The Decorum of Objects

Image credit: “Putney Oscillator” by peff


I’ll be attending the University of South Carolina Conference on Rhetorical Theory in mid-October. This is a unique conference for a couple of reasons. For one, the conference invites a small number of scholars (about 35) from various disciplines to discuss contemporary issues in rhetorical theory. But the conference also organizes invitees into working groups, and those groups discuss a topic prior to the conference. During the summer, working groups conducted discussions virtually, and each attendee was tasked with composing a position paper. Those papers were submitted last week, and they will all be published at the conference website. Presentations at the conference are not papers but are rather brief reflections on these position papers. This last part is what I’m most excited about: No snoozing through the reading of papers. We’ll have actual conversations.

I am participating in the “Relations” working group along with Steve Mailloux, Diane Davis, Erin Rand, and Kelly Happe. Going into the summer, I was not sure what I’d address in my position paper, but in the course of our virtual discussions I found myself gravitating toward discussions of Object-Oriented Rhetoric. If our group was going to think through rhetoric’s relations, then it seemed appropriate to ask whether rhetoric could have anything to say about the relations between non-human objects.

So, my position paper continues the conversation about how the insights of speculative realism might affect the world of rhetorical theory. This is very much a first attempt for me, and I’m already seeing things I’d like to rework and revise. Given some more space (these are supposed to be relatively short papers), I would have incorporated Tim Morton’s discussion of delivery and object-oriented rhetoric (see his essay “Sublime Objects” in Speculations II) along with various other work on OOR.

But enough with the caveats. I’m including my position paper below. It’s entitled “The Decorum of Objects,” and it will also soon be available at the conference website.

For those who’d prefer not to scroll, here it is in pdf form.



The Decorum of Objects

In recent years, a number of rhetoricians have drawn upon work in speculative realist philosophy in order to build an object-oriented rhetoric (OOR). That OOR would, among other things, attempt to account for the rhetorical relations amongst objects. Though speculative realist philosophies continue to proliferate (indeed, it is often difficult to fit all of these thinkers under one umbrella), they all share one common project: they attempt to grapple with what Quentin Meillassoux calls correlationism. Correlationist thought relies upon “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 one another” (5). Meillassoux’s correlationist argues that “we cannot represent the ‘in itself’ without it becoming ‘for us’, or as Hegel amusingly put it, we cannot ‘creep up on’ the object ‘from behind’ so as to find out what it is in itself” (4). Speculative realism is searching for a way to combat the correlationist argument and account for how objects exist, persist, and relate regardless of “human access.” But these philosophers all have very different ways of grappling with the problem. As Graham Harman, who coined the term “Object-Oriented Philosophy,” puts it:

Please note that the speculative realists don’t even agree about what is wrong with correlationism! For example, what Meillassoux hates about correlationism is its commitment to ‘finitude,’ the notion that absolute knowledge of any sort is impossible. But he doesn’t mind the correlationist view that ‘we can’t think an X outside of thought without thinking it, and thereby we cannot escape the circle of thought.’ (He simply wants to radicalize this predicament and extract absolute knowledge from it…) By contrast, I see the problem with correlationism as the exact opposite. I don’t mind the finitude part, which seems inevitable to me. What I hate instead is the idea that the correlational circle (‘can’t think an unthought X without turning it into an X that is thought’) is valid. I see it as flimsy.’ (Harman, “brief SR/OOO tutorial”) [1]

This paper will not attempt to review and compare all of these philosophical arguments. Instead, my hope is to use the questions raised by the speculative realists to continue the task of theorizing OOR. Rhetoricians such as Scot Barnett, Jennifer Bay, Thomas Rickert, Byron Hawk, and others have already begun this task (Barnett; Hawk; Bay & Rickert). This paper is an attempt to continue the conversation.

Given this work in speculative realism, rhetoricians are asking: What might rhetoric have to say about the relations between objects? Rhetorical studies has had a great deal to say about the human-to-human relationship and the human-to-world relationship, but how often have we tackled the question of how objects relate to one another. Do objects persuade one another? Do they identify with one another? Is it possible to speak of rhetorical exchanges between objects? OOR as I’m discussing it here would build a vocabulary for understanding relations amongst all objects (humans included). This project is, for me, a thought experiment in the best way. It is speculation. It is an exercise in dissoi logoi. But it is also much more than this. It is an attempt to provide a richer understanding of what Jenny Edbauer-Rice calls “rhetorical ecologies” (Edbauer). It is an attempt to account for the persuasions and identifications that are happening all around us, in strange conversations that we may or may not be able to understand.

