Charlie’s critique of Morton: phenomenology and the ephemeral self

Hey folks, what follows is an explanation of one aspect of Morton’s argumentative style that I took issue with. Given the space constraints (two pages is a tough goal), I focused on my critique and not on how I think Morton’s work can be very useful. There’s some good stuff in his writing and hyperobjects brings up good questions that I’m excited to talk through in class. I just offer that caveat because I fear this response will read as being dismissive of him.



In Timoty Morton’s book, Hyperobjects: philosophy and ecology after the end of the world, and in his essay, Queer Ecology, he argues for an understanding of nature, ecology, and the place of ‘the human’ in the world that Morton claims is a significant departure from previous theorizing. In Hyperobjects, Morton writes that his work necessitates a style of thinking “in which the normal certainties are inverted, or even dissolved. No longer are my intimate impressions “personal”…they are footprints of hyperobjects” (p. 5). Through this statement, he argues that the human subject is not a disembodied consciousness standing apart from the world but is created through its relationships and that hyperobjects leave their imprint on the human subject. He also challenges what he understands correlationalism to be: “the refrigerator itself, let alone the light inside it, only exists when I am there to open the door” (p. 13). He argues that hyperobjects exist whether or not we perceive them and that they exceed the human capacity to perceive them as phenomena. We are no longer “embedded” in a world, rather we are encompassed by these hyperobjects that surpass any human world.

Morton establishes the novelty of his claims through these sweeping criticisms of phenomenology. While one sympathetic review ( claims that Morton is “sampling” from philosophy, not “doing philosophy,” I want to push back against his sampling. Morton mischaracterizes phenomenology, apparently to exaggerate the novelty of his own claims. I turn to Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology to respond to some of Morton’s statements. Merleau-Ponty followed Heiddeger’s project of trying to understand Being, the human experience of life. He is best known for drawing attention to the body, but his work also clearly articulated how the human self is a transient phenomenon that is continuously made and remade.

Morton’s critiques of phenomenology wrongly assume that the “I,” the subject for phenomenology, is a contained “for-itself.” In continental philosophy, the “for-itself” refers to a pure constituting consciousness such as the one Descartes is caricatured as producing. The for-itself is a disembodied consciousness, a mind, that exists apart from the world and can behold objects. The “in-itself” then refers to the object itself, a discrete entity bounded by space and time. This contrast assumes that the subject and the object are two discrete things that do not overlap, and this appears to be how Morton is characterizing the subject for phenomenology.

However, if we turn to Merleau-Ponty, we see that he argues that the subject and object alike arise out of perceptual experience. For example, he writes, “If there is for me a cube with six equal faces and if I can indeed meet up with the object, this is not because I constitute it from within, but rather because through perceptual experience I plunge into the thickness of the world” (PhP p. 211). The cube becomes a cube for him in the act of perception, in meeting up with it in the world. Phenomenology actually makes no claim about the object ‘in-itself,’ phenomenology is instead concerned with how it becomes an object for a subject, how it comes to mean something in their world. Further, the “I” also comes to be in this encounter. Again, from Merleau-Ponty:

“Myself as the one contemplating the blue of the sky is not an acosmic subject standing before it, I do not possess it in thought, I do not lay out in front of it an idea of blue that would give me its secret. Rather, I abandon myself to it, I plunge into this mystery, and it “thinks itself in me.” I am this sky that gather together, composes itself, and begins to exist for itself, my consciousness is saturated by this unlimited blue” (PhP p. 222).

He then ends the paragraph by saying that “I” am “a hollow, or a fold that was made and than can be unmade” (p. 223).

Let’s make sense of these two dense quotations. First, Merleau-Ponty claims that both subject and object are abstractions, the product of perceptual experience. One comes to have a sense of self and other through the experience of being-in-the-world, through living life. Whereas correlationism as Morton would have it presupposes constituted subjects perceiving objects through the data of sensory experience, Merleau-Ponty’s claim is that this is not the character of life itself, but they are instead products of our efforts to make sense of the world, to derive meaning from our perceptual experience.

As I walk across campus, there are many things of which I am not aware of, that do not really exist for me. I can imagine that the grass on Bascom is made up of many different plant and animal species, but the lawn generally exists for me only as a lawn, as a sitting place or as a lying in the sun place. However, as I cross Charter Street on my way to class, I am acutely aware of the pedestrians, cyclists, cars, and buses that make their way through the intersection in a seemingly chaotic manner. Cars for me become fast cars, careless cars, considerate cars that stop for me. They have meaning for me because, in order for me to make my way across the intersection, I have to navigate their various trajectories and anticipate their actions. Many more objects come to exist meaningfully for me in that intersection than in the ecosystem that is Bascom hill.

