minimal rhetoric #4c12

Here is the text of my panel presentation.

Minimal Rhetoric

I could begin this talk by saying that my interest here is in exploring the ontological basis of rhetoric. We regularly accept the symbolic actions of humans as rhetorical, but do rhetorical relations exist without symbolic behavior? Are there rhetorical relations among  other animals? Among other objects? Where and how does one distinguish between rhetorical relations and other kinds of object relations, from those that rely upon desire, affect, instinct, or unconscious reflex to those described by gravity, mass, or quantum entanglement? If we say rhetoric requires preconditions of cognition and agency, then the questions I am posing point toward a conversation regarding panpsychism, or inversely as the familiar postmodern critique of the subject suggests, there might not be any rhetorical relations at all. On the other hand, if we imagine rhetoric, some minimal rhetorical condition, as the site from which thought and action emerge, then we begin to see a different picture.

The theory and practice I am pursuing here is part of a constellation of work that calls itself speculative realism and a particular version of speculative realism, object-oriented ontology. Neither of these terms offers anything like a codified position, and, if anything, in the last few years, there has been more diffusion rather than less. Furthermore, there are practices such as actor-network theory, assemblage theory, nonrepresentational theory and so on which may or may not fit within the umbrella of speculative realism. Personally, I am not interested in taking attendance, but I do want to point out what we might describe as a general philosophical movement away from some widely-held postmodern and cultural studies theoretical positions that have focused on discourse, ideology, subjectivity, and representation. Positions that I believe it is fair to say have held considerable sway in our field for the last 20 years. 

Speculative realism develops in response to prior theories’ inadequacies in responding to issues ranging from neuroscience and physics to the environment and the shifting relations between humans and machines. These inadequacies result from a Kantian position that Quentin Meillassoux terms correlationism: “the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other” (7). For Meillassoux part of the problem arises from the capacity of science to speak of what he terms “ancestral knowledge:” knowledge of things before humans, before correlation. In our correlationist frame, we typically speak of scientific knowledge as intersubjective. As a result, “Scientific truth is no longer what conforms to an in-itself supposedly indifferent to the way in which it is given to the subject, but rather what is susceptible of being given as shared by a scientific community.” And this might be fine for a science studies that only cares about the cultural, discursive, or representational elements of science, but it is completely inadequate otherwise. Such an approach fails to give us any access to scientific developments. I mean, why would we take neuroscience seriously if we just believed that neuroscience was only that discourse on which neuroscientists could perform agreement but which had no connection to a world beyond its language. Conversely, why would neuroscientists take us seriously?

This brings me to a different introduction to this talk. Rather than starting with some accounting of speculative realism, I might begin with expressing some of the urgency for pursuing an object-oriented rhetoric. In the most local, disciplinary terms, as I have already mentioned, for twenty years or more we have made this turn into cultural studies methods tuned to ideology and representation. More broadly, we conceive of the long history of rhetoric in terms of symbolic action and intersubjectivity. Correlationism would seem to be our native territory, and perhaps it has been. That said, there is also a history of the asignifying dimensions of rhetoric and our study of writing technologies, computers for example, have always been troubled by the objects involved. Now perhaps you might say that there is no urgency here, that rhetoric and composition can go along its merry correlationist way without concern. Perhaps. But it strikes me that we are quickly approaching a point where the clamor of the objects in our compositional networks can no longer be ignored. If this is a matter of concern for a composition pedagogy it is only because the matter is so pressing for technology, science, and democracy. As Bruno Latour has long argued, though in our conventional modern imagination we have divided scientific facts of nature from our democratic deliberations of social decisions, that divide has never been stable. And while academic correlationists may be satisfied with folding the technoscientific into the social-discursive, that is not sufficient either. It is not sufficient, for example, to conceive of climate change simply as a matter of intersubjective relations. Instead, what is required is what Latour terms an “object-oriented democracy,” a democracy that recognizes the role that objects play in deliberation.

For too long, objects have been wrongly portrayed as matters-of-fact. This is unfair to them, unfair to science, unfair to objectivity, unfair to experience. They are much more interesting, variegated, uncertain, complicated, far reaching, heterogeneous, risky, historical, local, material and networky than the pathetic version offered for too long by philosophers. Rocks are not simply there to be kicked at, desks to be thumped at. “Facts are facts are facts”? Yes, but they are also a lot of other things in addition.

 And clearly an object-oriented democracy would require an object-oriented rhetoric! This object-oriented democracy and rhetoric do not begin with prescriptions about how democracy should function or how deliberation ought to proceed. Instead, as speculative realism might suggest, they begin with investigating the objects already at work in rhetoric. Furthermore, this means studying the rhetorical operation of objects beyond the correlationist frame, independent of human symbolic action. 