And so, my aim is to account for what I call the decorum of objects. Rhetoricians have had much to say about how speech or writing might be best fit to a particular occasion. My aim is to ask whether objects can be thought of in a similar light. If a rhetor chooses amongst various possibilities and fits her discourse to the situation, then perhaps we might consider how objects conduct themselves in particular ways for particular occasions. In the terms of Richard Lanham, I am attempting to account for how objects (human or otherwise) shift between “attitudinal worlds.” To do this, I turn not only to speculative philosophy but to Lanham, who used the notion of decorum in his discussion of “the electronic word.” Lanham’s discussion of the digital is no doubt dated. Further, it would seem odd that I turn to Lanham, who is nothing if not a humanist. He is interested in “the electronic word” because it offers humans a model for rhetorical education. Still, Lanham’s discussion of bi-stable decorum (what he calls oscillatio) and the electronic word presents a starting point for thinking about the decorum of objects.


Oscillatio and Objects

Writing in 1993, Richard Lanham was hopeful that digital technology could help humanists offer a strong defense of rhetoric. That strong defense would offer a convincing answer to what Lanham calls “The ‘Q’ Question” (named after Quintilian, it’s most famous non-answerer): Is the perfect orator also a good person? Lanham argues that the history of rhetoric is littered with weak answers to this question and, therefore, weak defenses of rhetoric.  Those weak defenses typically argue that there is good rhetoric and bad rhetoric.  Mine is good; theirs is bad.  For Lanham, this weak defense makes rhetoric ornamental—something one hangs on their argument in order to make it persuasive and/or ethical.  And he argues that we need a strong defense of rhetoric, one that recognizes how rhetoric creates truths and realities.  The True is not “out there” prior to rhetorical action. Rather, truths are created by rhetorical action.  Thus, a rhetorical education would not teach content (Great Books). It would teach a method of understanding how rhetorical realities are created.  For Lanham, the electronic word offered hope that such a rhetorical education (one that had fallen out of favor after rhetoric’s various restrictions and banishments) could be revived.

Lanham argues that the manipulation of text on screen reminds us of how the electronic word draws attention to itself, forcing us to look AT it and THROUGH it. This toggling of AT (noticing surfaces and style) and THROUGH (reading for meaning) is, for Lanham, what a rhetorical education has always offered, a method that trains us to constantly shift between “attitudinal worlds” (6). Lanham does not argue that technology has created this situation. Rather, the electronic word has reminded us of what was always there. Still, his focus is on digital technologies. Lanham’s book, The Electronic Word, plays with fonts and typefaces to make this point, and it’s important to remember that the essay was first published in 1988. Lanham’s discussion of the electronic word is certainly dated. But his notion of AT/THROUGH or oscillatio still resonates today. In fact, he continues to make use of the concept in a more recent work entitled The Economics of Attention. [2]

But while Lanham discusses oscillatio in terms of how humans learn to shift between attitudinal worlds, he also opens up the possibility that oscillatio describes how all objects behave. That is, Lanham’s discussion of technology allows us to theorize the decorum of objects. An example: Lanham sees digital textbooks as promising “not the spindled mutilation that the sixties feared but an incredible personalization of learning, a radical democratization of ‘textbooks’ that allows every student to walk an individual path” (10). That is, Lanham’s digital textbook would shift between attitudinal worlds depending upon the student—it would deploy algorithms so that it might toggle amongst possibilities, adapting its discourse to its audience. And while this example still involves the relationship between technology and human interactor, I would like to make the speculative leap that considers how digital technologies would practice this same oscillatio in their relations with non-human objects. Throughout The Electronic Word, Lanham describes his “bi-stable decorum” of oscillatio as something that digital technologies do. That is, Lanham argues that the objects themselves oscillate: “A text or painting can present itself as ‘realistic,’ a transparent window to a preexisting world beyond…or it can present itself frankly as an invention, as pure fantasy…The object will invite a certain [reading] but we can decline the invitation [and] ‘read’ a fantasy as if it were a realistic description of a world as yet unknown, if we like” (14). It seems that oscillatio is not easily situated on the human side of the circuit.

