object-oriented rhetoric

pursuing a busted ontology

I had the pleasure of being part of a great panel yesterday at UT-Austin on rhetoric, memory, and technology. Put briefly, my talk examined memory's role in rethinking rhetoric's ontological foundations. In the conversations that followed, one of the questions that came up was why one might choose an ontological approach. I think these grounding questions are important as the whole project of an object-oriented or speculative rhetoric gets underway. I think it is rightly understood that ontology is broken from the start. However it is perhaps this broken or busted quality that makes it worthwhile.

Here are a couple of ways to think why one would pursue a busted ontology.

1. Rhetoric and composition as a field has been dominated by a Foucauldian cultural studies for 20 years. Everything is discourse, ideology, representation, power. These paradgimatic theories have become so calcified that all these questions operate as if they have been largely settled. They have come to function much like the writing process, as if the question of how writing procedes has been resolved. The discipline needs to have these assumptions broken apart. As Latour puts it, critique has run out of steam. This is certainly the case in my field where scholarship, at least to me, too often feels more like historical re-enactment than genuine inquiry. What kind of inquiry begins with the questions answered?

2. Composing implies an ontology. In composition, some thing is made. In the act of composing there is an implied ontology. In conventional disciplinary terms, I suppose we might way that this ontology is not accessible; such is the nature of a correlationist frame. At the same time, one might say that from Aristotle to Burke there are ontological questions concerning how language persuades, how rhetoric affects the mind. In some respects, this distancing from ontology results from the modern separation of nature and culture. For rhetoric, culture becomes discourse (and hence epistemology). Ontology becomes a product of discourse and culture. "Nature" and non-discursive objects are likewise secondary to language and symbolic action. In my Latourian-inspired view, however, this nature/culture separation makes no sense. 

3. There is no doubt that, within a speculative rhetoric, ontology is broken in the sense that language (and even human thought) are not sufficient to account for being, and even further that such accountings are not possible because being isn't like that. This condition does not mean that we can ignore ontology. To the contrary it means that it offers a site for investigation. Perhaps the question of ontology cannot be settled finally. Do we imagine that the fundamental questions of physics or biology are resolvable? This is the speculative part of a speculative rhetoric, an investigation into the relations among objects. How does being function and how do we manage to relate?

Part of the exigency for specualtive realism lies in its perception that our legacy theories are insufficient to respond to many of the challenges we face with ecology, technology, science, and so on. There are rhetorical dimensions to each of these challenges, but in order to investigate these matters, we need to be able to move beyond our received concepts regarding being, even if we will not arrive at some resolved answer about ontology.

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