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.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

OOR Mathemes

Before I get into the mathemes themselves, I’d like to lay out the four terms by which we will need to read each matheme.
$ = Split Object
S1 = Local Manifestation
S2 = Environment
a = Withdrawal or Virtual Proper Being
 In Lacan, the “$” can be read as the barred or split subject. As Bruce Fink points out, "The castrated subject is the barred subject, the subject under the bar: it is a product of every attempt and intent to signify to the other" (73) Since my goal is to move these mathemes into the realm of OOO, we will need to read the “$” as the split object of onticology. As Levi Bryant states in The Democracy of Objects, “…[S]plit-objects refers not to a physical split such as the idea that objects can always be broken in half or divided, but rather to the split between the virtual proper being of objects or their powers and their local manifestations or qualities” (70). There are a couple of points that need to be made about this split, though. First, every object (including humans) is split between a virtual proper being and local manifestations. This means that “$” is representative of all objects, including the split subject in Lacan. Second, this “$” is the object proper, meaning that “$” represents precisely this onticological idea of an object consisting of both a virtual proper being and local manifestations (whether experienced or not by another object).

Next, we will need to read Lacan’s “S1” not as a master signifier, but as an object’s local manifestation. For Lacan, as Fink points out, “An S1 is often recognizable in analysis by the fact that the analysand repeatedly butts up against the term; it may be a term like ‘death,’ for instance, or any other term that seems opaque to the analysand and that always seems to put an end to associations instead of opening things up” (Fink 77). In other words, the master signifier is an actualization of a lack in the subject, but an actualization that is so strong or frequently repeated that it blocks further actualizations. Onticologically, however, the local manifestation can be seen as a quality or actualization of a power in the object’s virtual proper being, often when it comes into an external or exo-relation with another object. As Bryant notes, “As a function of the exo-relations objects enter into with other objects, the attractors defining the virtual space of a substance can be activated in a variety of different ways, actualizing objects in a variety of different ways at the level of local manifestations” (Bryant 114). But like the master signifier that could keep the analysand from opening up, in a sense defining him, there is also a danger to each local manifestation. Because local manifestations are actualizations of withdrawn virtual or potential powers in the object, each object runs the risk of reducing the entire split object into only its local manifestations. “It is for this reason,” Bryant argues, “that the confusion of objects with their actualization in local manifestations always spells theoretical disaster, for in doing so we foreclose the volcanic potentials harbored in the depths of objects” (114).  Therefore, like Lacan’s master signifier, each local manifestation harbors the danger of eclipsing the split-object by reducing it to its local manifestations at the detriment of its virtual proper being.

We will also need to read Lacan’s S2 in a modified way, since for Lacan the S2 represented at times knowledge and “‘other’ signifiers” (75). Fink explains how for Lacan it was the S2 or the group of signifiers, the chain of potential signifiers that gave meaning to the master signifier. In other words, the S2 is always multiple, S2s. And, “If S1 is not in place, every S2 is somehow unbound. The S2s have relations amongst themselves; they may be strung together in perfectly ordinary ways by a psychotic [someone who has no master signifier], but they do not seem to affect him or her in any sense; they are somehow independent of him or her” (75). Therefore, the S2 is a chain or group of signifiers that retroactively brings about the meaning of an S1. In onticological terms, however, we need to read this S2 as representing the environment of the object. For Bryant, though, “[T]he environment is not a container of substances or systems that precedes the existence of substances or systems. There is no environment ‘as such’ existing out there in the world…Rather, we have as many environments as there are substances in the universe, without it being possible to claim that all of these systems are contained in a single environment” (146). Environments, or S2s, are again plural. And because of the ongoing and metonymical form of identification, environments can be seen as in-formational. As Bryant puts it, “While there is indeed an identity to the object, in the sense that it has a virtual endo-structure that persists across time, this identity is always manifesting itself in a variety of ways” (166). In this sense, objects take on new forms and actualize new local manifestations, so that “[i]n both allopoietic and autopoitic systems, information is an event that makes a difference by selecting a system-state” (166). In this way, the environment has an effect on the object retroactively, by producing the space available for the object’s local manifestations, so that the system or virtual proper being of the object is what constitutes the environment. As Bryant points out, “Although this distinction refers to two domains (system and environment), the distinction itself originates from one of these domains: the system” (144). S2, or the realm of other possible signifiers, can effectively be read as the object’s environment, since both operate as multiple arenas by which the S1 becomes actualized retroactively.