It is unlikely Lanham would grant that such oscillatio happens in relations between non-human objects, and I am not trying to put words in his mouth. Instead, I am trying to follow a path that he opens up but does not pursue: If Lanham’s AT/THROUGH oscillation happens in the human’s encounter with the electronic word, then how much of this oscillation can be attributed to the technology and how much to the human? Oscillatio could be situated purely on the human side of this relationship, it could be posited as a purely technological, or it could be conceived as an emergent property of the encounter between human and technology. But the possibility that I’d like to pursue here is that oscillatio is everwhere at once. That is, it describes the existence of any object, human or otherwise. This is Graham Harman’s argument when he describes all objects as “tool-beings.” Drawing on Heidegger’s famous tool analysis, Harman argues that Heidegger’s discussion of technology as “present-to-hand” and “ready-to-hand” is not just a trait of “equipment.” Instead, it is generalizable to all objects. Heidegger’s tool analysis is typically interpreted to mean that a tool is ready-to-hand while we are using it and present-to-hand when it breaks down. We can easily put this in Lanham’s terms: a text is ready-to-hand when we are reading it for meaning and present-to-hand when we notice its surface or style. But Harman provides a different reading of the tool analysis:

The key result of Heidegger’s analysis of tools is not that ‘equipment becomes invisible when serving remote human purposes’…the crucial insight has nothing to do with the human handling of tools; instead the transformation takes place on the side of the tools. Equipment is not effective ‘because people use it’; on the contrary, it can only be used because it is capable of an effect, of inflicting some kind of blow on reality. In short, the tool isn’t ‘used’—it is. (Tool-Being 20)

For Harman, all objects (including humans) move between present-to-hand (AT) and ready-to-hand (THROUGH). This means that all relations involve objects, which “withdraw” from one another: “All individual beings withdraw into the contexture of equipment, where they execute their cryptic reality” (Tool-Being 68). If both humans and technologies shift amongst attitudinal worlds, looking AT and THROUGH other objects, then we need not decide who owns oscillatio. Instead, we might take this as an opportunity conceive of a flat ontology, one in which the human is but one entity that engages in decorous activity. And if the electronic word exposes a bi-stable decorum that, in Lanham’s words, “happened everywhere else first,” then we know it’s not only about digital media (302). Lanham himself would grant this, for he is always offering historical precedents to his bi-stable decorum (from the Futurists to environmental artist Christo Javacheff). But there is something else we might draw from Lanham’s discussion: the bi-stable oscillation of decorum is not situated solely the domain of the human. It defines all tool-beings.



But positing a flat ontology in which humans are one object among many is only one part of theorizing OOR. The question still remains: How would one do OOR? And how would they do it without falling back into correlationism? In his forthcoming book, Alien Phenomenology, Ian Bogost offers us one possibility. Bogost admits that the speculative realist philosophies of Harman and others are difficult to put into practice. These theoriests are focused on first principles and have not focused on ways to do speculative realist metaphysics. Bogost is interested in pursuing the latter. He is seeking a “pragmatic speculative realism, not in the Jamesian sense, but more softly: an applied speculative realism, an object-oriented engineering to ontology’s physics” (34). This is not to say that Bogost is willing to skip past the problem of correlationism. Like other speculative realists, Bogost insists on attempting to understand the relations between objects without reducing those relations to human access. However, he also grants that our attempts to do so will mean that we can only ever trace “the exhaust of [objects’] effects on the surrounding world” (113-4). When pursuing the relations between objects, we do not find “thin, flat plate of glass onto which a layer of molten aluminum has been vacuum-sprayed” but rather “a funhouse mirror made of hammered metal, whose distortions show us a perversion of a unit’s sensibilities” (36).

