Tuesday, October 30, 2012

How Strange To Be Anything At All

Sometimes alone in your head is a frightening place to be. This is particularly true when things go bad, and they have been going bad for us lately. As some of you may know, my wife is now 22 weeks pregnant. On September 21, the day we were supposed to find out the gender of our baby, we were informed that there were several abnormalities: the brain was not fully divided and the heart and kidneys weren't functioning properly. Even without a firm diagnosis as to why, we were told that our baby, a girl, had about a 1% chance of surviving to full term. We were devastated: what was to be a celebration became an unreal nightmare. We decided soon after to keep our baby as long as possible. Annie was our daughter, and we were past the point where we could imagine otherwise (my wife Jodi has written eloquently on our decision not to terminate the pregnancy).

We soon after learned that our baby had Trisomy 13 (an extra 13th chromosome), and that the abnormalities were critical and incompatible with life.  (I will say here that the folks at Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital Fetal Care Institute are amazing.) At most, Annie might make it to full term and perhaps live a day or two. Most likely, she will pass in utero. We began to prepare ourselves for these eventualities, describing ourselves as actively-passive. We would work to accept what we could not control, and to live with what we had for as long as we had it. So Annie became Annie. We feel her kick. We read to her. Will (Annie's big brother) talks to her and rubs Jodi's belly (and worries about being sick himself and of not wanting to "go to heaven").

Some days are harder than others, but most days are full of the joy that is Annie's life. It takes a lot of work to carve out this kind of happiness, but it has been worth it.

It's been worth it because the universe wasn't quite done. Annie's form of Trisomy 13 (Down Syndrome is Trisomy 21) was a full translocation (which only happens in about 20% of trisomy 13 cases), which is when the extra 13th chromosome attaches to the 14th. In about 25% of these cases, this translocation is inherited. We had genetic testing done. Yesterday, we learned that my wife is a carrier. She was devastated. We were devastated. What does this mean? Can we have more children? Do we want to risk going through this again? We haven't really thought through any of this yet. We just resolved to look at our healthy and wonderfully amazing son and feel lucky as hell. Just look at him: pretty fucking amazing, right?

So, I'm in my head a lot these days. After all, as an academic I'm pretty much paid to think all day, which is not exactly a choice profession with all this on your mind. And so to get some work done, I have to start thinking about Annie in terms of my research: object-oriented rhetoric, new materialism, vibrant matter, where the lesson is over and over again the complexity of the world and the fact that everything has a kind of force. And you start to feel vulnerable. Even our genes are out to get us.

But that's rather pessimistic and counter to the actively-passive stance we had taken. Vulnerability brought us Will. Vulnerability brought my wife and I together. We are each us of affect-able, persuadable, moveable, and changeable. Because we are these things we get to be something at all in the first place. Most days I get to feel Annie kick. I have seen pictures of her: her rainbow spine and the hands that will never open all the way. And these kicks are more than signs, more than symbolic representations of life; they are her being alive. And these kicks aren't even her fighting the good fight: they are simply Annie living as Annie.

She isn't battling: we aren't battling. We are all of us vulnerable and alive because of it. All we are ever doing is being alive. I have a daughter that I will only live with for nine months, and most of that, all of it most likely, will be in utero. I celebrate that. I honor that. I grieve for that. This isn't a simple celebration or a treatise on the value of human life. This post isn't pro- anything. It is an active recognition of our permanent (and sublimely passive) vulnerability—not to a higher power, our own power, or some other life force, but a complicated jumble of other things, each as vulnerable as the next.

Vulnerability is the chance to be anything at all and often times for only a moment. We can only ever be actively passive in the face of this, in the face of others, in the face of a world we are thrown into, kicking and screaming.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Science Writing as Articulation

A short video outlining the theory informing ENGL 401: New Media Science Writing (Fall 2012 at St. Louis University). The short video is part of a larger, collaborative, and multimedia research project currently underway at SLU.

Science Writing as Articulation from Nathaniel Rivers on Vimeo.

Teaching with New Media Technology

I was asked to give a talk on teaching with new media technology. I was unable to attend in the flesh, so I recorded my talk (taking advantage of the ability to sync quotes and seamlessly integrate examples):

Teaching with New Media Technology from Nathaniel Rivers on Vimeo.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

KB Journal Video Parlor #1: An Introduction

KBJournal Editors Paul Lynch and Nathaniel Rivers discuss their vision for the journal as well as new features they plan on introducing this Fall. Please visit the KBJournal for more.


Monday, July 16, 2012

Rhetorical Theory/Bruno Latour Video Series

So, I have not posted in quite some time. I have, however, been busy. I have been making additional episodes of Rhetorical Theory/Bruno Latour. These episodes are now appearing as a series at Enculturation: A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture. In addition to the introduction and the three numbered episodes previously posted here on my blog, there are now five more episodes up at Enculturation, with more episodes coming soon. My thanks to Casey Boyle for pulling this together.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Rhetorical Theory/Bruno Latour Episode #3: The Strong Defense

With this episode, I continue with my provocations, attempting to assemble rhetorical theory and Bruno Latour in mutually beneficial ways. In this episode, I discuss what Bruno Latour adds to Richard Lanham's Strong Defense of rhetoric. I conclude that in addition to offering a strong defense of rhetoric, Latour offers an equally strange one as well.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Rhetorical Theory/Bruno Latour Episode #2: Attitude

With episode two ("Attitude"), I continue to assemble rhetorical theory and Bruno Latour in mutually beneficial ways. In this episode, I discuss what rhetoric has to offer Bruno Latour: specifically, I employ Kenneth Burke's notion of attitude to highlight the importance of "how" or of "mode" in the work of collectives.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Rhetorical Theory/Bruno Latour Episode #1: Show Your Work

With this first numbered episode, I continue with my provocations, attempting to assemble rhetorical theory and Bruno Latour in mutually beneficial ways. In this episode, I discuss what I am calling Latour's insistence to "show your work": that is, to not assume as already existing that which we are always working to create. Additionally, this call to "show your work" highlights all those humans and nonhumans who take part in such work.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Rhetorical Theory/Bruno Latour

A very short video outlining why I think the work of Bruno Latour is important and necessary for rhetoric and composition. I'm going to try multiple versions of this. I'd like to have several possible "elevator pitches" for Bruno Latour.

