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.

read on!

The case is similar with autopoietic systems. Autopoietic systems are not teleological, but rather function in such a way as to reproduce themselves. Consider, for example, how Luhmann analyzes social systems (which I count as objects) and, in particular, the news media as analyzed in The Reality of the Mass Media. Luhmann treats social systems as communication systems. Their substantiality consists in ongoing communications. Initially we might believe that the function of the news media it to, well, report the news. We might therefore be outraged by all the tripe and fluff we encounter in contemporary news reporting (especially in the United States). However, under Luhmann’s analysis, insofar as the mass media is an autopoietic system, its sole “purpose” is to reproduce itself across time. This entails that the news perpetually faces the question of how to get to the next communication so as to maintain its existence. How does the news media produce new communications so as to continue existing as a system?

There is little here in the way of a purpose such as reporting. Rather, the issue is one of producing new communications. A number of salient features become intelligible when the news media is understood in this way. In recent news, it has become increasingly customary to present opposing points of view, represented by so-called “experts”. Moreover, it will be noted that local news is often pervaded by stories of a moral nature, reporting things like various crimes, various crises such as obesity epidemics, etc., etc., etc. The person that begins with the premise that the purpose of the news is to report rather than reproduce itself will very likely be horrified by these trends (and I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t be). However, from the standpoint of the operational closure of the news system, the issue is one of how to reproduce itself. The focus on controversial topics and the presentation of opposing points of view allows for maximal autopoiesis because conflict generates more communication and subsequent communications. Moreover, perhaps one of the so-called experts will say something significant and controversial as Sarah Palin tends to do, creating a controversy, thereby generating reporting for days on in. The case is similar with the morality tales that make up the local news. These morality tales revolving around theft, child abuse, murder, adultery, etc., generate all sorts of commentary by both the so-called experts and the audience in the form of letters to the editor. Those letters to the editor can, in their turn, generate further communications.

In the blogosphere we can discern similar autopoietic phenomena. If the success of a blog post is measured in terms of the number of comments it generates and the manner in which it gets cross-posted, then my most successful blog posts are not my highly technical posts, but rather those which are either a) of a personal nature speaking about my life, my daughter, career woes, etc., or b) those that generate the most controversy. Here the aim is not consensus or agreement– and note, I’m not talking about the purpose of my posts (I don’t set out to create controversies and generally find them to be draining and unpleasant), but rather the communication system itself that transcends me (i.e., I’m only a node in a larger-scale object or system) –but to produce ongoing communications. Objects pop into being and pass out of being. If controversial or personal posts are the most effective in generating autopoiesis or the reproduction of a social system, then this is because everyone can add their own two cents. We can talk about our own personal lives, our shared traumas and despairs, or we can go meta and talk about how offensive a particular rhetoric and claim is. As a result, communications are produced and a certain substance comes into being for a time.

Setting this aside, I believe that Burke overstates the purposive nature of instruments and technologies. A careful investigation of the history of technology would reveal, I believe, that purpose does not precede the production of many instruments and technologies, but rather follows the production of many instruments and technologies. In other words, in many instances, things are invented first and we only subsequently find a purpose or use for them. Here I’m reminded of the spectacle of my daughter with paper towel rolls, turning them into pirate spy glasses. “Argghhh Mate!”, she cries with delight as she closes her eye that looks through the tube while keeping her eye outside the tube open. She’s three. In this connection, we can talk about something like a “techno-sphere” that is not unlike an Amazonian eco-system. Just as speciation takes place in such a system as a consequence of certain selective pressures issuing from other organisms, certain instruments and forms of technology come into being because niches open up as a result of relations between existing technologies. Only later is their purpose found.

Here “A Collective of Humans and Nonhumans” in Latour’s Pandora’s Hope is indispensable reading. There Latour shows how nonhuman agencies actually create new goals for us. Unlike Burke who proceeds from a pre-existing human purpose to its embodiment in a technology or an instrument, Latour shows how a number of nonhuman actors actually generate purposes for us in such a way as to shift our own goals. I did not come to the internet with the purpose of blogging or participating on email lists (when I still did), but rather the internet created this new purpose in me. Likewise, the automobile can create the goal of Sunday drives, roadside picnics, and leisurely drives through beautiful, ancient Southern grave yards. In these cases, the goal did not pre-exist the nonhuman agent. This is one of the primary senses in which nonhuman objects can be genuine agents or actors. In rhetorical terms, we can speak of these nonhumans as persuading humans and creating identifications. Here the order of things does not go from human intention to passive object, but rather from active object to human intentions. This is one of the reasons I believe that McLuhan is so significant. While McLuhan describes media as extensions of man, there’s a very real sense in which these nonhuman agents transform the human.