From time to time people have raised questions about why SR/OOO might have arisen at the time it did. I don’t pretend to have a comprehensive answer to this question, but I suspect that it has a lot to do with the unique experience of our generation, especially as it pertains to the new technologies. Folks like Graham, Morton, Bogost, and I lived through a fundamental transformation of culture. We saw the first Ataris, then the personal computer, transformations in the telephone involving call waiting, caller ID, multi-party calls, the rise of cable television, the invention of the cell phone, the rise of the internet, the transformation of grocery stores and food, etc., etc., etc. We have lived through and in a transition between two cultures. As Jameson suggests in Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, such transitional lives between histories tend to generate a particular critical and speculative sensibility.
We have lived– as does the current generation that grew up in this ecology –in a world awash in objects of all sorts. Not only did we develop in a world of objects, we developed in a world awash in mysterious or withdrawn objects (here, for some reason, Stephen King’s Maximum Overdrive and Christine both come to mind as they depict a world animated by all sorts of mysterious, frighteningly lively machines). And what we discovered, perhaps, as we began our studies in the world of theory was that that theory was deeply inadequate in helping us to understand this strange new world we were living in. Roughly we were presented with three options: the linguistic turn focusing on signifiers, texts, and signs, phenomenology focusing on the analysis of intentionality and lived embodied experience, and the new historicists with their focus on networks of power and discursive structures.
While all of these orientations provide valuable conceptual tools, none of them seemed quite adequate to the features of the new strange world in which we were living. In many respects, the linguistic turn that dominated the work of the French post-structuralists was the predictable response of a text-based culture to the information transformations being wrought by the new media and communications technologies. With the emergence of new media, the first (knee-jerk) response was to try to assimilate these technologies to paradigms of text revolving around the signifier, meaning (and its play), representation, signs, and so on. It’s not that this predictable response on the part of subjectivities formed in a milieu of textuality didn’t reveal important things about how the aporia of how the signifier functions in the new world; rather, the problem is that it tends to occlude the novelty of these new agencies through a focus on text, narrative, and sign. For example, as Ian Bogost argues in Persuasive Games, the video game embodies a very different type of rhetoric, based on operations and performance, rather than the signifier. This becomes entirely invisible when the world is approached as a text.
The new historicists fare a bit better as they at least draw attention to material institutions such as the architecture of a building, but even there the focus remained too heavily centered on the discursive, representational, discourses, and sense-making machines as prime movers of social phenomena. Foucault had opened a door with his analysis of micropower and all those tiny networks that form and target the body, yet all too often this opening went unexplored. And then, of course, there were the Lacanians. In an age that was undergoing massive transformations in the structure of subjectivity as a result of the new technologies, where entirely new institutions and social relations were coming into being, they reterritorialized subjectivity on the signifier, treating this as the primary modeling system– even if there is a Real and an Imaginary –and proposing to explain the social primarily on the basis of ideology striving to domesticate the traumatic real. Again we found ourselves in the rut of content, meaning, representation, foreclosing all of these other things.
The phenomenologists fared, in many respects, worst of all. Their proposal was to trace meaning and social relations back to the lived experience of the body and cogito. While teaching us many things about consciousness and mind, this was nonetheless a reactionary gesture, a sort of recoil from the new world, thoroughly inadequate to the manner in which the primacy of “natural” (or primordial) lived experience was being transformed, challenged, and upset by these technological transformations and by systems (such as global capital) that thoroughly elude any grounding or comprehension in and through intentionality. This recoil comes out most clearly in Heidegger’s discourse about technology in terms of the forgetting of Being and enframing. There were glimmers of hope here and there. The Marxists had always been attentive to the manner in which technologies thoroughly transform human cognition, affectivity, embodiment, and social relations. The structuralists and post-structuralists drew our attention to systems that exceed and elude the domain of intentionality, representation, and meaning. Haraway and the cyberneticists drew our attention to cyborgs and human-nonhuman couplings generating very different entities. Latour drew our attention to the role played by nonhuman actors such that these actors can’t be reduced to vehicles for human representation and intentions. Deleuze and Guattari gave us a posthumanist metaphysics that didn’t reterritorialize everything on the perspective of human beings, and the Whiteheadians began to gain steam doing much the same thing. McLuhan drew attention to the way technologies transform us. Yet by and large these were marginalized perspectives falling on deaf ears. They were fringe.
In Natural-Born Cyborgs Andy Clark recounts a return to his home city in Finland where he was surprised to discover cell phone stores all over the place and where all the young go about constantly texting and speaking on their phones. As Clark recounts it,
Half the people aren’t entirely where they seem to be. I spent last Christmas in the company of a young professional whose phone was hardly ever out of his hands. He wasn’t using the phone to speak but was constantly sending and receiving small text messages from his lover. Those thumbs were flying. here was someone living a divided life: here in the room with us, but with a significant part of him strung out in almost constant, low-bandwidth (but apparently highly satisfying) contact with his distant friend).
The young of Finland refer to their cell phones as “kanny”, which means “extension of the hand”. The experience of this young professional is one which I share. When I visited my parents last Summer, I was constantly texting back and forth with Morton. When we went to the beach I had a furious blog debate. When I attended the Albuquerque RMMLA conference, I used my phone to determine which restaurants to eat at. These new technologies significantly transform embodied experience, place, situatedness, networks, information, and the nature of cognition. I think differently with the internet and my cell phone than I do without.
I think, even where it doesn’t know it, OOO and SR are responding to these ontological transformations where we’re no longer quite sure where we are, what we are, and what’s calling the shots. On the one hand, there’s the looming ecological catastrophe hovering over our collective heads that has the effect of diminishing attention to the signifier, ideology, meaning, and representation and of drawing attention to cane toads, weather events, bees, farming techniques, lawn, energy production, etc. On the other hand, there are all these new strange technologies that we are increasingly melded with in ways that aren’t entirely within our control. These things call forth, beg, plead for a non-correlationist ontology that overcomes the narcissism of humans wishing to treat all of being as externalized spirit. This, I think, is part of why OOO/SR came into being.