Having Your Day Made

RSA Twitter Feedback

Posting this mostly for myself. RSA 2012 was a great time, and the Twitter scene was very much a part of it.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Alien Ontography

@betajames and @sophist_monster tweet the finer points of Alien. Those finer points all turn out to be objects, which are crucial to the film and strange within it. What follows is a brief ontography of the film. Of ontography Ian Bogost writes,
The simplest approach to such recording [of objects] is the list, a group of items loosely joined not by logic or power but by the gentle knot of the comma. (38, Alien Phenomenology)
I used Storify to collate the tweets. Enjoy!

Monday, May 14, 2012

RSA 2012: Reframing Deception

RSA 2012 is but two weeks away! Here is a preview trailer of my talk, "Reframing Deception: Rhetorical, Psychology, and Agency." It's a version of a paper I have recently co-authored with a colleague in psychology, Maarten Derksen. The talk is part of a panel on Reframing the Brain: Indentification and the Rhetoric of Neuroscience chaired by Jordynn Jack. It's a loaded panel, and I am excited to be a part of it. The panel (H.12) is on Saturday, May 26, 2012 at 11:00am.


Speaker #3 frames deception through the combined lenses of rhetorical theory and experimental psychology, thus performing an important interdisciplinary gesture: to study the human experience culturally and scientifically. It introduces a specific strain of rhetorical theory to experimental psychology in order to make claims for the emergence of human agency, and to rethink and recast a term common to both rhetoric and psychology, namely deception. Speaker #3 argues that agency is emergent in experimental conditions as it likewise is in moments of rhetorical encounter. It reads this understanding of agency through psychological experiments in priming, which attempt to demonstrate how subtle context cues unconsciously shape human behavior and in so doing reveal the bare mechanisms of the human mind. Examining work on rhetorical ecologies (Edbauer), identification (Burke), and ambience (Rickert) on the one hand, and experimental social psychology on the other, this presentation argues that deception cannot simply be identified as something that one person does to another, but rather is an emergent phenomenon within and across moments of encounter, whether they be complex rhetorical interactions or tightly controlled psychological experiments.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Shape of the World to Come: Toward an Object-Oriented Environmental Rhetoric

Short talk given at Saint Louis University. To celebrate our outgoing chair, faculty were ask to give short presentations on research made possible or supported by our chair. Here is my talk, which I think is a fairly succinct description of my current research project.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Outwitting Squirrels

Mostly, this makes me laugh, but I do like the idea of this as a textbook akin to How To Argue and Win Every Time. It presents squirrels as equal partners in a rhetorical enterprise.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Transitional Objects

I've been thinking more about carpentry and my son. Yesterday I blogged about the book When Air Moves and a few days ago about his "collection" of twigs, leaves, chunks of brick and stone, and pines cones. This line of thought is motivated, of course, by fatherly affection, but also by the argument, which emerges from the work of Jane Bennett and Ian Bogost, about the importance of a certain kind of naivete and wonder when it comes to approaching objects as objects. And then Ze Frank told me about transitional objects (or "comfort objects"). In this brief post, I want to make a case for transitional objects as a form of carpentry and so amenable to OOO. I also want to briefly use transitional objects to attend to the affective elements of carpentry and OOO.

To Wikipedia (big deal, wanna fight about it):
In human childhood development, the term transitional object is normally used. It is something, usually a physical object, which takes the place of the mother-child bond. Common examples include dolls, teddy bears or blankets.

Donald Woods Winnicott introduced the concepts of transitional objects and transitional experience in reference to a particular developmental sequence. With "transition" Winnicott means an intermediate developmental phase between the psychic and external reality. In this "transitional space" we can find the "transitional object."
Will's transitional object: Reindeer, his tiny stuffed reindeer. By my rhetorical carpentry-infused reading of Winnicott's transitional object theory, Reindeer is a specific object that attunes Will to the withdrawal of objects in general.

At first glance, this approach to objects looks correlationist. Objects are what they stand-in for, mean or represent for humans. One immediately thinks of evocative objects, the main feature of which is the argument that "objects carry both [human] ideas and passions" (although Graham Harman has argued that we can read evocative objects as amenable to OOO as well). OOO, in contrast, is interested in objects in and of themselves, distinct from what they might mean for us. Certainly, we can easily read transitional objects this way. But I think, for the moment, we might benefit from seeing them as more than this, and we can do that through the idea of carpentry. Again, I go to JB:
Rhetorical carpentry would construct objects (and conversations among objects) in order to demonstrate approximations of the strange, alien conversations happening around us. ("The Decorum of Objects")
It's in light of carpentry that "transitional objects" does real work for OOO. More from Wikipedia (listen, I just thought of this):
When the young child begins to separate the "me" from the "not-me" and evolves from complete dependence to a stage of relative independence, it uses transitional objects. Infants see themselves and the mother as a whole. In this phase the mother "brings the world" to the infant without delay which gives it a "moment of illusion," a belief that its own wish creates the object of its desire which brings with it a sense of satisfaction. Winnicott calls this subjective omnipotence.
Now, bear with me for a moment: could we not see "subjective omnipotence" as correlationism—the idea that the world is only ever what I am always able to make of it—in its most extreme form? What a transitional object does, then, is help the child break out of this subjective omnipotence, which is a powerful, painful, and necessary experience.
In a later stage of the development the child no longer needs the transitional object. It is able to make a distinction between "me" and "not-me," and keeping inside and outside apart and yet interrelated. This development leads to the use of illusion, symbols and objects later on in life.
So while transitional objects could easily be read as correlationist (and perhaps work will need to be done to make this less likely), what I see these objects as are objects that attune us to the strange withdrawal of all objects, including mom and dad, doggie, rocks, trees, and even Reindeer. What OOO/OOR needs and wants is for people to hold onto these transitional objects well after childhood, which some adults do. We always need transitional objects. What carpentry suggests is that we make transitional objects in the philosophical work of dismantling more sophisticated, adult, and dangerous forms of "subjective omnipotence."

Finally, and in a round about way, I also find transitional object theory compelling because it attends to the affective dimension of carpentry. Correlationism isn't just an abstract, disembodied idea that some (or many) people have; it is a whole way of being in the world. Carpentry, then, must surely provide not just ways of engaging the strangeness and withdrawal of objects but also ways of coping with the transition to an object-oriented ontology itself. Carpentry's objects must also be security blankets and stuffed reindeer.

Note: Eileen Joy, co-editor of O-Zone, has a short essay at In the Midde that dicusses transitional objects: "Willingly Playing the Role of Thing: The Hope of Persons as Transitional Objects"

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Missing Masses: For Kids!

