digital humanities object-oriented rhetoric

How to learn a new idea

It's not easy, apparently. As teachers, we commonly lament the difficulty our students face in learning new ideas. Often, it is not so much the inherent complexity of the ideas themselves, but the implications of the ideas: other, existing ideas that new concepts require us to give up and new habits of thinking they ask us to practice. In rhetoric and composition, such difficulties are commonplace. We ask students to give up their received notions about writing (which lead them to dislike writing and not see themselves as writers, among other things) and embrace new ideas that will hopefully make them more productive. For decades, in the humanities, we have taught "critical thinking" as a habit of mind that asks students to give up commonplace notions about free will and rationality. 

Of course undergraduates are not the only ones who have trouble learning new ideas. In graduate school, I learned (every humanities grad student learns) to "problematize" (not a word) or critique. (I'm not sure if there's a difference between those.) There are many brands, but the operation is ultimately the same. It's a search for limits, contradictions, weaknesses, blind spots, etc. in a given idea, but the bottom line is to argue that "this new idea isn't good because it's not the same as the idea I already hold." Graduate school is a tough place to be. One is fighting to establish some authority. It is understandable that one gets ahold of a theory, gains some expertise in it, and then defends it tooth and nail. 

I don't want to suggest that the critical mode has no place. Of course it does. It's just very difficult to learning something new while in the critical mode. The critical mode, alone, is not sufficient. One also requires a generative, playful, mode. 

I was thinking about this in particular listening to Tim Morton's Rutgers talk. In part, we get a sense of Morton's own journey into object-oriented ontology, but equally interesting is the Q&A response. I think it demonstrates the real challenges even very smart people can have in learning a new idea. It is understandable that we try to put new information into the context of existing knowledge. At the same time, learning a new idea requires us to think about the attachments we have to existing ideas. Can we give up those attachments, even provisionally, to consider something new? In turn, can we provisionally take up a new idea and see what it does or enables us to do? That sounds easy. it even sounds like a straightforwardly rational thing to do. Unfortunately it is never that easy to give up our attachments. Often, we are not fully aware of the depth of those attachments. So we are required to pay attention, to examine how far a new idea may go. 

I have been struggling with this myself in working through the ideas of OOO. Clearly I come to OOO through Deleuze and Delanda and then Latour, the last two certainly being speculative realists. I can feel the urge to reframe the things I read in terms of these thinkers who are more familiar to me. To say well that OOO concept is just like this concept in Delanda. Or, well that other OOO concept does take into account what Deleuze says about ____. Of course we can go on with such moves interminably. 

One thing I find interesting about OOO is that it asks us to think about ideas themselves differently, as objects. That is, if Popeye (a familiar OOO example) is an object, then the rhizome or actor-network theory are also objects. When I think that OOO is a withdrawn object on its own, then I might consider its allure, how my encounter spawns an alien within me and also inserts me into OOO, to look through OOO as through the eyes of an alien onto a new territory. Can I do that and then manage to describe what I am seeing? This would be theoria from the very beginning, yes? Travelling to a foreign land to learn what they know? This, for me, is also digital humanities: a journey into a world of objects that call upon me to relate in new ways. Perhaps that is why OOO and digital humanities work well together in my experience.


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[…] Reid, Associate Professor at the University at Buffalo. In a post he published on his blog digital digs about the challenge one faces while trying to learn new ideas, Alex […]