one new materialist rhetoric and its relation to object-oriented ontology

There have been some “conversations” on social media and apparently on a panel at the Cultural Rhetorics conference going on this weekend regarding object-oriented ontology and rhetoric. I’m not at that conference, but I have read some of the online discussion on Twitter and Facebook. I’m not interested in rehashing that here, but I thought I would try to make my own position clear. Of course by clear I mean something fairly academic and abstract, but I figure anyone who is in a position to offer legitimate academic critique of such matters should be familiar with all of these references and contexts.

Really quickly though, most of my recent publications dealing with these subjects are in the list below, so you can check those out. Also, here’s a link to all the posts I’ve put in the category of “object-oriented rhetoric,”88 in total (89 with this one). I’ve also, more recently, been using the category “new materialism.” As that would suggest I’ve categorized a fair amount of my own blog writing under the term object-oriented rhetoric. In my experience over the last five years, many of our colleagues seem to use that term in a general and less precise way then I would choose to, so that’s how I use it informally here for categorizing purposes on a blog.

In more precise, academic terms I would use object-oriented rhetoric to refer to an exploration of how rhetoric might function within the context of object-oriented ontology (OOO), which, to me, is a philosophy that has been principally espoused by Graham Harman and Timothy Morton, to a lesser extent Ian Bogost, and once upon a time by Levi Bryant. I’ve spent a fair amount of time exploring these issues and learned a great deal, but in the end I was never quite able to come up with an OOO-based rhetoric that worked for me. OOO as we know de-emphasizes the role of relations, especially in comparison to popular postmodern thought, and rhetoric, as near as I can figure it, describes a relation. Of course objects in OOO do relate to one another and it is possible to describe the rhetorical qualities of those relations when they occur. There can be an object-oriented rhetoric. It’s just not what I wanted to do, in the end.

So I describe my work as a new materialist rhetoric, which is a different, though related, and more capacious term than object-oriented rhetoric is in my view. I draw principally on the work of Manual DeLanda, Bruno Latour, and Jane Bennett, particularly in my current manuscript. I don’t know that Latour would call himself a new materialist. I think Bennett would and does. DeLanda is one of two people to whom the term is attributed (in the early 90s), but these days he calls himself a “realist philosopher.” In short, it turns out to be tricky to categorize people. Who knew?

Anyway, in the most general terms, here’s my thinking about a new materialist rhetoric:

  1. Rhetoric is a capacity that arises in the relations among two or more humans and/or nonhumans. Humans are not required. I describe these humans and nonhumans in terms of assemblages (DeLanda and Bennett) or actors (Latour). I assume that if you’re in the position of critiquing such concepts then you don’t need me to explain how they operate in these authors’ works.
  2. This capacity called rhetoric engenders further capacities for thought and action. As Latour says at times, we are “made to act.” Or one might think of distributed cognition, enhanced mind, or cognitive ecology as concepts coming out of cognitive science as ways of describing how thoughts arise in relation to environment. DeLanda’s notion of capacity itself suggests qualities that are hidden and unavailable without relation.
  3. I know there are many questions about ethics and politics in relation to these theories. I view these theories primarily as methods for description. They certainly can describe how ethical and political practices arise. Are those descriptions useful? You’d have to see for yourself I guess. At times they do suggest that certain explicit or implicit decisions we’ve made about how the world works are erroneous in ways that lead to further problems. Ultimately they don’t tell you what you should do. I consider that a good thing.

So, my own work for the last 20+ years has focused primarily on the effects of digital technologies on rhetoric and pedagogy. Maybe you think that’s a stupid thing to focus on and that I should be studying something else. Whatever. Anyway, the emergence of digital media has fostered a wide range of matters of concern  (to borrow Latour’s phrase) both inside and outside of the university: from worries that “Google is making us stupid” to MOOCs to uproars over what someone tweeted. I find new materialist rhetoric to be an effective descriptive method for investigating these matters of concern primarily because it offers me a way to describe the rhetorical operation of nonhumans in a way that I find useful. To find out more, read my work.

Of course this is academia. All ideas are subject to critique. Critique is a common practice among my colleagues. If you want to critique my work, I’d like to be properly cited. It would also be great if my work was accurately represented. There’s no need to mischaracterize my work in order to critique it. It is 100% “critique-able” as is.  There’s plenty of stuff my work does not do, so that’s a legitimate critique. It does draw on certain concepts rather than others. For example, it isn’t an object-oriented rhetoric, so if you want one of those you could critique me for not providing it.