Saturday, July 31, 2010

Rhetorical Scene and Onticology

Over at Larvalsubjects Levi has posted a couple of responses to my initial thoughts on what an OOR pentad might look like with regards to his Onticology. The large point of contention, however, seems to be based around a remark I made about an object’s environment. I stated that an object exists “in” an environment. Yet, as Levi points out, this is not the case for Onticology, and is a mistake I fully take credit for making. Instead, following the thoughts of Niklas Luhmann, every object creates its environment. In other words, as Levi states in his blog, “the environment is not something that is already there” – that is, before the object.

And to this I readily agree. However, the point I was trying to make is that in the distinction, drawn by each object, between system and environment, a series of constraints also follows, much like those of a rhetorical scene. Every scene contains elements proper to the act of translation – that is, the environment created by the object does not “control” the object’s translation but it definitely has an influence on it. And this “influence” is exactly what is meant by the constraints of the object’s environment. As Levi states in Democracy:
When Luhmann observes that objects cannot be controlled or dominated his point is not that objects are completely free sovereigns capable of creating whatever reality they might like, but rather that any event that perturbs them will be “interpreted” in terms of the systems own organization. As a consequence, objects cannot be steered from the outside. However, the events that do or do not take place in the environment of an object and to which the object is open nonetheless play a tremendously significant role in the local manifestations of which the object is capable. […] Those other objects in the environment of the object define a regime of attraction with respect to the object, creating regularities in the local manifestation of the object and producing constraints on what local manifestations are possible. (224)
For Levi, then, we can think of these interactive networks of other objects as regimes of attraction or as Tim Morton has called them, meshes. Therefore, depending upon the objects (since each object creates its environment) being examined, the regimes of attraction (and thus constraints) can include “physical, biological, semiotic, social, and technological components” (225).

So it is in this way that I understand the scene of every act of translation – built around the self-constructed regimes of attraction of other objects. So, although an object does not exist “in” an environment, nor is the object ever controlled by these regimes of attractions, these environments created by the object limit the possibilities of local manifestations.

And it is in this way that I see the limiting aspect of an object’s created environment as akin to Burke’s notion of scene. For as he states early on in Grammar, “From the motivational point of view, there is implicit in the qualities of the scene the quality of the action that is to take place within it. This would be another way of saying that the act will be consistent with the scene” (6-7). In other words, there never exists an act that is inconsistent with its environment or regimes of attractions. Nor would we ever be able to deduce the act of translation from either the object/system or the environment alone. Instead, if we think of every object as an agent, then surely Burke is correct in stating that the distinction between scene and act gets muddled if we take both (actors and scene) as having agency. To this he remarks, “For the characters, by being in interaction, could be treated as scenic conditions or ‘environment,’ of one another; and any act could be treated as part of the context that modifies (hence, to a degree motivates) the subsequent acts” (7). Like Onticology, then, the rhetorical scene should be read as not having control, but having influence over the agents involved and vice versa.

Yet, by creating its environment, or making the distinction between system and environment, the object always limits itself in regards to is possible acts of translation. But this limitation can be lifted by the object, as well. For again, not only is the object never static but neither is the scene. Or, as Levi puts it:
While the regimes of attraction we [sic] find ourselves enmeshed in might constrain us in a number of ways, through our movement and action we have the ability to act on these regimes of attraction, construct our environments, and therefore modify the circumstances in which we find ourselves. We are not simply acted upon by regimes of attraction, but act on them as well. Given the unpredictable nature of other actors, however, the question revolves around which form of action might be most conducive to enhancing our existence. (227)
Therefore, it is only if we allow the merger between agents and scenes that we might begin to work through an object-oriented rhetoric. Only if we understand scenes as full of agents, may we begin to move from an anthropocentric rhetoric to a rhetoric of the real, where every tree, every blade of grass, or every computer screen has as much agency as the rhetor.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Rhetorical Purpose and Onticology (cont.)

I realized that my last post might be read as if I see the receiving object as having the choice to translate however it wants. This is not so. Instead every object exists in an environment for Onticology. And this environment constitutes the scene of the object’s act of translation. As Bryant remarks, “The organism-environment system indeed constrains the development of the phenotype in a variety of ways, defining a topological space of possible variations” (DoO 223). And he continues, “What’s important here is that the information presiding over the genesis of the phenotype is something constructed in the process of the development from a variety of factions, and, moreover, the qualities that the organism comes to embody are not located already in the organism in a virtual or implicit form, but are rather new creations in the process of development” (223). In other words, objects must constantly deal with, work with, or fight against their environments by constantly translating perturbations from other objects in its environment. However, the object itself is constrained in the ways in which it can do so. Therefore, no object can anticipate the perturbations from other objects, nor can any other object anticipate the translations by other objects.