My mom and grandmother came today to steal away our son for a few days of vacation. My grandfather recently passed away, and my grandmother is distributing to her children, grand-children, and great-grand-children many of the things he collected over the years. I have received many of his old books (more than a few gems), some ties, and a pocket knife. Today, my son received this gem of a book, published way back in 1968.

Here is the first page, which, I think, both gives air a lot of credit and suggests ways of making things that allow us to explore air:

Indeed, the whole book is rather a celebration of air that moves and how important it is. It is occasionally too use oriented, but given how hard it is to find Latourian children's' books about air, I'll gladly settle for this one.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

On Feeling Naive (as an Experimental Rhetorical Carpenter)

This post is an aside about feeling naive while doing the work of rhetorical carpentry.

Because we are colleagues, I had the pleasure of discussing my "Alien Relationships" experiment with Devin Johnston, whose Creaturely and Other Essays both partially inspired the experiment and provided the text I sampled in it. (Creaturely is surely an alien phenomenology.) Talking with him over a beer, I described how I felt composing the project and how anxious I was about making it public (and for more reasons than just fishing for a complement). I said that I felt silly and awkward. I felt like a naive sophomore enrolled in his first creative writing class.
My son's "collection" as he calls it. Full of sticks, leaves, pine cones,
and chunks of stone and brick, this collection is full of wonder. Ian
Bogost argues that wonder has two senses: "it can suggest awe or
marvel" and "it can mean puzzlement or logical perplexity" (121).
"The act of wonder," Bogost writes, "invites a detachment from
ordinary logics, of which human logics are but one example" (124).

As a successful creative writer, Devin's perspective is especially valuable. So I was rather pleased when he said how glad he was to hear that I was feeling that way: feeling silly and naive indicates productively (if not successfully) moving out of your comfort area. He then went on to describe his own process of writing the essays in Creaturely: how hard he worked to get the essays to approach, without appropriating, other creatures.

This conversation helped me a great deal and I share it because I think it might be helpful to others interested in experimenting with rhetorical carpentry. Carpentry is going to be hard, it's going to feel silly and weird: carpentry will be naive and full of wonder, which Bogost makes much use of in Alien Phenomenology (see the above picture taken of my son's "collection"). My conversation with Devin has also got me thinking about the possible value of team-ups or at least of leaning on our colleagues. I think carpentry might be an interesting, if not inherently, interdisciplinary venture. How might rhetorical carpentry be a good way to make things together?

Monday, April 30, 2012

Carpentry of the Sublime

In response to my post "Rhetorical Carpentry: An Experiment", both Scot and Steve raised helpful and (as this post demonstrates) generative questions about intent and language with respect to carpentry as a means to reveal or engage objects as aliens with ontological weight all their own. I want to continue responding to their questions (and to Scot's question about the sublime in particular) here.

Scot writes:
However, I'm also suspicious, particularly of [Morton's] reading of Longinus and the sublime. I'm just not sure this maps onto OOO very well, at least not without some poetic work on our parts to endow objects with intuitions and the possibility of being surprised or thrown out of synch. For Longinus, the sublime really boils down to language and taste
In response, I want to first spend some time with Morton's reading of the sublime and then come back to what I feel is a key move for OOO scholarship. In short, I think misreading is a fundamental move for object-oriented philosophy. I want to summarize Morton's reading of Longinus and then defend it based precisely on Scot's suspicion of it.

Tim Morton's essay "Sublime Objects" identifies two forms of the sublime that don't work for OOO and one that does (Morton also discuss object-oriented rhetoric there, but I don't want to get into that just yet).
Of the two dominant theories of the sublime, we have a choice between authority and freedom, between exteriority and interiority. Both choices are correlationist. That is, both theories of the sublime have to do with human subjective access to objects.
In this regard, Morton speaks to Scot's uneasiness with the idea of the sublime. Morton continues:
Both sublimes [the Burkean and Kantian] assume that: (1) the world is specially or uniquely accessible to humans; (2) the sublime uniquely correlates the world to humans; and (3) what’s important about the sublime is a reaction in the subject. (217)
This is a sublime that is all about what objects mean for us and not what they might be in and of themselves (or for other objects). The sublime as it works here is uniquely human and it's reactionary. What OOO requires of the sublime is a little less of both. A little later, Morton writes
What we require is an aesthetic experience of coexisting with 1+n other entities, living or nonliving. What speculative realism needs would be a sublime that grants a kind of intimacy with real entities. (219)
Google Earth Building Maker for Saint Louis Arch.
Morton argues that Google Earth counts as Longinian sublime:
"it transports us to real places" (227).
The building maker function within Google Earth is perhaps carpentry of the sublime.
What OOO needs and what carpentry needs to make are intimate relations with other, real entities: more than human reactions and more relations rather than just reactions (in brief, I'm using reaction here to indicate a lack of intimacy). This is the sublime carpentry of Harman with his stress upon allure and vicarious causation. It is not, Morton argues, the Kantian sublime where the "aesthetic dimension is an experiential condom that shrink wraps objects in a protective film" (220). The sublime we (can) get from Longinus, Morton argues, is just the opposite. In the intimacy generated by this sublime we engage with an object's "withdrawnnes" (226). What is in interesting here is that in risking intimacy the weirdness or strangeness of the object shows up. Morton essentially argues that by bringing the object closer we see how really far-out it is.

But all of this isn't exactly an answer to all of Scot's question, which was also concerned with Morton's reading of Longinus. The timing of Scot's question is actually quite nice. Jim Brown will shortly be presenting at The Nonhuman Turn Conference, which looks amazing. The subject of his talk is rhetorical carpentry, and it begins with an explicit misreading of Thomas Farrell's definition of rhetoric in his essay "Sizing Things Up: Colloquial Rhetoric as Practical Wisdom": "Rhetoric is the art, the fine and useful art, of making things matter." We can easily imagine what Jim, and by extension object-oriented rhetoric, could do with this definition, which is not at all what Farrell does or would even want to do with this definition. As I was reading Jim's paper, I immediately thought of what Harman does with Heidegger: he deliberate mis-reads him, or at least reads Heidegger against Heidegger's own grain. I am wondering if we could grant much the same to Morton (I must admit I am not familiar enough with Longinus to assess Morton's reading of him): that is, could we see Morton's reading of Longinus as a productive mis-read?

