Assemblage Theory object-oriented rhetoric Rhetoric/Composition

exaptation and the withdrawal of objects

In Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson borrows the concept of exaptation from evolutionary biology to explain, well, borrowing… in a sense. He uses the example of the feather to explain the original concept. At first the feather evolved for insulation: a purpose it still serves. Only later was its utility for flight discovered. At which time, the feather's aerodynamic qualities began to be further selected for. In technological terms, he mentions Gutenberg's exaptation of the wine press for the printing press.

It's perhaps simple enough to think about this from an object-oriented view in terms of the withdrawal of objects. OOO dislikes the notion of potential, of the notion the insulating feather has the "potential" for flight, just as it dislikes the notion that the acorn has the potential to be an oak tree. However, as Deleuze might say (and I believe Levi Bryant would agree with me here), we can distinguish between this kind of potential and the virtual. The virtual is part of the object, the withdrawn part, if you prefer.

Admittedly, it's a little confusing. In Parables for the Virtual, Brian Massumi describes a continuum of potentiality toward the virtual. He uses the example of a flower. While Massumi focuses specifically on perception (and mostly human perception at that), I will bend this, in OOO-like fashion, to think about this as describing more generally the relations among objects (and see how far I get). So in the relations between two objects, there is perception (what Harman terms sensuous objects) but always the objects themselves are withdrawn. Massumi writes, "Perception, even before its thinking out, is a limited selection, an actualization of potential plug-ins. There is more in the 'thing' than in the perception of it"  (92). He then goes on to view potential and virtuality as two poles, "the constitutive limits of the endo-fallout that is sensation. The virtual would be the highest degree of infolding-out. Potential would be its least degree, as it just begins to recede from action-perception and thinking-out into nonpossible latency"  (98). The point being here is that we might see movement along this continuum. What lies withdrawn in the virtual can move toward potentiality, and, as Massumi would put it, become "possibilized." This is what happens with the feather's virtual flight, yes? The feather aerodynamic potential is perceived by another object. At some evolutionary point, that potential becomes selected and bred for. 

I bring up Massumi here as I think he has an interesting line regarding invention. He writes "a true invention is an object that precedes its utility… a sensible concept that precedes and produces its own possibility (its system of connection-cases, its combinatoric). An invention is an in situ plumbing of potential rather than an extrapolation of disengaged possibility" (96). In other words, it has little to do with necessity. Now perhaps that is an overly argumentative claim, but I think it is useful in terms of understanding invention, as a rhetorical canon, in relation to the withdrawal of objects, as Tim Morton has suggested, and I have discussed in recent posts here.

What happens when something is invented? It doesn't appear ex nihilo, no spontaneous generation. An object is composed of other objects, even if it has its own unique qualities, a singular withdrawn nature. An invention emerges from a sensible concept, the exposure and perception of one object by another. But not anything can be invented from the exposure of two particular objects. That is, we might reintroduce the notion of the adjacent possible here from Johnson. The insulating feather's exposure to another object, or assemblage, leads to the invention of the flying feather… not the buffalo chicken wing. The latter will take several more iterations of invention. As such, even though the emerging, invented object has its own characteristics, its own withdrawn nature, it must emerge from the virtual potentiality the sensible concept actualizes. 

So to return to the rhetorical canon, when looking at an existing object, we might say that it's invention is inaccessible, withdrawn. This, we might remember, is what Blanchot taught us in his treatment of Orpheus. The object is like Euridyce: turn toward her and she withdraws forever. In turn though, when we think about the process of invention, we must think about becomings where new characteristics and new objects shift from the virtual into possibility through the exposure of two objects to one another. This is exaptation.

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