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.


  1. Fascinating, Nate. Thanks for this. You know the funny thing about strange strangers is that the more you know them, the stranger they become…

  2. Thanks Tim! Yeah, I really need to read your book. The more I learn about this idea of the strange-stranger, the more I want to learn, and the more I think it will be useful in my own work.

  3. Hi, Nate. Have you seen Scot Barnett's new review essay in Enculturation (shameless plug - I'm the Managing Editor), "Toward an Object-Oriented Rhetoric"?

  4. Hey Jim!

    Yes, I have read Scot's review and it got me all excited (and motivated). Right now I am trying to work through some of the same issues and concerns that Scot brings up in his review, so it was nice to read something that expressed these issues in a precise manner - more precise than anything I've been able to write.


  5. Nate, I just added your posts on this to my syllabus, and your name to my post on rhetoric at my site.

  6. There is a lot of resonance here with K. Burke's notion of "perspective by incongruity" (see Permanence and Change, p. 69 and following), especially the role of "impiety" and "gargoyles" (the reframing/deterritorializing disruptions that happen when of our expectations about "what goes with what" are violated).


  7. Thanks, Steve! I have a copy of Permanence and Change sitting on my shelf, but I must admit, it's been a while since I've opened it. I'll have to take another look.