object-oriented rhetoric or listening to the wind

There has been a recent flare up of this conversation recently, following an RSA panel on the subject. Jim Brown offers an account of the panel here as well as an earlier post on the matter. Ian Bogost has two posts in response as well. Not for nothing, but here's a post I wrote a couple months back on rhetoric and OOP.

If you take a look at Jim's posts there is some fairly strong, skeptical/critical reaction in the comments to the idea of OOP (something that Ian responds to). It's not something that really surprises me. In a way it is understandable that rhetoric would have a very strong connection with correlationist theories, as OOP would term them. After all, rhetoric has largely (if not solely) defined itself in terms of human communication; the study of rhetoric is fundamentally about affecting/persuading human subjects, the formation of human communications, ethical relations among humans, etc. Our concerns have focused on subjective experience.

In a way, in my view, that doesn't necessarily have to be a problem for OOP. As an academic, one cannot study everything. I don't think there's anything philosophically wrong with a discipline that has a focus on human behaviors and experiences. However… it's tricky. I am often reminded in academic encounters of the overwhelming primacy that many humanists wish to give to the cultural, the representational, and the subjective. It's one thing to focus on human activities (as opposed to the activities of birds or the ocean or paper cups), but one still must interrogate one's underlying theory of the relations of objects and subjects.

Ian poses the following questions:

what is the rhetoric of objects? Do things like traffic lights and kohlrabis persuade one another in their interactions? What would it mean to understand extra-human object relations as rhetorical? When Bruno Latour suggests that trees also might use us "to achieve their dark designs," does such a use count as rhetoric?

I think these are useful questions though I would want to expand rhetoric beyond the concerns of persuasion. I'm still down in South Carolina at this gaming institute, so I don't have my books, but in Chaosmosis, Guattari remarks that agency and ethics operating at molecular levels in the recognition of interdependence. I would think of these relations as open to rhetorical study as well. It's fairly easy to begin with communications among animals: mating, pack dominance, child-rearing, establishing territory, etc. Then the communications between predator and prey. Or even the communications between the homing pigeon and the earth's magnetic fields. We can think of the ways the plants respond the changing weather conditions. One might even think of molecular bonding. That said, I don't think it is necessarily unreasonable to draw a line somewhere and say there are some object relations that are not rhetorical.

For instance, it might be useful to think of rhetoric as studying assemblages that include overcoded operations, and here I am thinking of the way DeLanda takes upon Deleuze and Guattari on this matter. Briefly put, D/G describe two dimensions to assemblages material/expressive and territorializing/deterritorializing. DeLanda adds a third, coding/decoding, that essentially serves to reinforce (de)territorialization. I think it is entirely reasonable to argue that not every assemblage includes that third element. Assemblages involving conscious humans certainly do (maybe there are some exceptions), but there are also assemblages without humans to consider here as well. Certainly one could think of relations among information machines in this category.

Of course it's not that simple from either direction. Perhaps one would want to argue that DNA or physical laws constitute coded operations. D/G don't see it this way. As they write in ATP:

This property of
overcoding or superlinearity explains why, in language, not only is
expression independent of content, but form of expression is independent
of substance: translation is possible because the same form can pass from
one substance to another, which is not the case for the genetic code, for
example, between RNA and DNA chains.

This brief quote only points to the issue, but it at least suggests their willingness to separate different kinds of codes. Coming from the more traditional, humanist or subject-oriented rhetorical position one might want to insist that rhetorical relations require agency. That is, I can only be persuaded if I have agency to respond in different ways. Maybe, but the question of agency is vexed all over the place. In some senses I think it is more viable in object-oriented theory than it is in the Foucauldian, neo-Marxist inflected cultural studies that dominates the theory end of the rhet/comp field. In fact, one of the more interesting things for me about object-oriented rhetoric would be its potential to offer a better understanding of agency.

Still if object-oriented rhetoric focused on the study of assemblages with overcoded elements/strata, it would remain necessary to have a broader theory of objects that accounted for the other elements participating in the assemblage. This is what object-oriented theories would bring to rhetoric. In turn, to date, I think object-oriented theory could benefit from a more expansive understanding of the rhetorical. That is, just as code is exposed to the other elements of an assemblage, so those other elements are exposed to the coded strata. I think that rhetoric has something to offer to object-oriented theory in terms of these questions. 

My personal approach to all these questions is ultimately heuristic. That is, I am interested in how synthesizing these concepts opens new spaces for me to explore, invent, and act.

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