Here is the text of my recent talk in Pittsburgh. It's certainly a little informal and "talky," so I am planning on shaping it up into something more essay like as soon as I finish my CCCC presentation.
Last November, a group of digital humanities scholars, led by Alan Liu, formed an association called 4humanities. In part, their mission statement says
4Humanities began because the digital humanities community—which specializes in making creative use of digital technology to advance humanities research and teaching as well as to think about the basic nature of the new media and technologies–woke up to its special potential and responsibility to assist humanities advocacy. The digital humanities are increasingly integrated in the humanities at large. They catch the eye of administrators and funding agencies who otherwise dismiss the humanities as yesterday’s news. They connect across disciplines with science and engineering fields. They have the potential to use new technologies to help the humanities communicate with, and adapt to, contemporary society.
In short, in the wake of rising crises with the defunding of humanities, the 4humanities group recognized the potential for the digital humanities to help, if not save, the humanities at large. It’s an interesting perspective, and it led me to ask myself if I also believe that the digital humanities can save the humanities and then also if it should. Or more precisely what the consequences of such a saving would be.
In looking at the digital humanities, I see two fairly distinct traditions. On the one hand there is “humanities computing.” Humanities computing has a long tradition going back to the early days of computers. Today these are folks who are interested in data mining, data visualization, archiving, text-encoding and so on. And it is scholars in humanities computing who first adopted the term “digital humanities.” In shorthand terms, I think of this as the digital study of the humanities. The 4humanities mission identifies a second consideration though in those who “think about the basic nature of the new media and technologies.” Without suggesting that humanities computing scholars don’t think about such things, this also describes a larger cadre of humanists including rhetoricians in computers and composition, new media studies, the cultural study of technology, and now game studies. In shorthand, this is the humanistic study of the digital. These scholarly practices ran alongside humanities computing in the 80s and 90s, but now the invention of the term digital humanities exposes them to one another. That said, more than any work done by the humanities, this increased attention to the digital has clearly been the result of the explosion of digital media across our culture in the last decade.
So these are the things we know. There is a lively and expanding interest in studying the digital and using digital tools to investigate all manner of humanistic concerns. From a rhetorician’s perspective however, the obvious question is will the humanities ultimately be able to adapt to a digital, networked culture? How will we communicate and teach? What communities will we form? The longer history of humanistic inquiry notwithstanding, the actual material and practices of the humanities–departments, disciplines, offices, curriculum, journal articles, monographs, library research, conference presentations, tenure–virtually anything you can name about what we do, was either a direct product of the late industrial period or was significantly redefined in that period. Put simply, most of that stuff is going to change or disappear. That’s hardly a startling claim, as all of the things I’ve just mentioned have already begun to mutate or fade away. These changes are not predetermined, but to play a role in shaping the coming digital-humanistic community one thing that is required is some understanding of the role technologies play in scholarly, rhetorical practices.
There are a number of existing methods one might take up to investigate this concern. In this evening’s talk my specific interest is in considering speculative realist philosophy, particularly object-oriented ontology, as a potential tool for this purpose.
Object-oriented ontology begins with the rejection of a common philosophical view, which they term correlationism.
This position tacitly holds that we can aim our thoughts at being, exist as beings-in-the-world, or have phenomenal experience of the world, yet we can never consistently speak about a realm independent of thought or language. Such a doctrine, in its countless variations, maintains that knowledge of a reality independent of thought is untenable. (3-4)
OOO, as it is known, does not reject the idea that there are limits to our understanding of the world of objects. It just contends that this is not a special problem between human subjects and the world. Instead, this fundamental withdrawal of objects is a condition of relations among all objects. In addition to that principle, OOO also holds
- All objects are equally real and they exist in a flat ontology without hierarchy.
- These objects are independent of relations. That is, objects do not require relations in order to exist, nor do relations among objects exhaust those objects.
Fundamentally, OOO provides a way for studying the role of nonhuman actors that is not available in other methods. For this reason it has promise for investigating the role technologies play, as objects in their own right, in the scholarly communities we form with them.