And from there, we could go on to argue that mis-reading may very well be a key component of OOO, OOR, and carpentry. Farrell's definition of rhetoric, Heidegger's analysis of tool-being, and Longinus's sublime are all objects that most assuredly withdrawal from their authors as well as their readers. We are only ever working with their exhaust. Getting intimate with these definitions as objects that withdraw from us as objects might teach us valuable lessons about the withdrawnness of objects generally. For example, this kind of mis-reading might very well sync with Bennett's recommendation in "The Force of Things: Steps toward an Ecology of Matter": "I have also suggested that a playful, naive stance toward nonhuman things is a way for us to render more manifest a fugitive dimension of experience" (366). OOO's methods must bear some resemblance to it's lessons.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Deep (Environmental) Ambivalence (And TROLLS!)

I have previously discussed (here and here) my interest in developing environmental historian William Cronon's "deep ambivalence" with respect to "wilderness" as an environmental rhetoric in its own right. Here is a quick refresher on Cronon's "deep ambivalence." Cronon writes of being "forced to confront [his] own deep ambivalence about [wilderness's] meaning for modern environmentalism." On the one hand, he argues, the notion of wilderness disconnects humans from their environment and thus often produces irresponsible behavior. That is, we let ourselves off of the hook when we take ourselves out of nature.
On the other hand, I also think it no less crucial for us to recognize and honor nonhuman nature as a world we did not create, a world with its own independent, nonhuman reasons for being as it is. The autonomy of nonhuman nature seems to me an indispensable corrective to human arrogance.
So I am interested in deep ambivalence as mode of engagement (an environmental attitude) and I am interested in seeing what can be done with wilderness as a rhetorical object. Tim Morton (who writes both about ecology and object-oriented ontology) is helpful on both counts.

What I have been calling "wild objects" (in an attempt to re-cycle "wilderness" in terms of OOO) Morton calls the "strange stranger," a term I would adopt were I not specifically interested in working through the environmental rhetoric of "wilderness." Morton writes, "Life-forms recede into strangeness the more we think about them, and whenever they encounter one another—the strangeness is irreducible" (165). From here, Morton goes on to argue that "ecological philosophy that does not attend to this strangeness is not thinking coexistence deeply enough" (165). The same, I obviously want to argue, is true of environmental rhetoric, which often un-stranges the stranger in doing its work. Writing about the story of climate change, Bronislaw Szerszynski argues,
This story is one in which the diagnostic task of establishing the truth of anthropogenic climate change naturally gives way to the practical one of finding effective political and technical responses to it. (10)
I would argue that Morton's admonishment is even more relevant for environmental rhetoric as rhetoric, following Kenneth Burke, is largely about persuasion to attitude, which is incipient action. The assumption that getting the diagnosis right naturally leads to changes in behavior assumes both that we could ever "get it right" and that it's information alone that leads to action (rather than the matrix of personal, social, affective, and environmental forces that cultivate attitudes). Both of these assumptions are problematic.

Wild objects, especially as I want to read them through my continuing obsession and employment of The Troll Hunter, really get fleshed out as Morton writes, "The more we know about a strange stranger, the more she (he, it) withdraws" (166). This works rather well for my reading of The Troll Hunter as an object-oriented environmental rhetoric: the whole apparatus of the film is designed to bring us into close contact with the troll in order to reveal its strangeness. We have the information forms produced by the Troll Security Service (TST), the lessons about types of trolls, the history, the legends, and even the blood work, but all of this pushes the trolls further and further away. The weirdness and wildness and strangeness of the troll is increased even by the film's documentary style, which, as styles go, promises a certain immediateness. Morton writes, "Bizarrely, increase access (technically possible or not, hypothetical or not) does not decrease strangeness" (166). Again, this line of thought in Morton and weirdness in The Troll Hunter resists the normal way we approach environmental rhetoric, which typically insists on truthful (read "complete") representation of the object. In other words, we have to get it right to even begin to save it. The Inconvenient Truth and its line graphs is a perfect example this kind of environmental rhetoric. As Morton argues, "It's not simply a case of the right equipment passing through it like a knife through butter" (177). Objects do not need to be kept wild: objects remain wild even in the midst of interaction.

Now, the question of interaction leads necessarily to a discussion of the nature or mode of that interaction. Morton discusses melancholia as the mode of subjectivity that OOO utilizes, and Morton's melancholia, I think, feels a lot like Cronon's deep ambivalence.
Melancholia is precisely the mode of intimacy with strange objects that can't be digested by the subject. (175)
What Morton thus proposes is a mode of interaction—what (Kenneth) Burke calls attitude (which is emotional and physical, affective and social)—predicated on strangeness. Melancholia is not the resignation of depression; it is a mode of intimacy and thus of interest and engagement. And so melancholia resonates with Cronon's deep ambivalence, which is itself not a resignation but a recognition (and respect) of strangeness—the stuff that cannot be reduced to us, decoded by us, or controlled by us.

The consequences of escaping (or shaking off) our melancholia are dire. "Melancolia," Morton writes, "starts to tell us the truth about the withdrawn qualities of objects" (176). Furthermore, and here I turn back to Morton's Ecology Without Nature, where he writes of the need for "the openness of this whatever, pronounced with the distracted yet ironic casualness of a California high school student" (158). (Morton's discussion of modes of distraction in Ecology syncs with melancholia.) Without this whatever or this melancholia, "the ecological collective to come will be captured by the fantasies of nation building that have haunted the concept of nature" (158). To this I would add Szerszynski, who writes the following of a rather un-melancholic approach to ecology:
To put this another way, climate science’s action-orienting power derives not from its objectivity, autonomy and disinterestedness, but from its always-already presumption of application. Our relation with the weather has been pulled towards a certain kind of reading that constitutes it as a code that can be mastered and controlled. The metabolic relation of humanity and nature has been understood only in narrowly causal terms, obscuring the disseminative drift of meaning and thus tilting us inexorably towards the idea of climate change as a problem that can be solved rather than an opening to be responded to. (19)
This opening can only be responded to in the melancholic mode of Cronon's deep ambivalence, which is neither resignation nor a fantasy of decoding or of nation building. Deep ambivalence, like melancholia,
is the default mode of [object-oriented] subjectivity: an object-like coexistence with other objects and the otherness of objects—touching them, touching the untouchable, dwelling on the dark side one can never know, living in endless twilight shadows (176)
Deep environmental ambivalence supposes an inconvenient truth that can never be charted. Deep ambivalence is wrapping your heart and mind around (or perhaps pouring them into) a wild object around which you cannot completely wrap either.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Rhetorical Carpentry: An Experiment

Having recently finished Ian Bogost's Alien Phenomenology, or What It's Like to Be a Thing , and having recently been asked to give a workshop on new media production for a poetry course taught by a colleague, I have produced my first attempt at what Bogost calls carpentry. Jim Brown, adding in an explicitly rhetorical dimension (which the title of this post nods appreciatively toward), best describes the goals of this production when he writes
"Rhetorical carpentry would construct objects (and conversations among objects) in order to demonstrate approximations of the strange, alien conversations happening around us" ("The Decorum of Objects").
This attempt at rhetorical carpentry also works out of the methods I am currently developing for my Fall 2012 Problems in Rhetoric: Animal, Vegetable, Mineral course, which will explore nonhuman and nonsymbolic rhetorics. As I write on the course site, "we are not simply interested in what objects mean or represent; to this end, we must have ways of 'writing' objects that likewise resist this tendency. Such is the hope of this collection of methods."

