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.


  1. I read closely. I understood what I could. My response here is sincere, for what it's worth:

    I *feel* like you're missing one wide-open door, fiddling with the locks on all the others, refusing to walk through the wide-open one. The wide-open door?--is the end of lingo, of endlessly self-referential phrasing, of citing narrow experts as if it builds ethos, when in fact it alienates the vast, vast majority.

    In other words, even if this turns into a sort of suicide for the discipline, isn't the next move to SIMPLY "do" what it is you've been speaking so carefully about? Unless "speaking so carefully" is the thing you are trying to generate in others, in your readers--in which case, again, I think you're largely failing, unless you consider this response a success, which, ironically, I sure don't. Whew.

    I hope you don't misunderstand me as being a NASCAR fan who is simply anti-intellectual. Instead, I'm trying to pull us away from Sartre's ornate style and toward Camus' pared-down style. Unless ornate style is the thing you want to see generated more frequently (by others). Which kind of begs the question, right?

    One more paragraph: I love the idea of agonism. I concur, somehow unspokenly, with the idea that unsettling others is important (for...? because...? -- don't worry. I agree) -- but is this, a dense blog using obscure acronyms and almost no imagery -- is this, itself, doing what you're hoping it'll do?

    [And can you sense that I'm having a difficult time structuring this "critique" in a way that it won't feel (too) personal?--that it won't feel like I'm saying, "You've got bad style." Cuz I don't mean to do that. I'm not making an objective claim. I'm wondering about efficacy and audience "impact" and all that stuff.]


  2. In many ways I agree with you here (at least the productive parts of your comment. I'll only note the irony of your ethos remark in light of your later citations of Sartre and Camus).

    I want to be (and am) DOING this. And that's what I am also working on. As it is with most people, this blog is the tip of an iceberg, the fumes from a car, the tracks of a larger animal. For instance, I have been designing a couple of courses that get students doing object-oriented rhetorics. I have been dabbling with a few creative projects of my own (about which I am not confident enough to share at this point). To boil down everything I might be doing to this one post seems supremely unfair.

    I think it is also necessary to point out that this kind of blog is exploratory in nature. It's about what I am working on now, and so it is often a place to think about how I can talk about what I am doing. That is, you are right to ask "why don't you just do this." That said, I also need to have an answer to "why are you doing this?"

  3. Absolutely, to all of that. And of course: I know that you "do" so much in addition to this blog & this style of writing. I think my reaction is ... honestly it has something to do with the reality that I (a person with a Ph.D. in a relatively nearby discipline to yours) sense something very very interesting in the OOO & ecology/nature/rhetoric stuff even as I become aware that the "encounter" I'm having with it is so alienating, so unfamiliar, etc.

    And again: if that's the goal -- in other words, if the language/lingo you're using is intended be agonistic, to unsettle me, to challenge me, etc., then maybe it's an effective strategy... but then, I'd remind you of my remarkable & eccentric character, and point out that almost everybody else isn't as willing to lean into the unsettling material.

    But I wanna say, lastly: I SO appreciate your last few sentences there because you imply that "doing it for the money" isn't enough. I respect the hell outta that--we need non-financial reasons for doing this job or else alienation takes over and the robots win or whatever. Also, if my first comment seemed dickish, know that I was in the thick of the post-morning-coffee come-down; in other words, neuroscience & physio-morality.

    Okay, now: keep going!

  4. Hey. In term of your interest in OOO and related stuffs, here is a link to three videos of a course on OOO taught by Tim Morton (whose lecture on Romanticism you have already given a listen): I haven't watched them all the way through, but I plan on doing so at some point in the near future.

  5. "My concerns are global. I reject absolutely revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method... is love."

  6. An exercise in ex-stasis (ec-stasy). I think Victor J. Vitanza might approve this message. I see Casey's point and I also appreciate the style of your post because it does not engage in a performative contradiction. If OOO is going to posit that the object's reality withdraws and we cannot represent it, then what else do we do but 1. seek to improve our attunement to what the World's Body discloses and 2. create (along with nonhuman allies) metaphors that resist a linear cause-effect ordering? I'm not saying this is an either/or situation, but we can't get around the paradox of substance in the end and so a realist intuition or KB's "planned incongruity" (e.g. your style) is one interesting resource. Ian Bogost: "Being withdraws from access. There is always something left in reserve, in a thing. The best we can do as humans is to respect the hidden mystery of the experience of things, and speculate metaphorically about how an object like a computer or a pound cake encounters the world."