Over at Digital Digs Alex has an INTERESTING POST up on the relationship between OOO and composition studies. While Alex welcomes some of the advances that have recently been made with respect to object-oriented rhetoric (OOR)– especially with respect to Morton’s recent paper –he worries that it’s been too focused on rhetorical analysis and not enough on rhetorical production, invention, or composition. I look forward to seeing how Alex develops this line of thought in the future. In many respects, I believe the sorts of questions Alex is asking with respect to rhetorical production converge with questions I’m asking in political theory: To wit, how do new groups arise that produce new forms of social relation. While analysis of existing social relations is a dimension of such questions, the focus is on the production of something new.

Here the question, then, is that of how new objects are composed, built, or come into being. Rather than taking composition in the restricted sense of writing a paper that Alex seems to be using– and I don’t think he’d disagree with me here –I’d like to use composition in the broader, more ontological, sense suggested by Latour in his “Compositionist Manifesto“. As I understand it, Latour’s compositions refer to assemblages built out of heterogeneous objects, materials, or entities. Here I use the term “assemblage” as short-hand for objects at a larger level of scale.

Objects at larger levels of scale are composed of objects from smaller levels of scale. My television, for example, is composed of glass, plastic, wire, tubes perhaps, computer chips, and so on. It is a composition among elements that produces a unit, to use Bogost’s term, that is an entity in its own right. At the end of his talk at Claremont, Bogost suggested that philosophers should perhaps use engineering as a model of thought rather than science. While science– and I’m being unfair here –tends to evoke abstract models of the universe that we encounter in a journal article, the advantage of engineering is that it draws our attention to the problem of composition.

Building an object is always problematic. When smaller scale objects are brought together with larger scale objects we always encounter a series of problems as to just how to make these objects work together. Engineering is a field of problems. When we bring objects together we discover that they behave in unexpected ways, that this object, brought into relation with that object, evokes surprising and hitherto unknown powers within one or both of the objects. We learn more and more about the volcanic powers of objects through relating them to one another and interacting with them, but we should be cautious in concluding that we ever know all the powers of objects (I’m inclined to argue that every object is inexhaustible).

A nice example of an engineering problem came up in Ian’s UCLA talk on Alien Phenomenology (and I strongly urge others to watch his talk). One of the aims of Bogost’s alien phenomenology is to analyze the manner in which nonhuman objects experience the world. To illustrate what such a project would look like, Ian devised a program that allows us humans to see how Atari itself experiences its programs. As he gave his talk, you saw, on the screen behind him, various oscillating colors, now green, now hues of pink, now going blank entirely, without any structured or meaningful entities. This is the experience of the Atari. Now, as Ian discussed his thesis, he made an interesting passing remark. Bogost remarked that he had to slow down the oscillations lest he cause the members of the audience to have seizures. This is an example of a compositionist engineering problem. In putting together his program, Ian had to consider not simply the nuts and bolts of the program itself but the unintended consequences, effects, it might have on other objects… In this case, the audience.

Returning to Alex’s discussion of OOR, I wanted to draw attention to a particular passage in his post. Alex writes,

What does this have to do with composition in the rhetoric/composition sense? A theory of media composition rests upon a theory of the composition of thought, and indeed a general theory of composition. In composition studies, generally speaking, I think we rely upon some default, commonsensical notion of how the world is composed. That is, we generally adhere to the modern split between things (which are the subject of science) and thought/language/culture (the subject of the humanities). We’ve had some forays into cognitive science in relation to composition, but that didn’t take too well. And we talk about some things, like technologies, but we generally stick to the “cultural effects” of such. As for how we imagine thought, I’m less certain. I would guess the discipline as a whole operates out of some generic humanistic psychology, perhaps with some psychoanalytic theory thrown in, and then extends toward a notion of human thought as produced/shaped by ideology. As with all contemporary correlationist positions, the problem of agency looms large in contemporary composition studies.

Here I wanted to point out that it is not culture or the effects on culture that OOO objects to, but rather a certain conception of culture. What OOO objects to is the idea that there is a split between nature and culture, between the human and the nonhuman, such that the domain of culture is exclusively focused on morality, intentions, symbols, signs, and meanings, whereas the domain of nature is exclusively characterized by a focus on causality and nonhuman entities. OOO argues that so long as we adopt this concept of culture, we will never understand why the social takes the form it takes.

A while back Ian and I coined the term “promiscuous ontology” to capture this dimension of our flat ontology. Flat ontology doesn’t just mean that entities exist at all levels of scale, but rather that being is composed of a variety of different types of entities. Within a promiscuous ontology, fictions, signs, corporations, signifiers, etc., are no less real than quarks and cane toads. Consequently, if we are to understand the world around us we can’t privilege one of these types of entities as overdetermining all the others, but must instead think them as a heterogeneous composition posing a problem of engineering (without an engineer or author). Promiscuous ontology is a thought of the and. How are we to think the interelation of discourse AND the signifier AND physics AND the signifier AND human and animal bodies AND technologies AND weather events, etc. Coming from a Latourian background himself, I suspect Alex is on the same page here as me.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that an object-oriented rhetoric will take pencils, pens, paper, computers, blog programs, etc., seriously, and not simply focus on content. Or put differently, all of this is a roundabout way of asking how these things that are traditionally treated as being outside considerations of rhetoric affect content. To give an example, how has my iPad affected my blogging? How has it changed the nature of my blogging? Do I write differently as a result of my blogging? Do I read differently? Since I’ve gotten my iPad I use fewer pictures in my blog posts because they’re a pain in the ass to post with this technology. For a while my blogging slowed down significantly because it’s harder to write using this technology. Additionally, my posts became shorter. And just now, as I wrote this post on my iPad, I accidently published it before it was finished. The technology makes a difference. Just as you will be surprised by the results if you write only in haikus, technologies have both constraining and affording affects on the production of rhetoric.

OOR would take these things into account. Rhetoric would not simply be a product of a rhetor, but would be a product of an assemblage of human and nonhuman actors and objects. Additionally, OOR would treat texts themselves as objects. Texts, once produced, circulate about the world as entities in their own right, entering into assemblages with other things and producing new objects as a consequence. Here we must learn how to think a little more psychotically about text. Freud famously said that psychotics treat words as things. This should be a battle cry for object-oriented rhetoricians: Rhetoric isn’t simply about something, it is something. What new things might we discover if we began from the premise that texts are themselves material things that must take place, that must be iterated, that must be repeated, that must circulate in order to produce effects? For starters, we would recognize that it is not enough to produce a good or persuasive argument, but that the argument must circulate throughout the world and produce effects in audiences. We would discover that content alone is not enough and we would begin to devise strategies for intensifying circulation and effects in audiences (both human and nonhuman audiences). We would discover that, as Harman says, writing must be vivid.