I suppose one obvious question is why bring OOO to rhetoric? What does it have to offer us? Considering that rhetoric, at least conventionally, deals with language and human communication, it would seem completely embedded in a correlationist philosophy. Indeed much of the contemporary work rhetoricians do investigating the ideological power of media and discourse in the social construction of identity and reality from science and technology studies to human rights to the politics of the composition classroom would seem to rest upon correlationism. However, as Scot Barnett suggests, “the idea of an object-oriented rhetoric compels us to re/consider the very nature of rhetoric itself and to think carefully through the implications our missing masses suggest about rhetoric as both a human art and an ontological condition potentially operable alongside human beings in the world’s vast and inexhaustible carpentry of things.” As such, an object-oriented rhetoric does not ask us to abandon our ongoing concerns but rather provides us with a new methodology for exploring them.
So there are a number of layers here for me to move through as I consider the intersection of object-oriented ontology and rhetoric and then put that understanding to work regarding the relations between digital humanities and the humanities in general. In doing this, my approach has been influenced by Colin Brooke’s Lingua Fracta and a recent talk on object-oriented rhetoric by Timothy Morton. Both Brooke and Morton return to the rhetorical canon as a mechanism for organizing their work. I plan on doing the same for I think a similar rhetorical reason: the canon provides a fairly stable and recognizable starting point for addressing rhetoricians. Clearly I would not be able to move with much detail through each of the canons in today’s talk, so I have decided to focus on one: style.
Perhaps that’s not your favorite canon. While invention has received a great deal of attention and memory and delivery are now being revitalized in the contexts of digital media, style remains much maligned, and probably for good reason. After all, style has been the stick with which current-traditional rhetoric struck students for decades. It bears the stigma of “mere ornamentation” and painful memories of rhetoric’s most degraded state when style was all that was left to us. Brooke notes that digital rhetoricians have shown a great deal of interest in style, particularly in terms of visual rhetoric, and the discussion of the attention economy has given style new importance, as we see in Richard Lanham’s Economics of Attention. Indeed, the 4humanities mission seems to hinge on digital humanists’ rhetorical ability to compete in the attention economy.
What follows now is a somewhat idiosyncratic journey toward an object-oriented understanding of style. The idiosyncrasy is, in part, my own intellectual journey, which begins with Deleuze and moves through DeLanda toward object-oriented ontology. In A Thousand Plateaus Deleuze and Guattari write “a style is not an individual psychological creation but an assemblage of enunciation” (97). This connection between style and assemblages of enunciation is significant as it offers us a way to think about the role of style in a broader theory of assemblages. As Deleuze and Guattari write,
On a first, horizontal, axis, an assemblage comprises two segments, one of content, the other of expression. On the one hand it is a machinic assemblage of bodies, of actions and passions, an intermingling of bodies reacting to one another; on the other hand it is a collective assemblage of enunciation, of acts and statements, of incorporeal transformations attributed to bodies. Then on a vertical axis, the assemblage has both territorial sides, or reterritorialized sides, which stabilize it, and cutting edges of deterritorialization, which carry it away. (88)
In A New Philosophy of Society, DeLanda builds his assemblage theory upon this passage,
the concept of assemblage is defined along two dimensions. One dimension or axis defines the variable roles which an assemblage's components may play. from a purely material role at one extreme of the axis, to a purely expressive role at the other extreme. These roles are variable and may occur in mixtures. That is, a given component may play a mixture of material and expressive roles by exercising different sets of capacities. The other dimension defines variable processes in which these components become involved and that either stabilize the identity of an assemblage, by increasing its degree of internal homogeneity or the degree of sharpness of its boundaries, or destabilize it. The former are referred to as processes of territorialization and the latter as processes of deterritorialization. (12)
I apologize for these lengthy quotations but they do provide the benefit of giving us some material and context to work from. To begin, we can connect style with assemblages of enunciation and with the expressive function of an assemblage. These enunciations may function to establish territory and increase internal regulation or homogeneity. That is, they may have an autopoietic, cybernetic effect. Or they may introduce difference and increase the likelihood of mutation or becoming. It is important to note here that in discussing style and expression we are NOT talking about meaning or code. We’ll return later to the issue of coding, as it represents a third dimension that DeLanda adds to assemblages. However, I want to dwell a moment longer with Deleuze and Guattari and move forward with this notion of style as the expressive effect of an assemblage.
