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.


  1. Hey Nate,

    Great stuff here. I think I find the language of scene objectionable because one of the things I'm trying to get around is a treatment of these relations in terms of the container and the contained. This is where I would worry about Burke's thesis that the action of agents is always harmonious with its scene. Here I think Don Quixote is a good counter-example. Quixote is a crystal of time, a crystal of the past, existing out of sync with the scene (in the more conventional sense) in which he finds himself. In my view, these temporal structures are particular important in our own contemporary moment, as our world is populated by the simultaneity of different historical temporalities entering into conflict with one another, e.g. the Amish in the contemporary world, technologically illiterate elders, third world countries still existing in the middle ages, and so on.

    I notice that you distinguish between the rhetor and other agents. Is the rhetor always human? One idea that's recently fascinated me is that of nonhuman rhetors. In what way can a nonhuman "speak"? Does it even make sense to think of nonhumans speak? Initially this idea is preposterous. "Only humans speak!" we declare with outrage. But is that really true? Think about the relationship between representatives and the represented. The represented seldom speak directly, but rather only speak through the prosthesis of their representative, not unlike the spacing guild representative that can only speak through a bizarre special microphone. How is this any different than an object speaking through a technological device like a tectonic plate surprising us by causing lines to jump on a piece of paper. Here, again, I think Latour is indispensable. This is precisely his argument in We Have Never Been Modern and one of the central reasons that he treats nonhumans as full-blown actors. By registering their speech through technological devices, nonhuman actors have the power to overturn entire research programs and destroy careers. In these cases, media, far from being extensions of man, use humans as prostheses for themselves!

  2. I should add that the key point is that regimes of attraction are not something other than agents, but are themselves agents. Morton makes this point nicely in The Ecological Thought. We often tend to speak of the environment as a container that things must then adapt to. As such, we create an ontological distinction between objects on the one hand and environments on the other. Morton's argument is that the environment itself is nothing but other actors.

  3. Hey Levi,

    No, I completely agree with you as far as Burke's notion of container and contained. I've tried to stay away from this type of language and perhaps need to better formulate the points of divergence between my view and Burke's.

    As for your second point, I'm not sure where you see me making the distinction between the rhetor and other agents, or favoring the rhetor as human. Instead, I was pointing us away from this distinction in the hopes of re-thinking rhetoric (in which such a distinction is extremely prevalent) as filled with agents. As you saw with your example of your daughter and the toy box, who's to say which object is the rhetor and which the audience? I read it one way (where she translated the encounter into a yell), you meant it in another way (where the box went on its merry way - although I'm sure there was some energy passed from the encounter that caused the box to shift, if ever so slightly). The point is, that once we start singling out entities - even as examples - it becomes difficult to maintain full agency. This is a problem I am only now working on. The scene qua agent, I believe, offers us a way to work around this problem.

    These are just a few rough outlines of where I'm going in my own thought. So thanks again for your invaluable input.