writing know-how and ontology

Here’s an excerpt from a draft of the introduction to my current book project that discusses DeLanda’s recent Speculations essay on “Ontological Commitments.”

As I will explore, a speculative rhetoric offers several key methodological and theoretical advantages in extricating ourselves from our print biases. Briefly put, a speculative rhetoric eschews the anthropocentric biases of traditional rhetoric that view rhetoric as a human-only activity and instead recognizes the networks and assemblages of objects and actors that participate in composing. Here I am loosely throwing together concepts from Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory, Manuel DeLanda’s assemblage theory, and Graham Harman’s object-oriented ontology. Later, the specific intersections of these concepts will be examined, but for the purposes of introduction, it is sufficient to gather them together as investigations into what DeLanda terms a “realist ontology.” As he writes, ontologies fall into three general categories: idealist, empiricist, and realist.

For the idealist philosopher there are no entities that exist independently of the human mind; for the empiricist entities that can be directly observed can be said to be mind-independent, but everything else (electrons, viruses, causal capacities etc.) is a mere theoretical construct that is helpful in making sense of that which can be directly observed; for the realist, finally, there are many types of entities that exist autonomously even if they are not directly given to our senses. (“Ontological Commitments,” 71)

As he continues, the realist position requires a speculative approach as “There is simply no way to specify the contents of an autonomous world without speculating, since this world may contain beings that are too small or too large, and becomings that are too fast or too slow, to be directly observed” (71). In this context, the speculative rhetorician builds upon a speculation about the objects in the world by imagining rhetorical acts that are too small or too large, too fast or too slow. These acts, while not directly observable, may participate in our rhetorical networks. Methodologically, speculative rhetoric provides a very different and more tangible starting point for research than cultural studies methods that begin (and often end) with assertions about the global effects of ideology or more traditional humanistic and rhetorical methods that focus on texts (or when that fails treat other objects as texts to be read). Speculative rhetoric also offers a theoretical alternative to the postmodern death of agency. As this book explores, agency emerges in the relations among objects, as the capacity to act upon or with the other; as Latour puts it, through our relations with other actors, we are “made to do,” not forced or compelled to do, but composed, constructed, with the capacity for action. Thus a speculative rhetoric can investigate the objects that participate in a compositional network and the agency that those networks produce. In terms of the digital media concerns the humanities must address, speculative rhetoric offers a way of re-understanding the work we do so as to place it meaningfully into the context of digital composition, communication, and community.

The first chapter takes up these intersections between speculative realist philosophy and rhetorical theory to detail on possible version of a speculative rhetoric. Chapter two moves from the rhetorical theories of the first chapter toward a theory of speculative composing. If, as Delanda suggests, we might arrange ontological commitments into the categories of idealism, empiricism, and speculation, then our disciplinary theories of composition have shifted over time from the empirical toward the idealist. That is, theories of writing process developed in the 70s and 80s from observations and interviews with writers. Even the talk protocols of cognitive research were founded on the principle that writing was observable. This is not to suggest that such research did not admit a role for the unconscious but rather that it asserted there could be an empirical basis for understanding writing as a mind-independent activity, something that was “out there,” that was real, and that any human might encounter. In the move toward an epistemic (to use James Berlin’s term), cultural studies-inflected theory of composition, this empiricism moved toward idealism as the ability to observe a mind-independent reality was understood to be over-determined by ideology.  Idealism does not require the one believe there is no reality beyond the mind but only that we have no access to that reality. As such, as one commonly sees in composition, one can assert that writing exists beyond our perception of it but also assert that all we can know of writing is shaped by hegemony and power. These are not absolute positions where one is either an empiricist or an idealist but a continuum. Furthermore, in practice, contradictions abound. One day an instructor may discuss how our understanding of a social issue is shaped by ideology and the next describe how to write an introduction to an essay as if the introduction were empirically observable and understandable. This schism between the analysis of writing as an object (reading a text) and the analysis of writing as a process is inscribed into our discipline, rhetoric and composition. DeLanda observes this more generally as the divide between “Knowing That” and “Knowing How.” He asserts that “idealist and empiricist philosophers tend to assume that all knowledge is representational:” that is, “knowing that” (73). The difference between empiricism and idealism lies in their answer to the question of what can be represented: the world or the mind. However, both idealism and empiricism struggle with understanding “knowing how.” DeLanda makes a further distinction, suggesting that knowing-that is linked to signification, attaching a semantic meaning to an object or practice, while knowing-how is tied to significance: knowledge that makes a difference in the world.

It is, of course, conceivable that idealists or empiricists could incorporate these two distinctions (know-that/know-how, signification/significance) into their theories of knowledge. But a realist for whom the world is filled with objective tendencies and capacities waiting to be actualized by skillful interventions, tendencies and capacities that provide a myriad of opportunities and risks, is in a much better position to take advantage of these insights. (73)

For composition, speculative realism articulates writing as knowing how to intervene in a real world of objects, a real world that is not wholly observable or empirically understandable but with which we can nevertheless skillfully interact. This is a different kind of speculative activity from the one that seeks to describe what writing is. We typically understand this difference with the shorthand of “theory versus practice,” but that can be a misleading phrase. As DeLanda suggests, there is a theory of practice, a knowing how. One might be inclined to view writing process theories as theories of practice, but the difference being described here is not one of content (i.e, what kind of theory is it) but how that theory is known: “Unlike know-that, which may be transmitted by books or lectures, know-how is taught by example and learned by doing” (DeLanda, 73). Again, this should resonate familiarly with writing faculty: we learn to write by writing. When we are faced with the old-fashioned view that writing cannot be taught, in it, we might recognize that writing cannot be taught “by books or lectures.” Many things can be taught that way; rhetoric as a body of knowledge can be taught that way. Both modes of knowing are necessary.

A book, such as this one, cannot provide know-how. It can only offer a representation, a knowing-that, of know-how. However, it is a product of know-how, of writing. It is an intervention, and hopefully a skillful one. As I investigate in chapter two, a speculative know-how of composing requires an understanding of the “objective tendencies and capacities” that operate within a given compositional network. The chapter focuses in particular on two seemingly disparate elements: the operation of working memory in human cognition and glitches in digital technologies. Though the popularity of cognitive research in rhetoric and composition faded decades ago and scholars in the field remain skeptical of the value of contemporary brain research for composition studies, it is obvious that the brain participates in writing activity. It is equally obvious that the brain or the entire human body cannot write on its own. Technology is required. The encounter of the embodied human mind with writing technologies activates our capacity for inscription, which, with adequate training, can become a capacity for writing. Working memory is the site of those cognitive operations. One of the key shifts in moving away from an anthropocentric, human-exceptionalist view of rhetoric is recognizing that thought and agency are not simply internalized and intrinsic to humans; instead they are capacities that are activated through rhetorical relations. However, as a speculative realist ontology describes, these relations are never seamless; they require us to speculative, to fill in the blanks. They are glitchy, and as a result, they produce the capacity for thought and action. In a somewhat paradoxical move, modern rhetoric has sought to eliminate the need for thought in the search for pure, perfect communication. However, as I discuss here, glitches are not bugs; they are features, woven into our ontology.#plaa{display:none;visibility:hidden;}

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