So, to take a familiar academic example, we can think of a department meeting as an assemblage. What is the material content of that meeting? The various bodies of people, their clothing and personal effects; chairs, tables and other elements of the meeting room; various papers handed out; maybe food and drink. Each of these material elements contributes some expression. Who sits with whom? The body language and gestures of the people. The tone of their voices when they speak. The comfort of the chairs. The relative crowdedness of the room. Is the room well-lit or have we dimmed the lights for a slide presentation?
Now we can certainly think of these expressions as coded communications. Clearly we can articulate or capture such expressions in code. That is, we can talk about style. And expressions may respond to code as when my voice rises in anger in response to something someone has said. The point here, however, is that expression does not require codes. Thus objects that do not have the capacity of encoding messages still can have expressive relations with one another. They can still have style and rhetoric… without language or code. So let’s dwell for a moment on this notion of rhetorical style without language.
At this point, it might be productive to reintroduce the other part of the assemblage axis, which runs from territorialization to deterritorialization. What is the relationship between style and territory? Brian Massumi offers a useful way to think about this in Parables for the Virtual using the example of soccer.
Style is what makes the player. What makes a player a star is more than perfection of technique. Technical perfection merely makes a player most competent. To technical perfection the star adds something extra. Perhaps a way of catching the eye of players on the opposite to team to make them self-conscious and throw them off their own game. Perhaps a feint added to every kick. Or an impreceptible spin. Little extras. Small but effective ways of skewing the potential movements composing the field. The star player is one who modifies expected mechanisms of channeling field-potential. (77)
The soccer pitch is basically just a field until a game begins; the grass on one side of the line is not so different from that on the other. Once the game begins however, a new assemblage emerges. The goals at opposite ends operate as attractors that organize the positions and movements of the players and the ball. In this assemblage, each of these parts brings both material and expressive components. There is a semi-stable condition on the field during the normal course of play, not unlike the conduction of heat through water in a pot on a hot stove. As Massumi suggests here, style operates as a way to dynamically shift that stable state into an intensive mutation. A quick feint and a player is free on goal. Suddenly adrenalin surges through the players and the crowd begins to scream. The shot releases that energy and whether or not there is a score, the game returns to that semi-stable state, at least for a moment. So style can establish and maintain territory. Different teams have different styles, which organize the distribution of players and their approach to the game. However style can also deterritorialize. In fact, such variation is often necessary.
Moving now towards, DeLanda’s assemblage theory, we can add a third dimension of coding and decoding. Following Deleuze, DeLanda remarks on two critical thresholds where physical expressivity becomes functional: first in the development of genetic code and second with the emergence of language. DeLanda’s interest here is in social assemblages where linguistic codes are common elements. Elsewhere codes are less common. Where codes exist, they interact with the stylistic, expressive potential of an assemblage but they do not overdetermine that potential. Instead they relate in a flat ontological space where no one object is primary to another. Coding and decoding allow for assemblages to translate and relate in ways otherwise not possible, as we see in translations of texts between languages, and, of course with communication technologies. As such, it will be important to keep this dimension in mind when considering the digital humanities. However, what is important from an object-oriented perspective is that code is not necessary for expression or rhetorical effect.
In abandoning the necessity of code, one of the questions in pursuing an object-oriented rhetoric is how to define its limits. Here we are sloughing off the correlationist perspective that limited rhetoric to the study of code and moving rhetoric toward the study of forces. Now the objection may be that those forces that are investigated by physics, for example, cannot be productively understood as rhetorical, can they? That’s a reasonable question. Fortunately, I do not believe there needs to be a definitive, all-encompassing answer to that question. Instead, one would have to investigate each assemblage. That said, one possible answer is to think about rhetoric, or at least style, in relation to quasi-causal multiplicities and incorporeal transformations.