Why do I take it this one step further? It is really a simple inversion. If the convention is to limit rhetoric to symbolic action, and hence to the correlationist environment, then one is either suggesting that symbolic action precedes rhetorical behavior or that the two evolved simultaneously, that they are, in effect, the same thing. As we know, the question of origins is sticky business. Anthropologists discuss what they term “behavioral modernity,” which is to say when humans started behaving like us, including adopting symbolic behaviors. Traditionally, behavioral modernity was believed to have appeared around 50,000 years ago. Today there is less certainty, and in any case, there is a clear record of human expression that predates homo sapien. Perhaps, as an aside, we might recognize this insistence on symbolic behavior as the defining characteristic that separates humans from other hominids as a distinctly correlationist conceit. Though establishing the dawn of symbolic behavior may prove elusive, it does seem reasonable to assert that expression precedes language, so is it then reasonable to consider whether such pre-symbolic expressions operated rhetorically? As Meillassoux confronts in his meditation on ancestral knowledge, such questions are not easily answered. These pre-symbolic expressions are not like the various wordless exclamations of modern humans, which certainly fit into a symbolic context. In the correlationist frame, even the infant’s cry is symbolic inasmuch as it is for us, the symbol-using parents. Ultimately however, this is not about imaging a rhetoric without symbolic action but rather recasting symbols as objects among other objects in a flat ontology where the rock, the word “rock,” the sound rock, rock music, the Rock, Plymouth Rock, and the Pink Panther are all real and rhetorical, with or without us to view them symbolically. The point is to recognize that objects need not be symbolic or in relation to us in order to operate rhetorically. What is at stake here is a symbol-independent expressive force whose effects cannot be articulated wholly in terms of physics, chemistry or other related fields. Instead it is a minimal rhetorical ontological capacity that allows objects to enter into rhetorical relations and is not solely available to humans. 

 With those two rather lengthy introductions in mind, I want to move to a particular site where a speculative rhetoric might be employed, the realm of so-called augmented reality. In this philosophical context, the term does sound strange. Where would one go outside reality in order to return to reality and add to it? Of course we all know what AR is generally about: adding digitally mediated information to the real world, as we experience it. The augmentation is relative to us, and in fact I’m sure a number of us may doubt whether or not we really feel augmented. Instead of augmented, I would suggest assembled reality or reassembled, though the ontological process of assembly is always ongoing. These technologies create assemblages that did not exist without them and hence new objects, objects that Bruce Sterling termed “spimes” for their effects upon spatio-temporal relations. Importantly, spimes are not simply for us. Much of their communication goes on without ever being seen by humans. These machines communicate via a variety of media: satellite, cellular, wi-fi, bluetooth, arphid, and near-field communication, as well as picking up sound and light when responding to voice or reading a bar code. 

 So what would it mean to take a speculative, rhetorical approach to augmented reality? Possibly many things, as I wouldn’t want to suggest that speculative rhetoric describes a single approach. However, this is my take in three moves. First, one would have to recognize the flat ontology at work here. To use Graham Harman’s terms one would neither wish to “overmine” or “undermine” AR objects. By undermining, one seeks an atomistic explanation, such as binary code that explains larger objects. Overmining, similarly, “happens whenever a philosophy tells us that an object is nothing more than how it appears to the observer; or an arbitrary bundling of immediately perceived qualities; or when it tells us that there are only ‘events,’ not underlying substances; or that objects are real only insofar as they perceive or affect other things.” So AR is not simply meaningful for us, nor does it only have meaning in the context of the Internet. Put simply, overmining insist that one object depends upon another object to lend it its reality, and here objects have fundamentally independent realities.

 That said, objects do have encounters with one another. These encounters, while never fully exhausting the withdrawn reality of objects, produce new effects, which, following Manuel DeLanda, we might term capacities. Capacities are unlike the properties that define an object. An object’s properties are consistent. Those properties are withdrawn in the sense that they are not accessible to us, but they are limited: an object has certain properties but not others. Capacities, on the other hand, emerge in relation to other objects and might be nearly infinite. As such, one might begin to establish a network or assemblage of capacities. The objects participating in the network are relevant but the network cannot be reduced to them as the capacities that emerge in these relations are always singular. Finally, to return to the notion of a minimal rhetoric, one cannot focus only on symbolic action in discerning rhetorical operation. Obvious augmented reality examples of non-symbolic expressivity include network connection strength and image resolution. As Deleuze and Guattari contend, expression is autonomous and auto-objective: it is not reducible to the objects that express. This is not a case of overmining; it is a recognition that expression is a capacity of assemblages. Scan a QR code and summon a webpage. The resulting expression includes download speed and the visual experience of the page. Connection speed and image resolution are capacities of these network relations. While they are symbolic in the sense that they reference digital information, we cannot undermine the resulting image in this way. The image too may be understood as symbolic. But the resolution of the image and the speed in which we receive it are not symbolic. 