The main goal of this experiment is to reveal nonhuman/nonhuman relationships as they take place alongside human/human and human/nonhuman relationships. Furthermore, I want to reveal that all such relations are always with aliens, so to speak. Each thing (what Bogost calls a unit and what others call an object) is more than the sum total of its relations. Objects remain withdrawn from all relations.

Here is my thinking behind the elements of this production (feel free to come back to this discussion after you have watched the video):
  • Each image "captures" nonhuman relationships (there is more than just the vent in each picture)
  • The Instagram filter (I took the pictures on my iPhone) blurs the edges allowing for focus on the vent and its relations
  • Sound is of vents but it is disconnected/foregrounded as a sound effect separate from its normal status as background noise (think of Brown's "alien conversations")
  • The text, one line from Devin Johnston's Creaturely and Other Essays is about a relationship with a house. Additionally, the relationship described is about more than control (i.e., reducing the house to its inhabitants) but is instead something reciprocal or on the same ontological level.
  • Timing of the slides:
    • compels viewer to attend to the whole scene.
    • focuses on the words themselves, which certainly exist in relationship with other words but also remain disconnected and alienated from the sentence of which they are apart (this separation is made manifest, I hope, by the time delay between each word).
    • allows for otherwise connected or related objects to become disconnected and thus become independent and alien objects

So, here you have it. Be gentle. I have spent my adult life being analytical, but I have recently discovered that this mode alone will not do. As Tim Morton argues in "Here Comes Everything: The Promise of Object-Oriented Ontology":
Longinian ekphrasis is not about the reaction of the (human) subject, but about rhetorical modes as affective-contemplative techniques for summoning the alien. (171)

"Alien Relationship" combines text from Devin Johnston's Creaturely and Other Essays, images taken using the Instagram App on my iPhone, and a sound effect ("white noise in the house" from klankbeeld at freesound.org).

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Object-Oriented Agonism

Is agonism, defined as productive strife, a way to think about object-oriented ontology in terms of rhetoric (to operationalize it for rhetoric)? There is much to be gained from OOO, but how do we make it speak to rhetoric while keeping it intact so that it might impact the field. That is, my goal is not to make OOO safe for rhetoric but rather to let OOO infect and affect rhetoric. This situation is rather like OOO itself as Graham Harman describes it: how do we activate allure so that we might get some vicarious causation, some relation between OOO and rhetoric? So, obviously, metaphor (or analogy): vicarious causation is agonism understood as productive strife.

Harman speaks of the "tension between an object and its multiple parts" (GM 222). (This relates to the fourfold or the quadruple object: the axes of object and relations and the object (at all) and its specific parts.) Importantly, causation for Harman is attributable to the fact that while the fullness of the object withdraws, (sometimes) some of its "multiple notes do not recede" (222). This exhaust (the notes that do not recede), as I understand it, is the point of articulation for causation itself. If there where not notes that failed to recede, then each object would forever remained sealed off from all other objects and nothing would ever happen. Causation (and relation) is possible, in part, because of an object's own internal tension or strife, which in these cases is a productive strife that enables the formation of new objects and relations. And we can always move up or down levels (and maybe even side to side), as Harman argues that relations only ever occur inside another object: agonism is what allows for agonism, which tautology as it is, speaks to agonism's productive and vital role in relations (human and nonhuman alike--Burke's barnyard as a flat ontology).

"Emoji Tumbler 1." My early attempt at what
Ian Bogost has called ontography
In addition to the value of this connection between vicarious causation in Harman and agonism in rhetoric in terms of an effort to partially and provisional translate OOO/OOP for rhetoric (given that full translation between objects is never possible), it also informs rhetoric and potentially renews its emphasis on agonism. I sometimes feel that while agonism does get attention as a research topic (see the work of Hawhee in particular and an article I co-wrote with Jeremy Tirrell on agonism and cognitive science), it is not always celebrated enough as a value in and of itself. In an admittedly straw-man move, I see the field as over-invested in things like stasis, consensus and deliberative rhetoric. (This investment is also a big part of the reason that an object-oriented rhetoric will have a hard time getting traction in the field.) What we might get from the vicarious causation between OOO and rhetoric I just described is a renewed commitment to agonism, to strife, and to the epideictic (in contrast to deliberation). The praising and blaming of things puts Harman's allure front and center, and allure is what allows objects to relate at all. Without allure to activate vicarious causation, as Harman writes, "we would be stranded in a world of mutually isolated monads" (222). And this possible world is surely the downside of stasis.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Kenneth Burke and Object-Oriented Rhetoric

Continuing to chew on an object-oriented rhetoric, I had this lovely run-in with Kenneth Burke this morning (from A Rhetoric of Motives):
Here are ambiguities of substance. In being identified with B, A is "substantially one" with a person other than himself. Yet at the same time he remains unique, an individual locus of motives. Thus he is both joined and separate, at once a distinct substance and consubstantial with another.
As we think of the place in rhetoric in object-oriented ontology, speculative realism, and new materialism (Barnett's discussion of metaphor, Brown's use of decorum, Bogost's procedural rhetoric, Reid's force and relation), I'd like to also ponder identification/consubstantiality as useful terms here. Particularly, they are potentially helpful in negotiating the relation/withdrawal tension (or, as I feel it, the Latour/Harman tension). UPDATE #1: In the comments to the post linked here Reid's force and relation, the connection to Burke gets made as well. "Read the comments," I remind myself. UPDATE #2: This connection I made this morning was also made by Nathan Gale (about a year ago).