DeLanda does an effective job in Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy of explaining the mathematical foundations of multiplicities and how they translate into philosophy. As he summarizes, “multiplicities specify the structure of spaces of possibilities, spaces which, in turn, explain the regularities exhibited by morphogenetic processes” (10). Quasi-causal or incorporeal transformations allow for the intersection of assemblages beyond causality and provide access to a topological virtuality. In short, they move us past a “billiard-ball, causational reality” into a speculative reality with non-deterministic mechanisms of emergence that recognize the fundamental withdrawn nature of objects. As we will see, I think this works particularly well for how OOO wants to address the question of 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.
To return to Massumi’s example of the soccer star, we discover many objects at the soccer match. The match itself is an object, which can never be fully exhausted by those who watch it or play in it; the pitch with poor drainage making it sloppy in midfield; the players who have travelled overnight by bus; the ball with all the controversies over its particular design: there are many objects. Let’s focus on a particular moment, the star with the ball at his feet and only a few defenders between him and a shot on goal. In Harman’s terms the defender encounters these elements, creating sensual objects. Perhaps he becomes momentarily charmed, hypnotized, by the star’s footwork. But how do we account for what happens next, as the defender falls to the side and the star scores? Here we see a transmission of forces, but not a directly caused transmission. The defender has not been shoved down. Here is where we need to consider the quasi-causal transmission of force that knocks us off balance. Sometimes, as in the case of the defender, the experience is fleeting. A moment is all the star needs. In another case, an expression of style can have lasting effects, as when Hendrix played the National Anthem at Woodstock.
It is in exploring these concerns that I find DeLanda’s work can connect productively with OOO.
I want to begin now to turn this discussion back toward the digital humanities. As I said earlier, I am reluctant and uncomfortable with the 4humanities mission to assist in the advocacy of the humanities at large. However, I can recognize that mission’s intention to draw upon the allure of the digital humanities, and following this foray into assemblage theory and object-oriented ontology, I believe I am in a better position to investigate the operation of digital style. To begin though, I want to give some consideration to the ongoing discussion of the style in digital rhetoric.
Colin Brooke devotes a chapter to style in his discussion of new media rhetoric in Lingua Fracta. He notes that much of the discussion of new media style in rhetoric and composition has focused on visual rhetoric and that “much of what has passed for the examination of ‘visual rhetoric’ in our field is more accurately described as ‘visual grammar.’ In other words, there are parallels between recent work on the visual in our field and the reduction of style to grammar that we find as far back in our disciplinary histories as Aristotle” (114). A visual grammar would attempt to establish fixed rules for visual, rhetorical practices based upon some absolute concept of how visual communication operates. In place of a fixed grammar, Brooke turns to relation and the contention that visual rhetoric of digital media is shaped by perspective. In doing so he draws upon Richard Lanham’s distinction “between looking AT the expressive surface and THROUGH it” (qtd. in Brooke, 132). This distinction of AT and THROUGH obviously presupposes a relation: something looking at or through something else. Brooke notes this as well and argues
it is no longer sufficient to speak simply of an at/through distinction that leaves the position of the viewer, user, or reader unexamined. Just as we look at and through interfaces, we also look from a particular position, and that position is both macro- and micro-perceptual. It is important to acknowledge that interfaces position us perceptually and that our sensual experiences of interfaces are often as customizable as our hermeneutic approaches to them. (140)
While Brooke’s observations regarding these relations are important, from an object-oriented rhetoric, one would begin with understanding an object’s style independent of relation. That is, while rhetoric is necessarily about relation, with each object having existing expressive elements that might come into play in any encounter, the object is fundamentally alien and withdrawn. In this encounter, the object can exhibit territorializing or deterritorializing effects, depending on the conditions of relation. The capacity to look “through” an object relies upon a strong territorializing relation. That is, when one’s relation to an object reinforces existing identities and boundaries, we can look through it.
On the other hand, digital scholarship strikes us as strange, even though it mostly tries very hard not to. That is, most digital scholarship seeks to find its way back into the existing territory of discipline. And who can blame digital scholars for wanting their work to be recognized as scholarly? The same might be said of the digital humanities. Most digital humanities scholarship is presented to us in conventional journal articles and monographs, even if it employs new technological research methods to produce its results. When 4humanities notes that the digital humanities catches the attention of administrators, they recognize that digital scholarship is being looked AT rather than THROUGH. As such, we might think of the quality of allure as one where forces escape easy capture within an existing sensual object. I should note that being looked AT is not always a desirable condition and can produce a variety of results. Regardless, such strangeness is a temporary condition, as the forces of territorialization are always at work. This isn’t evil by the way. We want to be able to make sense of the world rather than always encountering it as alien and strange.