Finally, for Lacan the object cause of desire is represented by the small “a.” Fink describes object (a) as “the leftover of that process of constituting an object, the scrap that evades the grasp of symbolization. It is a remainder that there is something else, something perhaps lost, perhaps yet to be found” (94). In short, object (a) is that which is in excess of every relation between S1 and S2. It is, speaking onticologically, that which withdraws from any relation. It is the object’s virtual proper being. As Bryant argues, “objects are always in excess of any of their local manifestations, harboring hidden volcanic powers irreducible to any of their manifestations in the world” (70). So that “[w]ithin the framework of onticology, the claim that objects are withdrawn from other objects is the claim that 1)substances are independent of or are not constituted by their relations to other objects, and 2) that objects are not identical to any qualities they happen to locally manifest” (70). Much like Lacan’s object (a) which escapes (and is thus produced by) every signifying relation, the virtual proper being of an object withdraws (and is inferred) from any of the object’s relations and local manifestations. 

Monday, July 16, 2012

Why Not Democracy?

Recently, Levi Bryant has been attempting to work through the political implications of OOO and his onticology. In a recent post he proposed an anarchical/feminine ontological politics whereby there would be no sovereign or master. As Levi states:
Indeed, The Democracy of Objects probably should have been entitled The Anarchy of Objects (there will be a book or chapter entitled The Anarchy of Machines in the future).  Now what is an anarchic ontology?  It is an ontology that forecloses transcendent terms such as God, Platonic forms, a-historical essences, sovereigns, fathers, a-historical structures, transcendent subjects, etc.  All of these beings are treated as naturalistic, social, nation, and psychological transcendental illusions (cf. Difference and Givenness).  Within an anarchistic ontology, everything unfolds within immanence, without anything standing outside of history, becoming, time, etc.  An anarchic ontology is an ontology without fathers; or rather, it is an ontology where the name-of-the-father is foreclosed or banished both ontologically and socially as a necessary term.
As Levi sees it, onticology leads to an anarchist political state, absent of any (transcendent) ruler. And in his argument, which is based around his reading of Lacan’s graphs of sexuation, he is ultimately left with the question of whether or not such a view is even possible. The question is, in other words, if there is no master with which to identify, how are governments, societies, or political groups even possible? Is a politics based on onticology ultimately “doomed to psychosis?”

As Levi explains, for Lacan, in the moment of identification one is left either with a foreclosure of the name-of-the-father (often resulting in psychosis) or with a countless chain of insufficient signifiers. Another way to see this split is between the foreclosure as an endless world of metonymy (i.e., virtual or potential) and the chain of signifiers as metaphor. Typically, subject identification relies on metaphor to escape metonymy, but since each metaphor (or signifier) is insufficient, it always requires another one. In my essay for RSA 2012, I argued that object-oriented identification precedes the metaphoric process, residing instead in the metonymic realm. But unlike metaphor, which is persuasive, metonymic or object-oriented identification is immanently suasive, or suggestive. At the level of identification, there is no direct metaphoric chain of relations either between objects or within an object. What this means is that to some degree, every object-object relation is already psychotic.

The thing about it is, though, is that no object stays within this metonymic realm. To this end, every object metaphorizes every object it relates to (this is Harman’s and Bogost’s point). So if we look at Lacan’s Discourse of the Master, the relation between the agent and the other (S1—> S2) is the metaphorical relation operating under the truth of the split-object, a local manifestation or S1 acts on its environment precisely through a reduction or singular quality. What is produced, then, is withdrawal both in the acting and reacting objects. It’s important to note, however, that this metaphorism is based on the object’s metonymic identification as groundwork. Metaphorism is not possible without metonymic identification.

Why is this important? Put simply, recognizing metonymic identification before metaphoric relation allows us to understand the autonomy of objects while also understanding them as assemblages. It is what makes sense of the following from The Democracy of Objects:
From a certain perspective it can thus be said that all objects are a crowd. Every object is populated by other objects that it enlists in maintaining its own existence. As a consequence, we must avoid reducing objects to the manner in which they are enlisted by other objects precisely because the objects enlisted are always themselves autonomous objects. Another way of putting this would be to say that there is no harmony or identity of parts and wholes Parts aren’t parts for a whole and the whole isn’t a whole for parts. Rather, what we have are relations of dependency where nonetheless parts and wholes are distinct and autonomous from one another. (217)
We cannot reduce a Cubs fan to a single metaphor (fan of a baseball team), nor can we reduce the Cubs to a single metaphor (baseball team). Instead both objects (fan and team) are metonymically identified, consisting of numerous local manifestations—the fan is also a human, male, middle-aged, father, etc. while the team consists of a number of players (each, too, with their own metonymic identifications), managers, owner, uniforms, historical past, present image, etc. But at the same time, a fan can metaphorize the Cubs in any number of ways, relating to a player, an attitude, or to the image of the Cubs organization. But this metaphorization is unique to that fan.

