Assemblage Theory digital humanities object-oriented rhetoric

autopoiesis, ethics, and object-oriented rhetoric

Returning, as promised, to these concerns, as raised through comments on an earlier post. Essentially, if we go looking for an ethics apropos to OOO, where might we begin? There are some likely contenders. I should point out that Levi has a series of posts on ethics

In one post from about a year ago Levi writes:

So this is the easy OOO thesis where questions of politics and ethics are concerned: Any account of ethical and political thought that fails to take nonhuman actants into account, any account of ethical thought that reduces nonhuman objects to mere use-values, exchange-values, and sign-values, is bound to be barbarous, truncated, and inadequate because it ignores a crucial dimension of the social relation: the nonhuman actors and the differences they introduce into human relations.


The hard question of OOO and similar strains of thought like Latour’s and Bennett’s is that of what Isabella Stengers referred to as “cosmopolitics”. This is the set of issues that I can’t quite get my head around. As Bennett points out with her own thought and as holds equally, I believe, for OOO and related veins of thought, these ontologies point at conceptions of distributed agency where agency can no longer be located in one actant or actor such as the sovereign subject, but where they are distributed across a heterogeneous composition of multiple agents both affording and constraining one another, vying with one another and assisting one another, such that responsibility can no longer be located in one agency like Adam naming all the plants and animals in his mythical garden. We get something like Sartre’s subject-groups but where these subject-groups are no longer composed simply of human subjects, but where they include nonhuman actants as well. But if we extend agency to nonhuman actants, are we led to the conclusion that these nonhuman agents both have ethical and political rights and responsibilities?

It's the "hard question" that I am thinking about here, and I want to do so through autopoiesis. I've been reading an early copy of Levi's Democracy of Objects which he graciously shared with me. Since it is not the final version, I certainly don't want to quote from it directly. However, in one chapter, he discusses autopoiesis and finds usefulness in the concept, particularly in the way that autopoietic systems are operationally closed. That is, though they can be affected by the outside, the information or knowledge they produce is internal. For Maturana and Varela autopoiesis is homeostatic, as evidenced in their famous experiment with the frog's visual cortex. As Levi points out though, Luhman has a more dynamic conception of auotpoietic systems. Interestingly, autopoiesis and OOO, though quite different in many respects, share a common criticism in the difficulty they have with accounting for change (a point I'll try to get back to).

The other key issue is that not all objects or machines (as Maturana/Varela term them) or systems (as Luhman extends the concept) would be autopoietic; some are allopoietic. Basically allopoietic machines have no will of their own. Conventionally, I am autopoietic and my car is allopoietic. Only living machines are autopoietic in Maturana and Varela's conception. I'm not sure how this concept will play out in OOO. As I mentioned earlier, this issue is related to panpsychism. In Prince of Networks, Harman acknowledges some agreement with panpsychism, but he is quick to qualify it, noting, specifically, "all real objects are capable of psyche, insofar as all are capable of relation; for real objects have psyche not insofar as they exist, but only insofar as they relate. And what I deny is that all entities are always in some sort of relation" (213). There are a number of questions here for me, but structurally this is making sense. That is, ethics are relations but require will/psyche/agency; objects have agency, but only insofar as they are in some relation. Not all objects have relations, hence they do not have will or psyche; neither would they have ethical obligations. For Maturana, these latter objects would be allopoietic. 

For Maturana, the basic ethic is that no autopoietic machine should be treated as an allopoietic machine; i.e. it should not be forced into the service of another. Varela eventually departs from autopoiesis to develop a related concept of enaction wherein the operational closure of autopoietic systems is revised to account better for the possibility of change. As Katherine Hayles discusses in How We Became Posthuman, this moves toward a "Buddhist-inspired point of view that the 'self' is a story consciousness tells itself to block out the fear and panic that would ensue of humans realized there is no essential self." Timothy Morton has some posts on the relationship between Buddhism and OOO (and a forthcoming essay). I would venture to say that there is some fertile territory in thinking about an object-oriented ethics in relation to these ideas.

For me these concepts need to respond to Guattari, even though certainly in broader brushstrokes we have seen OOO's departure from Deleuze. In Chaosomsis, Guattari writes

there appears a being beyond, a being-for-the-other which gives consistency to an existent beyond its strict delimitation, here and now. … it is a plurality of beings as machines which give themselves to us the moment we acquire the pathic and cartographic means of reaching them. The manifestations- not of Being, but of multitudes of ontological components-are of the order of the machine. And this, without semiological mediation, without transcendent coding, directly as "being's giving of itself." as giving. Acceding to such a "giving" is already to participate ontologically in it as a full right. The term right does not occur here by chance, since at this proto-ontological level it is already necessary to affirm a proto-ethical dimension. The play of intensity of the ontological constellation is, in a way, a choice ofbeing not only for self, but for the whole alterity of the cosmos and for the infinity of times.

If there's choice and freedom at certain "superior" anthropological stages, it's because we will also find them at the most elementary strata of machinic concatenations. (52-3)

And then later, 

Machinic autopoiesis asserts itself as a non-human for-itself through zones of partial proto-subjectivation and it deploys a for-others under the double modality of a 'horizontal" eco-systemic alterity (the machinic systems position themselves in a rhizome of reciprocal dependence) and phylogenetic alterity (situating each actual machinic stasis at the conjunction of a passéist filiation and a Phylum of future mutations). (54)

What I see in Guattari connects with the concept of "distributed agency" that Levi raises. Let me try to put these ideas together. Harman says psyche (thought) requires relation. Levi suggests agency (willed action) requires relation. I have been arguing that ethics, which requires both thought and action, also requires relation. So to me, distributed agency and distributed cognition (which is where Varela and 3rd wave cybernetics go) are, in my view, equally bundled, perhaps synonymous. Perhaps we might therefore argue that thought, agency, and ethics emerge from relations. 

Ethics then recognize not only our self-preserving interest in maintaining others but also a recognition that our thoughts/agency are necessarily for others and obligated to others–because without such relations to other objects no thought or agency is possible. Even if we are to remain true to Maturana's original notion of autopoiesis as operationally closed, those internal processes still require some exposure to the other, some relation, in order to fire. 

In that light then, one might think of an object-oriented rhetoric as the capacity or process by which one object shapes the thoughts and agency of another. I mean, isn't that what we have always said rhetoric is? Except that we have now returned to this observation after a very strange trip. Now we recognize that thought-action are only possible through exposure/relation and that in rhetoric we are examining both the exteriority of an object (what another object encounters) and the compositional process of exteriorization. 

Ultimately, my immediate scholarly interest is quite narrow. It has to do with rethinking the professional ethos of the humanities in light of its changing relations, primarily in the shift from print to digital technology, but in some ways that's clearly just a part of the shift from the industrial nationalism of the 20th century to the informational globalism of the 21st (or maybe that's the other way around and informational globalism is part of the digital, but I digress). Our ethical and rhetorical practices are deeply embedded in these legacy relations, but an object-oriented ethics and rhetoric might allow to see how new relations could develop.