“OBJECTS IN MIRROR ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR” is a safety advisory placed on the passenger side mirror of motor vehicles mandated by the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards in the United States. Its purpose is to remind drivers on distance perception as convex mirrors give a useful field of view while making objects appear smaller. From an anthropological perspective, I feel a deep sense of irony as we go about our daily lives trying to ensure safety on the roads but fail to acknowledge that “objects”, or “hyperobjects” causing catastrophic environmental destruction are closer than they appear.
Hyperobjects are matter or ideological constructs that are:
- Supertemporal, extending beyond the human imagination of space and time, refuting the idea of boundedness.
- Viscous, sticking to any other object/subject and entraps them within its influence.
- Non-local, hyperobjects are felt or perceived indirectly
- Phased, hyperobjects occupy a high-dimensional space that may be invisible to the human senses
- Interobjective, hyperobjects form interrelationships between aesthetic properties of objects (Morton 2013, pp.1–7).
Hyperobjects are real and yet are intrinsically difficult for humans to experience or understand fully. For example, climate change is an illustration of hyperobjects. Climate change envelops humans despite our attempts to detach ourselves from it. We experience climate change in the form of natural disasters such as droughts and monsoons. Climate change also appears to be periodically phased, allowing the Ozone layer to heal while other parts of the Earth continues to degrade.
Why do we need to know hyperobjects?
Timothy Morton argues for a fluid conception between humans and objects: “no matter how hard we look, we won’t find a container in which all things fit” (2013, p.102). Rather than continuing to use the container analogy to organise social life, Morton asserts for a mesh analogy to decentre human exceptionalism and raise urgency towards the current ecological calamity that we, humans and objects alike, are responsible and are within the crisis.
Humanity’s reaction to using ironic distancing to obscure environmental degradation is delaying attempts to create a sustainable future. Ironic distancing is the attempt to distance oneself from a problem or thing that one is already embedded within. Our current attitudes reflect ironic distancing and what Rob Nixon argues as “slow violence”. Slow violence is the product of neoliberalism’s deregulation of the economy, creating massive competition in resource extraction, indiscriminate dumping of waste, etc (Nixon 2011, p.11). Such activities enact “violence” toward the environment and impoverished communities that is noticeable in time to come.
Slow violence is spectacle-deficient. For example, the effects of losing biodiversity or exposure to nuclear radiation are invisible and latent for long periods (Nixon 2011, p.47). The Chernobyl disaster was censored by the Soviet government for eighteen days, hindering effective containment strategies to prevent radiation from spreading (Nixon 2011, p.51). As a result, there was pollution to water bodies, speculative radiation estimates and an increase in mental disorders and abortions from the fear of ionising radiation or radiophobia. Thus, hyperobjects blurs international, intergenerational and somatic temporalities.
What does it mean for Anthropology?
While many “modern” anthropological concepts centres around the human, Morton argues for an Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO) which I shall briefly summarise as moving away from human exceptionalism and assuming that objects have the agency for causality. In sum, “OBJECTS IN MIRROR ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR” is a salient ontological reminder that our environment is afflicted with slow violence and humans need to start reconceptualising fundamental philosophical questions of existence and do away with using “distance” and “time” as defence mechanisms to shield us from the nearness and precarity of pollution and degradation.
Morton, T 2013, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN.
Nixon, R 2011, Slow Violence and The Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
Zane’s piece on Design Anthropology
Anatol’s piece on Reflexivity
Rita’s piece on Precarity
Sarah’s piece on future worlds