Instead of going the way of anarchy and trying to get rid of an overall master, perhaps a better way to understand the political implications of OOO is by multiplying the master, by explaining how every object maintains countless metaphoric master-relations simultaneously while itself resisting reduction to any single one of them. What this means then, is like its ontological status, an OOO politics is messy and psychotic. But this also means, however, that any object can resist metaphorization, or reduction by a master. The factory worker strikes when he feels as if he is being taken for granted, or his rights as an individual (metonymic object) are being denied. The terrorist attacks a business building in order to strike a blow against a perceived, repressive regime. Regardless of the violence, both actions are contingent in their results (the factory might change its internal structure or not; the terrorist attack might hurt the regime, or it might simply tighten security).

What this does for politics is, in a way, reverse the ideological critique proposed by Althusser. OOO insists that language does not pre-exist the object, and instead of society creating the ideological subject (such that the subject is born into ideology), each object of OOO should be seen as an ideological, generative machine. Nothing is produced in objects by ISAs, but through repetition or frequency of local manifestations and metaphoric relations, objects create their own ISAs. Ideologies are nothing but these metaphorical relations that attempt to reduce other objects to a single idea, thought, quality, property, or local manifestation. So we might talk about pen ideologies that attempt to reduce all relations with other objects as something on which it could write. Unlike Althusser’s ISAs, OOO ISAs are singular, emanating from individual objects. Because of this singularity of object ideological state apparatuses, the repressive state apparatuses or RSAs (i.e., heads of state, masters, sovereigns, etc.) are plural. When one object resists another object’s ISA, there are multiple offensive and defensive perturbations that could take place, each with its own contingent result, some of which could change the organization of the originary object itself.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Possibility of a Flat Ethics

​So I've been a little absent here, and for that I apologize. However, I've been pretty busy. At the end of May I presented a paper at the Rhetoric Society of America conference in Philadelphia over Object-Oriented Identification (I finally finished the point brought up by my last couple of posts...I might post my paper here soon). I was on a panel with Jim Brown Jr. and Scot Barnett, and during the Q and A session following our presentations we were asked about the possibility of an Object-Oriented ethics. I've been able to give it some thought and what follows is a rough sketch of an idea that occurred to me after the conference.

To answer the question of whether or not there can be a nonhuman or non-anthropomorphic ethics, it is important to first understand the most fundamental axiom of object-oriented ontology—that objects withdraw from all relations—for its withdrawal is also its excess. In other words, the withdrawn object is a volcanic soup of potential, waiting to be actualized. And, second, like object-oriented ontology itself, any attempt at developing an object-oriented ethics must also follow the logic of the uncanny. In this way, an object-oriented or flat ethics requires an adherence to contingency, so that what was or is could very well not be, and that was is not, could very well exist. As was stated earlier, the logic of the uncanny forces binaries to overlap, to seemingly bleed into each other without requiring the other to disappear completely. In other words, the uncanny allows there to be both appearance and withdrawal simultaneously and an interior that is also exterior.

Here, Meillassoux’s insistence on the necessity of contingency in After Finitude might be of some help. For Meillassoux, unlike the object-oriented folks, the way around correlationist thought is to “uncover an absolute necessity that does not reinstate any form of absolutely necessary entity” (34). Unlike object-oriented ontology, which insists on the necessity of the object, Meillassoux finds his necessity in contingency itself—a non-metaphysical necessity. Contingency “expresses the fact that physical laws remain indifferent as to whether an event occurs or not – they allow an entity to emerge, to subsists, or to perish” (39). In other words, by absolutizing contingency over any specific entity, Meillassoux places contradiction at the heart of being itself. Being itself becomes contingent, meaning there could just as well be something as well as there could not. But, then why is there something rather than nothing if both are possible?
For Meillassoux, contingency also requires that something exist—that there be something rather than nothing. His argument for this something, again, revolves around the necessity of contingency: Since contingency is thinkable (as an absolute), but unthinkable without the persistence of the two realms of existence and inexistence, we have to say that it is necessary that there always be this or that existent capable of not existing, and this or that inexistent capable of existing. ​ Thus the solution to the problem [of contingency] is as follows: it is necessary that there be something rather than nothing because it is necessarily contingent that there is something rather than something else. The necessity of the contingency of the entity imposes the necessary existence of the contingent entity. (emphasis in original; 76).
For Meillassoux, then, the necessity of contingency requires that there actually be something that is contingent. In order for there to be this logic of existence/nonexistence that contingency is based on, a logic that is itself uncanny, there must be something that follows such logic. Object-oriented ontology, therefore, is justified in claiming that all entities are objects but only if they abide by some sort of uncanny logic that is guided by absolute contingency. Again, what makes this possible in object-oriented ontology is the withdrawn nature of every object. As Bryant argues, “Insofar as virtual proper being is thoroughly withdrawn and never itself becomes present, it can only be inferred through the actual. It is only through tracking local manifestations and their variations that we get any sense of the dark volcanic powers harbored within objects” (281). What withdraws from all objects is precisely this absolute contingency, this uncanny volcano of potential. But what does this have to do with the ethics of such objects?

