Timothy Morton's object-oriented rhetoric

At the UCLA symposium "hello everything," held today and live-streamed, Timothy Morton had some interesting things to say about an object-oriented rhetoric. I also had an opportunity to watch Ian, Graham, and Levi speak. All had interesting things to say, but I'm going to touch only on Tim and specifically his discussion of rhetoric. The video of his talk is embedded below the fold, but I'm sure you can either follow through from that video or Morton's blog to see recordings of the other talks. 

Put succinctly, Morton makes an argument for the genuine recovery of rhetoric that is not disimilar from the arguments made by many rhetoricians, though Morton criticizes the linear version of rhetoric he sees at work in composition courses. This linearity is likely familiar to you as it follows through the canons of rhetoric from invention to delivery. I do not think any rhetorician would describe the canons as representing a linear process and I'm quite sure none of us would say something like "first you come up with an idea, then you organize it, then you add some stylistic flourishes," etc. And yet… who would be surprised to see such practices embedded in a first-year composition course? (but I digress). 

Morton inverts the canon to begin with delivery. And that's an interesting place to start. The object, the composition if you like, is what is delivered. Not the message inside, right, but the language, the media, as an object. A composition is an object/assemblage that meets all of DeLanda's (and Harman's if you watch his talk) tests. It has emergent properties that do not exist for its component parts. It has redundant causation (you can take out/replace some parts, i.e. words, and the object remains). It effects other objects on its own level. And by this I suppose one could mean that a writer's reading of one text affects his composing of the next, but I'll say something simpler: this post will supplant the last one at the top of my blog. Memory, style, and arrangement then all describe features of the object. Invention is, finally, the withdrawal of the object, that almost Blanchot-Orphic moment of origin that is impossible/irretrievable. Rhetoric then becomes a way of describing the communication among objects. All the element of the canon are delivered simultaneously. 

As a rhetorician, one approaches rhetoric in two basic ways. First one can conduct a rhetorical analysis, and while we have typically done this with media/text, Morton suggests more broadly doing this with objects (e.g. the rhetorical relations between the garden and the house). Second, one thinks about the activity through which such objects are composed. And here I think it is interesting to not begin with invention. One might object by saying, "how can one writing without first coming up with something to write about?" Or one might say, "Ok, you mean starting with brainstorming or freewriting or something." But the answer here would be no to both.

So how does this work then? In OOO style, it begins with recognizing the non-human nature of rhetorical objects. I.e., invention does not require human thought or participation. And this is really something I was after in The Two Virtuals, a radically different theory of composition, which built on DeLanda's work in Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy. Now perhaps my work there would be too much along the lines of what Morton refers to as a lava-lamp like description of materiality than would satisfy OOO, but my argument there was that thought participates in media composition (I'm thinking now as I am composing), but that compositions are not "invented" there. To the contrary, thought is distributed among assemblages and objects that are not simply in the body with language being particularly notable among those assemblages (which is one of the points Morton begins his talk with). As a result, my thoughts are not mine. They are not a product of ideological mind control; they are not a result of some internal other/unconscious; though both of those things are at work: they are objects to which thought is exposed as it emerges and passes through my brain. Where does it go next? Many places. Perhaps this text was exposed to my thoughts as it was composed. 

Invention, I would suggest, begins with exposure among objects/assemblages. In this respect, the invention of a text is no different from the invention of any object. Water is invented when hydrogen and oxygen are exposed to one another (though their exposure to other objects/conditions are also necessary). I suppose one could say oxygen and hydrogen are delivered to one another, but I'll leave that one alone for now. 

Dealing with all of this in a composition class is tough. Everyone in that room has the linear notion of composition that Morton derides. That received notion also rests upon ideas of creativity, imagination, and thought that are counterproductive. Needless to say (but said anyway), all of the students have long, problematic histories with writing instruction. 

All of that needs to be undone in composition. Good luck. 

In my experience, you can't approach this directly. That is, you can't go into a composition classroom with the idea that you're going to explain all this OOO stuff to students and how it is connected to rhetoric and composition. Even if you could, it's questionable that the understanding would actually impact their writing practice. As hilarious as this notion sounds, this is precisely what much of composition has done for the last 20 years in teaching cultural studies in composition. Now I have no problem with teaching cultural studies itself. I have come to disagree with many tenets of cultural studies but I recognize it as a valid subject to study and teach. But it makes no sense to use cultural studies as a tool for teaching composition. It's as misguided as teaching OOO in FYC would be. 

The task instead is to inform your pedagogy with OOO.

In this regard, the first challenge is to convince students to open themselves to being exposed to the world. Of course we are all always-already exposed. But, at least in the classroom, I think students have been trained to close themselves off quickly to possibilities, to take the shortest path. Simply put, if you don't want to write, it's hard to do it well. I write all the time, but when I'm tired or preoccupied or don't feel like doing it, it's hard to do a good job. Sure, I'm a professional, and I can accomplish many writing tasks in this mental state. Sometimes I even push through and rediscover some desire or excitement. But sometimes I know that it's time to quit. Sometimes I start writing a post and just realize it's going nowhere. I would say, from an OOO perspective, that the desire to write emerges from exposure to other objects, though maybe I'm pushing the OOO connection there, as Harman's vicarious causation perhaps.

So you can't make students want to write; it wouldn't be ethical if you could. What you can do is offer students the opportunity to find ways to want to write. Put briefly, one can assist students in building a new kinds of writing assemblages, new compositional relations, that work. I think this has to be an experimental process, though I think we can suggest, from experience, certain practices that have worked for other students in the past. Personally I have found that shifting students away from the essay, and even the printed page, can often be enough to restart their compositional relations with the world. But that's just one strategy. The point here is that, as a teacher, you are exposing students to new writing objects in situations where they are asked to write in the hope that they will find something that works.

Once students start to think of writing as something they want to do, then there are many ways to proceed. A writing or rhetoric major would be filled with such possibilities. An FYC course might do some of this, but honestly, even getting a large number of students to view writing as something they want to do on some level would be a triumph. 



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