Phasing in & out of Subscendent Wholes

My dissertation has been handed in & now I am flooded with mild anxiety. It hadn’t really occurred to me that most people write about authors long deceased. John Wedgewood Clarke is very much alive and active; as are the sources I cite, in large part. Only Heidegger & Derek Parfit are the exceptions. This is the root of my mild anxiety. I am not displeased with what I have written, but I’ve the humility enough not to assume it is brilliant. Subjectivity manifests itself in the way it does & it is up to me to defend the credibility of the work. I am willing to do this, but it does mean the anxiety loiters.

I will be doing some posts on the key themes of the dissertation, breaking them into manageable snippets to help me delineate key insights into ecological awareness.

I realized a month & a half ago that the over-arching theme of the dissertation was actually about thinking how to be ecological through the representative method of poetry, and the ecological methods of OOO. What I wanted to show is how OOO can be utilized to not only extract meaning, but also inform meaning in a text. I put it like this in my conclusion: “My reason for pairing Landfill with the hyperobject, is owing to how the hyperobject informs our reading of Landfill; and how Landfill instantiates the hyperobject.”

I gave additional attention to what Morton calls “phasing”, as I think it Morton’s most nuanced terms. At least it took me some time to wrap my head around. Phasing urges us to think in unfamiliar spatiotemporalities. At first glance it confronts us with something too immense to think possible, but is actually something we can think about easily due to computing.

So what is it? First we need to understand a little about the structure of a hyperobject. If you are not familiar with hyperobjects, in short, they are entities so massively distributed spatiotemporally that we cannot see them in their entirety. However, this does not mean we cannot point to them as a thing in themselves. We can infer their existence from their affectivity on small scales, such as our own temporality, which at its bare basal state is made up of seconds, mintues, hours, days, weeks, months and years. Regardless of our struggle to see the entirety of a hyperobject, we are always in one and no matter where we turn, there they are, in, on & around our faces. What makes them them, is a composite of objects radically not them. So a landfill is not any one item in it, & yet it is the aggregate of these items which enables us to point at a landfill & decide it demands our attention.

Hyperobjects have this weird mereology whereby they are actually very small, ontologically. What this means is that what constitutes a hyperobject is ostensibly inconsequential as an isolated instance, but collectively, ecologically deleterious.

We discover that there is an operational similitude between small scale objects and hyperobjects. What am I saying? Well, how a small object perturbs objects, is how hyperobjects perturb hyperobjects. I have talked about the withdrawnness of objects in previous posts. Their withdrawnness is their limitless potential to create information (an event in itself) out of the encounters between objects. This inexhaustibility is shared by small and large objects. Phasing enables us to understand this, as the ontological smallness of things is the affective withdrawnness of a large entity like a hyperobject. If the affective potential of small objects wasn’t how objects are, then this could not be so for large objects.

“Prove it!” He asks himself.

Yes, ok.

Well, a hyperobject-landfill is propagated by the hyperobject-capitalism. An individual purchase multiplied exponentially, is difficult to reconcile with ecological degradation. But alas, this is very much the case. Examples abound. Think about starting your car, single use plastics, the greasy pans from your fry-up sopped-up with kitchen roll & binned. In themselves practically inert. Do them 70 million times though and you have an ecologically untenable system of consumption: a hyperobject called Mass Consumption. The word sump is right there in the middle too, warning us.

So hyperobjects have this weird relationship between part & whole. There are more parts than wholes, the parts just are more than the whole. For this reason Morton explains that wholes are subscendent.

A hyperobject is what Morton calls a “subscendent whole”, they are “fuzzy and ragged” and furthermore, “involve an uncountable number of parts. The effect of this is to cause the whole to be weirdly shrunken.” (Humankind, 110). Morton clarifies: “To show that the whole is less than the sum of its parts, all you need to do is accept that a group of things can be a thing, which is a simple way of saying that if a thing exists, it exists in the same way as another thing.”   Oxymoronically, in an age of ecological awareness we discover that large objects like hyperobjects, are “ontologically small” (105).

I think we can move onto phasing now.

“Hyperobjects” Morton tells us, “seem to phase in and out of the human world. Hyperobjects are phased: they occupy a high-dimensional phase space that makes them impossible to see as a whole on a regular three-dimensional human-scale basis.” (Hyperobjects: 70).

For this reason I will refer to the “world” as our non-ecological, correlationist sense of world. As opposed to the ecological world, which I refer to as worlds. This distinction is important if phasing is to be useful for us ecological thinkers.