Most importantly, understanding the relations between objects requires more than watching, listening, and reporting. It requires tinkering, or what Bogost refers to as carpentry:

The phenomenologist who performs carpentry creates a machine that tries to replicate the unit operation of another’s experience. Like a space probe sent out to record, process, and report information, the alien phenomenologist’s carpentry seeks to capture and characterize an experience it can never fully understand, offering a rendering satisfactory enough to allow the artifact’s operator to gain some insight into an alien thing’s experience.” (114)

As a videogame designer, Bogost’s brand of carpentry is computer programming. But this is only one possibility. The materials are less important than the practice itself. Rhetorical carpentry would construct objects (and conversations among objects) in order to demonstrate approximations of the strange, alien conversations happening around us.

And so perhaps the best way to begin an investigation into the conversations amongst objects is to make those conversations happen. An object reveals itself and conceals itself, and observing this oscillatio is one important part of understanding objects. But this is only the first step. By engaging with objects and putting them into relation with one another (and by understanding that we are enmeshed in this process rather than in charge of it) we can consider how objects act differently in different rhetorical situations. In a sense, this is counter-intuitive. An attempt to model object-to-object relations (conversations between, say, between falling rain and the basil plant in my back yard) would require inserting ourselves into that conversation. This is not a removal of the human by any means. Rhetorical carpentry would be conducted in a way that paid close attention to how objects relate to, persuade, or identify with one another.

If all objects, humans included, exist by way of oscillatio, perhaps carpentry offers a way forward for OOR. This approach would offer a better account of how objects shift amongst attitudinal worlds and adapt to situations. It would attempt to understand how objects act upon one another in unpredictable ways, interlocking and releasing, oscillating and diverging in unpredictable ways. The project of rhetoric has always been tied up with trying to understand the attitudes and motives of others. In this sense, OOR is not controversial at all.


[1] One of the turn-offs of speculative realist philosophy (at least for me) is the insistence on bold, macho, and (often) abrasive arguments. Harman’s discussion of what he “hates” about correlationism should not be taken too seriously, but it is an example of the kinds of bombastic claims that define much of the speculative realist discussion (in the blogosphere, in books, and in journals). Then again, it’s entirely possible that this tone is a response to being accused over and over again of being a naïve realist.

[2] We can also see echoes of Lanham in Katherine Hayles recent discussion of “hyper attention” and “deep attention.” For Hayles, digital technologies are exposing a generational shift in cognitive modes: “Deep attention, the cognitive style traditionally associated with the humanities, is characterized by concentrating on a single object for long periods (say, a novel by Dickens), ignoring outside stimuli while so engaged, preferring a single information stream, and having a high tolerance for long focus times. Hyper attention is characterized by switching focus rapidly among different tasks, preferring multiple information streams, seeking a high level of stimulation, and having a low tolerance for boredom” (187). Hayles argues that younger generations are finding it easier to operate in environments that cater to hyper attention, but educational systems are still very much invested in teaching modes of deep attention.

Works Cited


Barnett, Scot. “Toward an Object-Oriented Rhetoric.” Enculturation 2010. 8 Sept 2011.

Bay, Jennifer, and Thomas Rickert. “New Media and the Fourfold.” JAC 28.1-2 : 207-244. Print.

Bogost, Ian. Alien Phenomenology: or What It’s Like to Be a Thing. University of Minnesota Press, 2012. Print. (forthcoming)

Edbauer, Jenny. “Unframing Models of Public Distribution: From Rhetorical Situation to Rhetorical Ecologies.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 35.4: 5-24. Print.

Harman, Graham. Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects. Open Court, 2002. Print.

Harman, Graham. “brief SR/OOO tutorial.” Object-Oriented Philosophy. 8 Sept 2011.

Hawk, Byron. A Counter-History of Composition: Toward Methodologies of Complexity. 1st ed. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2007. Print.

Lanham, Richard A. The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts. University Of Chicago Press, 1995. Print.

Meillassoux, Quentin, Alain Badiou, and Ray Brassier. After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency. Continuum, 2010. Print.


  1. Posted September 12, 2011 at 7:50 pm | #

    An interesting piece Jim. I’m looking forward to see what you make of it. I haven’t read Ian’s book yet, but the carpentry approach makes sense for rhetoric. Your passing example of the rain and the plant raises a number of questions for me. Likely the plant can sense the water and respond to that information. Is the plant making a choice? Is it persuaded by the water? Where, if anywhere, would we locate agency? Of course the problem becomes more pressing if we’re talking about the rain and dirt. Is thought or agency necessary for rhetorical relations? If so, do we move toward panpsychism? Put differently, do all object relations involve rhetoric? I suppose the way I’ve been thinking about this is to suggest that rhetorical relations are those that are productive of thought/agency. Perhaps that just defers the problem onto how one defines thought or agency, but that’s where I am. I don’t believe we need to answer these questions in advance. To the contrary, that’s the research, right? Going out there and investigating these rhetorical relations. Good luck with it.

