object-oriented rhetoric

on politics and things

As seen recently on Larval Subjects and as partially captured in this Storify, the conversation over the political/ideological implications of OOO rolls along. I am tempted to say "roles" along as undoubtedly it seems as though people have parts to play. Maybe this is my part.

So here are a few basic premises.

  1. There is a difference between things/being/objects and the ideas that we formulate about them. That is, our knowledge of the world, including ontology, is inexact. 
  2. That inexactitude can result from our conscious adherence to a particular belief: religious or political. We can see this historically in the role of the Church in astronomy, scientific communism, and so on. 
  3. That inexactitude can also result from an unconsicous adherence to a particular belief. We don't have conscious access to every element of our thinking.
  4. That inexactitude can result from the discourses, machines, institutions, policies–i.e., the actors to use Latour's term–that participate in the network that produce knowledge. For example, the Mars Rover will produce certain knowledge about Mars rather than other possible knowledge. We can see politics at work here as well: as when we decide to fund this Mars project.

Despite this, ideology and politics are not deterministic, in part because knowledge is so inherently imprecise. We can see this on the news everyday and in the humanities when pundits and intellectuals of different stripes generate different knowledge/interpretations from the same event/data and their audiences receive their arguments in a variety of ways. This imprecision does not mean that we might not observe that Americans, for example, share a wide range of values and practices: an observation that we might describe as ideology at work. However, as noted above, that observation would be imprecise.

All that said, the fact that knowledge is inherently imprecise does not mean that we cannot make efforts toward objectivity; nor does it mean that some knowledge is more precise than other knowledge. As we can see in the second premise above, we get in real trouble when our ideas about what "should" be restrict our ability to see what is. We may never have perfect knowledge of climate change, but our survival might depend on our ability to get as close as we can. The better we can understand what climate change really is, the more likely we will be able to make political decisions to ensure our survival. 

I don't believe anyone involved in this conversation would disagree with what I have just written. Instead, I believe the disagreement comes over the role of critique as a kind of master discourse. When Levi writes, "I make the claim that OOO doesn’t entail any particular politics," his critics want to respond that the claim to be apolitical is a political claim, and specifically that the claim to be apolitical is a way of obscuring a link to the dominant ideology. Instead, I see Levi's argument as suggesting that critique has an important but limited role. More importantly, I don't believe he wants to set ontology in place of critique as master discourse. To the contrary, OOO has very little general explanatory force. Basically you have withdrawal and flatness, which means that all hierachies and identities are temporal, though not necessarily reversible. For example, physicists (as I understand it) contend that fundamental physical laws formed in the first few seconds of the universe. They are in time but are probably not reversible in this universe. 

I don't know that I would go as far as Levi does in his agreement with social constructivist and historical materialist critique. Why? Because built into these discourses is the premise that this knowledge has revolutionary potential. I have spent my entire career watching critical pedagogy have minimal impact at best upon students, and certainly no discernable effect upon our society. No doubt you could argue that this is a testament to the power of the dominant ideology. Or, you could argue that it is evidence that the critique on offer is misguided. 

In other words, I am suggesting that critique might suffer from the problem stated in my second premise above. How do we test that? What might we do to ameliorate that problem? This is the kind of methodological intervention that might arise from an object-oriented approach. And here I look to my own discipline. In teaching writing, we have an implied ontology. We have beliefs about cognition and agency that are implicit in our beliefs about how writing works. We have theories about the role of representation and ideology in shaping writing practice. We have observations of our students and their struggles with writing that we explain based upon our founding beliefs and theories. Pedagogies result from these. And overall I would say that they don't work particularly well, or at least they don't get the results that our promised (despite our heroic pedagogy narratives). An object-oriented approach might give us a methodological correction. It doesn't mean that we abandon our values but it does mean that we need to be open to understanding them differently.

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