Assemblage Theory object-oriented rhetoric

getting things done in/with object-oriented rhetoric

James Brown has a good piece discussing his thoughts on object-oriented rhetoric. He brings in two key concepts, Lanham's concept of the oscillation between looking at/through a text, and Bogost's carpentry, from his forthcoming Alien Phenomenology. Of Bogost, Brown writes

In his forthcoming book, Alien Phenomenology, Ian Bogost offers us one possibility. Bogost admits that the speculative realist philosophies of Harman and others are difficult to put into practice. These theorists are focused on first principles and have not focused on ways to do speculative realist metaphysics. Bogost is interested in pursuing the latter. He is seeking a “pragmatic speculative realism, not in the Jamesian sense, but more softly: an applied speculative realism, an object-oriented engineering to ontology’s physics” (34). 

So this analogy with engineering makes sense for rhetoric, which has always had at least one foot in the realm of practice, of making things. However it also has its own oscillation, separate from Lanham's, between developing rhetorical practices and building a philosophy of rhetoric. So when we think about an object-oriented rhetoric (OOR), in part we are building rhetorical philosophy, a conceptual basis for studying rhetorical practices and understanding how they work. From this we would develop methods for studying rhetorical practices. A third possibility, however, would be to imagine new kinds of rhetorical practices, to suggest that we might go about communicating differently.

This third move may seem especially forced or at best to lead toward some experimental kind of writing. Perhaps, at least initially. However, the rhetorical practices we currently have (e.g. the things we teach in a composition class), derive from classical rhetorical philosophy about logical argument, the canons of rhetoric, etc. So there's no reason to think that practices couldn't emerge over time. And, as I have suggested here many times, our digital communications revolution is a moment ripe for the development of new rhetorical practices.

I've also been thinking about the at/through oscillation, particularly as Collin Brooke revisits it in Lingua Fracta. The problem with at/through, at least for OOR purposes, is that it remains an issue of perspective. It is primarily about the viewer. The example Brooke uses is the OS interface. The first time you use a new operating system, especially if it is very different, you are looking "at" it. Of course the design objective of the typical OS is for transparency. Eventually you stop seeing the OS. A counter-example of the same phenomenon is the Gorilla experiment, where we see that humans have selective attention. Clearly it would appear to be the case that through iterative relations objects can develop the ability to be looked at (as in mating rituals) or overlooked (as in camouflage). So we can say that objects can take up rhetorical strategies that would incline their audiences to either look at or through them. In the end though, at/through describes the viewer's response to an object, one which may or may not have been intended by the object itself.

Another issue with the at/through oscillation is that it might suggest a surface/depth shift. Certainly this would not be the case in OOR, where the objects are always withdrawing. More accurately though, through ought to suggest looking past, not past the surface into the depth of the object, but past the object entirely, toward the formation of a "third" object perhaps (maybe what Harman would term a sensual object), which is the viewer/reader's internalization of the object. This becomes further complicated when symbolic action gets involved (i.e when the viewer/reader becomes involved in the composition of a symoblic representation of the viewed object). We can get a kind of interminable drifting here. Nevertheless, I would suggest that looking "through" means looking "at" something else. The difference though is that this third object is one that becomes digestable. It is part of that autopoietic process that is never perfectly homeostatic. We take in that object but it also transforms us.

Language is the most obvious example of this for humans (and also clear evidence of why rhetoric is so involved in these questions). I might point to our initial language acquisition, but instead just think of a time when you learned a new word. At first the word is strange, then perhaps you internalize it and start using it all the time (a common experience in school, right?). Maybe that word has little effect on you but it might really change your perspective on the world, giving you a new way to understand a person's behavior, for example, or a new way to organize relations in the world.

This can suggest a composing practice. It suggests that rhetorcity arises from exposure to an outside, from relation. We can link this up with more familiar thinking about writing practice. For instance, it is common to think about writing as a conversation, as responding to others, as a way of relating. We often write quite directly in response to something else, as I am doing here. In a more disciplinary way, in rhet/comp, we take up cultural-historical-activity theory to talk about activity systems as they shape writing practice. OOR takes us further away from the author, even while asserting the author-object as inviolate and withdrawn. The author-object is there but the composing is always relational and outside. The author-object may have thoughts (sensual objects) about the composition, but the composition is always other. This gives us a way to start thinking about why compositions do not conform to our thinking about them and how they always seem to make demands upon us. It also allows us to think even more expansively about the assemblages and networks that participate in composition.


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