How might the pandemic catalyze more meaningful engagement with the global challenges we face today?
“Art must be a tuning to the object” — Timothy Morton
On February 22nd of this year, Mike Hughes assembled a crowd of journalists, fans, and onlookers in the Mojave desert. The self-described daredevil had constructed a homemade rocket — not for the first time — with the intent of launching himself 5,000 feet high. Hughes was a ‘flat-earther,’ one of a growing subset of conspiracy-minded Americans who, out of either sincere conviction or to bask in the attendant wave of head-scratching publicity, deny the earth is round.
The upper troposphere is well below the point where the curvature of the earth becomes visible, but Hughes claimed the trip would substantiate his belief. Seeing is believing, as the adage goes, and for Hughes and others like him, scientific givens dating back to Pythagoras aren’t just wrong, they are politically motivated misinformation. He would do anything to prove this out, including putting his life on the line.
One would admire Hughes’ spirit if it weren’t so misguided. But there is, however, something deeply relatable about his fundamental curiosity and conviction: what is the underlying relationship between what we can sense and what we know? How can we know — on a human level, in a way that might be a basis for dialogue or action — forces that are much larger than us? How do we make sense of the world?
The Invisible Enemy
It can be difficult to parse Hughes’ kind of denial, and how it functions within individual psychology and the collective imagination, but it is everywhere. One of the most prominent and widely shared instances of collective denial today is, of course, the pandemic, and the contested political terrain of risk mitigation. Protests against the lockdown to contain the health crisis have spread throughout the country, and while the underlying motivations are varied and complex, the prevailing message would seem clear: the virus isn’t much of an issue.
The pandemic is large, new, and terrifying. It has touched every part of our lives, uprooting the complex systems of 21st-century economics, politics, and production. It is, to quote our president, “an invisible enemy,” making itself known in peaks and waves, or under the guise of the initial symptoms of a mild cold. We should be forgiven for lacking the capacity to comprehend it, which is, in its totality, impossible, because the pandemic is a hyperobject.
A hyperobject, as defined by the ecological theorist Timothy Morton, can be understood as any object, system, or force that can’t be seen, and exceeds the limits of our comprehension while still shaping the material of our lives. A hyperobject could be all the oil, in its totality, on earth: an object of vast historical and geological reach, touching every part of contemporary economies and ecosystems and altering the environment well beyond the conceivable future. Morton’s hyperobject of choice is the climate crisis — a catastrophe whose effects are creeping ever more steadily into the collective consciousness. The pandemic is perhaps the most tangible hyperobject in global life at the moment: taking hundreds of thousands of lives, sickening more, upending economies, geopolitics, and changing the nature of production overnight.
Our minds behave shakily around hyperobjects. We can’t engage with them on our own terms, and often their terms erase us. They challenge our preconceptions, and ask us to think on scales that have no analog in individual experience. It is often the case, naturally, that we ignore them, or outright deny them, because they are invisible.
Humans have developed to observe the visible environment and infer patterns from it, which accrete into a way of knowing the world: the sun rose and set today, and it’s safe to assume the sun will rise again tomorrow. But however reasonable this may seem, it’s an example of a cognitive bias, specifically a status quo bias. Via Swedish theorist Nick Bostrom, a status quo bias is “an inappropriate (irrational) preference for an option because it preserves the status quo.” Hyperobjects, on the other hand, are very unfamiliar — and very other. It’s easy to assume our lives will remain overwhelmingly untouched by the drastic shifts hyperobjects instantiate because the sample set of our limited experience is so small, and preserves the status quo. But that leaves us exposed to drastic, non-linear events that teeter on the edge of catastrophe: waking up to a blood-red sky over San Francisco, for instance.
What does this have to do with the virus? A hyperobject — like the pandemic, or climate catastrophe — might seem very abstract, but it manifests locally and shapes our lives. They reveal ontology itself to be a vital domain, not a cloistered or esoteric one. The questions and crises hyperobjects provoke often demand a reaction, or a reconstitution. Hyperobjects thus find themselves at the center of contested political territory — think lockdown protests, or decarbonization initiatives — precisely because grappling with them is the basis for action. The types of action that, we should hope, would prevent the transmission of a deadly virus, or preserve a habitable climate.
Hyperobjects very often become entangled, both with each other and with political and aesthetic phenomena. The intersection of the health and climate crises is already being highlighted: lockdown, for instance, has given us a window into what measures to address global warming might look like. According to the Financial Times, quarantine has reduced carbon emissions by as much as 17%. In order to meet targets outlined by the Paris agreement, this rate of reduction would need to be sustained for the next decade and a half, at which point emissions would need to vanish entirely. Noting another intersection, the Guardian writes that 2020’s unusually active hurricane season, converging with the health crisis, is a recipe for disaster and displacement. Even further, as the world warms and ecosystems continue to be disrupted — thawing frost, species displacement — epidemics are far more likely to occur.
It is our task, then, to reconfigure our means of engagement with these ontological shifts, which will prepare us to address not only this crisis, but coming crises as well. The overarching contagion we need most desperately to isolate and contain, in all cases, is a social one — denial itself.
