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.

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