Assemblage Theory Rhetoric/Composition

Latour's composition manifesto and post-critical composition studies

From Larval Subjects I picked up on Latour's composition manifesto. The manifesto makes arguments that should be familiar to any reader of Latour, but it's clear focus on composition should be of especial interest to rhetoricians (though, of course, he fails to make the connection between composition and writing even while managing to connect to music, painting, dance, etc.). Basically, Latour differentiates between composition and critique, which I actually see as a re-enactment of Ulmer's discussion of hermeneutics and heurertics: critique/hermeneutics are about revealing a hidden world; composition/heuretics are about building a world from the rubble of critique.  As Latour writes, "While critiques still believe that there is too much belief and too many things standing in between reality, compositionists believe that there are enough ruins and that everything has to be reassembled piece by piece."

In fact,one might go back even further with Ulmer to his late 80s essay "The Object of Post-Criticism" to see one starting point for what Latour is discussing (though clearly Latour has been making this argument at least since We have never been modern as well). It's not really origins or ownership that I'm interested in here, but I do think that it's interesting that Ulmer comes to a post-critical composition through his reading of Derrida, who has been so antithetical to these discussions otherwise. In that 80s essay, Ulmer connects Derrida's pharmakon with his own development of the saprophyte (mushroom). In The Two Virtuals, I read the saprophytic process as analogous to ripping (as in rip, mix, burn) as a part of (de)composition.

In object-oriented discourse there is simultaneously a great interest in rhetoric, as we can see in both Bogost and Harman's work, and some hesitancy in focus on the textual, which I think comes out of creating some distance from the correlationist emphasis of texts underlined by the mainstream Derridean catch phrase, "il n'y a pas de hors-texte." As I noted above, we can see it in Latour's list of compositional practices, where he notes composition "has a clear root in art, painting, music, theater, dance" (as if we haven't spoken of the composition of texts for centuries, with the OED citing the original use of composition in reference to words in 1388). Levi Bryant notes the same thing regarding Latour that "Composition here does not refer to write, but rather to composing or building out of heterogeneous actors."

Of course I take issue with this, not with Levi's reading of Latour, which is correct, but with this separation of these to definitions. I would argue that writing is composing is "building out of heterogeneous actors," because of course written composition is NOT ONLY building from words. And it is not only words plus punctuation symbols, margins, kerning, leading, and all the other elements of typography. It is NOT ONLY all those things PLUS all the material, technological apparatuses of written composition (now turned to "multimedia" digital composition).

A text is a composed object just like any other object. Texts may be especially important objects from a human perspective (and a humanists perspective). They are the objects that I tend to study. And we have special methods and technologies for studying them just as other objects are studied with microscopes,etc. Knowledge about texts is composed just as knowledge in the sciences is composed (as Latour has so famously demonstrated). We even have "labs" in written composition where knowledge about rhetoric/composition is sometimes composed.

This is really an argument that I have been trying to articulate since reading Ulmer in grad school, though certainly the recent work of DeLanda and Latour, along with my encounter of object-oriented discourses, has really crystallized it. In particular I have long been interested in this movement away from critique, which in composition studies is connected with the post-process movement. Even though I consider myself to be "post-process," that term has always been an umbrella for a heterogenous range of scholarly practices that share in common a departure from the "process approach" to teaching writing, which is really the bedrock of rhet/comp (and is likely still the mainstream way in which writing is actually taught in the US). As those in the discipline know, the primary post-process approach is one that is characterized by a Foucauldian, cultural/ethnic/gender/feminist studies approach to discourse, ideology, representation, and power in which the pedagogical experience is one of unveiling (just as Latour notes all critique promises). While I believe (and I think most object-oriented folks would agree) that such critical approaches made contributions to the humanities, it's time to move on. Not because the problems such critiques reveal have been solved, but because a post-critical composition offers a more productive method for building a better life.

When we get to these questions of what rhetoric and object-oriented theory can offer one another, this is where I see the connection. Object-orientation offers rhetoric a theory of post-critical composition, an object/actor/assemblage/network theory of process that dramatically expands traditional writing process theories and moves us beyond the limits of critique. In turn, a post-critical rhet/comp offers object-oriented theorists methodologies for dealing with textual/media objects and composition that doesn't fall prey to the correlationist tendencies OOP seeks to redress.

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