I analyze a poem from Landfill called ‘Once it’s in the Skip They Think it Disappears’ (Landfill: 24), which is one of a series called ‘Resource Recovery Center’ (Landfill: 17-26). Ironically, this series illustrates the ecological tension between our attempts at resource recovery, and the stress this causes to nonhumans, such as ragworms, which I have talked about elsewhere. Looking into the skip at the resource recovery center provides an example of what small scale objects are involved in the aggregation toward a larger scale object, or a hyperobject. The dimensionality (or spatiotemporal scale) of the hyperobject exists in a high-dimensional phase space, whereas individual objects exist in a low-dimensional phase space. This is true of processes, as Morton highlights: “A process is simply an object seen from a standpoint that is 1 + n dimensions lower than the object’s dimensionality.” The 1 + n “is just a small, normalized region of a much larger space of mal-functioning” which Morton hyphenates “to suggest that this space concerns a kind of dark or weird functioning, in which every movement, even “correct” functioning, becomes visible as a distortion or “mistake.” Such is the disturbing quality of the ecological vision, not some holistic oneness.” (72-73). This is how a context explosion works. Throwing a single item of rubbish away, because we have to, when multiplied exponentially, becomes a hyperobject.

This “mal-functioning” is what happens to how we think about our ostensibly inconsequential actions. We no longer think of them as isolated instances, with consequence, but rather as a collective problem. This is how phasing becomes habit changing.

Phasing then is the top-down, or bottom-up movement through the various spatial scales of the hyperobject. How so?

Thinking ecologically requires us to include the world scales of the objects (nonhumans) in an ecology. Why ignore the input of something like a diatom, which is an important contributory factor to food chains, and photosynthesis. Without them the “world” would suffer irreversible damage. So why does our assumed “world” largely ignore the microscopic? Because of its withdrawn agency. Until the concealed processes manifest into affectivity (as we’ve seen with Covid-19) they remain unnoticed. However, just because we don’t notice them, doesn’t mean nothing is going on behind our backs.

What phasing does is provide us with a means to zoom in and out, essentially. Think of a toggle function, like on Google Maps. Now apply this same toggle function to ecology. Phasing is this application. It enables us to toggle from the micro(-quantum)cosmos out to the macrocosmos. It enables us most importantly, to construct “context explosions”.

To produce a context explosion, is to follow the potentialities of an object. It is ecologically speculative, trying to pin-point the potential impact-trajectories of objects in an ecology. So that we can trace the affectivity of endocrine disruptors in plastics to the health of marine ecosystems. (Landfill: 17-26). It enables us to think of processes as (hyper-)objects. This is important if we are to be ecological beings. Phasing helps us habituate our thought to the spatiotemporal scales ecology demands.

It can be a daunting experience creating context explosions, as the reach of affect when we think ecologically, confronts us with unfamiliar territories and disastrous outcomes, beyond our control. However, it is an essential part of being ecological, precisely because it brings us into coexistence with objects. The context explosion, and our phasing through it, is an effort to make ecological awareness an inveterate act, something to be utilized in our everyday encounters with the worlds embedded in the “world”.

Moreover, if inconsequential actions can multiply into consequences negatively, then surely it stands to reason that the individual act of thinking more ecologically, if multiplied, could impact in an operationally similar way, but with positive consequences. Why not? Why one but not the other?

In the comments, it would be interesting to think about context explosions in more depth, and what it might be like to phase through them. Moreover, how often do you think about something like a context explosion? Do we think like this in our day to day encounter with worlds anyway? Or is the context explosion a radically new way of thinking? Of course I don’t want to take the reins of the conversation, so anything else you would like to raise I am all ears.

WORKS CITED

Clarke, John Wedgewood. Landfill. Valley Press, 2017.

Morton, Timothy. Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People. Verso, 2017.

Morton, Timothy. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Minneapolis UP, 2013.

7 Comments

  1. First of all, congratulations! Whether the dissertation is good or bad, 99% of the battle is getting it written and moved through the various refining stages i.e. “done”. Even at the M.A. level there is a certain amount of attrition, so congrats for being one of the proud few remaining.

    Second of all, you asked, “why does our assumed “world” largely ignore the microscopic? Because of its withdrawn agency. Until the concealed processes manifest into affectivity (as we’ve seen with Covid-19) they remain unnoticed”. Don’t you think it is a linguistic issue rather than one of agency? We can’t refer to everything all at once without the failure communication, so we must use words like “ocean”, rather than a long paragraph explaining the various oceanic properties and processes summed up by the word. Toggling between contexts still moves us through various levels of semantics: the ocean, the North Atlantic, the coast of England, the waters around Guernsey, the various fish of the English Channel, the stickleback, a fish mentioned in the Genesis song “The Carpet Crawlers”, etc. We don’t deal with song lyrics when the word ‘ocean’ is the most utilitarian.

