Talking of Objects, Speaking with Fluids: Lava Lamps, Icebergs, Swimming Pools, Hyperobjects

Marcel Finke

On my book stand: a paperback with an aesthetically appealing front cover. The image shows an arctic seascape; it looks pretty cool, and a bit gloomy. Beneath the dull sky a huge mass of ice is floating in the water. Scattered sunbeams break through the dark clouds, dramatically illuminating the tip of the iceberg. Above the ocean’s surface, the frozen flotsam has a bluish gleam sprinkled with bright highlights. Below the waterline, the drifting body of ice is much more extensive and murky, pointing into an obscure and undifferentiated deep.

The cover design would surely have been appropriate for Hans Blumenberg’s posthumous publication Quellen, Ströme, Eisberge (2012). The book contains three essays on metaphors of the fluid, which were written between 1980 and 1981. As part of an intellectual endeavour that Blumenberg called metaphorology, the texts explore the rhetorical tropes of source, stream, and iceberg in order to show how verbal imagery provides effective figures of thought, rather than being mere literary decoration. He points out that metaphors indicate and belong to an “orientation system” that directs our thinking, although it stays in the background. According to Blumenberg, the achievement of metaphorology is to question the “alleged evidence of the metaphor”, and to lay bare the “latency of the background”, i.e. drawing attention to what usually remains unnoticed. By the way, the front cover of his book on tropes of fluidity is dry and plain white; like the dust jacket, it shows nothing watery or floating – not even icebergs.

And that cool and eye-catching book in front of me? Well, it is actually Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (2013) by Timothy Morton. According to the title, the author is talking about objects – why, then, is the cover so overtly aqueous? The rain clouds in the sky, the mist that scatters the sunlight, the melting drift ice and the iceberg, the water of the ocean. There can be no doubt, the imagery is fluid through and through. Doesn’t it miss the subject of the book? Maybe it was just poor photo-editing, after all, corrected in later translations? I don’t think so. As will become clear, the cover picture aptly captures some verbal motifs from Morton’s Hyperobjects, and also points to features of his reasoning that are not so obvious.  The book is replete with flowing and oozing rhetorical tropes; it would be a treasure trove for Blumenberg and his metaphorological engagement with figures of liquidity.

Fluids, fluids, fluids. The front cover of Timothy Morton’s Hyperobjects (2013) features rain clouds, misty air, and a massive body of ice floating in arctic waters – it is all aqueous. In fact, the book is dripping with rhetorical figures of fluidity: from the lava lamp to icebergs, swimming pools, and stickiness.

Now, that comes as a bit of a surprise. Morton is actually very explicit about his disdain for all things fluid and processual. He repeatedly criticises the “flowing aesthetic in contemporary thought” and its preference for flux and change. The rhetorical means he uses to bash process-related approaches is the lava lamp. You remember the good old lava lamp? A cone-shaped glass container filled with a clear liquid and some blobs of coloured wax that begin to float and transform when heated by an incandescent light bulb. A poor and kitschy image of fluidity, indeed! Morton’s strategy to express his reservations about philosophies of process and flow is to call them “lava-lampy”. In his book Realist Magic (2013), published in the same year as Hyperobjects, he elaborates a bit more on this idea. There, he speaks pejoratively of “lava lampism”, and discredits new materialist thinkers as “lava lampists”. What they are chasing, Morton argues, is a kind of “lava-lamp fluidity”, i.e. a merely aesthetic phantasm.

Besides these accusations, he has critical objections, too. As with the actual lamp, these approaches, Morton maintains, depend on some sort of stable receptacle in which the flows can take place. Thus, the time in which the processes unfold would become an external and static container. Moreover, he calls lava-lampism a reductive way of thinking and a form of superficial aestheticism, since it is based on the limited possibilities of human perception. What appears to be flowing and processual, he asserts, is but an illusion; a deception of the eye like filmic movements that are in fact a fusion of discrete stills. From Morton’s point of view, allusions to fluids and flows are nothing more than a rhetorical trick for concealing a theoretical stasis. Well, against this backdrop, the aqueous front cover of Hyperobjects seems to be somewhat odd. But wait for it!

In the book, icebergs make a grand appearance. They are closely related to Morton’s central subject: hyperobjects. Are icebergs hyperobjects? Maybe they are, but that is not the point. The metaphor of the iceberg is used to illustrate the way that the existence of hyperobjects came to our knowledge. Morton depicts the discovery of hyperobjects as a kind of nautical disaster.  Like the crew and passengers of the Titanic, he argues, we are all travelling in the “ship of modernity” that has collided with the “iceberg of hyperobjects.” Certainly, Blumenberg would have taken great delight in this imagery! The modernist seafarers suffer the shock of the hyperobject-iceberg’s sudden occurrence; their fate is sealed: MS Modernity is shipwrecked. Hyperobjects have always existed, of course, yet like icebergs in arctic waters they sometimes lack visibility.

As Hans Blumenberg has demonstrated, the iceberg metaphor is commonly linked to issues of perceptibility; it addresses the disparity between latency and manifestation in particular. On the one hand, the floating chunk of ice can pop up from a foggy and obscure environment, becoming a dangerous obstacle for our sea voyage. Morton alludes to this aspect by boldly modifying his initial imagery: now, the “ship of modernity” cruises through the “arctic mist of hyperobjects”. The hyperobject turned from an iceberg in the mist into the mist itself, thus shrouding the hyperobject-icebergs that drift across the ocean. It seems that there is a bit of melting and evaporation going on here – no surprise in the age of global warming, which is Morton’s prime example of a hyperobject. There is, however, a second aspect to the iceberg’s peculiar (non-)visibility; an aspect that also applies in a way to hyperobjects: only a fraction of them is perceptible. Above the water, the tip of the iceberg can be seen once it has emerged from the fog, but the much bigger part of it lies beneath the surface of the sea. Just as the bulk of the iceberg is hidden in cold water, hyperobjects for the most part remain latent, too. This is, however, not the end of Morton’s nautical language game; there is yet another twist to the metaphor. A bit later in the book, the “Titanic of modernity” changes into a different kind of vessel. The ocean liner morphs into a scientific battleship “equipped with powerful lasers and nuclear weapons” that constantly discovers new icebergs (aka hyperobjects) during its explorations. Paraphrasing the Communist Manifesto, Morton thus determines the date of the hyperobjects’ appearance: “For at the very point at which the melting into air occurs, we catch the first glimpses of the all-too-solid iceberg within the mist.” What? Despite all the aqueous and seafaring images, we still end up with solidity? Let’s see if the iceberg melts too!

