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

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!