art and literature

The Professor and the Pop Star

Last year, Icelandic singer Björk e-mailed Rice English professor Tim Morton. Their subsequent dialogue has been published in conjunction with a new exhibition devoted to Björk's work.

By Michael Hardy March 10, 2015

Last July, Tim Morton, an English professor at Rice, received an e-mail from the Icelandic pop singer and multi-hyphenate Björk. The two had never crossed paths, but Björk had recently read and admired one of Morton’s many books, Realist Magic: Objects, Ontology, Causality, which, according to its publisher, "offers a startlingly fresh way to think about causality that takes into account developments in physics since 1900."

Morton had been listening to Björk ever since the 1980s, when the protean singer was drifting in and out of various bands, constantly experimenting with music, and, increasingly, other forms of art. The professor described inviting friends over to his London apartment to listen to a 12-inch LP from one of those bands, 808 State. "I remember playing it over and over and over again," Morton said. "Just poring over it."

Morton immediately replied to Björk’s e-mail, sparking an intense, three-month-long colloquy—a “mind meld,” as Morton puts it—that roamed widely across philosophy, art, politics, and music. After about three months they began to talk of collaborating on an art project, only to quickly realize that their conversation—which already comprised about 150 pages of text—was itself a kind of artistic work. An edited version of that dialogue has now been published in one of five volumes of Björk: Archives, the companion volume to the Museum of Modern Art’s major new retrospective devoted to the singer.

Despite having spent hours in virtual conversation, Morton and Björk had never actually met, so late last year Morton flew to Iceland to go over the final text of the book. While there, the English professor met Björk’s artist friends, watched her record music for her latest album, and even enjoyed her cooking.

Although he specialized in Romantic literature while a graduate student at Oxford, today Morton is best known in the academy as one of the major proponents of something called object-oriented ontology (OOO), an anti-subjectivist philosophy that seeks to understand the non-human world on its own terms, rather than in relation to us. 

Björk, it turns out, is one of OOO’s biggest fans. “She’s kind of leading the way in how to inhabit a new kind of being in this era,” Morton said. “I think her work is genuinely futuristic, because it’s trying to summon something from the future into the present. And that’s what philosophy does as well. I think art in general is pulled from the future—it’s things we haven’t been able to put into words yet.”  

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