Shattering The Sweet Geometry
If we were to conduct an audit of common visualizations of the pandemic — on cable television, in print, on social media, elsewhere — the impression would be discordant. Graphs of progression toward herd immunity; the proportion of infection to mortality rate; video of freezer trucks and neighborhoods clapping for healthcare workers; Zoom screencaps; the virus itself seen via electron microscopy.
These operate at the level of ‘news,’ or entertainment, that we’re used to conceiving of as something adjacent to our daily lives. But the pandemic brings these concerns into our homes, and into our bodies. Conventional aesthetic modes fall far short of accurate representation, if such a thing is possible, of the pandemic as a hyperobject. They even veil a more substantial experience of it — pre-pandemic modes of discourse or representation seem too reductive to adequately contain it. But if we don’t stare the object in the face, it becomes increasingly likely we will ignore it.
It’s evident, then, that we must reassess our relationship with our environment and with each other: we know that there are larger forces shaping our daily lives, and that we must attune ourselves to them in new ways. As practitioners of a design discipline that’s concerned with understanding and shaping human experience, we often look to the arts for insight and precedent. Here, we’ll use the work of two writers and theorists — each very distinct, but living in a time of deep political and social crisis — to help us deepen our experience of the pandemic, and then rupture it.
In a lecture given in Buenos Aires in 1933, the poet Federico García Lorca put forth a manifesto structured around duende, which he defined as “the mystery, the roots that cling to the mire that we all know, that we all ignore, but from which comes the very substance of art” (emphasis ours). Duende is a force that we feel and cannot explain, but is “the spirit of the earth.” It might be an experience of the numinous, to use a loaded term, or at the very least, something wildly other than us. It sometimes ‘makes a meal of us,’ and “rejects all the sweet geometry we understand.” Duende points to something totally outside of our experience — a history, a force, a spirit — though is still something to be touched at the deepest reaches of the subject: where subject and object intersect, perhaps. It is also something that is easily missed, and that demands we cultivate a subtle relationship with it.
Put simply, we might take duende to mean an experience of a force outside of ourselves, that we channel by communing with it. As it passes through us, it makes us feel more alive. It is wildly other, and runs against the grain of the status quo, challenging us. Often, for Lorca, duende is death itself, which he claimed was in the room with him as he wrote: “the duende, by contrast, won’t appear if he can’t see the possibility of death, if he doesn’t know he can haunt death’s house, if he’s not certain to shake those branches we all carry, that do not bring, can never bring, consolation.” In Lombardy, in Catalonia, in New York City, death has everywhere overwhelmed our systems to contain it.
The qualities of duende intersect with our experience of hyperobjects generally, and the pandemic specifically. The sheer scale of hyperobjects, when juxtaposed with the human individual, force their own reflections on mortality — when the human scale intersects with the pathological (the pandemic) or the geological (the climate crisis), bad things happen for individuals, as hyperobjects are alien and unforgiving.
But we must better know them if we are to cultivate a relationship with them on something close to our terms, and to do that, we must learn to cultivate a relationship with edges. “Duende loves the edge, the wound, and draws close to places where forms fuse in a yearning beyond visible expression.” Or further, we must shatter the old forms and vigilantly craft new ones: “the arrival of the duende presupposes a radical change to all the old kinds of form, brings totally unknown and fresh sensations, with the qualities of a newly created rose, miraculous, generating an almost religious enthusiasm.”
To help us do exactly this — shatter old forms — we might also look to the work of writer and critic Georges Bataille, whose concept of l’informe, or the formless, is particularly useful. For Bataille, form itself — in art, writing, and design — was a pretense, an attempt to craft a sense of order while our lives and environment are chaotic and indeterminate. Our creative efforts should more accurately reflect, or interact with, a “universe [that] resembles nothing…that is something like a spider or spit.”
Bataille’s surrealist project, among the margins of the larger movement, exploded the presumption that the scientific, formal, and narrative tools inherited at the outset of the 20th century could adequately contextualize our experience and environment. A deeply revolutionary and antagonistic project, Bataille’s l’informe asserted that contemporary aesthetics had done little to eschew traditional forms, which got in the way of representing just how strange, if not predatory, the universe could be. His was a fundamental rejection of the tendency to pluck an object out of the world, polish it, and place it in a museum as a benchmark of meaning or delight.
Art does have, however, the capacity to open onto the formless without trying to capture, isolate, or define it — it can maintain a dialogue with it, perhaps more easily than other vectors or media. But it can only do so by being debased, or “brought down”: taken out of the realm of a received aesthetic experience and into something new, jarring, inventive.
In the late 1990’s, Rosalind Krauss and Yves-Alain Bois resurfaced and reshaped Bataille’s convictions. For Krauss and Bois, l’informe was a window into the sublime, or at the very least a numinous experience of the chaos that shapes our lives — entropy. Deconstructivist trends in painting and sculpture at the time approached, for Krauss, “an attack made in the very name of death.” They played with scale and the passage of time, eschewed the fetishizing tendencies of representation to posit — as Krauss notes of Robert Smithson’s work — that the environment itself is a kind of cast, and that objects — stones, fossils, riverbeds, humans — are a kind of sculpture, ground down and remade over time by larger, alien forces.