​It is only because of the necessity of the contingent and the adherence to an uncanny logic, that an object-oriented ethics can exist. Simplified, ethics require that a choice be possible and depending upon how one responds to that choice, one’s actions are deemed either ethical or unethical. Typically, these decisions are based on some sort of law (social, moral, personal, etc.). So for example, if I were faced with the choice of whether or not to save a baby from a hungry shark, my choice to save the baby at the expense of the hunger of the shark would depend upon my acceptance of some moral law(s) or social law(s). If I go against some moral or social law, I might find myself attempting to explain my unethical behavior. The problem is that such laws change over time and in between social circles, so that what might be ethical today may not have been 50 or so years ago, or what might be ethical in the United States may not be ethical in India. In this way, there is already a certain amount of contingency in human ethics.

​Most material nonhuman objects, on the other hand, do not abide by any set of moral or social laws. Instead, most are guided by physical laws. These physical laws can guide form, structure, function, and collectivity. Two hydrogen atoms seem to only bond with an oxygen molecule in a very specific way. But as Meillassoux argues, even these laws are subject to contingency, meaning “that the laws of nature could change, not in accordance with some superior hidden law…but for no cause or reason whatsoever” (83). Because of the necessity of contingency that Meillassoux argues for, physical laws (like objects) must be seen as operating in a contingent space between being one way or another. So if objects are contingent and laws are contingent, why are things not simply constantly in flux? Why is there a seeming static nature to the world?

​ The answer is rather simple, but one that seems to run throughout object-oriented thinking: because of contingency, there is always the possibility that physical laws become something other than what they are. Or, as Meillassoux puts it, requiring the necessity of contingency means not ruling out “the possibility that contingent laws might only very rarely change—so rarely indeed that no one would ever have had the opportunity to witness such a modification” (106). Again, the emphasis is on potential and contingency. Yet this contingency implies fidelity of the object to the physical law and fidelity of the law to the object. Objects act ethically to one another insofar as they stay faithful to the physical law. But since the physical law itself has the potential to be other at any time, it too has a certain fidelity to its relation with the object. In other words, a flat ethics proposes that all objects are contingent, and that any laws by which they might abide, must be understood as contingent, as well.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Metonymic Formations

Rhetoric and OOO can at times seem polar opposites. While rhetorical identification is concerned with unification and signification, OOO seems to worry about the individual substances of objects, withdrawing from any totalizing unification or signification whatsoever. But as we’ve seen in the last two posts (here and here), the two “realms” may not be so divisive. In fact, as Diane Davis’s comparison of Freudian identification to that of Burke’s has shown us, there is a form of non-symbolic persuasion that is unaccounted for in Burkean rhetoric. My aim in the following post is to use Lacan to clarify this split between nonsymbolic and symbolic action.

