Assemblage Theory object-oriented rhetoric Rhetoric/Composition

composition in an object-oriented rhetoric

Generally speaking, OOO's discussion of rhetoric focuses on the rhetorical analysis of existing texts and media. We can see this in Tim Morton's recent talk at Rice, in Ian Bogost's analysis of the procedural rhetoric of video games (or here in the text of a recent presentation on Process v. Procedure), and in Graham Harman's discussion of rhetoric in Prince of Networks. Rhetorical analysis is clearly an important part of rhetoric. These are all interesting and useful texts and tell us something about how OOO thinkers address rhetoric. However, the part of rhetoric that interests me the most is the process of composition.

If you are familiar with OOO, then you likely recognize that the issue of process is a sticking point. As Harman often puts it, process theories, which do tend to dominant contemporary philosophy, have a problem explaining objects, while his object-oriented philosophy has the opposite problem. Recently Levi Bryant described himself as a process philosopher, which I think makes sense given what I have read on his blog, and yet is a difficult position to take in relation to OOO. Since my own work focuses on theories of composition, it necessarily concerns itself with processes, so my work comes out of Deleuze to explore the spaces between Latour and DeLanda, and now OOO as well.

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.

However object-oriented ontology has a related problem in trying to account for agency (or any other process). Harman gives an excellent accounting of Latour's flat ontology in Prince of Networks, especially in situating Latour as breaking down the correlationist boundary between human thought and the world. As Harman notes, there is a kind of Xeno's paradox in Latour's suggestion that two objects must always be mediated by a third, that two objects cannot directly interact. Latour's concept of plasma might be his way of addressing that, though I think that concept has not yet been fully developed, at least not in anything I've read. Harman goes in a different direction with his articulation of sensual objects and vicarious causation. Probably the easiest way to understand sensual objects is to think of them as thoughts. Whatever you think about a real object is a sensual object: that is, a sensual object can exist only inside a real object (like you). To be clear though, Harman insists that thought is not necessary for the creation of sensual objects and says any real object creates a sensual object as a way of interacting with another real object. So, I suppose, my iPad creates a sensual object of my finger when I touch it, just as I am creating a sensual object of the iPad in my thinking about it. I'm not opposed to that idea, but I certainly have to give more thought to its necessity.

In his talk linked above, Ian differentiates between process and procedure with process being associated with Whitehead and Deleuze and process philosophies in general and procedures describing "methods, techniques, and logics that drive the operation of systems." I would say that the writing process, as it is generally conceived, falls into the procedural category. With the writing process we have become aware of how hard it is to actually identify the procedures of composition. This would appear to be a clear difference from computational procedures. Even bureaucratic procedures, one of Ian's other examples, are not often what they appear or claim to be.

What shapes this composition? What is the procedure here? What leads me to incorporate Ian's post of his article, even though it appears in the midst of my writing this? What keeps me (roughly) on topic? In Composition Studies, we have all of post-process composition theory to examine the "cultural forces" that shape writing processes. Of course, those theories are largely correlationist, so that's a problem, but the bigger picture is that the procedures of composition are not easily identified (not that I'm suggesting anyone thinks they are easy even though they tend to get simplified for introductory composition classes).

So one might establish any number of experimental procedures for the production of texts, as I've mentioned many times before. One might even think of computer programs devised for such compositional tasks. I imagine such software would include some pseudo-random element for text generation because, in the end, the procedures for written composition are not deterministic of their products.

Here is where I turn to Deleuze and DeLanda, and I suppose I am reading these figures differently from Ian. In my reading of Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy, I see a philosophy that is procedural and yet non-deterministic. There are mechanisms at work here that may be abstract or virtual but are not metaphorical; in other words, they are still real. I think the concerns Ian and Graham raise about Deleuze and this notion of "firehouse metaphysics" as Ian terms it are reasonable, but I don't read these works that way. Perhaps I am just a willful misreader. (I've been called worse.) I look at a theory of the virtual as not being incommensurable with the withdrawn nature of objects. I.e. objects withdraw toward an absolute virtual state. Those withdrawn parts of an object are inaccessible but are still part of the object in a real sense.

I'm not sure I get the difference between this and how I understand potential to operate. As I see it Harman argues against a potential that asserts something that is a potential part of an object's future but is not there in the present. However I am still trying to figure out the difference between the withdrawn nature of an object and its virtual-potential character as I see both as describing non-deterministic mechanisms/procedures. For example, typically we would say that an acorn has the potential to become a tree. I think this is an example Harman uses. And yet an acorn obviously cannot become a tree on its own in a vacuum, so it would be incorrect to imagine that an acorn contains a potential tree within it. What it does include is a mechanism, a procedure. That procedure could not tell you what tree will grow from that acorn. Maybe the acorn gets eaten by a squirrel. Depending on its relations to the rest of the world, a particular tree will grow from the procedural seed. 

So to try to wrap this long post up… I see a fair amount of potential (sorry) in the intersections between an object-oriented procedure and how DeLanda builds upon Deleuze. The compositional theory that might emerge from this conversation I think could be very useful in the humanities for developing new theories of how we produce and share knowledge that not only expand our interests beyond their correlationist limits but also help us to reinvent our practices beyond their "late age of print" paradigms.