Blog Post

Object-Oriented Ontology Talks 9/11

An explosion is frightening not only because it threatens me. An explosion is frightening because it's ontologically uncanny. This uncanniness underlies the physical threat. What uncanniness? Quite simply, an object that just functions in “my world”—a plane, a skyscraper—suddenly comes to life in a very different way. My world wavers for a moment—even collapses.

An object affects another object by translating it, as best as it can, into its own terms. A plane gouges a plane-shaped hole in a skyscraper. A perfect translation of one object by another object would entail the destruction of that object. When an opera singer sings a certain note very loudly, the sound stirs up the resonant frequencies of a wine glass. In slow motion, you can see the wine glass rippling, having a little glass orgasm if you like. Then the glass explodes. Why? Of course we know physically, or we think we know. But how about ontologically?

The sound was able to reduce the glass to a pure appearance. There is an ontological rift between essence and appearance. (This has nothing to do with the spurious gap between substance and accidence.) The rift is irreducibly part of a thing: a thing is both itself and not-itself. I call this double truth of a thing fragility. The inner fragility of a thing is why a thing can exist at all. Fragility is also why anything at all can happen. Existence is incoherence.

An explosion reveals the fragility of things. But it also reveals the strange inconsistency of things. To kill or destroy is to reduce something to consistency. When I die, I become memories, some crumpled paper in a waste-basket, some clothes. I become my appearances.

Yet there can be no perfect translation of an object, because the translator is also an (inconsistent) object. There would be no trace of a perfect translation. Thus there appear cinders, fragments, debris. Out New objects are uncanny reminders of broken objects. A culture of mourning might arise around them.

What was revealed on 9.11.2001 was the ontological rift between a thing's essence and its appearance. For a split second, millions of humans around the world saw this. Then the status quo intervened to block this traumatic seeing. First the planes were hijacked. Then Bush and Co. hijacked our emotions. They recreated the world, more's the pity.

For too many Americans, 9/11 was the first time that they realized there was an outside of the object America. This shocking realization was soon covered over by the official version of events, which called it 9/11 and attached a military, even fascist significance to the response.

Timothy Morton is Professor of English (Literature and Environment) at the University of California, Davis. Professor Morton's interests include literature and the environment, ecotheory, philosophy, biology, physical sciences, literary theory, food studies, sound and music, materialism, poetics, Romanticism, Buddhism, and the eighteenth century. He teaches literature and ecology, Romantic-period literature, and literary theory. He has published nine books and sixty essays, including The Ecological Thought (Harvard UP, 2010) and Ecology without Nature (Harvard UP, 2007).