the object industry

My spring semester run of conferences is just about over: CCCC, Computers and Writing, and now Rhetoric Society of America. I haven’t seen much at RSA because we came down to Philly as a family. However I have hit a couple panels. One thing I’ve noted across these conferences is a growing interest in “objects:” sometimes in a Latourian sense, sometimes OOO, and sometimes in ways it’s hard to discern. I want to assert at the outset here that I am hardly the OOO style, let along “thought,” police. I don’t know what an object-oriented rhetoric should necessarily become. I am simply interested in what it might become. 

 That said, I think there are cautionary tales in the literary deconstruction industry in the 80s and the industry surrounding Foucault and cultural studies, which in many ways continues to chug along in my discipline and others. Perhaps having such broad academic influence would be a nice problem for Latour or the OOO folks to have. I suppose one could think of it that way. However I would tend to see it more as the reterritorialization of a new philosophy/method/theory. Typically we have thought about such matters in political/ideological terms wherein purportedly politically committed theories become little more than means toward tenure, little more than a way of talking about things. In the case of this burgeoning “object industry” though, I think there is a more fundamental methodological incompatibility here. 

 We have already seen this in the discussion a few months ago about whether or not an object-oriented literary criticism was feasible. I have seen some of this questioning in my own field, and I think it is very important. That said, to me, it doesn’t make so much sense to ask “how can we do OOO or ANT and keep doing what we are doing?” Similarly, I am not so interested in the criticism that OOO or ANT isn’t useful because it doesn’t help us do what we are doing. These are the errors of those past cautionary tales. Deconstruction becomes another way to perpetuate close reading. Foucault and cultural studies become ways to legitimize the already existing political projects of composition classrooms.

I am sympathetic to the contention that we need to move from general theorizing about objects and networks in my field into a more precise investigation of specific objects and networks. Unfortunately ANT is not really a “method” (at least if we accept Latour’s claims) and OOO certainly is not a method, at least not yet (though Bogost’s book moves in that direction). As such the application of theory as method is not so easily done; it is in that transition that slippage toward familiar gestures is all too easy. 

David Berry does a fair job of encapsulating some of these concerns in a recent post. I think he very astutely examines the rhetorical/stylistic practices of OOO itself. While I agree with Levi Bryant's view that an object-oriented rhetoric is a more interesting area of investigation than the rhetoric of OOO scholarship, the two are not wholly inseparable. Berry  notes, as others have, that a common practice is the Latourian litany, which offers up a picture of flat ontology. Though Berry doesn’t make this observation, litany is itself a peculiar word choice. Aside from its alliterative appeal, the litany is, of course, a religious practice, primarily Christian (e.g. think rosary beads), and the word comes from the Greek for supplication. While I wouldn’t want to take those observations too far, the supplication here isn’t in repetition but rather to the rhetorical and aesthetic effect of lists or juxtaposition, an effect that is typically understood in terms of metaphor. However, I am unsatisfied with “metaphor” as the default relationality among objects. 

Berry’s more significant criticism however points to the contradiction in OOO (and other nonhuman theories) simultaneously insisting that humans are not special actors while also addressing humans in a way that is uniquely suited for us. This apparent turning away from human concerns becomes at the very least a rhetorical/tactical problem for OOO if not a deeper conceptual problem. As Berry writes,

In this ‘liberation’ therefore, we are saved from the ‘crushing’ problem of repetitive accounts of marginal inequality and suffering. This is achieved by a new ‘humanism’ that rejects the human as having any special case, such that the marginal problems of women, LGBT, immigrants, asylum seekers, and the poor are replaced with the problem of a litany of objects such as “quarks, Elizabeth Bennet, single-malt scotch, Ford Mustang fastbacks, lychee fruit, love affairs, dereferenced pointers, Care Bears, sirocco winds, the Tri-City Mall, tort law, the Airbus A330, the five-hundred drachma note” (Bogost 2012a: 133).

I think this is a now familiar concern with OOO. In fact, if we wanted to continue with the intersections between OOO and programming, we might even call it a “known issue.” It is, in part, why I have had a longstanding interest in the ethical dimension of an object-oriented rhetoric. In part, I believe the issue begins with how one understands the notion of “special.” By special do we mean singular? If so, then all objects have their own singularity in OOO. By special do we mean to suggest asymmetrical relations where one object is more powerful or significant than others? I don’t think that a flat ontology denies the exist of asymmetrical relations. It doesn’t deny that humans are more important for humans than other objects or that humans can, and often do, have asymmetrical roles in the networks in which they participate. What a flat ontology does refute is the idea that the universe has some inherent great chain of being that puts humans at or near the top. What a flat ontology does critique, in a Latourian style, is the divide of humans and nonhumans in the modern world that puts ALL the agency on the human side. 