Reading the above passage, I immediately thought of Harman's Guerrilla Metaphysics and that book's chief task of describing how objects relate.
Object-oriented philosophy has a single basic tenet: the withdrawal of objects from all perceptual and causal relations. This immediately implies a single basic problem: how do relations occur?
This is rather ambiguous, and Harman's task in the book is account for relations.
It needs to be shown how relations and events are possible despite the existence of vacuum-sealed objects or tool-beings.
Burke is at work with the same ambiguity.
The thing's identity would here be its uniqueness as an entity in itself and by itself, a demarcated unit having its own particular structure.
And here:
A is not identical with his colleague, B. But insofar as their interests are joined, A is identified with B. Or he may identify himself with B even when their interests are not joined, if he assumes that they are, or is persuaded to believe so.
For Burke, identification has a pragmatic value: rhetoric is the use of language (Burke isn't not wholesale amenable to an object-oriented rhetoric) to induce cooperation. Identification, as rhetoric, is necessary and made possible by division. We are only ever able to do anything together (produce effects) by virtue of those moments we identify or become consubstantial with one another, remaining, as we are, "demarcated units." What's useful here is how, I think or hope, such a connection between Burke and Harman is mutually beneficial. Identification describes (accounts for) the activity of bringing into relation discrete, demarcated, vacuum-sealed things. The need to cooperatively produce effects or to be affected compels us toward relations. Harman's object-oriented philosophy calls our attention to identification as fundamental to all relations and not just human relations.

I am obviously in the early going here, but I thought it worth noting. What's to gained, the question we are fruitfully asked in many places on digital digs, by describing nonhuman as well as human relations in terms of identification and consubstantiality? Is rhetoric a way to think about how objects relate or could rhetoric also be the plasma in which relations are possible? As objects divide (Burke) and withdrawal (Harman) from one another do they create the possibility and the need for rhetoric?
Identification is affirmed with earnestness precisely because there is division. Identification: is compensatory to division. If men were not apart from one another, there would be no need for the rhetorician to proclaim their unity.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Fall 2012 Teaching

I have previously circulated links to these course elsewhere. What can I say, I am both excited and proud about these courses, which are still under construction.

ENGL 401: New Media Science Writing

I have a fellowship (i.e., a course release) this semester to develop New Media Science Writing, which will be taught in SLU's Learning Studio: a fantastic room with video walls, re-arrangable furniture, portable whiteboards, iPads, screen sharing, and video links. We are also working to put together media bags that students will take with them as they do field work. I am working with a fantastic instructional designer at the The Reinert Center for Teaching Excellence.
The Learning Studio. Saint Louis University
The setting for this class and the work of the instructional designer will allow me to really put an emphasis on production and production values, which is something I have been wanting to really do ever since I started teaching new media in earnest. That is, I can finally provide students with a level of instruction that makes it ethically and helpful to critically evaluate their work in terms of delivery, which, as we know, can't really be divorced from other elements (arrangement, invention, etc.). I'm generally convinced that if you can't really ratchet up expectations and provide adequate instructional support with respect to production quality, then you shouldn't be doing new media. This is to say, I want to avoid treating media as simply means to ends, but as ends in themselves.

ENGL 404: Problems in Rhetoric: Animal, Vegetable, Mineral

Taking advantage of the course release to develop 401, I am likewise developing another new course for the Fall. This course has emerged from recent work in new materialism and object-oriented rhetorics. Essentially, the course will have students investigating and participating in non-symbolic and non-human forms of rhetorical interaction. The more I work on this course the weirder it seems to get. What I am working on now is the course's approach to objects. How will I have students approach them, interact with them, and, finally, "write" about them? An I how do I do so without having them make the objects or processes about them, without having them write about what the object means to them or what it represents for them? In terms of methodology, I am highlighting, borrowing from the work Laurie Gries is currently doing, consequentiality: what effects does an object produce on both human and nonhuman objects? I am likewise muddling through methods. I was talking to a colleague the other day, and she mentioned that even the way grammar traditionally works might work against this approach: we are the subject in sentences, and we tend to make objects the object. I have thus been exploring the new media methods that have emerged from the Florida School as described by Jeff Rice and Marcel O'Gorman in New Media/New Methods. I have also been toying around with translating Graham Harman's deployment of metaphor and humor in Guerrilla Metaphysics as I think it resonates with the Florida School. If the approach to objects must be weird then so too must be our engagement.

As always, and as I still constructing these courses, any feedback would be greatly appreciated!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Mini Podcast: Object-Oriented Environmental Rhetoric

Here is a short, two-and-a-half minute podcast about my current research project, about which I have previously blogged. Here is a link to the discussion of William Cronon I mention in the podcast. I used Audioboo, a free application for the iPhone. Enjoy!

Monday, March 19, 2012

2012 CCCC Paper (Working Draft)

I am just about set for CCCC here in St. Louis (home field advantage is big at academic conferences). Here is my working draft, which connects (in under 15 minutes) the work of Walter Ong, S.J., and Andy Clark in order to construct a more interdisciplinary cognitive science.
2012 CCCC Paper (Working Draft)

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Bruno Latour and Leslie Knope

Juxtapositions are frequently fruitful. I am not sure where this one is going, but it's pretty sweet.

I've been re-reading Bruno Latour's Aramis and re-watching Parks and Recreation. Shot in the documentary style of The Office, the show increasingly strikes me as a performance of what Latour describes in Aramis as a "relativist sociology": "It does not know that society is composed of, and that is why it goes off to learn from others, from those who are constructing society" (200). Parks and Recreation is a portrait of government in action. Leslie Knope, of the Love of Local Government.

The show, at its finest, performs the work of negotiation and compromise that, in part, shapes civic life. In re-watching these moments with Aramis by my side, I can't help but see Leslie through Latour's eyes:
Bureaucrats are the Einsteins of society. They make incommensurable frames of reference once again commensurable and translatable. The protocol of agreement, red-penciled and ratified, starts moving again, going from one reference body to another, tracing a path along the way, a succession of fragile catwalks that make the agreement harder to break each time, because it is now weighed down with the word of the State.
Final shot of "Harvest Festival"
Part of the reason I love the show is its tempered faith in bureaucrats. Leslie Knope, the deputy director of the Pawnee, IN, Parks Department and star of the show, is an earnest, hardworking civil servant. She does her job amidst the incommensurability of democracy, balancing the angry feedback she receives at public forums, this disinterest and/or lack of faith in government, the libertarianism of her boss, budget constraints, etc. (The episode in Season Three when Leslie and the Parks Department pull-off the Harvest Fest may provide one of the most satisfying endings of a sitcom episode ever.)

I'll grant anyone, for the moment, any joke or insult about civil servants and bureaucrats. Yes, yes. But I ask, in light of the kind of sociology that Latour proposes, what does such a view, nearly ubiquitous outside of Parks and Recreation, get us? How do we benefit from demeaning such work (other than getting exactly what we deserve)? How do we learn to do it better by dismissing it out of hand? In rushing to judgement, we glass over the decided-ness of what we hold near and dear. We short-circuit democracy.

