Friday, April 12, 2013

Material Metaphors

I know it's been a while, but you can download a copy of a presentation I'm giving this Saturday at the University of Texas at Arlington campus here (PDF).

Or if you just want to read it online, here it is:

Material Metaphors

Whether from Aristotle’s claim in the Poetics and later in On Rhetoric that the act of creating metaphor is something that cannot be taught; or from I.A. Richard’s claim in The Philosophy of Rhetoric that metaphor is not only the main principle of language, but of thought as well—rhetoric and metaphor have shared a close bond. But the move towards posthuman rhetoric, whether technological, corporeal, or object-oriented, requires that rhetoric take a fresh look at its deployment and use of metaphor if its goal is to truly de-center the human subject (and, perhaps, language) from the rhetorical act. If rhetoric is to take part in any kind of posthumanism, its reliance upon and use of linguistic tropes must at minimum be reworked.

However, given my limited time today, the goal of this presentation is not to give an overview of the historical relation between rhetoric and metaphor, nor is it to argue for the significance of a posthuman approach to rhetoric. These are both areas I cover in my larger project, if you’re at all interested. Instead, what I hope to do in the following is to first develop an act of posthuman and object-oriented composition I call the “material metaphor.” In short, material metaphors work by relating two previously unrelated objects, but can be identified in the unique way that they allow the two objects to unfold in the other. Taking up an object-oriented approach to rhetoric, I will then argue that by creating material metaphors, one is not only creating a unique quasi-object, but is in essence composing a rhetorical act in a moment of kairos.

To give you a little background, object-oriented philosophy originated as an offshoot of a philosophical movement known as speculative realism. The main complaint of speculative realism is that so much of contemporary philosophy has been built around the erroneous notion that thinking and being are inseparable. French speculative realist, Quentin Meillassoux, coined the term “correlationism” to identify “the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other” (5). For philosophers like Graham Harman, the obvious way out of this correlation was to sidestep the correlation altogether by allowing all objects the same ontological status that under correlationism only humans enjoyed. Therefore, in an object-oriented ontology everything exists as an object, including human beings. Hard drives, carpets, street tar, and graduate students are all objects. And though each is recognized as its own, autonomous object with distinct qualities and powers, they all exist and relate to each other in similar ways.

In Guerrilla Metaphysics, one of his earlier object-oriented philosophical texts, Graham Harman describes the relation between two objects as a form of metaphor. For Harman, each object is made up of two realms: a “real” realm which always withdraws from any relation (a realm that could be described as the object’s essence); and a “sensual” realm made up of the numerous qualities an object puts forth in relation to other objects. In an earlier chapter I describe this split relative to Freud’s notion of the uncanny. An object is uncanny in that it straddles the line between what is known (or present) and unknown (or withdrawn). Yet, because of the withdrawal of the object’s essence, any relation between two individual objects is always a relation that takes place in the sensual realm. In this way, objects in Harman’s philosophy, are said to “bathe” in each other’s sensual realms. In a move that he is completely serious about, Harman argues that: “[A] thing relates to its own parts in the same way it relates to other things, and indeed in the same way that we ourselves relate to things: namely, by distorting them, caricaturing them, bringing them into play only partially” much like metaphor (172). Since objects always only interact with each other in their sensual realms, no two objects ever directly interact with each other. Instead, each object metaphorizes, or distorts the other object, in relating to it. Every relation requires multiple translations.

As digital media professor and fellow object-oriented philosopher, Ian Bogost puts it, “Objects [for Harman] float in a sensual ether. When they interact…they do so only by the means they know internally but in relation to the qualities [of the other object] in which they ‘bathe’” (66). Each object makes sense of the other object according to its own logic—that is, it translates the other object according to its own structure and desires. Water and soil, for example, are both autonomous objects (in their own right) but become “fuel” for a plant. The plant relates by metaphorizing, distorting, or caricaturizing the water and soil into fuel.

Bogost takes this idea of relating-by-metaphor a step further and describes a process he calls “metaphorism.” For Bogost, “Metaphorism offers a method…that grasps at the ways objects bask metaphorically in each others’ notes…by means of metaphor itself, rather than by describing the effects of such interactions on the objects. It offers a critical process for characterizing object perceptions” (67). Metaphorism, therefore, offers up the metaphor as a caricature of the perception of an object. Much like Jakob von Uexküll’s Umwelt theory allowed biologists and animal studies scholars to discuss unique world views for animals such as honey bees and ticks, metaphorism is Bogost’s attempt at developing a perceptual scheme whereby one might glimpse the world from the point of view of a particular object. For example, in his book Alien Phenomenology Bogost metaphorizes how a Foveon image sensor in a Sigma DP camera “sees” the world. Metaphor, for Bogost, then is a way one can attempt to understand what it might be like to be a specific object.

