object-oriented rhetoric

whatever objectivity

Levi has an excellent post on epistemological v. metaphysical realism in object-oriented ontology. I was particularly interested in his discussion of the question of "how do we know an object is an object?"

fallibility is built into this transcendental account of knowledge. Daniel asks “how do we know that the computer is an object and not just an aggregate of computer parts?” Insofar as OOO is a metaphysical realism, not an epistemological realism, the only answer is that we’re not entirely certain. It could be that the computer is merely a collection of objects and not an object in its own right. I don’t claim certainty. Many philosophers, influenced– probably unconsciously –by a Cartesian tradition seem to treat certainty as a model of knowledge. Absent certainty, then the conclusion seems to be that we are entitled to dismiss any ontological claims. This strikes me as a very odd premise. Certainties are few and far between, but that doesn’t entail that there aren’t degrees of probability and likelihoods.

Levi does move on to discuss some of the arguments by which we might claim something has the status of an object, such as causal redundancy, so you can check that out as well. This led me to think about ethico-rhetorical issues that exist in this space between epistemology and metaphysics.

As Levi points out, epistemology is necessarily about relations: what one object may know of another object (or even of itself). Metaphysics/ontology on the other hand is about being, regardless of whether that being may be known. Let's be clear though, that while epistemology is about relations, not all relations are epistemological. This is, in part, one of those questions of panpsychism. Do all objects have the capacity to know? If so, does one then articulate all relations as kinds of knowings? My inclination is to not move in this direction. In part because it makes knowing into an worthless concept. Certainly one can have panpsychism without suggesting all relations are epistemological by suggesting that all objects have some epistemological relations with other objects. But I want to set aside that question today and move forward with the premise that some relations are not epistemological.

Where would ethics and rhetoric fit in then? Ethics, at least as I see it, is also about relation, about our obligations to one another (and ourselves). Rhetoric is also about relation, yes? However, whether or not ethical or rhetorical relations require knowing (and are hence a subset of epistemology) or if they can instead be characterized as ontological as well is an open question for an object-oriented rhetoric.

First off, I would suggest that our ethical obligations to others exceed our ability to know them (that is, either the others or our obligations). We are obligated to others whatever those others may be. Here one might be reminded of Agamben's use of the term in relation to subjectivity. As Agamben writes, "Love is never directed toward this or that property of the loved one (being blond, being small, being tender, being lame), but neither does it neglect the properties in favor of an insipid generality (universal love): The lover wants the loved one with all of its predicates, its being such as it is." Departing from this concept then, an ethics based on a "whatever objectivity" would describe our obligations to that object, whatever the object may be, including its withdrawn or virtual being. In some sense then, ethical obligations can never be simply delimited, as we can never fully know that to which we are obliged. 

But then you already know that right? As teachers, we never really know the limits of our obligations to students until we encounter them. We can set arbitrary limits and guidelines; we have bureaucratic requirements (e.g. office hours). But these are not the same as our obligations. We find the same experience with research and the obligations we have to the objects we study. Most importantly, from my perspective, we have the same experience as writers. We do not know what obligations we will encounter in our relations to our writing.

Here is where an object-oriented onto-rhetoric might begin. If we think of rhetoric as that which is communicated then perhaps it is strictly epistemological, but I find that unsatisfactory. Objects communicate in ways that are not conventionally rhetorical (e.g. communicative diseases) but also there are rhetorical effects that are not conventionally known (i.e., we are not always aware of what persuades us; perhaps we never fully know how we are persuaded). So this leads to this question: if we are exposed to whatever objectivity we encounter, knowable or not, and ethical obligations arise from such encounters (obligations, which themselves are never fully known), then can we also say that objects have both knowable/sensible rhetorical relations and a withdrawn rhetoric that is not fully known but to which other objects are nevertheless exposed and which impacts those objects?

That's a rather wordy question I'm afraid. If we say the answer is "yes," then I have a clearer picture of what an object-oriented rhetoric would be. For example, it would describe my relations to this interminable post, written between various administrative obligations I have today, day one of our semester, as director of composition. Here is where I might depart somewhat from Harman's sensual objects. I am writing about this idea that one might say exists only in my head. If I had decided not to write about it, then perhaps it would have disappeared. And yet I don't experience this idea is internal to me. To the contrary, I experience the subject/object of this post, "my idea," as other than me. I'm trying to figure out what it is. It keeps making demands of me. It is not simply inside. Why? Because this idea is part of a relation between me and other objects out there. Those objects include Levi's post but the network is perhaps inexhaustible, at least in the sense that I can never fully account for the object-relations to which I am exposed. It is also obviously not simply inside because it is (or is at least mixed up in) this post, and I am looking at it right now on my screen.

As such, an object-oriented rhetoric would investigate such relations as the one's I am having with this post, but it would also presume that objects have a withdrawn rhetoric out of which rhetorical relations, both epistemological and ontological, emerge in the same way that other characteristics of objects emerge.


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