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 Were this the case, objects would be relational and it would be impossible for them to be withdrawn.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.

read on!

Following the thought of Niklas Luhmann, I argue that the most basic distinction is the distinction between system (object) and environment. Initially it thus sounds as if we have objects on the one hand and environments on the other, such that objects are in environment. However, the crucial point is not that there’s a distinction between system and environment, but rather that it is each system or object that draws this distinction. In other words, environment is not something an object is in. Rather, an environment is something an object constructs. It is system/object that produces environment. Environment is not something that is already there.

When I talk about objects constructing their environment, I mean that the structure of the object determines how it is open to the world. Nate cites an example that I give from The Democracy of Objects:

Just as other substances in a substance’s environment can only perturb the substance without determining what information events [or translation] will be produced on the basis of these perturbations, the most the substance can do is attempt to perturb other substances without being able to control what sort of information-events are produced in the other substances. And these attempted perturbations can always of course fail. My three year old daughter, for example, might yell at her toy box when she bumps into it, yet the toy box continues on its merry way quite literally unperturbed. Everything spins on recognizing that while objects construct their openness to their environment they do not construct the events that take place in their environment. (224)

In his post, Nate discusses how my daughter responds to bumping into the toy chest, i.e., how she translates this perturbation. However, the point of this example pertains not to my daughter, but to the toy box. The point of this example is not that my daughter translates this bump into yells of anger, but rather that the toy box is not responsive to speech. As I continue in the passage Nate cites, unfortunately for my daughter the toy box is quite wooden (yes, I know, a bad philosophy joke). Put more precisely, speech does not belong to the environment of the toy box. For the toy box, speech does not exist, and therefore speech is incapable of producing information-events (events that select system-states) for the toy box.

As an aside, there’s a methodological point worth making here. Although I often give human and social centered examples, it is worthwhile for the object-oriented ontologist to begin developing a stockpile of examples of nonhuman objects and to think about the world from their perspective. In the example above, I’m trying to think about the world from the perspective of the toy box. In a recent post, I thought about the world from the perspective of grass. In my debate with Vitale over how frogs are perceived, I thought about the world from the perspective not of humans perceiving frogs and amoebas, but in terms of how frogs and amoebas experience the world. Jared Diamond asks us to think about how “disease” bacteria perceive “disease”. And so on.

Apart from the fact that this sort of second-order observation or observation of how objects observe just is what it means to practice onticology, this way of shifting perspective also reveals all sorts of implicit assumptions that mark our anthropocentric bias. Consequently, by resisting the urge to focus on how humans translate the world we begin to redraw the distinctions that underlie the manner in which we pose our theoretical questions. In a number of respects, this perspective shifting functions in a manner analogous to Husserl’s phenomenological epoche.

Shifting away from the world of toy boxes back to the world of the human, however, I believe that the manner in which onticology conceives the system/environment relation has profound implications for both rhetoric and how we pose political questions. In response to my last riff on Nate’s OOR, the poet John Bloomberg-Rissman expressed despair over how the media functions. To this I responded by pointing out that it is not merely a question of simply accepting the way in which this system functions, but rather that we must find ways of creating resonance within this system so as to have our aims represented.

Resonance refers to the ability of one object to perturb, irritate, or stimulate another object and therefore refers to the sort of openness an object has to its world or environment. In a gorgeous editorial comment responding to my chapter on mereology, Morton expresses this point beautifully:

It might be interesting to think about “resonance” a bit—I can’t help as a music guy (by birth, both parents were pro violinists) that this is a very precise word for how objects affect one another (c.f. Heidegger’s remark about hearing the wind in the door, never the wind as such); it also suggests something wavelike (with amplitude and frequency).

Resonance, for example, might refer to how two violin strings affect one another through their vibrations creating a diffraction pattern.

Now clearly there’s a very real sense in which the question of resonance is ground zero in rhetoric. The first question the orator should ask herself is whether she or what she says and how she says it exists in the environment of her audience. Lacanian analysts are very sensitive to this. The entire theory of Lacanian interpretation is premised on the idea of resonance or the opportune moment (kairos) where a speech act can finally resonate in the unconscious of an analysand. The analyst doesn’t have this power at the beginning of the analysis, but only acquires it gradually over the course of analysis. Just think about the difference between a sleight or insult from a loved one as opposed to a sleight or insult from a stranger for whom you have no respect. There are different degrees of resonance here.

Likewise, the other day I watched a documentary on heroin. At one part in the documentary they discussed a doctor who passes out clean needles to homeless heroin addicts, who provides them with anti-overdose serums, who provides medical treatment, and who never lectures them about kicking their habit. This doctor has been extremely successful with the people he treats, building up a high degree of trust with them. What accounts for this? Part of it has to do with his appearance. He always has a five o’clock shadow, he has tattoos up and down his arms, he’s generally dressed in dirty jeans and shorts, as well as ripped and faded t-shirts, etc. His appearance contributes to his existence in the environment of the addicts that he treats and therefore contributes to establishing resonance with this audience. Unlike my daughter’s encounter with the toy box, his words can have an impact on this audience.

This leads to the second question every rhetorical theorist and orator should be asking. If one does not exist in the environment of the system they are addressing or if the content of what they say does not exist in that environment, how can it come to exist? In other words, how is it possible to create resonance? This is not simply a question of rhetorical theory, but a political question as well. We saw this in graphic and despair filled detail during the WTO protests in 1999, as well as the various protests against the Iraq war. As passionate as these protests were, they failed to create resonance with either the media system or the government they sought to persuade. Indeed, the protests largely worked against the aims of the protesters. The media system, for example, seldom reported why people were protesting the WTO, but rather instead just showed the spectacle of a chaotic mass of colorfully dressed people screaming that they were “against the WTO”. For the television audience witnessing these protests, the overwhelming reaction was identification with the WTO rather than the protesters… Despite the fact that the grievances of the protesters were to the benefit of most people making up the television audience. In short, this spectacle further entrenched the power of capitalism rather than diminishing it.

It does no good to complain that the media is biased or owned by corporations. Such a complaint might be satisfying, providing one with the pleasures of the beautiful soul, but such complaints do not solve the problem of resonance. This complaint gets us no closer to creating resonance with a public whose collective action is needed to produce these changes. In this regard, the key question of politics is not so much that of how it is possible to commit an “act” or how a truth-procedure is possible. No, if one is really serious about producing change, the key question of politics is the question of how to produce resonance among the various systems and social systems that populate the social world.

Setting all this aside, what Nate’s remarks bring forcefully before me is that OOO is resolutely an ontology of agents. Here, I think, my approach to Burke is somewhat different than Nate’s. Nate seems to want a place for all five elements of the pentad. I see Burke’s thought as a meta-philosophy that allows us to discern the structure of philosophies or those elements that hold pride of place. The theory of the last few decades has been predominantly scenic in character. Whether we’re talking about the inflated place given to language, social forces, discourses, or economics, the dominant trend in the world of theory has been the primacy of scene over agent. In this regard, it comes as no surprise that Graham arrives at his ontology by way of phenomenology, which is primarily a philosophy of agents. And here, above all, I do not think it would be out of line to claim that OOO in general is an ontology of agents. The major difference here is that for OOO all objects are agents, whereas within the phenomenological orbit it tends to be humans alone that are agents.

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