In Morton’s book, the kitschy lava lamp and the nebulous iceberg are not the only metaphors that relate to fluidity. I shall only mention two more, the swimming pool and viscosity. Both of them specify hyperobjects. The trope of the swimming pool is introduced to illustrate the fact that hyperobjects do not exist “over yonder”, and that we do not access them “across a distance.” According to Morton, instead hyperobjects “envelop us”, and we are always already immersed and caught within them. In Hyperobjects, the swimming pool makes but a brief appearance. Morton quotes this passage from Levi Bryant: “Hyperobjects are thus like our experience of a pool while swimming. Everywhere we are submersed within the pool […].” In his blog, Morton reaffirms that he likes “the swimming pool analogy.” And in his essay “Zero Landscapes in the Time of Hyperobjects” (2011), he further elaborates on this metaphorical characterisation:

Imagine you have spent your whole life in a swimming pool. […] Slowly you begin to realize that the water you have been ignoring exists all around you. You are surrounded by a hyperobject. You exist in a hyperobject.

Well, this is quite a change of scenery. We left the chilly Arctic Ocean and have jumped right into refreshing pool water. Eventually, the iceberg has melted under the relentless Texan sun. In the context of Morton’s aversion to Heraclitean flux, the swimming pool is indeed a suitable metaphor. Instead of a flowing stream with currents and turbulences, hyperobjects seem to be like tamed and confined waters. They only splash and ripple when we move. I wonder if cocktails are waiting for us poolside. And as far as I am familiar with swimming pools, they depend on a static container too, just like lava lamps. You cannot plunge into the cool wet unless the liquid is framed, preventing it from leaking and seeping away. So, is the swimming pool the lava lamp of object-oriented ontology? There is yet another aspect of the imagery that seems quirky: if you are swimming in a pool, more often than not your head is sticking out of the water. Are we, then, like human icebergs, the tip of our body afloat and the rest submerged? Thus, in order to be fully immersed in the watery hyperobject, you might have to hold your breath and dive. It is, however, not the oddity of the hyperobject-pool that is relevant here, but the simple fact that Morton again resorts to a rhetorical trope of fluidity.

And there is yet another: viscosity. In addition to nonlocality, temporal undulation, phasing, and interobjectivity, it is one of the five salient features of hyperobjects. As Wikipedia reminds us, viscosity is a property of fluids, namely their resistance to deformation or shearing. What Morton has in mind is the following: we not only swim in hyperobjects, they also cling to us. We cannot escape from them or get rid of them. Viscosity, then, refers to their stickiness. The pleasant pool water has turned slimy and gooey. Like Sartre’s honey or the mirror in The Matrix, hyperobjects are gluey, and adhere to our very existence. You may try to wash them off, but no soap is strong enough to make them loosen their liquid embrace. Moreover, the hyperobject’s viscosity, Morton argues, “forces us to acknowledge that we are oozing, suppurating with nonhuman beings […].” In other passages we learn that hyperobjects “leak everywhere. They undulate back and forth, oozing spacetime all around them,” creating an “ocean of floating temporality and spatiality [which] wafts to and fro […].” And due to the emergence of hyperobjects, the concepts of both World and Nature have melted and evaporated. The list could go on and on. I will leave it at that.

Don’t get me wrong. Hyperobjects is a thought-provoking and challenging book with a bold sense of humour. If you haven’t already, you should definitely read it. However, what is very irritating is Morton’s contradictory attitude: the denigration of fluidity and flow on the one hand, and the extensive employment of fluid metaphors on the other. I don’t find it problematic that he uses this kind of rhetorical imagery. Moreover, I agree that recourse to tropes of flux is not necessarily better in itself, and that it has become trendy. Certainly, we should develop a critical stance towards what John Law and Brad Epps called the romanticism or fetish of fluidity. What we don’t need is a general panta-rhei-isation. Not everything flows, and not everything flows equally. We should not play off the soft and runny against the hard and steady, solidifying their alleged opposition. Instead, the conceptual field and ambivalent semantics of fluidity should be examined more carefully. If there is an “imperative of the fluid and liquid” (Kijan Espahangizi & Barbara Orland) nowadays, it needs to be scrutinised. Encouraged by Blumenberg’s metaphorology, we should take a closer look at the rhetoric of the flowing, at flux as a figure of knowledge and thought, and the topos of liquefaction. The development of our cultural imaginations and the aesthetics of the mutable, dispersed, dynamic, and ephemeral should be studied, as well as the range of historical engagement with fluidity between affirmation and dismissal. Morton’s rejection of fluids and flows is too broad-brush, and his own reflections on objects are more drenched than he likes to admit. Fluid imagery seems to be poured into his text by the bucketload, as it were, rather than slowly seeping through it. If “lava-lamp theory is brittle,” then Morton’s swimming-poolism is soggy. That said, it is a sheer wonder that the paperback with its icy-blue cover isn’t already soaking wet, curly, and stained by mould.