object-oriented rhetoric

speculative realist literary criticism and rhetorical analysis

Levi Bryant has a new post on speculative realist literary criticism that has fueled a fair amount of discussion. Apparently Tim Morton and Graham Harman have upcoming essays on the topic, and Eileen Joy has a recent post as well (which spurred Levi's). I've added on the "rhetorical analysis" bit as I think the rhetorical analysis of texts shares a great deal with literary criticism, often drawing upon common theoretical methods. 

The first question one has to ask is "What can be accomplished through literary criticism?" It's a version of the so what? question, I suppose. The same thing is true for rhetorical analysis (please assume I'm speaking about both unless I make a clear distinction). Put different, "What are you trying to find out through textual analysis?" This question might be answered generally or for specific texts. Would you say 'I'm going to analyze 'The Red Wheelbarrow' to discover its meaning"? Probably not, because we no longer accept that premise that the meaning of literary texts can be finalized. However we probably would say that we are going to discover (or compose) a meaning. That is, whatever interpretation results from an analysis of the poem could be attributed to that text. This becomes a disciplinary, rhetorical matter. One has to convince one's audience that an interpretation can be attributed to the text. However, we're still not very far. We now have to ask what the meaning means, or more precisely, what it's value might be. This, again, is a disciplinary-rhetorical matter, perhaps a matter of disciplinary paradigms: how does the meaning discovered/composed connect with established paradigmatic scholarly questions?

An SR lit crit would have to begin with an interest in the ontology of literary texts. As the comment thread on Levi's posts suggests, one can reasonably assert that such an interest exists within literary criticism. A new historical analysis of the cultural contexts that inform a text's production and/or reception values the materiality of the text, a view that could be reoriented toward viewing the text as "object." That said, an object-oriented approach would unmoor the text from its history somewhat, suggesting that the textual-object always withdraws from these historical relations. While we cannot know the text-object in full, we can identify some of its characteristics and encounter some of its capacities through our relation with it. Our encounters with text-objects will always be shaped by our anthropocentrism. However, perhaps, in recognizing this, we can set aside the commonplace belief that texts "contain" truths about us as humans. Texts can know no more about us than we can know of them. We are alien to one another. 

If we focus on the idea of composing rather than discovering knowledge through textual encounters then the text-object becomes a kind of tool. If I use a hammer to drive in a nail, do I think I've discovered some truth about the hammer? So let's say I can use a text to achieve some disciplinary objective. Here I am much like the scientist in the lab, right? I construct an interpretation. Now if I turn too directly toward the text I will find that it slips away. The interpretation that I compose is limited. But that's OK. The scientist doesn't make great discoveries every day in the lab either. It's almost always small steps. Of course the scientist's argument and the literary critic's argument are quite different from one another. Generally speaking I would say textual analysis is aimed out convincing an audience to think/feel differently about a text or perhaps to think/feel differently about a different subject through examining that subject's treatment in the text. For example, maybe we think differently about gender by examining the treatment of the subject in a novel.

In either case, we are now standing farther back from the site of interpretation and examing a larger assemblage at work. The disciplinary assemblage territorializes the literary text. It really can't do anything other than that. Similarly it territorializes its students, faculty, and so on. That's not to say that we are ever fully captured by the discipline! Neither is it to say that the discipline cannot be deterritorialized or mutated. 

My point is just that, for me, an SR approach would begin with recognizing these assemblages at work, while also recognizing that these relations cannot determine the encounter between the text and the critic. Instead they are singularly part of the enounter in a way that explain why such readings are indeterminate while also creating a degree of predictability. E.g., no sane person conversant in English will say "The Red Wheelbarrow" is about the migratory patterns of birds. However, the more disciplined one becomes in literary methods, the more different possibilities open up for interpretation beyond the literal. Many of the rhetorical features of a disciplinary interpretation remain the same, even though the actual interpretations differ.

For me, the particular SR approach I'm interested in is one that examines the relations among reader, text, and interpretation (or object, object, and object). 


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