And although this approach to metaphor makes sense from the philosophical and ontological perspective, where there is an importance placed on describing what is necessary—i.e., the object itself—rhetoric, on the other hand and as I argue for in an earlier chapter, deals with the contingency of these objects’ relations to each other. For object-oriented rhetoric, then, metaphor is a method by which the hitherto unforeseen sensual qualities of objects might be brought to forefront when two objects are juxtaposed or forced to relate. In order to get at a rhetoric of objects, one must compose or build something I call a material metaphor.

A few points need to be made about material metaphors before we progress. First, there is a specific emphasis placed on the materiality of the objects that make up the metaphor. In other words, in building a material metaphor, a certain amount of respect should be given regarding the individual material make-up of each object. Neither the metaphor nor the other object should be seen as a substitute or ever be used to reduce the primary object (or vice versa). For example, if I were to say that a key is a kind of knife, I neither want to reduce the key to the qualities of a knife, nor the knife to the qualities of a key. Rather, the material metaphor of key-as-knife respects the materiality of both objects allowing the two to relate, bathe, and interact exactly because of these material differences. Both can be serrated, both are a times sharp, and both can used to get inside other objects. However a knife has a long handle that fits the entire hand whereas a key often does not. The point is, regardless of the connections made, each object is irreducible to the other object and to the larger metaphor.

But this brings me to the second point: material metaphors are a way of modeling the uncanny nature of objects—allowing the two objects that make up the metaphor to generate, bathe, and make present certain previously unknown or withdrawn aspects of either one or both of the objects that participate in the metaphor. Such modeling is similar to that put forth by sociologist, Andrew Pickering in The Mangle of Practice. For Pickering, as well as for object-oriented rhetoric, metaphor as a way of modeling “is an open-ended process with no determinate destination. From a given model…an indefinite number of future variants can be constructed. Nothing about the model itself fixes which of them will figure as the goal of a particular passage of practice” (19). In this way, material metaphors should not be seen as limiting compositions, but should instead be seen as generative objects, requiring further models and further material metaphors.

Take the following example given by Thomas Frentz regarding the influential work of Donald Schön:
Schön recalls a group that was charged with improving paintbrushes made with synthetic bristles. Compared to brushes with natural bristles having split ends, the synthetic ones without split ends delivered paint unevenly, in “glops,” as they put it. Even splitting the ends of the synthetic bristles didn’t help. Then someone said, “You know, a paintbrush is a kind of pump,” implying that when a brush is pressed against some surface, paint is forced out through the spaces between the bristles, like a pump. The implications of this “paintbrush as pump” metaphor led to a series of modifications in the synthetic bristles that eventually produced a brush equal to or better than ones with natural bristles—and far less expensive (105). 
For Schön, as well as Frentz, the paintbrush-as-pump metaphor not only allowed the designers to better understand the sensual qualities of the paintbrush through its forced relation to the pump, but it also allowed the generation of other such metaphors whereby the pump becomes more than just a liquid transportation device (pump-as-bristle) and the bristles of the paintbrush more than means to getting paint on a canvas.

Finally, the composition of a material metaphor is the composition of what sociologist Bruno Latour calls a “quasi-object.” For Latour, quasi-objects exist in between the social and natural poles, so that:
[I]f religion, arts or styles are necessary to ‘reflect’, ‘reify’, ‘materialize’, ‘embody’ society– to use some of the social theorists’ favorite verbs –then are objects not, in the end, its co-producers? Is not society built literally– not metaphorically –of gods, machines, sciences, arts and styles?… Maybe social scientists have simply forgotten that before projecting itself on to things society has to be made, built, constructed? And out of what material could it be built if not out of nonsocial, non-human resources? (We Have Never Been Modern 54) 
And it is precisely these nonsocial, nonhuman resources which Latour calls quasi-objects. These quasi-objects are not only the speed bumps in a school zone and the soccer ball in play on the field, but I would argue they are also the key-as-knife and the paintbrush-as-pump. As quasi-objects, material metaphors enjoy both abstract and material translations. They not only allow the two objects to unfold in each other, but the material metaphor as a whole becomes an object (of sorts) with which to be reckoned. The quasi-object, soil-as-fuel has repercussions not only for the plant, but also perhaps for the farmer, the gardener, and the small agricultural business owner.

