July 2010


The other day my friend Carl the Rhetorician completely stunned me by offhandedly presenting me with an entirely different concept of “commonplaces” or locus communis, far richer and more interesting than anything I had heard before. In my own case, I had always thought of the commonplace as a synonym for the cliche. Indeed, many of us who teach spend a good deal of our time fighting the commonplace in student papers. Apparently in traditional rhetorical theory, however, the concept of commonplace has a very different meaning. If I understood Carl correctly, commonplace does not refer to the cliche, but quite literally to a common place. And here, rather than writing the concept as a single word, we should write it as two words to underline its topological dimension.

When taken in this sense, the concept of common place would refer to sites where relations between heterogeneous actors can be forged. These sites, of course, can be of a literal spatial nature, or they can be of an incorporeal semiotic nature. With respect to the former, I’m reminded of my adventure with my daughter a couple weeks ago at the Taste of Dallas. The Taste of Dallas is a large festival where local restaurants present some of their signature dishes and where there is great live music all day long. Now ordinarily, I can be somewhat reserved in real life. Unlike my father who is the master of the random, warm conversation with strangers, I have a very difficult time striking up conversations with strangers. In fact, I tend to loath small talk because it makes me extremely anxious. However, for some reason, in this situation, I found myself talking to all sorts of strangers. Why was that? In part, I believe, it was because my daughter created a common place. Rather than being a strange and potentially dangerous man alone, I instead became a harmless and beleaguered father walking about with his highly energetic three year old daughter and was therefore capable of entering into wry conversation with strangers without posing a threat to the bubble of their security. A topological site was formed where network relations could be forged.

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As I mentioned in my last post, Nate over at An Un-Canny Ontology is doing some interesting stuff attempting to splice my onticology together with Burke’s pentad. In the Grammar of Motives Burke develops the pentad as a way of talking about what motivates people. The pentad contains five dimensions: act, agent, agency, scene, and purpose. Moreover, these five dimensions exist in different ratios with one another. Marx, for example, is a scenic philosopher. According to Marx, it is the scene or milieu that motivates people to act as they do. By contrast, philosophies like existentialism or Kant’s moral philosophy are agent based philosophies. Motive arises not from scene or milieu, but rather from the agent and the agent alone. In Kant, for example, the categorical imperative arises from reason alone and is completely determined by the spontaneity of the agent. Indeed, Kant goes so far in this that we’re even to ignore any “pathological” influence in our formulation of the categorical imperative (bodily inclinations, passionate attachments, etc). If this is so, then it is because such motives are scenic in character (for Kant, at any rate).

Nate has been kind enough to read the ms of The Democracy of Objects. In this connection, one of his formulations gave me pause, revealing a dimension of OOO that hadn’t occurred to me before. In his most recent post, Nate writes:

I realized that my last post might be read as if I see the receiving object as having the choice to translate however it wants. This is not so. Instead every object exists in an environment for Onticology. And this environment constitutes the scene of the object’s act of translation.

In many respects, this is the exact opposite of what I am arguing. Objects, as I theorize them, cannot be said to exist in environments. Were this the case, objects would be relational and it would be impossible for them to be withdrawn. Indeed, in a sort of pseudo-Lacanian aphorism we can say that “the environment does not exist”. As a consequence, environments, as understood within the framework of onticology, cannot be understood as equivalent to Burke’s concept of scene.

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Over at An Un-canny Ontology, Nate has a great post up splicing object-oriented ontology (and my onticology in particular) with Burke’s rhetorical theory. Nate believes that four aspects of Burke’s pentad mesh well with OOO (agent, act, scene, and agency), whereas the fifth, purpose, fits uneasily. I’m of two minds here. First, it’s entirely possible that things like purpose are unique to the human and the animal. That is, nothing in OOO forbids attributing unique powers or capacities to certain objects. Second, I confess that I have a deep rooted suspicion of teleological concepts and thus find Burke’s fifth element in the pentad to be the least interesting.

A good deal of this suspicion comes from my background in biology and autopoietic theory. Within a Darwinistic framework, “adaptation” (a horribly misleading term) has nothing to do with purpose or a goal. Adaptations take place not because entities strive to survive in an environment, but through random variation and natural selection. Organisms “adapt” not to fit with their environment, but because some “random” mutations proved favorable in a particular environment. Insofar as these mutations prove favorable, they increase the likelihood of reproducing and thereby passing on their genes.

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In response to my recent post on correlationism, Alex Reid raises a number of critical questions. Alex begins by remarking that,

I’m interested in that final line: “only when you abandon the thesis that any entity constructs another entity that your position is deserving of the title of realism.” This post focuses on issues of symbolic behavior, so I understand this statement in that context as meaning that objects are not constructed through their relation to humans and language. However, if a chemist says water is constructed of hydrogen and oxygen, does she become a correlationist? Perhaps the answer is to say that such a statement isn’t the whole story. That is, water may be H2O but it is also demonstrates characteristics in excess of those attributable to hydrogen and oxygen on their own (e.g. it can fill a swimming pool). Of course those characteristics are also dependent on water’s relations with other objects. Water can’t fill a pool without gravity (or a pool).