Bryant offers us the following:
Just as other substances in a substance’s environment can only perturb the substance without determining what information events [or translation] will be produced on the basis of these perturbations, the most the substance can do is attempt to perturb other substances without being able to control what sort of information-events are produced in the other substances. And these attempted perturbations can always of course fail. My three year old daughter, for example, might yell at her toy box when she bumps into it, yet the toy box continues on its merry way quite literally unperturbed. Everything spins on recognizing that while objects construct their openness to their environment they do not construct the events that take place in their environment. (224)

Thus, a receiving object, in this case Bryant’s daughter, becomes perturbed by the toy box when she bumps into it. This perturbation is translated by her in a way that produces a yell. A translation that, in this case, has no further effects on the toy box – but this does not mean that it doesn’t have any further effects for her environment, for Bryant might have heard her yell and run to the rescue, or at least turned to see what was causing the commotion. Regardless, Bryant’s daughter was forced to deal with the perturbation (or objet a from my last post) but is constricted in the ways in which she can do this.

What’s important for our understanding of the object-oriented pentad, then, is that it seems as if the scene only becomes apparent after the information-event or act of translation occurs, because only here do we see the constraints from which the receiving object must work, and the further perturbations this object has on other objects. Or, as Burke states, “From the motivational point of view, there is implicit in the quality of a scene the quality of an action that is to take place within it. This would be another way of saying that the act will be consistent with the scene” (Grammar 7). Any environment limits the types of perturbations that can be produced by objects, as does any object’s system.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Rhetorical Purpose and Onticology

First off, I want to apologize for the length of the following. What started as a short post of ideas quickly developed into a mini essay. But, as always, I welcome any comments and critiques. Also, I want to thank Levi Bryant for letting me read a draft of his Democracy of Objects - I hope it will be as fruitful for others as it was for me.

Over the past few weeks (months really)
I’ve been trying to read Kenneth Burke’s
Grammar of Motives in OOO terms. The problem with Burke (and the initial problem with all rhetoric) is that it seems to be extremely enveloped in the human-centered world view. For example, in Grammar, Burke states: “Instruments are ‘essentially’ human, since they are products of human design” (283). In this way Burke argues that even though some objects might not have a purpose in and of themselves while still maintaining an agency as instrument, they are always imbued with a “human” purpose since they are tools, designed with a purpose in mind – i.e., a symbolic purpose. The problem, then, for an OOR is how do we separate human purpose from the ontologically independent nature of such objects. In other words, if objects act then for what purpose do they do so?In what follows I propose that it is only by means of the uncanny that we might begin to recognize an object’s purpose. But to begin with we have to look at how objects inter-act or have exo-relations. Using Levi Bryant’s Onticology, we find that all objects are mediators in relation to one another – that is, they all transmit and translate or transform what they receive from each other. Since all objects are either autopoietic (self-creating) or allopoietic (other-creating), and draw upon their own system/environment distinctions in order to transform “perturbations” into information, they all mediate or add something new to what they receive (DoO 194). It’s hardly a stretch, then, to recognize through such a formulation that each object is an agent acting with a certain amount of agency. Yet, again, where can we find purpose or motive in such acts of translation?

To begin with, objects for Onticology exist in a type of realism that accepts all beings. In other words, there is no hierarchy of “more real” to “less real” and finally to “not real”. Every object is as real as every (other) object. One part of this type of realism is the belief that all objects withdraw from each other. That is, no object is ever fully present, either to itself or to other objects. However, this does not mean that an object is ever fully withdrawn, either. No, instead for Onticology “withdrawal is never so thorough, never so complete, that local manifestation in one form or another is impossible” (295). Therefore, because of the inherent split between an object’s local manifestations or qualities, and its virtual proper being (that part of the object that is always in withdrawal) no object can be without the potential to locally manifest itself yet no object is ever completely locally manifested.

Such a realism, however, leads to a non-binary split of the object between something familiar or manifested, and something unfamiliar or withdrawn. Now, to be clear, this familiarity and manifestation are not simply for us, but are for all objects, including the objects themselves.

