Last night I had an interesting, albeit somewhat heated, discussion about the possibility of an object-oriented rhetoric with my friend Tim. The sense that I got is that he understands object-oriented rhetoric as wishing to eradicate the human and signification from inquiry. Given that object-oriented ontology de-emphasizes the human, refusing to grant humans a central or privileged place within being, I can see why he might think this. However, it’s important to remember that for object-oriented ontology the human is not rejected but is simply treated as one type of object, with its own unique powers and characteristics, among others. What object-oriented ontology objects to is not the human or talk of human related phenomena, but anthropocentric orientations that treat every relation as involving a relation to the human. With that said, it’s also important to note that every discipline has its own focus, and that some disciplines will be more human-centered than other disciplines. This would certainly be the case with rhetoric, where one of the primary aims lies in understanding the nature of persuasion. What then, if anything, does OOO have to offer to the field of rhetoric?
1. Parity of Explanation: I draw the concept of parity from the work of Susan Oyama in The Ontogeny of Information and the edited collection Cycles of Contingency. Parity refers to styles of inquiry and investigation that take a variety of agencies into account when explaining a phenomenon. In biology, for example, parity inquiry would reject the idea that phenotypes can be explained by genes alone, and would also take into account the role played by developmental sequences (that can unfold in a variety of ways), different substances in the environment, the relation of the organism to the nest over the course of its development, etc., etc., etc. Parity reasoning is reasoning that proceeds according to the logic of the and+and+and… Rather than treating one agency as the ultimate explanatory agency, parity reasoning looks at the interplay of a variety of agencies in the production of a phenomenon.
In my discussion with Tim I got the sense that he was thinking in very either/or terms. Thus, if I pointed out that speed bumps engage in a form of persuasion without passing through the field of the signifier (he’s very Lacanian), he would retort that someone put that speed bump there for a purpose. Within the framework of Tim’s binary reasoning, it is either the purpose (the realm of signification) or the a-signifying nature of the speed bump that explains the rhetorical power of the speed bump, it cannot be both purpose and the a-signifying properties of the speed bump that explain the persuasive powers of the speed bump. My worry is that if we adopt a mode of analysis such as Tim’s we are led, in our theoretical practice, to ignore the role played by these a-signifying differences altogether. Object-oriented rhetoric is a thought of the and, of entanglements of a variety of different agencies, rather than a form of reductivism that attempts to trace all persuasion back to a single form of agency (the field of signification).
In this connection, I have often called for philosophers to think in terms of cooking (here and here), rather than in terms of classical philosophy. Classical philosophy sought an ultimate ground in the form of a prime substance, whether that substance be God, the unmoved mover, the subject, or more recently the signifier. The cook, by contrast, thinks in terms of the interplay of a variety of different agencies, ranging from ingredients, to tools, to temperatures, signs, purposes, rituals, meanings, to techniques. No one of these agencies explains the dish. Rather these agencies must be taken together to explain the dish. This is parity reasoning.
2. Missing Masses: An object-oriented rhetoric would be particularly attentive to what Scott Barnett, following Bruno Latour, has called “missing masses”. Barnett presents, to my mind, the best discussion of object-oriented rhetoric I have yet seen. As Barnett writes:
In recent years, a number of theorists in rhetoric and composition have in their own ways begun to ask of our field the same question Latour poses to sociology: where are our missing masses? The responses to this question have been numerous and have, in turn, opened our field to a wide range of material objects that, along with language, we have to see as integral to our present understanding of writing as both a practice and an object of inquiry. Among a host of others, these material objects—these missing masses—have included: technology, the body, space and place, and the natural world. Not separate or merely additional constituents in rhetorical situations, these materialities and their intertwinings constitute our reality—are part of the very is-ness of that reality—in ways that fundamentally shape our very senses of what writing means and how we practice and teach writing in the world today. As Jenny Edbauer puts it in her refiguring of the rhetorical situation as what she calls rhetorical ecologies, when thought in terms of this is-ness of materiality, “Writing . . . is more than a matter of discrete elements (audience, a writer, text, tools, ideas) in static relation with one another (a writer types her ideas into a computer for an audience who reads the text). Rather, writing is distributed across a range of processes and encounters: the event of using a keyboard, the encounter of a writing body within a space of dis/comfort, the events of writing in an apathetic/energetic/distant/close group” (13).
