I’ve now had a chance to read three of the four papers from the RSA Object Oriented Rhetoric panel. Jim Brown’s summary is quite accurate, and I also recommend Nate’s thoughts on the potential of OOR. Here I’ll offer an overview of my reading of the papers, followed my my own sense of what object-oriented rhetoric might look like, or at least, the application of OOR that interests me most.

Following Latour, Scot Barnett set up the panel asking what rhetorics “missing masses” might be, citing a line from Harman’s book on Latour in which the former argues that rhetoric deals with ‘veiled background assumptions,” and that philosophy ought to involve exposing background assumptions. Barnett uses this claim as a jumping off point for a provocative idea:

For Harman, in other words, far from constituting a subspecies (at best) of philosophy, rhetoric actually serves philosophy–and object-oriented philosophy in particular–precisely because of its distinct capacity to attune students and practitioners to the veiled backgrounds and subterranean depths that characterize being and all being-in-the-world. With this in mind, it’s reasonable to say, I think, that object-oriented philosophy is already object-oriented rhetoric.

This in mind, for Barnett, the promise of OOR comes from its potential to expand the domain of rhetoric by reminding us that objects “contribute to the production of public rhetorical events,” that is, the things we take as ordinary human rhetorical acts are already inscribed in complex networks of objects. This is me speaking now, not Barnett, but we might conclude that rhetoric has only scratched the surface of the conditions for its enactment.

Byron Hawk takes up similar themes in his paper on “how to emerge with things.” arguing that rhetorical “texts” are really more like ecologies or systems: “like the weather they can be predictable in some ways but unpredictable in others because they are in continual process and every encounter with other variables or audiences changes the conditions of possibility of the system.” Hawk suggests that rhetoricians ought to pay attention to material conditions beyond economics to a “proliferation of theories of materiality and circulation.” In a move not dissimilar to the idea of promiscuous ontology that Levi and I have advanced, Hawk suggests that rhetoricians ought to develop “as many models as possible” for this practice

In order to think about eventual audiences in the context of this kind of emergent materiality, rhetoric and composition would need to move toward something like an object-oriented rhetoric, one that develops theoretical models that go beyond momentary stasis and folds over into the specific emergences of material cases.

Robert Leston’s paper follows from here, in fact, noting early on that rhetoricians are more open than other sorts of scholars to “drop their intellectual investments to take on something different.” He draws connections between OOO and the philosophy of Deleuze. In one example, Leston points out that images are already things, possessing forces of their own beyond the representational meaning we might encounter of them. Using Freud’s “Wolf Man” as an example, Leston suggests that human-centered approaches to understanding with appeals to “transcendental interpretation” force the world to conform to our human image of it. There are serious implications for this strategy, for Leston:

Perhaps no one is significantly hurt when literature departments follow the procedure of taking something and imposing a meaning on it, but we cannot say the same when the procedure is applied to the human’s encounters with other beings and things in the world.

His paper concludes with several counter-examples, largely anthropological, about how some tribal societies understand themselves as a part of the natural ecology, for example making more limited distinction between man and animal, man and environment, and refusing to draw on language (the fuel of the machine of rhetoric) as the primary distinction.

All three papers make interesting first moves in applying OOO to rhetoric. But all also focused on the expansion of rhetoric’s orientation toward objects, that is, on taking the human practice of rhetoric and asking what it might gain by developing or adopting a more substantial theory of objects. This is a worthwhile project, and one that resonates with my own interests in rhetoric to some extent. Given Leston’s brief discussion of the image, it’s worth reminding ourselves that even the subfield of visual rhetoric has endured considerable objection from “traditionalists” for whom rhetoric must be a form of language. In my notion of procedural rhetoric, the materiality of arguments is even weirder, taking the form of operating models rather than fixed representations. I tend to agree with Hawk that there must be many more theories out there awaiting articulation.

At the same time, there’s something still too human-centered about this direction for OOR, or at least this direction alone. The RSA papers ask how rhetoric as we know it can benefit from an expansion into the world of objects. But we might also ask a different question under the name of object-oriented rhetoric: what is the rhetoric of objects? Do things like traffic lights and kohlrabis persuade one another in their interactions? What would it mean to understand extra-human object relations as rhetorical? When Bruno Latour suggests that trees also might use us “to achieve their dark designs,” does such a use count as rhetoric? It’s a question related to what I call alien phenomenology, but more specific in nature: one that would address how speculation can provide insight into the coaxings of withdrawn objects.

published June 13, 2010


  1. Robert Jackson

    Remember Zizekâ??s point that Heideggerâ??s misguided attempts to fuse Nazism politics with philosophy was a right step in the wrong direction? (Fusing politics with philosophy was spot on; Nazism was totally the wrong direction). Perhaps this direction from OOR is the opposite in the sense that it could be the wrong step in the right direction (we should definitely explore the untapped realms of differing objects, but itâ??s the wrong human centred step to engage with human oriented rhetoric).

    Despite the overly Post-mo correlationlist tones of MacKenzie Warkâ??s Gamer Theory, your last paragraph reminds me of a passage near the end inspired by Kpunk (of all writers), questioning what we, the player, would look like to gamespace? Wark suggests arbitrary patterns of registers, input button presses, etc., but this presents an interesting challenge to the OOR academic. Videogames are (perhaps) the quintessential persuasive object to us, but in what sense can we suggest that our inputs are persuasive for APIâ??s, lines of AI code. Can we say an Ethernet cable â??persuadesâ? firmware to update, and if so, can this persuasion become fluid and open to possibilities?