Neither the linguistic significance of each object, nor the meaning of the overall metaphor itself is of great importance to the composition of a material metaphor. Instead, what is important for a material metaphor is what each object draws out of the other and what inner depths the two objects plunge, allowing each to be seen in their unique uncanniness. Material metaphors as quasi-objects exploit, point out, draw attention to sensual qualities of both objects, but never reduce them to those same qualities. They take part in objects by forcefully relating them to each other, and because of this “taking part in,” each material metaphor requires subsequent material metaphors.

But why use metaphor? If the goal is to get at the rhetoric of objects, why use metaphor as the primary form of composition? The answer, I’d argue, is in the way that metaphor works. Or more specifically, the composition of a material metaphor is the composition of a rhetorical act in its entire contingency. Take for example the way object-oriented ontologist Timothy Morton describes how an object comes into being:
Crash! Suddenly the air is filled with broken glass. The glass fragments are fresh objects, newborn from a shattered wine glass. These objects assail my senses and, if I’m not careful, my eyes could get cut. There are glass fragments. What is happening? How many? How did this happen? I experience the profound givenness of beginning as an anamorphosis, a distortion of my cognitive, psychic and philosophical space. The birth of an object is the deforming of the objects around it. An object appears like a crack in the real. This distortion happens in the sensual realm, but because of its necessary elements of novelty and surprise, it glimmers with the real, in distorted fashion. Beginnings are open, disturbing, blissful, horrific. 
Much like the birth of an object, a material metaphor causes a moment of distortion in its rhetorical situation, a “crash” between two objects and the creation of a new quasi-object. In this way, material metaphors, too, are instantaneous and require immediate translation.

And like material metaphors, rhetorical acts are ripe with connections from one object to another. One contemporary understanding of a rhetorical act is through the concept of kairos. In my own work, kairos has been linked to contingency, an opportune time, a fitting place, and most recently I argued for a third aspect—appropriate orientation. For John Muckelbauer, however, kairos also carries with it an ontological dimension. As Muckelbauer points out, often pre-Socratic notions of kairos defined it not only as the opportune moment, or fitting place, but also “considered kairos to be ‘one of the laws of the universe’” (115). Therefore, moments of kairos or kairotic events happen regardless of human involvement. However, here’s the rub. As Muckelbauer finds, kairotic events often require a response. Quoting philosopher John Smith, he states that “A kairotic event does not happen randomly; in some qualitative sense, it is a ‘time of crisis [and]…opportunity,’ which is solicited or even demanded by the situation itself” (116). So if a human subject is not necessary for a kairotic event to take place, but yet such an event demands a response, who or what responds?

For Muckelbauer, the kairotic event itself is an erasure of the line between situation and audience: As an ontological principle, a kairotic response does not have recourse to generality of any kind (either through intelligibility or judgment), but must be entirely singular and situated. […] If we are to encounter the singularity of situatedness, it would be imprecise to say that a kairotic situation ‘demands’ or ‘solicits’ a response. Instead, within this ontological rendering, kairos as qualitative time indicates a style of connecting that undoes the very distinction between a situation and a respondent…Kairotic connections simply happen. Or not. (116) Seen ontologically, kairos, instead of simply being an opportune time or appropriate place, becomes a nonindividuated resonance—the connections made simply happen or not.

Similarly, a material metaphor demands that connections also be made, but it does not dictate which ones work and which ones won’t. When we are presented with the key-as-knife or paintbrush-as-pump, the material metaphor, like the kairotic event, undoes the distinction between primary and secondary objects, vehicle and tenor; and instead concerns itself with the connections that “simply happen or not.” By composing a material metaphor one is as close as one can get to composing a kairotic event—that is, to creating an object-oriented rhetorical situation. Composing a material metaphor becomes not a moment of human perception or representation, but becomes a moment of carpentry—and the rhetorician becomes an engineer, a designer, and an architect.


Works Cited 

Bogost, Ian. Alien Phenomenology. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2012. Print.

Frentz, Thomas. “Creative Metaphors, Synchronicity, and Quantum Physics.” Philosophy and Rhetoric, 44.2 (2011), 101-28. JStor. Web. 06 March 2013.

Harman, Graham. Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things. Chicago: Open Court, 2005. Print.

Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. Boston: Harvard UP, 1993. Print.

Meillassoux, Quentin. After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency. New York: Continuum, 2010. Print.

Morton, Timothy. Realist Magic. Open Humanities Press, 2013. Web. 14 February 2013.

Muckelbauer, John. The Future of Invention: Rhetoric, Postmodernism, and the Problem of Change. State University of New York Press, 2009. Print.

1 comment:

  1. I'd love to see a follow on looking at the (potential) relationship between synecdoche and the mereology of object-oriented ontology...