Friday, October 2, 2015

Rhizo15 as Hyperobject

One of the great things about blogging within a community of scholars is that you can't run out of ideas. My community keeps giving me new things to write—not always in the direction that I intend to go, but always in good, productive directions.

For example, my last post was in response to a comment and post from Maha Bali. This current post is in response to a comment from Frances Bell, a question from her son, and a tweet from Sandra Sinfield. I'm surrounded by active minds, and if I just stay awake, then I can never run out of things to say. My ecosystem is infinitely rich. Can a pedagogue be in any better position?

In this post, I start exploring this ecosystem in terms of object-oriented ontology, using Timothy Morton's concept of the hyperobject, and I will try to draw out the practical implications, as Sandra Sinfield's tweet challenges me to do. Let's start with Frances' comment on my last post:
My son had asked me at breakfast "What is Google to you?" - a good question. So if I think of your post as an object related to Google and to we humans who are reading and commenting then I can see that we objects cannot fully know each other. But the epistemology that Google, a complex assemblage of people and non-humans, reveals in its cookie statement, suggests a bumpy ontology. Google is interested in the very much reduced version of us that can help it sell ads. It simultaneously ignores and remembers. So Google will still 'know' and remember the comments from your old blog that are now forgotten here. It will use that data for currently known and future unknown commercial purposes and all because I was tempted to click "Got it".
What is Google to you? What a challenging question and what a brilliant response, and how fortunate for me as I want to discuss object oriented ontology anyway. The question and answer are rich enough to take in several directions, but for my purposes here, Frances describes beautifully the nature of hyperobjects, a term Timothy Morton uses in his 2013 book of the same name to refer to "things that are massively distributed in time and space relative to humans" (Kindle Locations 106-107). Morton mostly talks about global warming as a hyperobject (he's big into the ecology movement), but Google is also a hyperobject, as is Rhizo14/15, and my ENGL1101 class, my garden, and myself.

If Morton is correct, all objects—including me—are hyperobjects given that all objects are "massively distributed in time and space relative" to some other object. In middle Georgia, USA, I am a hyperobject relative to gnats, those tiny, flying annoyances that live a short time during the summer, mostly by buzzing around my face, attracted by the moisture at my eyes, nose, and mouth. Yes, for gnats I am a giant, lumbering, undulating landscape with pools of water and some natural and inexplicable risks of landslides and earthquakes as I turn away and swat at them. For gnats, I stretch from horizon to horizon and far beyond their pasts and their futures. I phase in and out of their floating, buzzing reality a few feet above my patio. I am a known source of water and risk, but the rest of me is very mysterious, withdrawn from them, unknowable. But not unimportant or irrelevant to them, especially if I swat one of the pesky things. I am to gnats as Google is to me. Or Rhizo14/15 is to me.

Is this mere fictional hyperbole? Morton and OOO say not; rather, this is how objects fundamentally interact with one another, and we humans can learn much about the interactions of objects by examining hyperobjects, which are massively distributed in space and/or time relative to us and which make obvious to us certain characteristics that are common to all interactions at all scales of reality.

This is a big claim, and I am not yet completely convinced, though I'm not even sure what my objections are. Maybe it's just too new for me. Still, I'm finding it instructive to follow mainly because I have been involved over the past two years with a swarm of people trying to understand and to explain what happened in Rhizo14/15—a cluster of people that includes Maha, Frances, and Sandra, among many others. I use the word cluster to capture as neutrally as possible a group of people and interactions that may not be a community to all involved and is certainly not consistently coordinated or cooperative, and yet that for me has a recognizable identity, something of a coherence of interactions. This may just be me tracing constellations in the night sky. Or it could be me struggling with a hyperobject. Either way, I think following the OOO argument could be enlightening.

So I hope to write a series of posts that explore Rhizo14/15 in terms of the various characteristics of hyperobjects that Morton lists in his book (Kindle Locations 112-118), perhaps a post for each characteristic:
  1. viscosity: Hyperobjects “'stick' to beings that are involved with them."
  2. nonlocality: "[A]ny 'local manifestation' of a hyperobject is not directly the hyperobject."
  3. temporal undulation: Hyperobjects "involve profoundly different temporalities than the human-scale ones we are used to. In particular, some very large hyperobjects, such as planets, have genuinely Gaussian temporality: they generate spacetime vortices, due to general relativity."
  4. phasing: "Hyperobjects occupy a high-dimensional phase space that results in their being invisible to humans for stretches of time."
  5. interobjectivity: Hyperobjects "exhibit their effects interobjectively; that is, they can be detected in a space that consists of interrelationships between aesthetic properties of objects."
I hope I can gain some clarity into Rhizo14/15, the hyperobject that I've been living with and thinking and writing about for the past two years. Mostly, I want practical insights that address Sandra's challenge in her tweet: "how can we utilize in our praxis?" I hope to find out.

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