    This strikes me as an odd pragmatic situation, that for OOO, the inner lives of objects are ontologically valid but unknowable, yet in praxis (manifestly or contingently) we speculate and silently rely on the relationships between objects constantly. The weirdness of objects is lost on us for the majority of our existence.

  2. Alex Reid

    I appreciate your perspective on this panel. I wasn’t there, but I hope to read some of these papers myself down the road. This seems like a reasonable remedy to the reactions you encountered and blogged about in your previous post. Certainly rhetoricians are only starting to think through these concepts, but this sounds like a good start.

    As you know, rhet/comp comprises a large group: 10,000s of folks teach composition if we think of it in those terms. But even more narrowly if we think of the 1000s with rhet/comp Phds, there are many who I would characterize as being generally opposed to “theory” as impractical. And there are others who are deeply committed to cultural studies-informed pedagogies who would likely react negatively toward our common interests in these issues. But that’s how it goes in this field.

    Personally, of course, I’m very interested in pursuing these questions, so I look forward to hearing more.

  3. Ian Bogost

    Robert, you’re hitting on precisely the questions that are swirling unformed in my brain. Despite the fact that I’ve thought about the pairs (rhetoric and objects) and (objects and experience), I’ve not yet fully considered the question of objects’ rhetorical experience. It seems uncontroversial to say that the ethernet cable encounters the firmware, but somehow I’m less comfortable, at least on first blush, to conclude that the former persuades the latter. Even Latour’s notion of forces doesn’t quite make it to rhetoric, so there’s no help there.

    As you suggest, it’s possible that rhetoric is a mode of speculation about objects, a way of doing alien phenomenology. Barnett suggests this indirectly in one of the passages cited above. But I’m not yet sure if that’s a helpful perspective or not. Given my interest in what I call carpentry, I worry somewhat that deploying rhetoric might give the OOO practitioner an excuse to keep his or her analysis at the level of language, rather than also exploring other ways of doing.

  4. Ian Bogost

    Alex, thanks for reminding us about the different motivations among rhetoricians. Despite the fact that I feel like I’ve been involved in rhetoric, I’m well aware that I’m not really a part of the rhet/comp community. Sometimes this is a fact to celebrate, others one to lament. In this case, as you suggest, there’s a risk of being both fish and fowl, as it were, rancid to some and delectable to others.

  5. Robert Jackson

    Thanks for the response Ian,

    Maybe the issue here is the forced choice between â??complexâ?? persuasion and â??singularâ?? causation. Carpentry would work extremely well in this instance to move away from the force of language, consider methods of persuasion that didnâ??t riff on language but focused on actual things. But as you point out, rhetorical experience is quite clearly not forcing an object to do something. Nor could one suggest an element of translation here.

    As with most ontological discrepancies, my thoughts turn to aesthetics. Because the relationship between rhetoric and aesthetics is undeniably complex, Iâ??m not sure how helpful this would be. As you know the idea of aesthetic production which excludes human context, interests me greatly, but in the interest of rhetoric, there is a long history of artworks, objects and projects which argue, inform and persuade.

  6. Chandra Mukerji

    I like to make the distinction between demonstration and representation to distinguish between rhetorical objects and what they mean. Demonstrations rely on the agential properties of things as well as the representational desires of people, so focusing on demonstrations, one can think about aesthetics without reducing the objects to the human desires shaping their forms. This does not require cables to speak, too, but can account for them as agents in material orders.

  7. Fernando Teles

    For Bruno Latour’s ontology, the entities (humans or nonhumans) associate in an agonistic fashion. Humans and nonhumans take their stand while performing any action, to either associate or recalcitrate. If rhetoric is understood as a way of persuading others into doing or accepting what I want and this a way of negotiating one’s existence in reality, I see it as tool whose name and use are products of an association that exists also because of humans. To say that something is rhetoric is already a way of using rhetoric. It’s a good name for describing some actions in the world. If we wish to see how this concept resists to what we understand of nonhuman agency, I suppose it’s a matter of making it flexible so that more entities can be included under its definition. (That’s how Actor-Network Theory works, by the way). An object’s resistance to the world around it will only be guaranteed as long as conditions are satisfied, which is a matter of gathering allies in one place for some time. Which elements or actors must be recruited for something to exist and work? What does this thing have to do so that the minimum conditions for its existence remain available?

    Traffic lights persuade humans very well in their way of making their existence useful, as long as they work. Maybe that’s why they’ve been around for a relatively long time.

    A chair will follow its program of action no matter what. It resists to my body as long as my interaction with it is not destructive. The same between this chair and the floor, or the chair and the dog.

    If this chair gets old and it doesn’t accept my action of trying to fix it, It’s gonna be disassembled and dumped. End of negotiation.

    I see rhetoric as one more way of existing and make a difference also by means of negotiation. I could say nothing and still take my stand, be a mute obstacle, no matter how passive that would seem. I would still be existing and leaving a mark. It’s up to other actors to say how rhetorical that is.