    Also, you haven’t provided proof that “our” assumed world ignores the microscopic, so you are assuming we assume a world, as one might pray to prayer itself? I could be wrong, but I see it as linguistic or semantic when we “ignore” something to clarify another thing.

    Either way, I am very happy to see you arriving at this stage of the game and prepping for your defense, or whatever comes next. Good Luck!!

    1. Thanks Daniel.
      Thank Daniel
      It is very much linguistic, as well as aesthetic. After all, according to Morton, the “abyss in front of things” is aesthetic, because we can phase through a whole, because it is subscendent, then what we see BEFORE us is an aestheticization of something: we aren’t Daniel cells all the way through, nor is a landfill only coca cola bottles.
      But we can’t attribute our semantics to a stentor or tardigrade. They are their own thing, with their own semantic rules, which are integral to the regulation of a whole ecology (which is only ever an almost incalculable aggregation of things that may never know of each others existences but in some, seven-degrees-of-separation way, do end up relying on each other.)
      What I am interested in is attributing the status of world to all scales of ecosystem. I want people to start to encounter the microcosmic when they are borborygmic, see lichen growing on a wall, or drag a stick through algae. Why? Because I think a reorientation as to what is potentially fundamental, is in some way beneficial to our being more ecological.
      Everything I am thinking about these days is geared toward ways of getting people to think more ecologically. This isn’t only about forging a better relationship with microbes. If you can appreciate microbes, you will never other people again. At least my reading informs me this is a potential outcome.
      A great way to experience “phasing” is in gaming. I am no gamer, but some of my housemates are. There is an indie game you can get very cheap on Steam, called Everything. My housemate showed it me yesterday, as he knows I’d lose my shit…I did. You can literally phase through the various scales of reality. At one point I was DNA moving about, Within ten minutes, I was a camel, a tortoise, a bee, a worm, a tree, grass, pollen, bacteria, DNA, an atom. Things got weird then after we “descended” into the quantum realm, a realm of energies, which became DMTized haha…
      The creator of the game had made aesthetic the purely abstract, because they recognize that these complex spatiotemporal scales are worlds in their own right. Worlds we can access in some way whether with abstract mathematics, theory, microscopes, poems, art, film, game. But ultimately they are utterly withdrawn from us: we cannot experience them on their own terms.
      We have deemed (etymologically familiar with doomed) discrepancies everywhere, and I am interested in using theory and aesthetics (music, art, poetry, literature, even gaming) to get us to think less about discrepancy and more about phasing through our reality to recognize their substantial input in life. I can’t ignore the nonhuman and non-sentient life forms, each with their own complex agencies. So while semantics is part of this, it is as much a means to an end, as it is a world in its own right: we cannot undo words; for this reason, language might be seen as a world itself. If we lost the letter ‘a’, we’d only go in search of it again. This is what a monk (Daesa-nim) told me happened when King Sejong realized there was an ancient Korean alphabet, he went searching for it, just like the Maori are trying to complete their alphabet,.

      I think I may have gone wildly off tangent haha.

      1. Very often tangents lead to new paths of research. Einstein’s dream(s) of light led to E=mc2. Good thoughts lead to great thoughts in the right mind. You have some pretty damn good thoughts. But I must protest. You said, “if you can appreciate microbes, you will never other people again. At least my reading informs me this is a potential outcome…”. You can’t make such a declarative statement, then convert it into a ‘possibly? maybe?”! “never” is a strong word, and evolutionary BIOLOGIST Richard Dawkins other-s the heck out of religious people with some passion. It is a valid criticism of the New Atheist figureheads (Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, et al) that the religious are delusional, even the “nice” ones (at least benignly delusional). Even eco-hippies ‘other’ corporate types, gender diversity others cis-men, even Robin DiAngelo others herself (!) in White Fragility. Trust me… as a trained anthropologist and older white straight male I have seen a lot of othering in my decades of work. … microbophilia is no guarantee of better human nature, LOL!

      2. We are academics. WE are supposed to be challenging and trialing things, especially ourselves. Good old falsifiability… I can safely assume that everything you wrote was written by Daniel Paul Marshall, BUT am prepared to be proven wrong if parts of your blog were written by Peter Gabriel!

a penny for your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.