In the sciences, a missing mass is a variable that plays a crucial role in a particular phenomenon but which has been overlooked or missed in the course of investigation. For example, scientists were led to posit the existence of dark matter to explain the strange accelerated motion of stars at the edges of galaxies. If visible matter accounted for all matter in the universe, it would be impossible for stars to move at this rate. Consequently, there must be some other sort of matter that accounts for this accelerated motion. Remarkably, simulations of the evolution of the universe that include dark matter in their algorithms produce spiral shape galaxies such as their own, lending credence to the hypothetical existence of dark matter. The claim that the field of rhetoric contains missing masses would be the claim that rhetoric has overlooked crucial actors in rhetorical situations and that if it is really serious about explaining how persuasion works, it must, in addition to a focus on the domain of signification, take into account the role played by these masses. These missing masses are precisely the things that Barnett mentions: technologies, the body, space and place and temporalities, and natural entities. While these agencies are entangled (thank you Karen Barad) in significations, meanings, and purposes, they contribute forms of difference that are a-signifying and that can only be understood in a-signifying terms. Here the issue is to understand what contribution a-signifying agencies make to signifying agencies. Again, the aim is to think in terms of entanglements rather than ultimate grounds.
3. A Revised Notion of Purpose: In my discussion with Tim, the premise seemed to be that the purpose was already there and humans simply impose it on a passive matter. Because the purpose is already there or is the sovereign domain of subjects, the argument would run, we can simply ignore the matter that receives the purpose altogether. However, as Latour has compellingly demonstrated in “A Collective of Humans and Nonhumans” in Pandora’s Hope, this simply is not how purpose works. When I bought my iPhone I bought it for the purpose of making phone calls. However, the iPhone very quickly introduced new goals and aims into my life in the form of texting, various apps, constantly checking my email, and so forth. Here the relation between activity and passivity is reversed. The iPhone was not a passive or neutral medium that simply receives my active purposes or uses, but rather I am passive in relation to the iPhone, such that it generates new aims and goals in me. An object-oriented rhetoric would be particularly attentive to how nonhuman actors introduce new practices, goals, forms of social relation, etc., into human life.
4. Resonators: Timothy and I have coined the term “resonator” to denote any object or entity that relates other entities to one another in particular ways. My blog is a resonator in that it brings people together from all over the world who would not otherwise encounter one another. A class is a resonator insofar as it brings students, books, and faculty together in a particular place. A power outage is a resonator that often undermines particular ways in which people relate and instantiates new forms of relation. Jupiter, due to its massive gravitational forces is a resonator that contributes to bringing the planet earth and meteors together. Water coolers are resonators, television shows are resonators, telephones are resonators, the internet is a resonator, roads are resonators, the Ganges River in India is a resonator. An object-oriented rhetoric would be particular interested in the role played by resonators and how they bring people together or divide them in particular ways and the manner in which they do this.
5. An Expanded Field of Speech: A central claim of OOR would be that it is not humans alone that speak and persuade, but that a number of nonhuman objects engage in activities of persuasion. This is a field of research that has barely been tapped, with Bruno Latour, to my knowledge, being the only person to make these strange– but absolutely necessary –claims. Here I have in mind the role played by experiments and scientific instruments. Geiger counters, for example, are resonators that enable highly charged particles to engage in rhetorical acts. What the Geiger counter detects has a profound impact on peoples lives. For example, citizens of the Bikini Islands lost their homes as a result of U.S. nuclear testing there and have not been able to return to their island paradise to this day. Here Geiger counters were central agencies in producing these persuasive acts. Likewise, thermometers persuade us to dress in a particular way when we wake up in the morning. Scientific experiments can bring about the destruction of a scientist’s career and the loss of her funding. These are all instances of nonhuman actors acting as agents within rhetorical settings.
It will be said that these agencies aren’t “really” speaking or engaging in speech-acts, and that there must be some intention involved in order for one to engage in a speech-act. To this I say poppycock! A vast number of human speech-acts involve no intentionality on our part. This is the case, for example, when a lawyer or lawmaker speaks on our behalf. Likewise, a good deal of statistical information is a form of speech that none of us directly engage in, but which comes to nonetheless represent our will. The idea that all signifying activity is intentional is a prejudice that rhetorical theory should know better than to fall into.
6. Synthesis: Fortunately, a lot of the work of OOR has already been done and what’s needed is more of a theoretical synthesis than an entirely new theory. This work has primarily been done in the field of media studies. Here there are indispensable works that the would-be object-oriented rhetorician must acquaint herself with. The work of Bruno Latour– in particular Pandora’s Hope and We Have Never Been Modern –are particularly important in this connection. The work of Marshall and Eric McLuhan– especially Laws of Media and Understanding Media –are especially important. In Bogost’s Persuasive Games and Unit Operations show how computer games are persuasive mediums that don’t persuade merely as a consequence of their content or signification, but also by what they are. Likewise, it is necessary to read the work of Hayles, Haraway, Kittler, and Ong. All of these theorists think entanglements of human signification and a-signifying nonhuman actors and help the rhetorician to overcome his instinctual tendency to focus on speech, meaning, and signification alone in seeking to understand how persuasion takes place. Put differently, all of these works attempt to make a place for the missing masses of rhetorical theory.