object-oriented rhetoric

the zero property of critical multiplication

Tim Morton picks up on a rehearsal of the critique of OOO (you can follow the link through from his site), which inspired me to continue on my recent line of thinking here. Basically my concern with critique is its tendency toward the zero property of multiplication (i.e. anything multiplied by zero equals zero). That is, there is a tendency for critique to operate as a function where the result is predetermined, and essentially empty. I would point out that this can be as much the case for OOO as it is for more familiar brands of theory. I would also add the caveat that critique maybe does not have to be this way. In fact, here is how I think critique can become productive. 

Let's say I start as a kind of Deleuzian mixed with cultural studies. That's how I would have described myself in the 90s. And coming from that position, I can recognize that I have certain moves available to me. That is, I have a theory that does certain things. That doesn't mean that I have personally exhausted all the things one might do with this theory! Hardly. But I can recognize that I am working in a certain way, that the theory/method I have leads me to ask certain questions and possibly certain results. Eventually I need to realize that if I start to see, for example, rhizomes everywhere, that I'm in trouble. When I start to make arguments that this or that theory is wrong because it doesn't see the rhizome, then I am approaching the zero property of critical multiplication. So how do I get out of that trap? 

One strategy is to start asking different questions, pushing beyond the bounds of a theory by investigating the world. For example, I have had some interest for a while now on the expanding role that mobile phones are playing (and might play) in higher education. Can I see a rhizome there? You betcha! But that's not enough because if a mobile phone is part of rhizome and a pen and paper are part of a rhizome then I haven't really gotten any closer to understand specifically what the mobile phone is doing. So I'm not abandoning my Deleuzian position, but I'm building upon it to try to get some more fine-tuned understanding. I start reading scholarship on mobile phones. I can't simply reject it because it's not rhizomatic enough. I need to figure out how to link with information. In my case I came across ANT. So Latour is close to Deleuze in many respects, but there are important differences, as we know.  I don't want to simply switch allegiances and say that the rhizome is really an actor-network. I'm still multiplying by zero there. Instead I need to employ the critical function to build out from these positions.

And for me, the real test lies in exploring what I can do or make with this abstract, theoretical tool I am constructing. So, for example, I am interested in the idea of (over-)exposure through social media and its relation to how academics approach the prospect of video scholarship. In other words, I have a situation that is there to be investigated. I begin with Delanda's assemblage theory as it has a concept of exteriority that is clearly related to exposure and also gives me a way to think about the various objects that are part of a scholarly, video practice and how they might intersect with more traditional scholarship. Then I start to link this up with Nancy and Agamben and… well you can read the article if you're interested. The point I want to make here is that these different theoretical positions are certainly different from each other. One might stand on any of them and critique the others. Furthermore, while you could try to create some unifying meta-theory, I'm not sure what that would accomplish or what damage you'd have to do along the way. 

Instead, what's interesting to me is where you can go by linking these together, or perhaps more aptly, by exposing these theories to one another. One might contend (as I am about to do here) that this is how an object-oriented rhetoric would approach critique. That is, one begins by recognizing that these theories, or more precisely the texts one is dealing with, are all objects withdrawing from us and each other. When they are exposed to one another in the compositional process of writing a new text, there is >0 multiplication. (You might even suggest that this "always already" happens and that it takes some very strong territorializing forces to end up at zero.) The interesting thing about >0 critical multiplication is that you really can't know what result you will get. The exposures are singular. The measure of value is not reproducibility, predictablity, or affirmation of one's position, it's the usefulness of the object that you compose. (And that usefulness may take some time to discover.)

In the end, that's how I look at OOO. I don't come to it as a blank slate. I've got all these things rattling around in my head. OOO is exposed to them; they are exposed to OOO. I could carry out the zero property of critical multiplication in either direction, but what would that get me? Zero, right? So what's something else I can do?