  2. Anonymous
    Posted September 13, 2011 at 12:57 am | #

    Thanks, Alex. I’ve been struggling with bringing OOP into rhetoric, mostly because I keep getting stuck on “application” (and, thus, coming back up against the problem/predicament of correlationism). So, Ian’s Carpentry and his discussion of “exhaust” help me a great deal. In fact, “exhaust” is much the same way Diane talks about tracing the encounter with the other in Inessential Solidarity (I’ll be interested to see if she sees that parallel).

    Do all object relations involve rhetoric? That’s an interesting question. I guess my argument above would suggest an answer of “yes.” If all objects oscillate and if oscillatio is rhetorical activity par excellence, then all relations are rhetorical. But I’m not quite ready to make that leap yet. And yes, doing the research is the thing. And this will determine whether OOR gets any traction. To this point, the focus has been on describing the research program. Now, it’s time to do the research. If the RSA proposal that Nathan Gale, Scot Barnett, and I have proposed gets accepted, we’ll get a chance to show what “doing” OOR looks like.

    What I like about the carpentry approach is that it offers rhetoricians a way forward that very much fits with what we already do. It’s about production and it’s about trying to understand the motives of another. To me, these are great points of intersection, and they suggest that OOR doesn’t have to be seen as a radical break (even if it is raising new questions).

  3. dmf
    Posted September 13, 2011 at 1:51 am | #

    “offering a rendering satisfactory enough to allow the artifact’s
    operator to gain some insight into an alien thing’s experience.”

    in Ian’s carpentry how do we know if we have even come close to an alien(‘s) experience, what would we measure it against and how, “satisfactory” to whom/what?

  4. Anonymous
    Posted September 13, 2011 at 3:04 am | #

    We don’t know if we’ve come close. I suspect he would say that all we can do is grant that there are relations amongst non-human objects and then attempt alien phenomenology via carpentry. I suspect this is why he speaks of “exhaust” and “funhouse mirrors.” We are always at a remove from this experience, but we do what we can to build models that might approximate it. But all of the questions you’re asking are good ones, particularly for the rhetorician. How do we know if we’ve come close? We test it out against other models, evaluate, and keep building.

    How would one know if they’ve come close to any other’s experience, non-human or human? Rhetoric has always attempted to understand the motives of others, and it has always fallen short of arriving at *the* answer. Still, the project of examining the oscillations of others goes on.

  5. dmf
    Posted September 13, 2011 at 11:25 am | #

    not sure that there is ever “the” answer of why say humans do anything, but I would assume that coordination/manipulation of future behaviors is more the work of rhetoric than trying to sort out past causality, no?
    isn’t conversation the point more than archeological minded versions of psychoanalysis?

  6. Posted September 13, 2011 at 12:01 pm | #

    Carpentry is likely rhetorical. That is, the construction of artifacts that do alien phenomenology make “material arguments” about a particular object’s experience. Those arguments take different forms, some of them extra-linguistic and even extra-symbolic. They also mount evidence of different kinds, such as the observed results of particular object behaviors (the exhaust) that offer suggestions as to the objects’ withdrawn, inner logics. 

    But yes, fundamentally, the withdrawal of objects means that we don’t know if we’ve come close. That’s the speculative part.

  7. Anonymous
    Posted September 13, 2011 at 12:46 pm | #

    It’s probably useful to draw a line between “rhetoric” as an activity and Rhetoric as a discipline (or field). The former may be about “coordination/manipulation of future behaviors,” and this would be the realm of the rhetor. But the rhetorician is also interested in “trying to sort out past causality.” This is what rhetorical analysis does: It works through how motives and identifications have shaped rhetorical situations. So, OOR’s intervention would not just be about the creation of arguments in order to coordinate future behaviors. It would also be relevant to those interested in the history of rhetoric, political rhetorics, digital rhetorics, etc. These are only a few of the various interests of the rhetorician.

