what an object-oriented rhetoric has to offer

I'm going to be answering a question like this in video format for the new journal Itneration (maybe I'll get my haircut first), but in the meantime I thought I'd visit the question here. I am in the midst of a book project on this matter and it is useful to get big picture/back-to-basics as part of that. 

To start with a generalization: the discipline of rhetoric studies human symbolic action. Does anyone want to dispute that or offer up the exceptions that prove the rule?  If you are unsure of that claim, go to any rhetoric conference or rhetoric journal and count the number of presentations/articles that do not deal with humans and/or do not deal with symbolic action (e.g. language, gestures, media, visual communication, etc.). What is it that we study about human symbolic action? The "means of persuasion" is the first answer, but clearly the contemporary discipline is about more than persuasion. We examine rhetoric's ideological effects in the formation of subjectivity and the shaping of knowledge in public-civic spaces, workplaces, in relation to technology, as informed by cultural, gendered, ethnic differences, etc. Obviously we also study compositional processes. But again, it is all human and symbolic. 

That said, there has been a growing interest in various nonhuman theories in rhet/comp. Latour might be the most prominent example, though one could also consider various Deleuzianisms, new materialistfeminisms and others (not trying to create a comprehensive list) that have appeared everywhere from computers and writing to animal studies in rhetoric. These are all fellow travelers with speculative realism, and if what speculative realists share is an acknowledgement of Meillassoux's correlationism (while differing on how to respond), many might even be called speculative realists themselves. The primary difference between an object-oriented view and these other nonhuman views is the nonrelational ontology of the former. That is, as those familiar with OOO know, objects always exceed their relations; as such, the processes/relations in which objects might be involved do not define those objects (even though they can destroy/consume them). This means that I see two, nested questions here.

  1. What does a nonhuman rhetoric have to offer?
  2. What does an object-oriented rhetoric (as a kind of nonhuman rhetoric) have to offer?

In the last paragraph I elided mention of "symbolic action," but that will have to come back in as part of the answers to these questions. The answer to question #1 begins with recognizing the limits of "human rhetoric:" that is, one that asserts only humans are rhetorical. First, historically we can see how the category of humans has not always included all humans. As such, the definition of rhetoric has always been mixed up with the definition of humanness in ways that have had obvious political implications. Part of the political project of rhetoric then has been getting all humans equally into the human-rhetorical club. On a different day, I might go into various speculative-realist views on the ontological status of biological concepts like species, but for now I'll just leave that. A nonhuman rhetoric does not discount the political or ethical importance of human equality for humans, though it might offer a different description of the problem. What it does argue though is that objects do not need to be human (or human-directed) in order to be rhetorical. This would offer a different (and I think better) description of how the rhetorical forces that shape cultural definitions of humans operate. 

Second, and I think more importantly, a nonhuman rhetoric addresses the problem of human exceptionalism that pervades our discipline (and the humanities). Obviously it is understandable that humans are more important to humans than other objects. However it is a different matter to imagine that humans are exceptional on an ontological basis (the fight to get into the human club is a reflection of this belief in our exceptionalism). Rhetoric/symbolic action has long been a hallmark of a secular human exceptionalism. There are many reasons, beyond the immediate concerns of rhetoric, that one might be concerned with this exceptionalist belief: for example, it's impact on how we address climate change. However, in terms of rhetoric, the belief that rhetoric/symbolic action is an exceptional human characteristic establishes every other object in the world as a potential threat to our inherent rhetoricity. We see this with technologies from Plato and writing up through digital media, but really any object that might impart nonrational effects on humans is part of the "problem." This shapes our understanding of human-rhetorical deficiencies (e.g. "students can't write") and the general problem of miscommunication or misinterpretation. In short, a human-exceptionalist view of rhetoric imagines symbolic action is primarily hermeneutic: as communicative, informational, and interpretable. While clearly these words all describe phenomena that are associated with human-rhetorical acts, they all describe things we try to make symbolic action do, from a nonhuman perspective these are not what rhetoric/symbolic action is. Rhetoric is not human.

Let me shift now specifically to an object-oriented view. Here we can begin by saying that even though humans use rhetoric/symbolic action to communicate, inform, persuade etc., rhetoric cannot be exhausted by these relations. While it might be possible to consider rhetoric as an object (e.g. as a discipline or a book), I am interested in rhetoric as a way of describing relations among objects. In OOO, an object is made from other objects that are in relation to one another (in the formation of that object), even though the created object exceeds its parts. An object can also enter into a relation with a second object without forming a third (e.g. the cup is on the table.). There are many ways to describe these relations, though the descriptions always face the correlationist problem. For example, there are all the typically physical kinds of relations: chemical, gravitational, electro-magnetic, mechanical, etc. There are biological relations that emerge from these others. And then we typically say there are symbolic relations which are all the cultural- and language-based relations, plus the psychological effects of the unconscious, which again I believe we only attributed to humans as exceptional, symbol-using beings. An object-oriented view would not deny that humans enter into singular relations via language; it would just also say that all objects enter into singular relations and that humans are not ontologically exceptional in this way. In other words we can also talk about specific kinds of relations among objects as long as we understand that 1) objects are not exhausted by this relations, 2) objects cannot be made ontologically exceptional by the relations into which they enter, and 3) our descriptions of relations always confront the correlationist limit (though we can speculate about "alien phenomenology" as Bogost puts it).

Though there are likely many ways to approach this, right now, I am conceiving of rhetoric as a general, nonhuman, relational force that any object might possibly enter into to the same extent as any object might have psychic/cognitive experiences. For Harman, psychic experiences result from relations, so all objects have at least a dormant capacity for some minimal psychism on an ontological basis. I would say the same thing for rhetoric. Following upon our classical link between rhetoric and persuasion, rhetoric might then be understood as the agentive force of psychic relationality. That is, an object enters into a relation with a second object (such relations need not be bi-directional). This relations produces a psychic experience (we can call it thought but that might be too anthropomorphizing). That experience may not have a symbolic component, but it will be informational on an autopoietic basis. I.e., the object "senses" something. However that sense-information is not neutral in terms of its force. Instead that sense-information generates some reaction. The object being sensed cannot determine that reaction, though if it has entered into a bi-directional relationship (each object relating to the other), some feedback loop can develop. At the same time, the sensing object is not fully in control of the relation either: on some level it is subject to what it senses. So how does this psychic-informational relation generate some possible agency by opening up possible actions and perhaps influencing one course of action over others? Good question. One for specific study: rhetorical study I would say, at least on a minimal rhetorical basis. 

Now if one wants to shift back to more familiar rhetorical territory, what would such an approach mean for understanding our efforts to create a digitally-mediated democracy and civic space? Or how would such an understanding inform the way we teach rhetoric for a digital-literate culture? Again, good questions (I hope, since I have been/will be writing about them). But basically it begins with understanding the rhetorical role of these objects differently and recognizing that even though we may be hopelessly anthropocentric that the digital-rhetorical networks in which we participate are not "for us" or "by us" but rather nonhumans with which we relate. If we fail to see that, then I think we fail to see how these networks are operating on an ontological level, and we will struggle to develop good rhetorical strategies in relation to them.

 

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