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.