  8. dmf
    Posted September 13, 2011 at 1:53 pm | #

    thanks for the guiding hand here, but isn’t the ‘test’ in some literal sense to be found in a reply/response to come and how we then make use of them to make sense, make our way forward? I would think that this is not unlike Rorty/Davidson’s sense of constructing living metaphors that may or may not enter/shape wider public discourse/interactions. I have been thinking of these kinds of perspicuous presentations in terms of prototypes instead of archetypes is this along the pragmatist lines of alien phenomenology?

  9. dmf
    Posted September 13, 2011 at 2:03 pm | #

    ok but isn’t even historical work about coordinating/shaping the behaviors of related communities of interpreters/users?  not sure how we get too far away from a jamesian/pragmatist sense of “satisfactory”, good enough for who/what?

  10. Anonymous
    Posted September 13, 2011 at 7:16 pm | #

    It all depends on audience and the particulars of the study, as far as I’m concerned. A specific example: I’m working on a project that uses OOR to discuss the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. This is part of a conference proposal for the Rhetoric Society of America conference. All of the folks on our panel will be looking at the history of the bridge via OOR, how engineers and architects fought over its design, etc. A traditional approach in rhetorical studies would be to analyze how people talked about the bridge. An OOR approach would ask different questions. My presentation will look at how the bridge’s architect, Paul Cret, conceived of the bridge as a collaboration amongst materials – stone and steel have different “spirits” for Cret, and he was collaborating with these materials to build the bridge. Cret was *doing* OOR when designing the bridge, attempting to make sense of what it is like to *be* stone or steel and also trying to craft a structure (carpentry) that expressed an alien existence.
    All of this is speculation. All of this is just an attempt to ask different questions and tell different stories. Good enough for who/what is *always* the question. As a rhetorician, I don’t see this as a problem to get around. I see it as a starting point. In other words, rhetoric is first philosophy. Any conversation (not just conversations about OOR or OOP or OOO) will have to be grounded in a “satisfactory” zone of good enough, but that ground will shift depending on audience, context, changing facts, etc.

  11. dmf
    Posted September 13, 2011 at 8:18 pm | #

    “Any conversation (not just conversations about OOR or OOP or OOO) will
    have to be grounded in a “satisfactory” zone of good enough, but that
    ground will shift depending on audience, context, changing facts, etc.”

    indeed (I would say that there is no other to rhetoric, or as Isabelle Stengers might say “interest”) but how does this fit into OOO as opposed to fitting (making use of) OOO in/to this?  yes, all this is speculation, we are making it up as we go, such is life no?
    thanks for your hospitality

  12. Posted September 13, 2011 at 9:52 pm | #

    I don’t really require that kind of usefulness or Rortian/Davidsonian pragmatism. It’s enough for me just to think about objects. That certainly doesn’t foreclose the potential application of this approach, but it’s also not a requirement. I mean “pragmatist” in a very mundane sense: allowing us to talk about particular objects, not just at the first principles level.

  13. dmf
    Posted September 14, 2011 at 12:51 am | #

    I see , for me thinking (and the tools/units that make it possible)  about is a use/end whether or not we follow up on it in other ways/assemblages, and of course if we choose to share our thoughts with others…
    safe travels

  14. Scot Barnett
    Posted September 15, 2011 at 5:05 pm | #

    Thanks for posting this, Jim. I really like where you’re going with this. And I especially like the connections you draw between Lanham, Harman, and Bogost. This sentence in particular is pure gold, man: “Rhetorical carpentry would construct objects (and conversations among objects) in order to demonstrate approximations of the strange, alien conversations happening around us.” Love it! I can’t wait to read Ian’s book.

    My main question at this point, though, gets back to the audience thing. I can see a reader–let’s say a skeptical reader–coming away from this and asking: Nice thought experiment, but why exactly would we want to go down the OOR road? Obviously, you only have so much space to present your position here, but I’m coming to believe that this question is really the one we need to push early and often. Our attempt at “doing OOR” for our RSA panel is, I think, one potential response to the question. But I still feel like we need more. In Free Culture, Lessig notes that his failure to successfully argue against copyright law before the Supreme Court stemmed from his inability to articulate “the harm” copyright commits on culture and creativity. So, I guess what I’m asking is: what’s the harm that OOR is responding to? Why go down this road in the first place, except to show that it’s possible?