To say that the Lacanian subject is complex would be an understatement. However, this shouldn’t deter us from examining at least some part of Lacan’s split subject in order to better understand identification. Identification for Lacan is a two-fold process: alienation and separation.  In Rhetoric and Culture in Lacan, Gilbert D. Chaitin clearly describes the way alienation works in terms of subject-hood:
Adopted from Hegel, Marx and their interpreters, Lacan’s alienation designates the birth of the subject of language, an occurrence that is more like a stillbirth. The subject comes into existence through the discourse of the Other, when the Other…imposes a signification upon the individual, calling her to take up a particular function, investing her with a certain position in the human family or society at large…At this point the subject is confronted with the forced choice of the Lacanian vel (Latin for ‘either,’ ‘or’), which results from the interplay of subject and meaning (attributes) in the functioning of language as predication: either he chooses being , thus loosing out on meaning entirely, or he chooses the meaning imposed on him, and thereby forfeits that meaning-less aspect of signification which constitutes the unconscious (183).
This forced choice of alienation can be boiled to down to the following: either choose meaninglessness and reject language and subject-hood, or you accept the meaning of the Other, and become an instrument of the Other and having subject-hood taken away from you. Either way, you will lose subject-hood. For Lacan, the only way out of this forced choice of alienation, is to recognize a third option, that of the choice itself.
Separation, then, is this way out of the forced choice of alienation. It opens up a space of unknown meaning in signification. If alienation offered the subject an “either/or,” then in separation the subject defines his relation to the Other as a “neither/nor.” As Chaitin understands it:
Either the subject refuses language (meaning) entirely, in which case the nonsubject of psychosis results. From this point nothing further can result. Or she accepts meaning, in which case her individual being is crushed by the universalizing function of the signifier. From this “all” [present in the all or nothing choice of alienation] there is a possible way out, provided the totality of meaning can be disrupted. And that is just what separation involves: opening up a space of non-meaning within language; that is, forming an unconscious. (187)
To open this space up, the subject begins to move between signifiers, neither this one nor that one. And for Lacan, the space between signifiers is also the space of non-meaning in the desire of the Other; that is, the object cause of desire—objet petit a.

Approaching this process rhetorically, David Metzger, in The Lost Cause of Rhetoric, puts alienation and separation in terms of metonymy and metaphor, respectively. What Metzger shows is that, for Lacan, “metonymy functions as a ground for metaphor” (69). One way to understand this is to recognize that the goal of separation (or metaphor) is to temporarily choose a signifier, completing subject identification. However, as we know, Lacan has a previous step before this choice is complete—alienation (or metonymy)—which can be understood as a meaningless chain of possible signifiers. For Metzger, language and the signification of separation forces the meaningless formations of metonymy to be repressed, or given up in favor of the signifier.

What Metzger’s formation should allow us to see, though, is that before identification, we are faced with a meaningless list of things, a metonymy of stuff if you will. So the problem for object-oriented rhetoric is not how then do we identify the object, but what meaningless lists came before such an identification? And instead of asking what is that object for me, we should be asking what metonymy can we provide in order to work in a less-symbolic manner, and describe the object-for-itself?

Friday, April 13, 2012

Beyond Freudian Identification

In my last post I attempted to work through a concept of the rhetorical wrangle as the oscillation inherent in Burkean identification. For Burke, only when identification is seen as being both unification and division can it also be seen as the foundation of rhetoric. Complicating matters, Diane Davis’s work in Inessential Solidarity points to a cover-up in Burke’s definition. Placing Burke’s identification in comparison with Freud’s, Davis discovers that what is left out of Burke is any notion of a non-symbolic identification even though Burke calls for his subject to be divided (between self and other) before existing in any social relations.

On the other hand, for Freud, as Davis reads him through Borch-Jacobsen, there is a suggestiveness that cannot be accounted for when a subject is hypnotized. Suggestion, here, is best understood as an indirect persuasion. As Davis puts it, “Unlike political persuasion, suggestion is an improper rhetoric, a bastard form that induces action (or attitude) without properly persuading, a directly suasive ‘discourse’ that defies the presumed distance between self and other, evading cognitive discretion and so all possibility for deliberation” (33). For Freud, suggestion is dangerous, leading him to reject it as a form of analysis. Instead, as Davis informs us, Freud trades in the analyst’s suggestions in favor of the patients “free-associations.” However, Freud finds himself going back to hypnosuggestion to later explain group formation as a form of such suggestion—where members, before identifying as a group, identify with a leader, a father, a fuhrer (31). Suggestion exposes, then, a type of identification that is not produced by and from the self, but instead is issued by an other.

Following Davis just a little bit further, what we find in Freud is that in relation to alterity identification is at a loss. Identification fails to wholly signify the self in response to this other. And, as Davis remarks, “It is not in identification, but its failure, in the withdrawal of identity, that I am exposed to my predicament of exposedness and become capable of demonstrating concern for another finite existent” (35) The originary other that splits the subject from it’s self for Burke, is for Freud “a surplus of alterity that remains indigestible, inassimilable, unabsorbable” creating a negative, a lack that is also a surplus (34). But since, as Davis reminds us, there are no negatives in nature for Burke, what are we to make of this remainder that is not part of the symbolic?