I'd argue that lurking beneath such a short-circuiting contempt is what Latour calls "classical sociology":
There are norms, and thus there are deviations with respect to the norm; there are reasons, and thus there is irrationality; there is logic, thus there is illogicality; there is common sense, and thus perverted senses; there are norms, and thus there are abnormality and anomie. (199)
When I watch Parks and Recreation I am not watching a documentary where "the actors are informants," telling what they did so that we can pass judgement (although certainly this happens: I can easily imagine a classical sociological viewing of the show). For me, I am watching government in action. Parks and Recreation is not a show where common sense, and logic, and reason are outside measures applied to political behavior; it is, at its best, a show where common sense, logic, and reason are all the end results--the effect--of political behavior. For instance, the reasonableness of the park Leslie wants to put in the vacant lot (this is the primary arc of season one) cannot be known ahead time: its reasonable-ness, its sensical-ness, its feasible and, finally, its reality are precisely what is being worked on. To borrow from Latour, things like logic and common sense "follow; they do not lead. They are decided; they are not what makes it possible to decide" (184).

As Leslie says of her first public forum (which goes terrible and to great humorous effect): "God I loved it. I loved every minute of it!"

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Introducing the "Sphere"

As I frequently read outside of rhetoric in my research, I am always interested in and often frustrated by treatments of "rhetoric" in those works, which is generally some version of Richard Lanham's Weak Defense: rhetoric is a specific kind of speech used to dress-up or dress-down content (I read discussions of "political rhetoric," "rhetorical devices," "rhetorical ploys," etc,). Generally, my response is "Hey chief, walk across the f-ing hall and talk to the person (or, if you're lucky, people) in your department or in your division who does this!" This is my disciplinary response, which is both reactionary and, I hope, well-earned. When I talk of philosophy, for instance, I can name people who are both currently publishing in it and who are also alive. I'm no expert; I don't know the intricacies of their discipline; but I am aware of and feel obliged to admit, acknowledge, and address it. So the reason for my frustration here what I take to be a general lack of interest in, engagement with, and respect for the current field of rhetorical theory or rhetorical studies. There are many explanations for this (and some are, admittedly, "our" fault), but I'm not after that today.

"Inventing The First Wheel: A Stone Age Rock Wheel."
John Lund. http://www.johnlund.com.

There is also, and this might even be worse, another reason for these kinds of oversights. I suspect that some of the authors I am talking about here are not as ignorant, uninterested, and disrespectful as they seem. (I know, I am being exceptionally nasty here. Just go with it.) Let me put it this way: one of the reasons I am drawn to much of this work (in philosophy, anthropology, cognitive science, literary criticism) is that it speaks so much to rhetoric as I (and others) know it. All of these disciplines and fields have so much to say about the contingency, the relationality, and the generally suasory operation of things: anthropology mustn't draw sharp lines between nature and culture; cognitive science needs to examine the roll of conventional practices in the development of cognitive capacity, philosophy needs to acknowledge the place of affect in treatments of reason. All these are arguments one can find within each of these disciplines. Thus, my admittedly less-than-generous reading of an absent, generous engagement with rhetoric is a recognition that since the Sophists, we have been over "this" again and again. Critical Affect Studies? Read Gorgias' Encomium of Helen! Such scholars as I have been reading want to make wheels in a market always already full of them. 

So what remains to be done:  

1. Rhetoric must then be a specific kind of discourse. If it's more than that, then I've got a lot of reading to do.

2. Behold, I have invented the sphere! Pay no attention to Sophist selling wheels down the hall.

Again, I embrace, read, and utilize such areas of research. And I would never argue that they are re-inventing the wheel. But a trip to patent office wouldn't kill them, would it? And I don't think there is much value in claiming, as I appear to be doing, that "we were here first!" It is about both giving credit where credit is due and, more importantly, about the value in learning from one another. Some sort of intellectual exchange is in order. For Plato, Gorgias. For Descarte, Giovanni Battista Vico. For Kant, Johann Georg Hamann.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

French Accountants

In my current struggle with "accounting" for the nonhuman, Latour's Aramis again proves helpful:
Of course you have to "take into account" all the elements, as people say naively, but only the not very innovative projects know in advance which accountant to believe and which accounting system to choose.
The consequences of these choices will multiply, we suppose, at the level of the city, as in the case of Urbanized.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Feedback's Absence

By virtue of a new phone and, let's face it, many years on Facebook and now Twitter, I have grown rather accustomed to pretty immediate feedback. And not just any feedback--I mean the unambiguous feedback of the thumbs up and the retweet. The hermeneutically sealed "Like".

Of course, I am not describing feedback generally but instead a specific kind of feedback called reinforcement. The quick response that publicly says "I liked that." Like a parrot pecking away at the lever, I demand my treat.

I don't know so much where I am going with this, except to say I am noticing this in myself: a strange discomfort in not knowing what others think. As psychoanalysis reminds us, Che vuoi? can be a ruthless question--and no more so than in online social networks.

Location:De Giverville Ave,St Louis,United States

A Stray Latour Quote

In light of my last two blog posts (here and here), and as I am re-reading Latour's Aramis, I thought this line (presumably spoken by the train Aramis, who is a speaking character in the book) was particularly salient:
Good literature isn't made with noble sentiments, Gentlemen, and good transportation isn't made with ideas, either. It has to have a life of its own: that's your top priority. (55, emphasis added)
The above would be in response to the final bit of narration from Urbanized:
Fundamentally, as a species, we need things [I got hopeful] that can power our imaginations, that get our our passions going, that can give us a sense of meaning. And that is not a brick; it is not a pipe. It is an idea. That's what drives cities forward. (Emphasis added)

Urbanized and Object-Oriented Rhetoric, Part Two

This isn't so much a part two, as it is a revisiting of yesterday's post on the documentary Urbanized. Not too long after I clicked "Publish Post" (lying awake in bed, in fact), I began to have some regrets. In particular, my own conclusion now gives me pause:
Bad design is design that mistakes itself as purely human. If we ignore the missing masses as "we" plan, they will come back to haunt us precisely where we live.
See the trap? I have just argued, from an object-oriented perspective, that objects, or in this case the materiality of a city cannot be reduced (see Latour) to the intentionality of the designer: there is always excess. My argument makes sense, given my use of Latour. That said, how sound or practical or ontologically possible is my advice to account for missing, nonhuman, masses?