    Again, lots of answers to this question. One, in my view, concerns ethics: by agreeing to “address” beings as tool-beings, we agree, in a Heideggerian sense, to let the other be. In this sense, OOR, perhaps, promises one of the boldest responses to date to instrumentalism and, paradoxically, the tendency to objectify beings–humans and nonhumans alike.

    Regardless of how we individually respond to the “harm question,” I think we need to be prepared at the very least to speak to that question. If nothing else, then for readers who will naturally remain skeptical of anything resembling OOR.

  15. Anonymous
    Posted September 15, 2011 at 5:23 pm | #

    Thanks, Scot.

    I agree that the question of “harm” is an important one. In fact, the responses to my line of questioning in the working group has already elicited these questions: What’s at stake in developing an OOR? Why would we want to do this? In addition, some members of the group have openly stated their “discomfort” with a discussion of rhetoric outside the realm of the human.

    And I also agree that an answer (for me, the most important answer) to this question has to do with ethics. As I say at the end of the paper, rhetoric has always attended to the motives of the other. OOR suggests that we extend that project to the non-human realm. I think Levi’s new book should help as well…especially given rhetoric’s relationship to “democracy” (vexed as it is).

  16. Scot Barnett
    Posted September 15, 2011 at 6:02 pm | #

    Yeah–I heard you gesturing toward ethics at the end. Should be interesting to hear Diane’s response. I, for one, think there’s some connections to be made between her work–and the work she draws on–and the kind of ethics OOO opens the way to. 

  17. Nathan Gale
    Posted September 15, 2011 at 8:38 pm | #


    I really like what you’re doing here with Lanham, Harman, and especially Bogost’s new book.

    And I wonder if the notion of *receptivity* might help in answering this question of “harm.” If we couch the discussion in terms of alterity, I would argue (along with Jane Bennett) that in allowing ourselves to be “open to the surprising nature of things” we are forced to see ourselves as both human and nonhuman. Or, in Burkean terms, we find in ourselves moments of motion coupling, linking, or assembling with moments of action. So for example, the Texas heat takes its toll on my car air conditioning until one morning it breaks. Driving to a job interview, I’m now not only nervous because of the interview, but I’m also sweaty and perhaps a little overheated. If we look at this example in terms of motion/action, we begin to see that the air conditioner (motion) could very well influence my interview (action), which in turn could make my stomach even more nervous and queasy (motion), causing me to perform poorly at my interview (action).

    If I had to answer the “harm” question, then, it would go something like this: If motion influences action, and action in turn has an effect on motion, by not being open to the surprising nature of things, we are attempting to do rhetoric in a vacuum (i.e., rhetoric as it happens only between human subjects) by turning a blind eye to the objects that make up the rhetorical scene. Instead, rhetoric occurs among the desks, the garbage, and the pollution of a busy city street. Each of these objects has their own rhythm by which they affect each other but also by which they affect us.

    Anyway, keep it up. I can’t wait to see how you connect all of these thoughts with the BFB.

  18. Anonymous
    Posted September 16, 2011 at 1:55 pm | #

    This is a great answer to the “harm” question:

    If motion influences action, and action in turn has an effect on motion, by not being open to the surprising nature of things, we are attempting to do rhetoric in a vacuum (i.e., rhetoric as it happens only between human subjects) by turning a blind eye to the objects that make up the rhetorical scene. Instead, rhetoric occurs among the desks, the garbage, and the pollution of a busy city street. Each of these objects has their own rhythm by which they affect each other but also by which they affect us.

    And I think I’ll cite it at the conference!

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  1. By The Decorum of Objects « Object-Oriented Philosophy on September 12, 2011 at 2:32 pm

    […] at Clinamen posts HIS FORTHCOMING CONFERENCE PAPER on object-oriented rhetoric. I’ve only had time to scan it, since I’ve just returned […]

  2. […] James Brown has a good piece discussing his thoughts on object-oriented rhetoric. He brings in two key concepts, Lanham's concept of the oscillation between looking at/through a text, and Bogost's carpentry, from his forthcoming Alien Phenomenology. Of Bogost, Brown writes […]

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