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Thursday, November 30, 2023 — Houston, TX

Timothy Morton likes to find things in weird places

Courtesy Emilija Skarnulyte

By Hadley Medlock     9/19/23 11:14pm

A well-known mind in ecological studies, pen pal of Icelandic singer-songwriter Björk and English professor at Rice, Timothy Morton is a modern-day philosopher. With over 15 books published and translated in over 10 languages, Morton said they’ve spent their career learning how to help people talk about environment, ecology and inherent meaninglessness. 

“I study meaning, and it doesn’t look like much compared to thermodynamics or fluids or laminar flow, but actually it’s everything,” Morton said. “Humanities is about, ‘How do you create a fact at all?’ … So I do the best job in the world, which is how to create meaning, which is based on how to tolerate the meaningless.”  

Morton grew up in Southeast London near the Battersea Power Station, which they noted is the location depicted on Pink Floyd’s 1977 album “Animals.” 

After coming to the United States for a postdoctorate position at Princeton, Morton ended up with a visiting professorship at New York University, then a job at the University of Colorado, Boulder. 

“It was pretty much then that I realized I’d moved to America by accident,” Morton said. “[But] accidents are what makes life life as opposed to just some sort of mechanism.” 

In fall of 2010, Morton found themself at Rice for the first time lecturing to a group of graduate students. Morton said the move to Houston was in part inspired by Jeffery Kripal, a religion professor at Rice.

“I read my first thing by Jeffery Kripal in 2011 and I was feeling a little dispirited about where I was working, and that made me think ‘Wow, I really want to come to Rice,’” Morton said. “I never do this but I wrote [Kripal] a fan letter … and then as luck would have it, a few months later I got this lovely job.”

Although they now consider themself a proud Texan, Morton said the state still has work to do in regards to acceptance of identity and diverse expression.

“There’s so many things about Texas that are good. Texas is a place where really feeling it is important,” Morton said. “[But] there’s a lot of homophobia here because people are trying so hard to perform masculinity, and you can’t really do that because it’s the performing of not performing. You put all this bling on your car, and suddenly your car is in drag. ‘Oh my god, now I have to attack non-straight people because my car is in drag.’ I think that’s my theory.” 

The main aim of their current work is to make environmentalism and ecology more multi-dimensional, focusing on the way we talk to the public about environment. This work began for Morton with the understanding that early ecocriticism was a conservative and reactionary field. 

“Have you ever noticed that a lot of environmental speech can be a bit racist and misogynistic but in a very quiet way?” Morton said. “One of the things that’s going on right now in environmental speech in America is a huge disconnect between pretty much everybody. And I think yelling doesn’t work.”

From books like “Ecology Without Nature” to “Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World,” Morton’s work focuses on philosophy, environment and the coexistence of humans and non-humans. Morton also explores these and other topics in explicit relation to race and gender, something they said philosopher Jacques Derrida appreciated about their work. 

“It’s one of the things that Jacques Derrida loved about my first book — we were officemates at NYU. He read my book and said it was magnifique,” Morton said. “[It was] embarrassing but also lovely because he was the first important scholar who ever really paid attention to me.”

Morton’s upcoming book builds on similar topics and is titled “Hell: In Search of a Christian Ecology.” Inspired deeply by the writings of William Blake, Morton described their new release as the “eco-version” of Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” that seeks to understand Christianity’s role in the climate crisis.  

“I’m a deconstructor. I like to find things in weird places and I like to disarm things so they can’t hurt people anymore,” Morton said. “So let’s go inside evangelical Christianity and find the goodies in it. You go inside the bomb and you cut the blue wire and the green wire, and suddenly, it’s this nice thing that won’t hurt people anymore.”

Morton said the idea for this book was sparked when their daughter came into the kitchen one day distraught about the hellish heat.

“She very much cares about ecology and said, ‘Daddy, we’re in hell,’ and she meant it. She wasn’t being metaphorical,” Morton said. “It’s hellishly hot because of global warming, we just survived the heat dome and the heat wave … and in the name of heaven, some people are ready to create hell on Earth.” 

Morton also said an important part of “Hell: In Search of a Christian Ecology” is an understanding and acceptance that people are the cause of many ecological issues.

“[Taking] responsibility for being a grown-up that screwed up the Earth doesn’t hurt,” Morton said. “Realizing that you are the evil is how being a really good person feels, just the same as realizing you’re a bit of a rubbish student is how being a good student feels.”

Morton’s new book confronts this responsibility and is a complex exploration of religion and theology, as well as the ways these subjects can be applied to ecological thought and action. 

“[It’s] a call for a worldwide, antiracist environmental movement, a marriage of science and Christianity that doesn’t reduce one to the other, a lavish and loving guide to living with the help of William Blake and a weirdly simple fusion of biology and mysticism that puts race and gender issues front and center,” Morton said. 

Morton said they feel like understanding and implementing ways to get others to care about the environment in this way is their calling. 

“If there is a God, then they were saving me to do this,” Morton said. “I’m on a mission. I’m kind of going to do this until I’m dead.”

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