Sadly, this is where we must break from Davis, not out of disagreement but out of necessity. For Davis’s work opens a door that we must now step through. By pointing out a non-symbolic form of identification that revolves around this non-signified other, Davis ends her discussion of Burkean identification by stating that:
[W]hat Burke censored in Freud—consciously or unconsciously—is the possibility that no flex of reason, no amount of proper critique, can secure the interpersonal distance on which Burke had pinned his hopes. According to Freud, an affectability or persuadability operates irrepressibly and below the radar of the critical faculties. (35-6)
It is the goal of the next post to explore the nature of this operation that is “below the radar” of symbolic action. In order to do this, I will have to move beyond Freud and into Lacan.

The Rhetorical Wrangle

The “rhetorical wrangle” is a phrase that only briefly appears in Kenneth Burke’s A Rhetoric of Motives, but as a concept (one that I wish to push to the fullest extent) it represents the ambiguity that Burke saw in what makes persuasion possible – i.e., identification.  On the one hand identification refers to unification, a wholeness or completeness. To be identified is to have definition as someone or something. However, on the other hand, as Burke makes extremely clear, this unification can only take place because “identification is compensatory to division” (21). In this way, identification is a consubstantial process, both joining while keeping separate. Including division as a major aspect of identification, though, allows Burke to create an oscillating binary (identification/division); but not without some ambiguity. For example, perhaps we have all had that friend who never seems to be satisfied with his job. And each time he accepts a new position, he seems to merge who he is with the job he is doing, at times self-identifying as a barista, a waiter, or a telecommunications consultant. However, there is always a point during each of these professions where division creeps in, and that friend starts to complain about feeling exploited as a worker. It is precisely at this point of uneasiness (or the hesitation between belonging and exploitation) that for Burke, “you have the characteristic invitation to rhetoric” (25). And, as if to head our questioning off at the pass, moments later Burke clarifies such an invitation, arguing that even if you believe to be working out of the purest of motives, the ambiguities of identification lead to argument. So that, no matter how “‘pure’ one’s motives may be actually, the impurities of identification lurking about the edges of such situations introduce a typical Rhetorical wrangle of the sort that can never be settled once and for all…” (26). In this way, rhetoric, for Burke, only becomes possible through the push and pull of the wrangle as an effect of identification.

Building on the ambiguities of identification and the rhetorical wrangle, Diane Davis in her book Inessential Solidarity, reminds us that for Burke, identification is settled symbolically:
According to Burke, there is no essential identity; what goes for your individual “substance” is not an essence but the incalculable totality of your complex and contradictory identifications, through which you variously (and vicariously) become able to say “I.” Like the “official” Freudian version on which it’s based, “rhetorical identification” depends on symbolic representation, on the production and intervention of meaningful figures, which Burke says are already persuasive: “whenever there is ‘meaning,’ there is ‘persuasion’” (21)
However, as Davis points out, if the self is constructed through multiple identifications, not only must we be foreign to ourselves – much in the same way our unemployable friend appears to always be playing a new role with a new identity. But, paradoxically, if identification is to only come about through shared meaning, we must also know ourselves “as and through [our] representations” in relation to an other (21). Yet it is the first split that troubles Davis. Before the rhetorical wrangle of identification ever takes place, Burke has set up a prior division (and possible identification) between self and other. For Burke, Davis argues, “the division between self and other is the ‘state of nature’ that is identification’s motivating force: identification’s job is to transcend this natural state of division, and rhetoric’s job is identification” (22). Here, identification (and by default rhetoric, as well) becomes mixed up with desire. As a separate organism, the human for Burke, is individuated. Yet, as a symbol using animal, the human becomes, in Burke’s words, “homo dialecticus.”

Homo dialecticus is a split subject, both self and other, desiring to belong. For Davis, “Essentially enclosed and alienated, [Burke’s] homo dialecticus already desires to transcend this state of nature—‘[b]iologically, it is of the essence of man to desire”—and is ontologically equipped to do so via the inborn powers of his or her imagination” (23). So while Burke maintains individuality among human persons, he immediately places these already desiring individuals into a complex network of identifications and rhetorical wrangle of shared meanings. What Burke implies but avoids ever saying, as Davis sees it, is that “identification can no longer be understood as an identification of one with another, at least not at first, since it would necessarily precede the very distinction between self and other” (26). And this prior identification lends itself to a rhetoricity or “affectability or persuadability that is at work prior to and in excess of any shared meaning” (26). Does this mean, then, that there is a possibility for a nonsybmolic action?