This rupture tears the curtain of aesthetics and invites objects themselves in, and is an insight we might channel and build upon. Morton refers to an architectural illustration of this rupture, the Dusty Relief project in Bangkok. “In 2002 the architecture firm R&Sie designed…an electrostatic building in Bangkok,” Morton writes, “that would collect the dirt around it, rather than try to shuffle it somewhere else. Eventually, the building would be coated with a gigantic fur coat of dirt.” Here, architecture and hyperobject intersect, as do vastly different scales — the quotidian and the geological. A magnetic vector, the one makes the other visible; it ruptures the space around the development and invites the hyperobject in, to show its face.
This kind of spectacle might provide a model for future interventions against climate denial, but it operates at another scale, as well. A mode of formlessness is built into the architecture itself: its shape would grow and shift over time, its ugliness menacing. It is a design that would not invite touch but whose material we already breathe in, invisibly, moment by moment. As these larger forces are conjured and made visible — or relevant — on a human scale, they unfocus the eye; make us feel small, and ground down by the passage of deep time; entropy enters the room, and we know that the universe is alien, and that we are poised at the edge of a precipice.
Lifting the Veil on a World
What does it mean to face this kind of edge, to traverse it? Is it possible to attenuate the vertigo felt at this boundary, between known and unknown, human and otherworldly?
The scale and scope of climate change evades us in a meaningful way, even if we can, somehow, sense the depth of the precipice. It is the largest hyperobject we’ve turned our attention to, by orders of magnitude; as devastating, tragic, and world-altering as the pandemic has been, it pales in comparison.
Still, given the pandemic’s immediacy, it might provide us a moment to interrogate our relationship to the forces that shape us, invisibly, and to press against the psychological mechanisms that obscure not only hyperobjects and the threats they pose, but us from ourselves as well. Cognitive bias, habit, the flow of a typical morning — these rhythms refract our attention, guiding it away from meaningful consideration of the threats posed by hyperobjects, both to the individual and to the collective. How can we seize the moment of crisis to stare these threats down, to see them more clearly and be surrounded by them? How can this experience grant us frameworks through which we might approach the unknown?
Dusty Relief is a rare boon that manages to make a profound statement within a normative discipline. We need more of these interventions, urgently, in various mediums. If we are to extinguish denial — and more broadly, cognitive bias — as a social contagion, we must face hyperobjects however possible; they must become visible in daily life, often and ostentatiously. Aesthetics are thus a crucial tool to bring what we know — of viral threat, of climate change — into the realm of what we can sense, in the hopes of motivating action.
What might a deeper aesthetic conception of the pandemic look like? Our modes of engagement with the virus, typically through mass media, lack duende. By and large, news is consumed as entertainment, and not as a mode of information that might provide a basis for useful action. A deepening of our engagement with the pandemic might begin with efforts to collapse this aesthetic distance, with a more human-centered and empathic approach to storytelling. It’s easy to lose sight of individual impact when so much visual and rhetorical real estate is devoted to charting curves, cases, and business closures — all necessary, but nowhere near the whole story. It might also mean forgoing the rhetorical pretense of ‘objective’ journalism — giving pandemic deniers equal consideration or representation in media, without qualification, can create a false sense that there are two sides to an issue.
Does the pandemic have a Dusty Relief equivalent? Should installations or programs hit town squares that are designed to illustrate the exponential spread of the virus without PPE? Individuals can certainly help contain the virus itself — but what of institutions and political stakeholders? Can aesthetics be used to spur more action at the site of power?
There might be a softer form of rupture, one that starts at the individual level and moves outward. How can we be more attentive to the local manifestations of hyperobjects in our own lives? Can we make a practice of such attention, something akin to meditation? Think, for a moment, of how you’ve rearranged the details of your life to accommodate the crisis: phone, wallet, keys, mask; disinfectant for hands, groceries, the soles of your shoes; distanced, outdoor meetups with family and friends. These are the subtle markers of new habit: others have had their lives rearranged far more drastically, with hospitalization, the lingering and chronic aftereffects of illness, joblessness, financial peril, the loss of loved ones — all the heavier hand of the health and economic crisis.
The climate crisis, too, is best felt at the local level, in the daily — heat waves that last longer than usual, unseasonably warm ocean water, a river that doesn’t freeze over during winter months anymore, wildfires ravaging an entire bioregion. The more we can sit with and examine these changes, the more we can make space for them in our lives.
But each of these modes of interrogation are only useful if they provide a basis for action, both individual and collective. We must deepen and rupture our dialogue with hyperobjects beyond denial, yes, but that is only a first step. The shape our response to these crises takes now will have repercussions that reach far into the future. As we pass through and beyond this crisis, may it be with a deepened sense of urgency, and an understanding of how precious — and precarious — life can be.
Special thanks to the contributors of this piece, including Liam Powell and Kumar Atre.
Rapt Studio is a strategic design consultancy. Our sweet spot is at the intersection of place, experience, and emotion. www.raptstudio.com