The term “construction” is bound, I think, to be misleading. There are two senses in which the term “construction” is used in these discussions. On the one hand, there is the somewhat rare Latourian sense, where we’re literally talking about things being built. When Latour talks about construction he is talking about the composition of something out of heterogeneous materials. For example, the building of a bridge. On the other hand, the most common usage of the term construction in the humanities today is that of social construction. Generally the thesis here is that things are constructed by either language or social forces.

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A friend of mine and reader of The Democracy of Objects recently expressed displeasure over the harsh treatment I give to Lacan over the thesis that “the universe is the flower of rhetoric.”. My friend’s rejoinder was that Lacan maintains a place for the real and is merely pointing out that we must relate to the world through language. This point is so fundamental and so basic that nothing about what motivates the new realisms can be understood without understanding it. The new realisms are not charging correlationisms with not believing in and independent real. With the exception of Berkeley who claimed that being is perception and Hegel who claimed the identity of substance and subject, such a thesis is exceedingly rare. Rather, correlationisms argue that we can only speak of the being of beings in terms of our modes of access to beings. In this regard, Lacan is an arche-correlationist. What Lacan teaches is that we cannot speak of being as such, but only of signfiers that express beings. Indeed, Lacan repeatedly refers to any reference to the pre-symbolic as mythological and Zizek refers to the idea of the real apart from the symbolic and the subject as a fetishistic illusion. While Lacan clearly endorses the existence of a real apart from language (and is therefore Kantian), Zizek goes all the way with Hegel’s absolute idealism. Both positions are correlationisms.

Rorty famously said that a number of philosophical problems are never really solved, but rather we just cease asking these questions. No philosopher has yet refuted the solipsist, nor has anyone ever refuted Berkeley. If you’re worried about how we can escape language perhaps you should just stop asking the question and move on. More importantly, you should attend to the methodological consequences that follow from a gesture like Lacan’s. If it is the signifier that falls into the marked space of your distinction, you’ll only ever be able to talk about talk and indicate signs and signifiers. The differences made by light bulbs, fiber optic cables, climate change, and cane toads will be invisible to you and you’ll be awash in texts, believing that these things exhaust the really real.

Anyone who knows me also knows that I’ve learned a lot from Lacan and wish to retain a rich place for talk about talk and the analysis of texts. However, Lacanianism and it’s linguistic idealist cousins needs to be castrated. We need forms of theory and practice capable of both talking about talk, signs, the signifier, narrative, and discourse capable of indicating the non-semiotic and approaching the non-semiotic on its own terms as best we can. Absent this we are missing a massive dimension as to why our social world is as it is. If your first instinct is to talk about talk, text, narrative, signifier, and discourse, it’s likely you’re a correlationist. If you speak of the real as resistance or a twist in the symbolic, it’s likely you’re a correlationist. What we need is a realist rhetoric. For me, it’s not so much Kant that is the enemy, but the linguistic and semiotic turn. I wish to retain a place for these things, but to overcome the hegemony they currently have in the world of Continental theory. Reference to the real does not a realism make. It is only when you abandon the thesis that any entity constructs another entity that your position is deserving of the title of realism.

Below I’ve posted a talk by Tim Morton discussing what he calls the “beautiful soul syndrome” and outlining a bit of his dark ecology. On the surface of things it seems that my position and Morton’s are quite far apart. After all, Morton is the author of The Ecological Thought which argues for the interdependence of all things, whereas us object-oriented ontologists argue that objects are withdrawn from all relations. Morton and I are currently working through these differences. In a number of respects, as paradoxical as it may sound, my advocacy of the withdrawal thesis is designed precisely to think the sort of ecological relations Tim wishes to think. Let me explain.

Ecological and dialectical thought has worked hard to draw our attention to the relational. In many respects, the central enemy of ecological thought could be said to be what Hegel called “abstract thinking“. The abstract thought, Hegel argues, is the thought that divorces entities from their relations and placements in a whole. This leads to a truncated and partial conception of being. Dialectical and ecological thought has struggled mightily against this tendency, seeking to demonstrate both the interdependence of phenomena and our implication within this web of relations or what Morton calls “the mesh”. Only in this way, it is argued, can we understand the impact of our actions on the environment. Given the stakes of these issues– our very existence is bound up with them –it comes as no surprise that the dialectically and ecologically inclined get touchy when the primacy of relations is questioned.

In this regard, object-oriented ontology is likely to appear as a reactionary retrograde move, for in its thesis that objects are autonomous and withdrawn it appears to divorce objects from their relations, turning us away from an investigation of systemic relations and interdependences and diminishing our ability to articulate the manner in which entities are implicated in one another. This, however, strikes me as a superficial understanding of what object-oriented ontology is up to.