We might better understand this concept through what I’ve formulated here as the un-canny. Freud remarks early on in his essay that:
For us the most interesting fact to emerge from this long excerpt is that among the various shades of meaning that are recorded for the word heimlich there is one in which it merges with its formal antonym, unheimlich, so that what is called heimlich becomes unheimlich. […] This reminds us that this word heimlich is not unambiguous, but belongs to two sets of ideas, which are not mutually contradictory, but very different from each other – the one relating to what is familiar and comfortable, the other to what is concealed or kept hidden. (132)
The un-canny is a both/and term – for it represents both what is familiar (heimlich) and unfamiliar (unheimlich) at the same time. What presents itself in the object, since it is locally manifested or seems familiar. Yet, because objects never fully deploy themselves in their dealings with each other, they remain strange or unfamiliar (i.e., withdrawn). Bryant likens this un-canniness of the object to a concept formulated by Timothy Morton, namely the “strange stranger.” For Morton the strange-stranger is an object or person who no matter how long we know, we never become familiar with them. They remain constantly un-canny. Bryant, though, cautions us not to think of the strange-stranger as different from us, a difference in identity and the repetition of the same. Instead, again, every object is un-canny.

In terms of the un-canny, every object is surprising to every (other) object. That is, because every object maintains the un-canny split between local manifestations and the withdrawn virtual proper being, they are never fully consumed, taken in, or understood by an (other) object. And it is here in this un-canniness - that I find purpose in an object’s actions.

The split between the local manifestations and the virtual proper being of an object creates a difficulty in dealing with other objects. For on the one hand, a receiving object always receives something. But, on the other hand, this something is never everything. Therefore, the withdrawal of objects, in terms of its exo-relations, can be read as an excess. As Bryant remarks, “For while, in their virtual proper being, objects withdraw from any of their actualizations in local manifestations, while every object always contains a reserve excess over and above its local manifestations, nonetheless local manifestations are often highly constrained by the exo-relations an object enters into with other objects in a regime of attraction” (214). And it is precisely this excess which becomes important for our understanding of the purpose of object inter-action.

Perhaps the best way to understand this purpose behind exo-relations is through the structure of Lacan’s formulation of fantasy. What’s important to note, here, is that I am in no way performing a one-to-one reading of Lacan over Onticology, but am in fact using Lacan’s formulation since it best suits the types of relations in which objects seemed to be involved. Therefore, if we substitute the barred or split subject for the split object we could redraw the matheme ( $ ◊ a ) as ( Ø ◊ a ). This should be read as either the split object’s relation to objet a or the split object punch a. Now, normally Lacan figures this as an internal or intersubjective relation between the object and the bit of the real through alienation and separation – or the introduction of the symbolic. What’s needed for our purposes, however, is simply (Ha!) a reformulation of objet a in terms of exo-relations.

Sticking to fantasy, for Lacan, as Bruce Fink notes, “Object a, as it enters into [one’s] fantasies, is an instrument or plaything with which subjects do as they like, manipulating it as it pleases them, orchestrating things in the fantasy scenario in such a way as to derive a maximum of excitement therefrom” (60). Objet a, for our purposes, maintains its excess of immediacy – ready to excite, horrify, or perturb – yet, we recognize also that it does not come from the receiving object, but is a (by)product of an other object. In this way it is doubly excessive – in excess of containment since it escapes the first object and in excess of reception since it always perturbs the “natural” state of the receiving object. Regardless, what is important to note in the quote from Fink is that objet a is always translated in whatever way the receiving object wishes. Why is this important?

Well, since every object interprets or translates in their own way, we have to assume that there is a purpose behind this choice. For Lacan this purpose shows up in the dual movement of alienation and separation – or the punch in the matheme. Quickly, we can think of alienation as asking the subject to choose (either/or = S/S’). Immediately, the subject finds problems with her choice because of the Other – something is missing – and continues on a path of neither/nors in an endless chain of signifiers in order to fulfill her (his) desire (S’, S’’,…Sn). The purpose, then, behind this double movement or punch, is the subject’s development of a fantasy in order to deal with who she is for the Other – she is neither this nor that nor that, etc.

For our purposes, the punch represents the same two operations, yet with slightly different consequences. In the moment of alienation, the split object can either be perturbed or not. If not, the object still chooses, and thus is confronted by the neither/nor of separation. In our understanding of separation the object doesn’t choose between signifiers, but instead is forced to translate the objet a in to something else – for it is neither this nor that. Every object, therefore, is forced to deal with the excesses of other objects. And it is in this excess contained in every object that we begin to understand the rhetorical purpose behind translation. Objects translate not because they want or need the other object, but because parts of other objects are forced upon them constantly. In order to maintain a certain level of contentment, as a unified object, they must constantly deal with the perturbations of other objects.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Object Formerly Known as Gravity

Here is a recent NY Times article describing Erik Verlinde's argument that gravity is in fact a consequence "of the venerable laws of thermodynamics, which describe the behavior of heat and gases."

And here is a link to his paper (just another addition to my growing summer reading list):


Hopefully I'll get to it sooner rather than later now that my summer courses are done. Here's to wishful thinking.