This is a metaphysical claim, not an empirical claim. It does not say anything about the objects “in-themselves.” It makes no claim about what species of turf grass live on Bascom nor does it make an empirical claim about who or what is on Charter St at a given moment. Rather, it is a claim about how they come to have significance for me, how I come to see them, take note of them, and how they contribute to producing a sense of who I am in the world. This is not a representational claim, as Morton would have it, but it is a world making claim. It addresses the questions, how do I experience life, what do I see as significant, how does this impact how I experience myself and others, and what kind of judgements do I make? Throughout this entire process, “I” am unfolding, “I” am produced by the process. The “I” is never static, it is a verb. While Merleau-Ponty articulates this more clearly than Heidegger, and he draws more attention to the embodiment at work in the process, it is very much in the Heideggerean tradition that Morton claims to be criticizing.

The correlationalism charges that Morton levels therefore miss their mark. The phenomenological tradition does not draw on an understanding of our experience of the world as a correlation mediated by sense data. We don’t take pictures of the world and then represent them in our head to understand the world. In its most simple sense, Morton’s picture perhaps aligns with Kant’s understanding of how a consciousness represents its world, but to then level that same critique at the phenomenological tradition through Heiddeger is mistaken.

The idea of hyperobjects may indeed be valuable. Morton takes on the important question of how to understand and experience a process that happens on many scales. How can something be local and global at the same time? A process like global warming poses significant challenges for an approach that is prejudiced by that scalar hierarchy. Hyperobjects also raise the important question of how to confront a process that is both human created and far beyond control? The anthropocene is very much about the anthropos but we may be limited in our capacity to do much about it. However, by “sampling” philosophy in a way that mischaracterizes previous efforts, Morton undercuts his own and overplays the novelty of what object oriented ontologies can offer.

3 thoughts on “Charlie’s critique of Morton: phenomenology and the ephemeral self

  1. Your points are well taken. Morton makes big claims sweeping away precedent though as inadequate for the present state of the world, not only in what concerns phenomenology, but also, as Deneille noticed, feminism and, I would add, environmentalism and ecocriticism. While I have never been very fond of Heidegger’s _Being and Time_ which is the only book I read fully (my partner is quite fond of him), I fully appreciated Merleau-Ponty’s _Visible and Invisible_ as a visionary explanation of the subject’s way of relating to the objects of the exterior world. I especially remember the metaphor of a glove turned inside out as a figure that explains our bodies’ senses (and more than senses) wrapping around the outside reality. This glove inside out is what problematizes the division between inside and outside. In my reading of Morton, hyperobject is more of an ‘a priori’ knowledge, in the Kantian sense of it, that gives form to all possible experience, especially aesthetic experience which is what interests me the most in this part of his theory.

    All my friends from Nelson Institute are very critical of Morton, I, however, find a lot of his writings inspiring for the interpretation of the contemporary art. As the only one of the critics that we read in class, he comes from the field of literary criticism; he is a professor of English originally specializing in Romanticism. I tend to forgive him all that I may not agree with in exchange for some inspiring ideas that allow me to discover something new in the texts and films that I try to understand. In the tradition of literary criticism, some writing is produced as if it were literary itself. I do not write like that myself, but I am used to reading criticism as if it were poetic prose of a sort. In this category Morton is “a good read.” Wasn’t Ortega y Gasset’s success based on this kind of “style”? If I had to choose between the two, I would choose Morton.

  2. Kata,

    Thanks for your comments. These are really helpful and insightful. I’m working through Visible and invisible now, and you’re right that the metaphor of the hand is really powerful.

    Your comments about Morton’s style are well taken. I do appreciate how he is devling into the philosophical canon and mining it for ideas as well as pointing out what doesn’t work anymore. One of the pieces that I’m trying to learn how to balance / achieve is how to translate between fields and what knowledge standards should apply. Is it important that Morton stick to the technics of previous philosophers? Is it OK for him to reimagine their work in ways that they and their followers would likely not agree with? He does create an aesthetic, a feeling of sweeping through continental philosophy looking for something new, something that works to position us within the anthropocene.

    Apparently Morton and Bjork have been doing work together and some of their correspondence is on display at the museum of modern art in NYC.Very cool to academics trying new forums.

    • The article on Bjork and Morton fits perfectly _Nocilla experience_ mood where Bjork appears several times. Thank you!

      The questions that you ask are crucial especially if trans-disciplinarity is to be taken seriously. All intellectual styles have their advantages and
      disadvantages. The history of science or environmental history writing, rich in details and perfectly documented, oftentimes is so politically neutral that “so what?” seems not to be addressed. I participated in a few faculty seminars where philosophers totally refused to discuss Cary Wolfe or Giorgio Agamben, yesterday during a talk about why are numbers convincing, scientists got offended that someone might at all question them. There is an old article about intellectuals styles by Galthung that distributes them also geographically: French, German, British and Japonese… At this point of my career (and family life) I am very aware of and tolerant towards personal differences and try to focus on what each scholarship has to offer rather than on what it lacks, except when writing supports harmful status quo, aggression and indifference. But what you focus on is also a question of intellectual style and it is important to look for precision and discipline of thought as well.

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