object-oriented rhetoric's style, part II

Next week, I'll be speaking at the University of Pittsburgh as part of the DM@P series. The title of my talk will be "Network Exposure: Toward an Object-Oriented Rhetoric for Digital Humanities." Today I'm focusing on getting my slide deck together, but I thought I would share a part of that talk, which is also an extension of my earlier post on object-oriented style.

Style is a central concern of Harman’s Guerrilla Metaphysics where it intertwines with phenomenology and the question of how objects sense and relate to one another. Harman writes “A style is actually not a mere concept abstracted from numerous singular cases, but an actual reality that none of its manifestations can exhaust” (55). However an object’s style is something that is ultimately sensible. So while style remains an object’s expressive force, it is never fully exposed in any given encounter, or even in some abstract totality of all possible encounters. How do these objects interact, given OOO’s basic premise that all object’s withdraw from one another?  Here Harman draws upon Alphonso Lingis’ concept of the level to describe “the windy ether or plasma into which their living qualities are released, and which alone form a tangible environment. The level is not primarily a human phenomenon, or even an animal phenomenon, but a relational one” (emphasis in original) (68). So for Harman the world is not composed solely of objects and substances. If it were, then there would be no contact. The concept of levels then creates a plasma that serves as a medium for interaction. As Harman continues, 

In the most general possible terms, beings collide with one another in a field, in a series of levels that connect them with one another. These objects can never be fully deployed in any single level, since their nature is never to manifest themselves entirely in any interaction at all. But insofar as entities interact at all, they share some common language of charm or brute force by which they are able to persuade or annihilate one another. (70)

This identification of charm and force as mechanisms for interaction reappears later for Harman when he notes “The object in and of itself is merely doubled, split between its formal unity and its abundance of traits (the physical bond). But when it comes into relation with something else (the causal bond), or at least with sentient entities, this duplicity is itself doubled: the object seems to become quadruple (via the sensual bond)” (149). In short we have one line running from formal unity to the various traits of an object. This is where we encounter the task of discerning between an object and the features of an object. These are relations internal to an object. The line running from causal to sensual bonds is reminiscent for me of the line running in assemblage theory from material to expressive effects. As it is for collective assemblages of enunciation, sensual bonds are quasi-causal and related to style. They are the force of allure, which is the more general term Harman uses for charm, the capacity to persuade: rhetoric.

Through Guerrilla Metaphysics, Harman carefully explores the roles of objects, sensual objects, levels, elements, and notes to articulate the ways in which objects relate despite their being fundamentally withdrawn from one another. Ultimately he argues that “What we encounter in the world are neither real objects (they cannot be encountered) nor raw qualities (they do not exist) nor sensual objects (which are always less committed to specifics than our experiences actually are). We encounter only elements” (195). And that “An element is a sensual object incarnated in highly specific form. If the sensual object is the monkey that seems identical to us through all variations in our perceptions of it, the element is always the monkey at twilight or dawn, viewed from a specific angle or in a determinate mood, and currently eating, climbing, fighting, or screeching mournfully across a Peruvian lake” (194). In short, our encounters are always obviously relations, relations not only between us and a particular object, for example, a monkey, but a relation among us, the monkey, and a level. While the monkey’s style belongs to the monkey as a withdrawn object, it becomes available to us as an element in a particular constellation of relations, which of course can never exhaust the monkey’s style, and from which, we can create, internally, the sensual object of the monkey, which carries forward the potentially alluring force of the monkey. 

That said, objects do not always exhibit allure. As Harman is clear to distinguish, “allure is a special and intermittent experience in which the intimate bond between a thing's unity and its plurality of notes somehow partially disintegrates” (143). He points to metaphor and humor as potential sites for allure, so we can see some clear connections with rhetoric here. Style would seem to be involved in allure, not only in the sense that there are various styles of humor, for example, but also in that the successful creation of allure would seem a matter of style itself. Allure’s success or failure rests upon stylish performance. If the monkey has allure, then some of its notes pass into us to create a new object, for “Allure is that furnace or steel mill of the world where notes are converted into objects” (179). In our encounter with objects, an alluring style brings the alien with us.

Timothy Morton identifies this introduction of the alien as an integral element of rhetoric. Morton argues, “Rhetoric is not simply ear candy for humans: indeed, a thorough reading of Plato, Aristotle and Longinus suggests that rhetoric is a technique for contacting the strange stranger.” In this context, Morton turns specifically to Longinus and connects style in particular with ekphrasis in its most basic sense as a particularly vivid description. 

The ekphrastic object makes us see ourselves as objects traversed–translated by others. Longinian ekphrasis is not about the reaction of the (human) subject, but about rhetorical modes as affective- contemplative techniques for summoning the alien.

So here we come to an object-oriented conception of style as the production of alien expression within an object. Arguably style becomes the way of understanding the operation of Deleuzian multiplicities in vicarious causation as quasi-causal incorporeal transformation. In fact, I think it is possible to draw upon some linkages between the assemblage and Harman’s quadruple philosophy, between allure and Deleuzian intensity, between elements and collective assemblages of enunciation. That said, there are obvious and clearly-stated differences between OOO and Deleuze. There’s nothing really to be gained from trying to equate them. However, many questions remain to be investigated in OOO, particularly in terms of relation, and quasi-causal incorporeal transformation offers one avenue. 


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