In considering the humanistic study of the digital, and right now specifically, a speculative realist study of digital style, we might see in the allure of the digital the introduction of the alien. Admittedly it is difficult in these terms to speak generally about “the digital,” but we might see, for example, in the prospect of humanities gaming, the introduction of new notes, alien affects, into humanistic assemblages. These notes or affects might take a variety of forms, from the creation of new lines of affinity with faculty in computer science to the appearance of Xboxes in English department faculty offices. In a broader way, social media have clearly altered the associations we form and the knowledge we can produce. Harman, Bryant, Bogost, and Morton have all spoken of the importance of blogging in the creation of OOO. I know my own relation to the movement would have been quite different, maybe even non-existent, without such networks. Alan Liu notes this himself,
digital technology has caused (and/or expressed) evolutionary changes in the humanities … evolutionary changes incubate within themselves—like the alien in the crew member—an encounter with other disciplines that far exceeds the now domesticated familiarity of “interdisciplinary studies” to become a monstrous exodisciplinarity.
Setting out into a networked world of scholarly relations, one doesn’t know what relations will develop, what obligations, which opportunities. However it is safe to say that they will no longer fall into familiar territories. If there is indeed a saving of the humanities that needs to happen through digital style, it is not in the sense that the digital is fashionable, in style, flashy, or capable of grabbing attention and eyeballs to the humanities as it is. No, it is precisely in the sense that our encounter with digital style is an encounter with the alien, a summoning of the alien within the humanities.
In fact, I think it is quite possible to argue that digital style opens a new set of ethical practices and obligations. From gaming to the perpetual beta of the web, the digital world is a site of collective, low-stakes risk-taking and authorship. In gameplay we fail far more often than we succeed, but that’s ok. In blogging we publish first and edit later. Some posts are better than others, but we don’t edit yesterday’s post. We move forward. I don’t mean to suggest this as utopian or even better in some absolute sense than the values of print culture. We are simply presented with different stylistic practices that call us to engage, to comment, to retweet. The traditional humanities were designed for the comparatively plodding pace of print world with its quaint, parochial audiences. Again, it is not a question of better or worse, simply the alien now within us. Or perhaps it is now us inside the alien.
In a sense this is what Latour sees in his recent composition manifesto, where he takes up the success of James Cameron’s Avatar as an opportunity to recognize the failing movement of modernity and the necessity of coming to inhabit a new body and world. Latour focuses here on ecological crises, but we can find a similar situation in a humanities that suddenly sees a future without resources. As Latour suggests in relation to the environment we may have no future but many prospects, that is, many opportunities to build. As he says, “it is time to compose” (488). But it is not that easy for the so-called moderns to do.
Faced with those new prospects, the first reaction is to do nothing. There is a strong, ever so modernist, temptation to exclaim: “Let’s flee as before and have our past future back!” instead of saying: “Let’s stop fleeing, break for good with our future, turn our back, finally, to our past, and explore our new prospects, what lies ahead, the fate of things to come.” Is this not exactly what the fable of the crippled Jake abandoning his body for his avatar is telling us: instead of a future of no future, why not try to see if we could not have a prospect at last? After three centuries of Modernism, it is not asking too much from those who, in practice, have never managed to be Moderns, to finally look ahead. (487-8)
The digital presents the humanities with prospects but not it’s modernist backward-looking future. What would it mean to abandon that future and instead embrace our prospects?
