Recently I’ve seen a lot of interest in the question of what object-oriented literary criticism would look like. I have nothing particularly new to say here, though I do have a number of thoughts on the issues. It seems to me that there are a vast number of issues that object-oriented literary criticism (OOLC) would have to raise (and I’ll only approach one of them here), but above all, it seems to me that any OOLC worth its salt must attend to 1) texts as autonomous and independent objects in their own right (i.e., as real entities), and therefore 2) the withdrawn dimension of any text.
As is familiar by now, object-oriented ontologists argue that objects are withdrawn both from one another and from themselves. Within my onticological framework, this points is expressed in the claim that objects are split-objects, divided by the domain of their virtual proper being and their local manifestations. Virtual proper being refers to the potentials or powers of an object which are never actualized as such, while local manifestation refers to the actualized properties of an object manifested under certain conditions. In my current local manifestation, for example, my skin is rather pale. By contrast, during the summer, my skin becomes dark. In the latter instance, this is because I am spending a good deal of time outdoors and therefore my skin color changes as a result of sunlight. If I am able to change in these ways, then this must be because my body possesses a virtual dimension, a dimension of potencies or powers, that enables it to manifest itself in a variety of ways. These differing manifestations will be in part due to internal dynamics of an object, but also its exo-relations to other objects. I call the field of these exo-relations a “regime of attraction” because it plays a role in what qualities an object actualizes in the world. In the case of my tan, for example, the regime of attraction involves the sun among other things.
Among other things, an object-oriented literary criticism might be concerned with this withdrawn dimension of texts. Like any other entity, texts would be split-objects, divided between local manifestation and virtual proper being. The literary critic might thus wonder whether anything can be said about this withdrawn dimension of the text. Insofar as the virtual proper being of a text is necessarily withdrawn, this dimension of texts could only ever be sensed in traces indicating or suggesting another dimension at work in the manifest dimension of a text. Based on the “logic” of these traces, the literary critic might seek to form a “diagram” (always partial and incomplete) of the virtual text that haunts a manifest text. Drawing heavily on the psychoanalytic interpretation of symptoms, Althusser’s “symptomal reading” provides a promising means for thinking about the withdrawn dimension of texts. Althusser calls for a
…’symptomatic’ (symptomale) [reading], insofar as it divulges the unidivulged event in the text it reads, and in the same movement relates it to a different text, present as a necessary absence in the first. Like his first reading, Marx’s second reading presupposes the existence of two texts, and the measurement of the first against the second. But what distinguishes this new reading from the old one is the fact that in the new one the second text is articulated with the lapses in the first text. (Reading Capital, 29)
Althusser’s symptomal reading reads for the withdrawn text through the manifest text by treating lapses, omissions, lacuna, and contradictions as traces of the virtual text beneath the locally manifested text. The example that Althusser gives is of Marx’s reading of classical political economy. Classical political economy tellx us that “…the value of ‘labor’ is equal to the value of the substence goods necessary for the reproduction of ‘labor'” (RC, 22). Marx notes that this answer is correct, but, as Althusser puts it, that it is an answer to a question that was never posed! “…[I]t is the correct answer to a question that has just one failing: it was never posed” (RC, 22). We thus find that this proposed solution contains an ellipses or lacuna, referring to something absent yet strangely present. As Althusser goes on to remark,
The original question as the classical economic text formulated it was: what is the value of labour. Reduced to the content that can be rigorously defended in the text where classical economics produced it, the answer should be written as follows: ‘The value of ( ) is equal to the value of the substence goods necessary for the maintainance and reproduction of labor ( ).” (RC, 22-23)
If there is an ellipses here, then this is because the end of the proposition and the beginning of the proposition refer to two different things. The beginning of the proposition refers to the value of labor, whereas the end of the proposition refers to the labourer. Something new is introduced under this proposition, but only under the condition of erasure. Althusser will thus speak of these repressed elements as a “…theoretical problematic’s non-vision of its non-objects, the invisible [that] is the darkness, the blinded eye of the theoretical problematic’s self-reflection when it scans its non-objects, its non-problems without seeing them, in order not to look at them” (RC, 27). The invisible or withdrawn is thus a sort of blindness at the heart of vision that functions to render the visual possible. Alternatively, it would be a withdrawal at the heart of texts that functions in such a way as to render the local manifestation of a text possible.
In Althusser’s view, this reading for the withdrawn or virtual text haunting the local manifestion of the text allows for the genesis of an entirely new set of questions. In discovering the ellipses of labor-power as the missing term within the text of classical political economy, it now becomes possible to ask “what is the value of labour-power?” (RC, 24). Yet in posing the question of the value of labour-power, we now get the entire theory of the production of surplus-value and consequently insight into capitalism as a system of exploitation. A new manifest text comes to the fore in the margins or ellipses of the text of classical political economy.
So far there is really nothing new here. Through our acquaintance with thinkers such as Marx, Freud, Lacan, Althusser, and Derrida we have become deeply familiar with the idea of reading for ellipses, absences, lacuna, and contradictions as a technique for touching on a latent content, a sort of “textual dreamwork” behind the manifest content. However, what’s interesting, I think, arises from situating Althusser’s symptomal reading in terms of object-oriented ontology and the onticological distinction between virtual proper being and local manifestation. The hypothesis of a virtual text behind or within manifest texts suggest that the text as such is independent of any of its manifestations, but also independent of its author or origin (after all, text is an object in its own right).
Along these lines, perhaps here it would be appropriate to distinguish between the text and the book along the lines of langue and parole, as Melanie suggested to me earlier today. The text of an author would be nowhere to be found in any of the books of an author, precisely because text is always withdrawn from any of its local manifestations. Just as langue is everywhere immanent in every instance of speech or parole without ever being present, the text of a book would forever be withdrawn. Driving this point home, Franz Kafka’s various books (The Trial, The Castle, Amerika, the short stories, etc) would all be a single text actualized or manifested under certain conditions. The aim of a critique, like a linguist, would be, in part, to reconstruct text on the basic of books (note the plural). By contrast, books would be local manifestations of one and the same text.
One of the ideas that fascinates me here is the possibility that texts do not need to be written by one and the same author (here I’m playing up just how strange the metaphysics of OOO is). Rather, the author of a particular book would be an object or element within a regime of attraction that actualizes the text in a particular way. As a consequence, it would be possible, in principle, for new books based on the text explored by Franz Kafka to be written despite the fact that the author, Franz Kafka, is now dead. In other words, Kafka wouldn’t have ownership of the text that he explored through his books but would be one agency of manifestation in a regime of attraction among others.
My thoughts peter out here, but I want to emphasize that these points aren’t exhaustive of what an object-oriented literary criticism might look like. Althusser’s concept of “overdetermination” for example, is particularly fruitful in the context of OOLC precisely because it allows us to explore historical, technological, economic, political, artistic, etc., conditions in which a book is locally manifest. Likewise, it should never be forgotten that books aren’t simply about something, but also are something. As a consequence, it becomes necessary to explore how, as material entities, texts circulate throughout the world, producing all sorts of effects as they enter into exo-relations with various groups, collectives, institutions, and people. That’s all for now.