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 Objects remain withdrawn from all relations.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


  1. Nice. I like where you're going with this and the video. I just read Morton's pieces on the sublime and OOR. On the one hand, I'm giddy that he's given me stuff to play with. However, I'm also suspicous, particularly of his 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: what strikes me (Longinus) about this passage from Homer and what distinguishes it--for me--from other passages. Such modes of criticism can't help but be correlationist, can they? I'm not saying that's a bad thing, or a reason to avoid the sublime when talking about OOO/OOR. Maybe Longinus and Kant's discussions of the sublime constitute what Lee Braver calls forms of "Transgressive Realism" (rather than, say, full-blown speculative realisms).

    In any case, great stuff as always on the blog. I'm enjoying reading.


  2. Scot,

    I appreciate your take on Morton. I too am giddy as I read him and it is in that giddiness that I rush to play with his work.

    Mainly, I have been struggling with how to make a practice out of OOO. (To this end I have found Bogost's AP very helpful.) This struggle is in part inspired by a desire to help both myself and my students think through and to activate (and to do both while composing, or marking, or carpentry) the implications of an OOR (or at least a rhetoric that gives the "misses masses" their due). Long story short, Morton is helpful when, as a literature scholar, he writes about ekphrasis and ecomimesis, which I am attempting to connect with the new media composition and research methods that have come out of the Florida School (Jeff Rice's talk on the useless archive that we heard at CCCC).

    I also think I need to connect this better to Jane Bennett who, as we have lately been discussing, explicitly promotes a certain kind of naive anthropomorphism as a style of ethical engagement with the nonhuman. (See my latest email to you and the group about Morton concerning our discussions of political solidarity with respect to flat ontology.)

    Anyway, I appreciate you checking in and leaving a comment. Thanks!

  3. I like it. Just calling phenomenological or qualitative attention to the nonhumans that construct Culture and condition the scene of (symbolic) rhetorical interaction is a necessary step. The formal attention to the noncorrelationist sublime is another one that I think your frame-by-frame approach works well.

    What do you make of Bogost's claim in AP that in the case of the Latourian litany (which we can find across media studies in, for example, Matthew Fuller's virtual syntax) another strategy is to remove the human as author? To use the Litanizer in other words? In a sense, simulating the authorial removal from an otherwise interactive system is another "formal" device of the uncanny or sublime. Is this qualitatively different from your "intentional" use of the uncanny? As is always the case with me, I'm still musing over the difference. In any case, I think Fuller's dada stuff is interesting to me (if Morton thinks objects as "delivery" then, in a sense, we're always already dealing with "postproduced" objects in the sense that they're always recontextualized from their "original" context).

  4. Steve,

    It's funny you should mention the Litanizer here. I had just been thinking that if I had more (time and) expertise (expertise as intent but at a distance, as Bogost still built the Litanzer), I would find a way to create a version of this that would be different each time--like Bogost's Litanizer and the OOO Conference Website he also describes. The words, the images, and the sounds (I'd provide a range of possible sounds: my son talking, the TV left on, the vacuum cleaner running, bird song through the window, or even something close to silence) could be randomly composed each time someone pressed play.

    In general, and I think my response to Scot somewhat addresses this, I am interested in ways of composing or making that reveal the nonhuman as alien and withdrawn while also being vitally important to life as we know it ("misses masses" etc.). One could argue that we necessarily build our intent into such productions and thus risk abandoning OOO (I built this so that, or for the sake of). However, I am so persuaded and confident in the object-oriented project that I do not fear my intent. I cannot reduce the object to me: it will ALWAYS withdraw. What I fear is ignoring the ethical obligation to the nonhuman, the objects in my home that make that home possible, but that do so for reasons beyond my own.

  5. I am also reminded, by your question Steve, of something Alex Reid wrote in his recent, short review of Bogost: "After all, objects not only withdraw from one another, they withdraw from themselves as well. How can I view the world on my terms when I don't know what 'my terms' are? Obviously this does nothing to change the fact that perception is limited nor the ontological withdrawal of objects. Instead, it simply asks whether '-centric' is the right metaphor."

  6. Nice, on both accounts. I think there is really something here about a simulation (or a different term) of the process of the metaphoricity that characterizes all inter-objective relations. Along these aleatory lines, I've been thinking about Thomas and Jenny's essay, "New Media Dwelling" where they work with Fuller and Hayles. They have this great bit via Hayles's My Mother Was A Computer about Karl Sim's evolution simulator. The digital organisms evolved but, as Heidegger says, they always retained the "not yet uncovered." Sims offers a metaphor - or probably better - an allegorithm in Galloway or Wark's sense of complex adaptive behavior. There's something about the precision of the computer's code wherein we expect the world it generates to be perfected accountable and then, when it isn't, it creates a kind of non-correlationist ekphrasis moment, a gaming description equivalent of "the mug blues" or "the object styles." I think much of this discussion has resonance with an aspect of Bogost that I really like: the power of computer simulations not to represent the real, but to simulate - incompletely of course, and again, I feel like I need a different word than simulate - the withdrawal of the real. I'm still not sure if this is the best way to think about it - the best we can do is "simulate" through verbal metaphors, perspectives by incongruity, poetics, and so on, but, frankly, this is the best way that I've been able to think about the problem of - at least - MY need to point without pointing to something specific(ally human).

  7. Interesting, Steve. My copy of AP is in the mail, so I'm not yet up to speed on all of its particulars. But this idea of simulation and its breakdown makes a lot of sense to me, and perhaps this is what provides us a glimpse of the world that exceeds presence and our own agencies. This, in my reading at least, is what Hayles locates in technotexts such as Lexia to Perplexia, which not only foreground their own materiality but that also stage peculiar encounters between user and machine such that many of the tacit assumptions we bring to such relations are made visible and called into question.

    The question, as you note, is whether or not we can extend this same insight to language. Perhaps. Language as simulation. But only as long as we don't fall back into the well worn social constructionist views of language as a prison house or an endless series of performances that bear no relation to a world outside of thought or language. Here's Rorty:

    “We need to make a distinction between the claim that the world is out there and the claim that the truth is out there. To say that the world is out there, that it is not our creation, is to say, with common sense, that most things in space and time are the effects of causes which do not include human mental states. To say that the truth is out there is simply to say that where there are no sentences there is no truth, that sentences are elements of human languages, and that human languages are human creations . . . Truth cannot be out there—cannot exist independently of the human mind—because sentences cannot so exist, or be out there. The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not. Only descriptions of the world can be true and false. The world on its own—unaided by the describing activities of human beings—cannot”

    For folks like Rorty, there is a world out there, but its existence has no bearing on our understanding of language, truth, and vocabularies, since these are purely the productions of human beings and are negotiated as such within human communities. In this sense, language functions as a simulation of reality, providing us compelling and believable images of world but never connecting us to the thing-itself. The trick, therefore, is to find a way to have our simulation games and play them to. Here, for me, Harman is helpful (and, now, Morton to some extent). Both ask us to see language as an object in its own right, but also one that brings the sensual qualities of objects into relation.