object-oriented rhetoric, panpsychism and relationality

When we think about an object-oriented, nonhuman rhetoric, one of the things we confront is panpsychism, that is attributing mental powers to all objects. Steve Shaviro offers an interesting take on panpsychism and OOO in a talk from the recent Claremont conference on Whitehead.  If we think about rhetoric in the traditional sense as being the "art of persuasion," then one might assume that a panpsychic, object-oriented rhetoric would require an audience of objects that has the capacity to be persuaded. Typically we wouldn't want to say that the hammer "persuaded" the nail to go into the wall. Shaviro does a good job of exploring the differences between overdetermined relations (such as those in Althusser, or I would say, even better, those explained by physics) with underdetermined relations (as described by Whitehead). So the question of rhetoric emerges with underdetermined relations, with relations that incorporate a degree of freedom. As I will describe below, this does not mean attributing human-style thinking to other objects but rather broadening our notions of agency. (After all, in the contemporary correlationist world one could hardly constrain theories of agency any further; there is really only one direction to go here.)

In studying this most general sense of communication, rhetoric is hardly alone. One could say that physics studies the communication of force among objects. After all it is to physics that we would typically turn to understand the relations between hammers and nails. So, one might ask what thinking about these things "rhetorically" would mean or add to either our understanding of the hammer/nail or our understanding of rhetoric. Of course when I think about rhetoric, I don't think solely about persuasion. I doubt many rhetoricians do. Instead I think about how knowledge and values are composed and communicated; I think about how communities are formed and maintained. In other words, I think about relations and the production and dissemination of information among relations. Just as a theory of media composition extends from a more general theory of composition, a theory of community extends from a more general theory of object relations.

As Shaviro explains, I may have many relations with other objects that have some effect upon me without overdetermining my actions. For example, I am sitting on my couch right now. I clearly have a relationship to the couch. Sitting here allows me to do certain things, like have this computer on my lap and makes other things I might do impossible, like running. Of course I can stand up, change my relation to other objects and create new possibilities for action. If we accept the big bang theory, then really all objects are related to one another, at least historically, and all are related to that one instance. However, those relations are not overdetermining.

Freedom, agency, desire, ethics, and rhetoric all enter into the discussion of our underdetermination. This is also part of Latourian mediation in the sense that forces and messages are never simply transmitted along a network: each point of mediation has an effect, like a game of telephone. It may be difficult for us to parse what is determined, what is random, and what represents the exercise of some degree of freedom… even for ourselves. I am thirsty right now. Not my choice to be thirsty, right? I did choose to exercise earlier, so it's understandable that I am dehydrated. So perhaps in a distant way I am responsible for feeling thirst right now. Will I get up before I finish this post, this paragraph, this sentence? To what degree is that decision freely made? Will I just be overcome with thirst? Is my thirst shaping what I am writing? Apparently so. But it is not overdetermining. So who can say about the couch and its response to my sitting on it. It's degree of freedom may be infinitesimal or incomprehensible to me. It mediates desires as an extension of a network; in doing so it also shapes those desires.

Shaviro writes:

The inner experience of an entity,Whitehead says, “may, or may not, involve consciousness; it may, or may not,involve judgment.” But in any case, “it will involve aversion, or adversion, that is to say, decision” (PR 261). And this decision is, in its own right, the psychism that is essential to every last thing in the universe, from God to “most trivial puffof existence in far-off empty space” (PR 18). Decision is the way that an atom, or any other thing in the world, “is feeling about itself.”

Given the point we have reached with the postmodern death of the subject, it is perhaps no more difficult to speak of the decisions made by nails as they are struck by hammers than the "overdetermined" actions of consumers during the holiday season. In these relations we have psychism and decision: we have rhetoric or at least some proto-rhetoric.

As a rhetorician and a teacher of composition, my pragmatic interests do turn toward human activities. However, the object-orientation and it's stripping away of the special status of human thinking does open new ways to think about these pragmatic interests. When we think about the intellectual communities we might form today, we can begin with investigating the affective, cognitive, and rhetorical relations among objects that form the assemblages in which we participate. When we identify the mediating, decision-making, distributed-cognitive, rhetorical roles of agent-objects, we can begin to build communities that are not simply human and are more cognizant of our connection (and hence our withdrawal) from the world around us.