While "free will" may still be the prevailing cultural viewpoint and basis for mainstream political discourse, in the academic humanities (which is where this conversation is taking place and the site of these critiques), there is an opposite condition: the postmodern crisis of agency. OOO can’t strip women, the poor or any marginalized group of its agency to act because that train has already left the station. That agency was stripped (in theory) by the theoretical positions from which academics are now critiquing a nonhuman approach. Tell me again whose theory argues that human agency is impinged by colonialism, patriarchy, global capitalism, etc? Whose theory argues that agency is only an ideological illusion or a play of signification?

It would make no sense for a nonhuman, flat ontological position to deny the real, material/objective existence of marginalization. How could one argue for the reality of Popeye (or whatever else might pop up in a litany) but deny the reality of marginalization? Similarly it would make little sense to deny that for humans these human concerns are more important than the relations among pebbles in my backyard.  I don’t think that’s the point of the nonhuman turn. Instead, what I see in an object-oriented approach is an effort to retheorize agency that doesn’t begin with the premise that agency is a special quality of humans, something that emerges at the top of an asymmetrical ontology but rather articulates agency as an emergent capacity along a flat ontology. Are the agentic capacities of humans unique? Yes, but that might be said of all objects.

My own scholarly concerns are more modest than saving humanity from oppression. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that I focus my concerns on particular areas of marginalization, like higher education, the humanities, or even the writing classroom. We certainly can (and have) critiqued “academic discourse” (whatever that is) as racist, sexist, homophobic, colonialist, capitalist, etc., etc. (and that would be the humanities' most familiar litany).  We have unveiled the role of a hegemonic ideology that prevents our students from recognizing the Truth of our professorial viewpoints. We have sympathized with our students’ loss of agency in all this. And we have told many stories of pedagogy’s heroic efforts in response.

I can certainly see, in this microcosm of the larger debate, how such critical efforts might respond to the investigations of a nonhuman, flat ontological approach. When we start talking about the role of objects and networks in composing, then this is can be (and sometimes is) critiqued as an attack upon human agency and more importantly as an attack against the political commitments of these theories. However, I don't see it that way. In my view, there are real objective conditions that we are trying to account for when we speak of free will or agency or ideology or marginalization. In fact, I am probably more willing to assert the real-ness of those conditions than scholars in cultural studies, etc. Our disagreement is over how we account for these conditions. 

As I see it, having been raised (professionally speaking) in the nineties height of cultural studies and postmodern theory, there is no real explanation there for how ideology functions. And when I say real, what I mean is that the explanations exist solely in the frames of representation and discourse. These are clearly important elements to examine, but they strike me as insufficient. We can speak about the material effects of representation/discourse (e.g. arguing that advertisements affect body image leading to eating disorders) but we have a difficult time accounting for the compositional processes. To use an analogy, we have a kind of spontaneous generation theory (e.g. flies spontaneously generate from dead animals). Our methodological shortcoming, I believe, is that we try to account for all of this strictly in terms of representation and discourse. 

As for agency, well, we don't have a theory of agency; we have a problem of agency: there isn't any. Berry speaks about the perfomative contradictions in OOO. However, our legacy theories have a far deeper performative contradiction inasmuch as they argument for the totalizing ideological power of discourse and then try to pull some revolutionary (or at least resistant) agency out of the hat at the end. If it makes no sense to speak to humans about nonhuman objects, it makes even less sense to plot revolution with humans that have no agency. 

That is why, in my view, the long-term goal of an object-oriented approach is to develop a better theory of agency: better in the sense that it more accurately describes the roles of objects-in-relation that compose agentic capacities as real and better in the sense that it results in tactics and strategies that expand our capacities. Again, I'm not in the world-saving division of the humanities. However, I do have an objective of expanding our students' capacities as writers. For me, this begins with describing the roles objects play in compositional networks.

Admittedly all the talk of quarks, scotch, fruit, and whatever else appears in a Latourain litany may seem quite distant from such goals. I do think of it as somewhat analogous to "pure research" in the sciences. I believe we need to think through what a nonhuman, nonsymbolic rhetoric might be. This would produce an ontological basis on which to build this kind of work. We also need to distance ourselves from our legacy notions and get a fresh perspective. To bring this post full circle, it is for this reason that I remain concerned about a burgeoning "object industry" in my field. It's great to see this engagement with this issues. At the same time, I hope we can use this as an opportunity to really think differently…. not that we ultimately need to all get on board with a particular point of view or method but taking up a new method to continue business as usual doesn't get us very far. I hope we don't do that.