thing is an epiphenomenal event, a temporary happening within a relational matrix of material flows.  Bruno Latour and other proponents of ANT affirm the specificity of things (actors), but they generally do not emphasize the radical alterity or withdrawal of things.  The world of OOO is one where things feel each other while nonetheless remaining withdrawn, mysterious, uncanny.  More accurately, the world of OOO is not a world at all.  For this pluralistic realism, there is ecology—the mesh of strange strangers feeling and translating one another—but no background or container called nature, world, or matter.

This ecology of objects exemplifies “realist magic,” wherein causal relations are aesthetic and affective processes of mediation between mysterious agents.  Along with OOO’s affinity with magic, Morton addresses the similarities that OOO has to animistic views of things as powerful agents with affective and volitional attributes.  Animism is a more appropriate term than pantheism or panentheism, since those theisms posit a single God and thus undermine the plurality of objects.  Animism is also more appropriate than polytheism, which still connotes a difference between transcendent deities and their immanent manifestations, whereas OOO situates alterity and agency immanently in things themselves.  Not incidentally, many proponents of new and speculative materialisms and of ANT (e.g., Bennett, Stengers, Latour) have also drawn explicit analogies between their theories and animism.  Moreover, this is a weird animism, not just a philosophical redux of Graham Harvey’s anthropological work (which is excellent work: this is not a point of critique, just a point of difference. See his recent piece, “An Animist Manifesto“).

Morton puts animism “under erasure” not simply because the term is complicit in a history of colonial oppression and cultural appropriation, but because things in the Anthropocene are out of control, undergoing rapid and unpredictable transformation, such that the intimacy that animists feel with things becomes an uncanny intimacy. Animism sous rature is an uncanny animism that has to navigate the agency and alterity of the weird objects that characterize coexistence in the Anthropocene, hyperobjects like climate change, plutonium, the Internet, capitalism, and Styrofoam, which are so massively distributed in time and space that they are out of the bounds not only of colonialism but of any traditional animism and, indeed, of any tradition and any habitus whatsoever.

Hyperobjects render our age hypocritical, weak, and lame: hypocritical insofar as inside and outside have imploded, leaving no meta-position from which one can criticize or evaluate a hyperobject (even the staunchest climate activist emits CO2); weak because we cannot feel hyperobjects themselves but only their small-scale or local effects (we see rain but no climate, blogs but no Internet); lame because all objects are fragile and vulnerable, extremely sensitive to the vertiginous turbulence of the Anthropocene.  Affirming the hypocrisy, weakness, and lameness of the Anthropocene entails affirming the irony of our responses to hyperobjects instead of being cynical.  Irony thus becomes a gesture of total sincerity, recognizing oneself as a strange stranger intimately enmeshed with other strange strangers far beyond comprehension and control.

8 thoughts on “Animism for the Anthropocene: A Hyperobject-Oriented Analysis

    1. Thanks for the Law link. I definitely overstated the Latour-ANT-animism connections…forcing a point to fit the cfp. My focus would be less on ANT and more on Latour’s factish gods and Gaia..

      1. be interested in yer take on the Law, I don’t think it would hurt the project to drop the ANT side angle as the
        later-Latour is the big draw these days, good luck.

    1. Excellent! Latour’s discussion of animism and inanimism dovetails nicely with Morton’s animism sous rature. The Henri Michaux piece is a lot of fun, too.

  1. Wonderful Sam. Clear, directed, insightful, rooted. Whenever “hyper” is involved I’m always thinking of Jean Baudrillard and the hyper-real – the very weird space that blurs the worlds between human and artificial, virtual and physical.
    Also, I am really fascinated how hypocritical, weak, and lame build an ethics or remind us to be hospitable not only with ourselves but with each and every other or strange stranger. Hypocritical is the space where I am bound within my own judgment; Weak reminds me of Haraway’s thinking about strong and weak objectivity – somewhere we have “objective” data but the strange stranger is greater than the sum of its parts; And one attentive to social justice can’t miss the significance behind the word, lame. More prosthesis please! The call for acceptance, sensitivity, and development of differing abilities is very much alive in the Anthropocene.

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