Within the framework of my onticology, the distinction between virtual proper being and local manifestation draws our attention to what takes place when relations between beings emerge. There are not two terms here, but three terms: Virtual proper being, local manifestation, and exo-relations. Virtual proper being refers to the powers and capacities of an object. These powers and capacities are always withdrawn, they are never present in what Harman calls “sensuous objects”, and they are always in excess of any of their local manifestations. Local manifestation refers to the actualized qualities of an object. In biological terms we could think of local manifestation as the phenotype of an object. Exo-relations are relations of exteriority between objects. Exo-relations play a key role in the production of local manifestations, determining, in many respects, the phenotype that a withdrawn object will come to embody in the world. In other words, the concept of exo-relations draws our attention to what happens to objects when they enter into a mesh of objects or what I call a “regime of attraction”. This concept invites us to be attentive to how contexts play a key role in accounting for why objects take the form they take.

Ecologists and dialectical thinkers are quite right to draw our attention to the relational, however I think they’re on shaky ground both at the level of both ontology and ecological practice when they argue that objects are their relations. Ontologically, because a great deal of ecological thought advocates the thesis that relations are always internal to objects– i.e., that nature is a harmonious and relational whole –they find themselves caught in something of a pragmatic contradiction. The ecologist (not Morton) wishes to say that being is this mesh of internal relations, while simultaneously arguing that the intervention of foreign objects disrupts this order (e.g., the introduction of the cane toad into the eco-system of northern Australia or the burning of fossil fuels).

Here it is entirely appropriate to ask the following question: What are the conditions under which the ecological can be disrupted? The only possible answer to this question is if relations are external to objects. It must be possible for objects to enter into new relations and for them to be separated from other objects if the disruption of collectives is to be possible. Indeed, without something like this autonomy from relations it is impossible to think Darwin’s strange hypothesis. Without something like the externality of relations how are we to think speciation through geographical drift? Without something like the externality of relations, how are we to think the role played by the intervention of actors foreign to a collective such as what is currently taking place with the cane toad or what occurred when a large asteroid hit the earth millions of years ago?

To my thinking, what really interests ecologists and dialectical thinkers is not internal relations, but rather the exteriority of relations in which local manifestations are produced through contingent, aleatory, and external relations. At the level of practice, it will be noted that ecotheorists are extremely attentive to relations of exteriority and the local manifestations these produce. When, for example, ecotheorists analyze drilling for natural gas through a process known as “fracking”, what interests them is the production of new phenotypes and local manifestations in streams, fish, wildlife, water supplies, and human bodies (the cancers and neurological disorders such drilling is currently causing on a massive scale throughout the United States). The entire premise of such an ecological analysis is that objects are withdrawn. Howso? Precisely because such an analysis is premised on the possibility of the carpentry of objects (Graham’s gorgeous expression) being otherwise; or, in my terminology, objects undergoing different local manifestations.

Here we encounter the importance of this line of thought for practice. While I hate this analogy, there are a number of respects in which object-oriented ontology amounts to good book keeping or accounting. What onticology refuses is the reduction of entities to their local manifestations. Entities can always be manifested differently under different conditions. There is thus an emancipatory dimension to this thought. Because objects cannot be equated with their actuality or local manifestation, because they are always in excess of their local manifestations, it is possible to create other worlds and other ways of living. Where “the environment” is surreptitiously unified and treated as a harmonious whole we are led to a sort of tragic view of the world where it is impossible to change anything because everything is treated as internally interrelated and interdependent. This is what Morton calls “over-thereism”. Nature is treated as a unified whole that is “over there”, outside of us, rather than something that we’re entangled in.

Throughout Morton’s thought, I think, it’s possible to sense a tension. On the one hand, Morton wants to emphasize the synchronic or interdependence of things. Yet on the other hand, he emphasizes the diachronic, the developmental, and the manner in which entities are “strange strangers”. The concept of strange strangers refers to the manner in which entities are withdrawn or the manner in which they can never simply be reduced to their actualizations. By contrast, the diachrony that Morton emphasizes already departs substantially from Saussurean and even Derridean diachrony/deferral. Where Saussurean diachrony is strictly guided by synchrony, Darwinian diachrony is punctuated by events, contingencies, arrivals of outsiders, encounters with strange strangers that push development in entirely new and surprising directions. In other words, it is a diachrony of interacting withdrawn objects that forge relations but which cannot be said to be relational through and through. Such is the diachrony of OOO, where the carpentry is always a work and a becoming, generating of new objects and where the sensuous manifestations of objects are always a contingent surprise.

At any rate, on to Morton’s talk.

Scott Barnett has published a review of Harman’s Tool-Being and Guerrilla Metaphysics over at Enculturation: A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture, arguing for the relevance of object-oriented philosophy to rhetoric. I eagerly look forward to seeing where this all leads. I’d be particularly interested in seeing someone giving a detailed treatment of what Latour has in mind when he speaks of nonhuman objects speaking.

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