Is Capitalism a Hyperobject?

The problem of the finite human mind attempting to grasp the Absolute is an old problem that was recognised – in Frühromantik, for example – as an antinomy, being on the one hand a logical impossibility and on the other, an ethical necessity (or at least, imperative). Friedrich Schlegel’s ‘romantic’ response to this deadlock was philosophical irony, a sensibility I will write about on some other occasion.

Today something of the structure of this problem persists, in a rather more materialist register, in the attempt to cognitively map the known. I was about to write ‘the known universe’ but this suggests a determinate unity that, in the fallacious sense, begs the question of whether such a map is possible in its singularity. We cannot solve a problem by merely approaching it as a thing already solved. Problems – that is, theoretical tensions – are not resolved merely by regarding them as such. In this sense it might be worthwhile jettisoning the idea of a universe, in the sense of a continuous extension in which everything from the Planck length to the ’size of the known universe’ is included, especially if all things within this extension are considered to be in some sense explanatory (both of each other and of the whole) in some causal way. The existence of vacuum energy or superclusters can no more ‘explain’ biscuits or tennis than a mute gingernut or tennis ball can. Even rejecting a purported ‘theory of everything’ one has still has to face the fact that we have not mapped out the human world – the tiniest fragment of the smallest crumb it seems – and what we know about it. Life and living systems are complex; human life is no exception. The enormity of the ecosystem, or even just the human impact upon it, seems beyond our ability to represent it. At an even more immediate level, we have no cognitive map of capitalist economy, which we are intimately embedded in. Compared to this, the intricacies of the human genome are a breeze to decipher. Indeed it will probably turn out to be much easier and simpler to map the empirical data of all scientifically observable domains than it will to map out any single sphere of human relations involving a non-positivist or symbolic register. Consequently, such unmapped complex vastitudes have earned the name of hyperobjects. With hyperobjects of the type ‘global capitalism’, ‘the anthropocene’, ‘the economy’ or even just ‘neoliberalism’ we are returned to antinomy-like situations similar to those that the romantics faced: while direct or immediate comprehension of a hyperobject is beyond our capability it is at the same time demanded of us to recognise its circumscribing reality, and it thus becomes a matter of ethical duty to somehow locate ourselves within it and in relationship to it. The production of theory becomes morally imperative if we are not to acquiesce to the vicissitudes of an animalistic nihilism in which one class of people get to play zookeeper.

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