I'll here go to Graham Harman:
Behind every apparently simple object is an infinite legion of further objects that "crush, depress, break, and enthrall one another." (Tool-Being 296)
In other words, we cannot stop them from haunting us. We cannot possibly know everything about every thing and thus include any and every thing that bears upon city life. By requiring designers to ac/count for nonhumans, do I implicitly argue that every nonhuman can be fully counted? (For more on the tension between Latour and Harman, see Harman's Prince of Networks as well as The Prince and the Wolf.)

So let's try this: the best a designer or a city planner (you know, rhetors) could do is to leave room for accidents. Make a city that will bend rather than break. Perhaps that is the way of describing the limits of, in the case of Urbanized, Modernist city planning. It's not simply that they failed to account for the nonhuman (for such an accounting is fully impossible), but that such Modernism left no wiggle room for crushing, depressing, breaking and enthralling objects.

And, to make OOO more explicitly into an OOR, the designers' and planners' techne needs to leave room for tuche, which is bound to happen. Thinking more about what OOR might do, what its William Jamesian cash value is, this might be a line of thought worth pursuing (having just recently read Kelly Pender's Techne and re-read Ballif's "Writing the Third-Sophistic"). That is, in terms of an object-oriented rhetorical production/invention/action, can we think in terms of both techne and tuche? Within our plans and actions there is the irreducible materiality of the nonhuman (the object, the thing--boy I need to tighten up that terminology).

Anyway, there's my part two, my revisiting, my apology. I'll sleep better tonight for sure.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Urbanized and Object-Oriented Rhetoric

So I recently (and finally) watched Urbanized, the final installment of Gary Hustwit's Design Trilogy, which includes Helvetica and Objectified. While the first two documentaries look a smaller scale design (graphic design and industrial design respectively), Urbanized looks at urban design and urban planning: design at the level of society (which is certainly not to say the two previous documentaries don't bear on society as well). I have taught Helvetica in professional writing and technical communication and Objectified in a New Media and Rhetoric course. Indeed, the latter inspired this documentary that my students and I made:

The Rhetoric of the City Museum from Nathaniel Rivers on Vimeo.

And I am likely to teach all three in my Fall 2012 Problems in Rhetoric: Animal, Vegetable, Mineral course, which takes aim at nonsymbolic and nonhuman rhetoric, which I see as the key aspects of material and object-oriented rhetorics.

In terms of the nonsymbolic and nonhuman, Urbanized, like the whole trilogy, does a good job with nonsymbolic rhetoric: how we move one another in nondiscursive ways. For instance, how high quality bike lines can raise the social status of cycling and demonstrate that a person on a $30 bikes is as valuable in a democracy as someone in a $30,000 car. Watching Urbanized, I was reminded of James Fredal's Rhetorical Action in Ancient Athens, which argues that any attempt to understand Ancient Athenian rhetoric must account for the design and planning of the city of Athens itself--it's materiality.

Where the documentary falls short (and even this is unduly harsh as it does so much so well) is with respect to the nonhuman. As the film's emphasis is design, that it centers around the human should come as no surprise: those designing, building, and dwelling in cities are it's focus. (Although even here, the documentary could have attended to the materials with which the designers work and how those materials shape the design and building processes.) That said, the very materiality of the film itself calls our attention to the nonhuman: visually, the documentary is in love with the materiality of the city.

If anything, between the voices of the individuals interviewed (multiple interviewees rather than a single narrator, provide the dialogue of the documentary) and the visuals provided by the cinematographer there is an enactment of the human/nonhuman dynamic. As I watch the documentary, then, I feel the tug between the nonhuman that "speaks" for itself and the humans who claim to speak for it or reduce it to their intentions. [I'd also grant that in subsequent viewings I will find additional moments where the documentary foregrounds the nonhuman, granting it agency and ontological weight.]

In short, as I watch Urbanized I kept asking Bruno Latour's twenty-year-old question: "Where Are the Missing Masses?" And the ending of the documentary is telling in terms of how the missing masses--the nonhuman objects that are part and parcel of our urban spaces and our lives as we know them--go missing, how there are silenced or erase. The final, human voice (I can't recall the fellow's name and I don't want to look it up right now) of the documentary argues:
Fundamentally, as a species, we need things [I got hopeful] that can power our imaginations, that get our our passions going, that can give us a sense of meaning. And that is not a brick; it is not a pipe. It is an idea. That's what drives cities forward.
And while I would not totally disagree, I would say that it is precisely in the name of bricks and pipes and their agency in the movement and development of cities, that object-oriented ontology, or object-oriented rhetoric more specifically, (must) makes its intervention. To reduce cities to the meaning the provide for us and the ideas we can have about or build into them, irrespective of the city's thing-ness and of the many other nonhumans that shape that city and its inhabitants, is to miss a substantial portion of what it means to be urbanized.

I would never argue that design doesn't matter; the documentary makes a pretty damn good case that it does. I would argue though that design cannot be flattened out into a solely human affair. What is buried in the documentary, underneath the persuasive argument that bad design on the part of humans produces bad effects, is that bad (however and whoever defines that) urban spaces are due in part to designers and design that ignore the rhetorical agency and ontological weight of the nonhumans that were always part and parcel of that design. Bad design is design that mistakes itself as purely human. If we ignore the missing masses as "we" plan, they will come back to haunt us precisely where we live.

UPDATE: There's a Part Two.

At some point, after I teach them, I want to write something longer and more involved about Hustwit's trilogy in light of new materialism and object-oriented ontology. That is, your feedback would be greatly appreciated.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Twofold Problem of Interdisciplinarity

Working as I have been on a few, related interdisciplinary projects, I have stumbled upon what might very well be obvious (or what should have been obvious). My assumption for the longest time was that the chief difficulty of interdisciplinary work was getting them to let you in. And I was, of course, fine with that: read some books, ask some questions, get conversant, and then feel comfortable enough to make some preliminary claims. There is also helpful scholarship on interdisciplinary work: reminders to read widely and to double-check definitions/uses of terms that might seem familiar but which are being used quite differently.

What I had not counted on as much was the difficulty of getting us to let me out. This problem is perhaps best encapsulated by Walter Ong, who in a review of Marshall McLuhan wrote the following:
His critics often seem to feel that whoever does not stand off from technology and bureaucracy far enough to throw stones at them is betraying the cause of humanity.
There is a fear, within one's own discipline, that when you leave you might very well come back with something unwanted. Imperialism is fine and good; just don't bring back some tropical disease.