It is in this light that I return finally to the 4humanities project and the more general hope and fear regarding the humanities’ digital future. In our encounter with the objects of digital technology we discover an alien we have not yet managed to territorialize as we have with print. We encounter an alien within, as Liu suggests. However, as Levi Bryant notes, “When we paraphrase Latour saying that everything Kant says about mind-object relations is true with the qualification that all objects translate one another, it must be added that translation is not unilateral, but bilateral. The cardinal sin of anti-realisms, correlationisms, or philosophies of access is not simply the claim that the human must be included in every relation, but also the unilateralization of all processes of translation” (277). In other words, the humanities translate the digital, finding the digital-other within, but the digital also translate the humanities, finding the humanities-other within. As such, even as the alien wakes within us, we wake within the alien. The allure of digital style offers a prospect of life for the humanities. Rather than seeking to protect ourselves from this exposure, the potential for digital humanities would appear to lie in learning to live outside in the world of objects, digital or otherwise.
Consider, for example, the increasingly commonplace academic on Twitter. To begin, we recognize that Twitter, as an object, withdraws from us. We cannot know Twitter in any complete way. That said, we are exposed to Twitter. If we think of it in terms of assemblage theory we might ask, “what is Twitter’s materiality?” That is variable, as it is for all objects. So let’s imagine we are looking at Twitter.com in a web browser on a computer. Materially we encounter Twitter as a screen image. We know there are scripts and computations below the surface and that we are connected via a network to a database that contributes to the generation of the page. There are many other objects that are part of the assemblage, but this Twitter page is something more and other than the sum of those parts. Identifying and adding up those parts will not tell us what Twitter is.
Then there is the expressive, stylistic quality of the page. Twitter has allure. There are 200 million Twitter accounts and 110 million daily posts. Holding off, momentarily on the code, what is Twitter’s expressivity? It is quick, continually updating. It pulses with data: a hot topic creates a sudden explosion of expression. Compositionally, we are presented with the now well-known 140-character text window and the prompt, “What’s happening?.” The deterritorializing segment distributes our tweet into the public web, across the desktops of those who choose to follow us, and onward via retweets beyond our control. The speed of the feed also quickly buries our messages beneath thousands more. In short, we are confronted, at first, by an alien world. How do we share? What do we share? Whom should we follow? How should we respond to those we follow or who follow us? We can begin to feel the obligations to check, to post, to respond.
How do we compose in this space? From where to the objects we call tweets arise? Are tweets the products of rational, calculating minds? Have you ever been on Twitter? Are they the products of unconscious desire? How many words per minute can your unconscious type? How about ideology? From an OOO perspective, it is not necessary to say that ideology or the unconscious do not exist, only that there is a long journey to be made from the text box on the Twitter page to the object that is the unconscious, and, as always, it is the journey that matters. Harman says allure is the furnace where objects are made. I will say that relation powers agency. On a crowded street. Across neurons. In a distant nebula. And here as well. That is, agency only exists in the relation of one object to another: what can I do for, with, to the other? That call to act at all is a response to allure. I can tweet when I bring Twitter, that strange stranger, within, as a sensual object, but in excess of it as well, as that alien. In turn I look through the eyes of Twitter as well. Twitter and I compose together in a new relation, we create a twitter stream that in turn relates to other twitter streams creating further relations. This means new obligations, new ethics, but also new agency, new things to do and make. The nature of our work changes; the people with whom we communicate change. We are still conducting the humanities but in a new way. This is what digital style offers us.
Latour ends his compositionist manifesto with the call to compose with care, noting that “The whole Modernist paraphernalia has to be remade bit by bit for the tasks that now lie ahead and no longer behind.” To my ears this sounds like 4humanities observation that the digital humanities can help the humanities “adapt” to contemporary society. This task is undoubtedly one of rhetoric and composition, but it most be one approached from an object-oriented perspective. Otherwise we are likely to continue to haunt our old territories. Latour asks us to give up Benjamin’s backward-looking angel of history, but not in the name of some renewed modernist push to abandon the past. Instead a realist ontological view calls upon us to engage with the objects among us and to recognize that our compositions must emerge from our exposure to a world outside.
Barnett, Scot. “Towards an Object-Oriented Rhetoric.” Enculturation 7 (2010): http://enculturation.gmu.edu/toward-an-object-oriented-rhetoric
Brooke, Collin. Lingua Fracta: Towards a Rhetoric of New Media. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton, 2009. Print.
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