 These are things we probably understand in a commonsensical way. However we typically insert a firewall here to say that these matters are filtered through a correlationist, symbolic experience in such a way as to render the prior elements moot.  Here we cannot do that though. No doubt our sensory organs, our bodies, our brain’s operation, and our use of language all enter into this augmented reality network. Certain capacities develop from this assemblage. Our subjective experience, while clearly limited, is hardly reducible to any of these elements. As such, if we wish to understand composition we cannot restrict ourselves to the symbolic, but must rather be able to view this larger object network.

 Furthermore, we must extricate ourselves from this network. Now instead image robots scanning arphid chips in a warehouse in a global network that informs factory manufacturing schedules. Even though various automated actions may be taken based upon the information that is scanned, we typically do not think of these communications as rhetorical because there is no real persuasion. Instead, there is a gathering of data from multiple sources, an integration and weighing of the information, recursive decision loops, testing out of different possibilities, and a resulting decision is made. But that’s not rhetoric, right? Gathering and evaluating research, following a recursive process, and finally taking a position? Put differently, was Deep Blue acting rhetorically when it played chess? Was it only rhetorical because there was a human opponent? What about two computers playing one another?

 When it comes down to it, we say these communications are not rhetorical because there is no agency. Even if one programs in a degree of variability, that’s not the same as actually making a choice. On the other hand, we cannot really account for our own experience of agency. However I don’t want to go down that well-traveled route as I think it gets the matter backward. The minimal rhetorical condition precedes agency. Not the other way around. If, as object-oriented ontology suggests, objects are fundamentally withdrawn from one another, then their relations are always slippery and indeterminate. Even Hume’s billiard balls do not fully encounter one another. Does this mean they persuade one another to roll around the table? Of course not. But it does mean that our familiar notion of causality is insufficient to account for object relations. As Meillassoux notes, for Kant, a stable, predictable universe is necessary for consciousness. Understandably, agency only works if our actions can have predictable results. At the same time, agency as we conventionally understand it only works if it is not determinable by external causes. Fortunately neurobiology demonstrates that even relatively simple animals can generate unpredictable responses to external stimuli. Of course that is not sufficient for us as we wish to imagine a seat of consciousness that does determine those responses. Harman takes this further in his articulation of a polypsychism where objects “perceive insofar as they relate.” That is, all objects have a capacity for perception that can be realized through relation. Those perceptions always withdraw from the perceived object, and yet the sensual object, as Harman terms it, that is produced through perception can persuade. It is in this space of rhetorical, sensual relation that agency and cognition might emerge. 

In the end this offers us a different way of understanding the rhetorical operation of augmented reality. The objects in an augmented reality network establish sensual relations with one another, each sensing the other though never fully, and taking action in return. Do those actions amount to what we term agency and cognition? Perhaps not, but that’s not the point. The point is that these relations produce indeterminable, though often stable, actions, and that expressive, sensual space is the ontological foundation of rhetorical relation. Though I call this a foundation, that’s not quite the right term, as it is not dogmatic; it does not call for a necessary truth. However it is also not fideist, suggesting that one can hold any belief, that all knowledge is ideological or correlational.  

This is significant for us as we find ourselves in a situation with mobile technologies where we are uncertain of how to behave, of their value for us, of their impact upon us individually and socially. Are we supposed to be tweeting at the conference panel? What should we say? Obviously conference tweeting is minor compared to the question of an object-oriented democracy? What does it mean to pull out your smartphone in the voting booth? How do the rhetorical capacities of these devices participate in our deliberations? For the composition instructor who imagines her class as contributing to the rhetorical development of citizens, how does one account for these object networks in teaching writing? In part, these are research questions where the responses cannot resort to belief, but must edge out into the realm of speculation. However speculative realism can never offer us certainty, so perhaps the best we can produce is what Latour conceives as compositionism:

compositionism takes up the task of searching for universality but without believing that this universality is already there, waiting to be unveiled and discovered. It is thus as far from relativism as it is from universalism. From universalism it takes up the task of building a common world; from relativism, the certainty that this common world has to be built from utterly heterogeneous parts that will never make a whole, but at best a fragile, revisable, and diverse composite material.

In other words, compositionism, like a speculative realist research practice, relies upon experimentation that is partly lab experiment, partly art experiment, and partly thought experiment. What we can make from our augmented reality networks is reflected by what we speculate those networks to be and how we imagine our intersections with them. A speculative rhetoric allows one to move beyond the realm of symbolic action, beyond ideology and representation, and consider a great outdoors of objects participating in our compositional assemblages.


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