incorporeality and expression in object-oriented rhetoric, politics and ethics

Speaking of problematic rhetorical performances, I hope to improve on my last one.

Levi Bryant has a couple interesting posts on rhetoric, politics, and ethics. As I was (not very successfully) trying to consider in my last post, I am seeing a growing engagement with Latour, OOO, and related theories on these topics. Sometimes this becomes an opportunity for critique, and elsewhere it is an application of nonhuman, OOO, and SR concepts. I have seen both of these moves result in difficulties as they move from concept into method.

A theory of politics and/or ethics begins with cognition and agency. That is, both politics and ethics are about making choices and acting upon them. These have obviously been a primary concern of rhetoric, both as a practice and as a discipline. I.e., how do I persuade my audience to take a particular political action or to view a particular choice as the ethical one? Latour makes a direct connection between these rhetorical concerns and objects in his articulation of an object-oriented democracy. I have been thinking about this for some time in terms of a Delanda-inflected assemblage theory. I see similiar thinking in Levi's discussion of populations, paths, and channels in his post on rhetoric. When we discuss, for example, the future of academic publication, we are raising these issues. We recognize that ideas are not ethereal. They are composed in particular assemblages and they are then mediated through assemblages. Thus, we need to examine the role of objects in our political and ethical deliberations.

But that is not nearly enough. If we continue to think of rhetoric, politics and ethics as human activities that are affected by objects, we have misunderstood the most important point here. The most important point is that rhetoric, politics, and ethics are not ours. In this respect, the first gesture of a flat ontological assemblage theory is that cognition and agency (and hence rhetoric, politics, and ethics as we practice them) are not the capstone rewards of human rationality or a divine gift, given over only to us and for us. Perhaps there isn't panpsychism, but we cannot assert that every object except for us operates by some brute mechanics. In fact, it is that predominant Modern view that has brought us to a situation where we see ourselves as increasingly mechanical. So this assemblage perspective is about tipping in the other direction. As Levi points out in his most recent post on Harman, withdrawal is at the center of OOO and offers a basis for agency: no object can be fully dominated by another; there is always hope and opportunity for agency.

We typically say that rhetoric, politics, and ethics require agency and cognition. However, as we extend these beyond a human domain, we might consider if the opposite is true or if these are somehow co-emergent phenomena. In any case, a more general theory of rhetoric–an object-oriented or nonhuman rhetoric (which is also inclusive of humans, so maybe nonhuman is not a good word choice here)–might offer us a valuable view on contemporary rhetorical challenges, one that is not available from the perspectives offered by our modern, print-centric view. So that's the long-term political-ethical payoff, I suppose. But we can't just leap to that. 

Within Delanda's (and Deleuze's) assemblage theory is a consideration of the "collective assemblage of enunciation," which is an investigation of expression. When symbolic behavior becomes involved, these expressions include what Deleuze and Guattari term "incorporeal transformations" (as when one is found guilty in a courtroom). Object-oriented perspectives are challenged by expression and incorporeality, which might suggest that there is something besides objects. As Deleuze and Guattari say, expression is autonomous and auto-objective. However, I don't really see this as an issue. To the contrary, I see this as potentially compatible with the concept of withdrawal and the agentic glitches withdrawal produces. Expression is a kind of exteriority (this would be contrary to conventional notions of "personal expression"). It is a capacity of objects in relation. It is also its own thing, an object, an expression. It is also a force and a process, but all objects are also forces and processes. Expressions have the capacity to affect the objects with which they relate. This capacity cannot be reduced to physical, electrical, chemical, and/or neurological forces. That would be undermining, to use Harman's term. Expression requires those forces (as all assemblages do) just as my body requires relations on an atomic level. 

When objects encounter one another as expressions (in addition to encounter one another as physical forces), they are having a rhetorical encounter (or at least that's my version). There is also the possibility of thought and action. And ethical and political concerns. Maybe incorporeal is the wrong word here, but what is suggested here is something more (or less) than an exchange of physical forces. The glitch of withdrawal creates the problem that becomes the assemblage, allows the capacity for thought and action to arise. 

As for ethics and politics, this point reminds me of Greg Ulmer's observation, "I assume that the ethical dilemma of self/other will not be solved in an electronic apparatus, but simply that it will become irrelevant, just as 'appeasing' the gods, which was the problem addressed by ritual, became irrelevant in literacy, even if ritual form–in theater –continued within literacy." It is difficult to hear the argument that ethical (and I would add political) problems are never solved but simply become irrelevant. How do the problems of inequality and marginalization become irrelevant? How do gods become irrelevant? When we stop appeasing gods it is not because drought or illness or whatever our rituals hoped to address is no longer a problem for us. Instead, we enter into a new assemblage with these problems, with new expressions, new thoughts, and new capacities for action.

It is hard to hear our political and critical engagement with the role of the other (women, immigrants, poor, people of color, and so on) being situated as analogous to the practice of appeasing the gods. It's hard to hear that because we "know" that there are no gods to appease and that this was just a "bad idea." As such this would suggest that racism or sexism are no more real than those gods, and to make that suggestion would be to risk being called an intellectual traitor or worse, a conservative. But from a flat ontological perspective, those gods were real, as real as Popeye or Harry Potter or any object with expressive force. Try telling the people with their hearts cut out on an altar that the gods weren't real. As I suggested in my last post, everything is real; everything is equally real (though as Bogost points out, they do not exist equally). So I am not suggesting that the ethical dilemma of the self/other is not real. It certainly is.

What I am suggesting is that by examining expression as a component of an object-oriented, nonmodern (if not nonhuman) rhetoric, we get a different view of the problems/assemblages into which we enter. This is the challenge I think we face rhetorically and methodologically, to not view an OOR as a way to solve already existing problems but as a problem/assemblage generator producing new agency, thought, and ethics.


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