Paul Cret and the Decorum of Objects

For this year’s Rhetoric Society of America conference, I organized a panel called “Object-Oriented Rhetoric: The Case of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge.” Scot Barnett and Nathan Gale joined me on that panel, and we attempt to perform (rather than describe) an object-oriented rhetoric by focusing on a particular object, Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Bridge (this year’s conference took place in Philadelphia). The panel went well, and the Q&A afterwards was helpful. Below is both a video of my presentation and a text version.  Apologies for the frog in my throat at the beginning. Also, if it seems like I’m yelling, it’s because we were in a fairly large room.




Let’s listen to Henry Petroski’s description of the cables that run the length of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge:

Each cable was spun in place and was made up of 20,000 individual steel wires, which meant that the spinning operation had to handle almost twice as many strands as on any previously built suspension-bridge project. When compacted, the finished cables measured 30 inches in diameter, which made them half again as large as any then built. (410)

And now to Jonathan Farnham’s description of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge’s anchorages:

Each 200,000-ton anchorage receives the two cables from the adjacent tower and redirects them downward over an H-shaped silicon steel cable bent to a field of eyebars. The eyebars are secured to the reinforced concrete mass and, through caissons, to the bedrock of ground. (266)

These are not really examples of ontography, but they indicate the difficulties of an ontographic approach. As Nate has explained, via Ian Bogost, ontography is “the revelation of object relationships without necessarily offering clarification or description of any kind.” Petroski and Farnham are not committed to “latour litany” approach or to Matthew Fuller’s paratactic lists. They are, in fact, offering clarification.

But these descriptions do show us how language strains against the effort to capture the relations between cable and bridge deck or between anchorage and bedrock. Language is only one tool, and we know it is an imperfect one. What other tools do we have to account for such relations, and what would such tools have to do with rhetoric? This is the question I’d like to address in the next 15 minutes.



Richard Lanham argues that the rhetorical paideia allows us to oscillate between looking AT texts (noticing style and surface) and THROUGH them (reading for meaning). Classically, the decorous style allows us to look through it. But Lahham aims for something more fluid, a bi-stable decorum that involves the ability to oscillate between AT and THROUGH, to shift attitudinal worlds. A rhetorical education cultivates this ability. 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. 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 only on the human side of the circuit. 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” (looking AT) and “ready-to-hand” (looking THROUGH) is not only about a human’s perception of a tool:

The key result of Heidegger’s analysis of tools is not that ‘equipment becomes invisible when serving remote human purposes’…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. (20)

For Harman, all objects (including humans) move between present-to-hand (AT) and ready-to-hand (THROUGH). 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 to use bi-stable decorum to describe all relations.


‘The spirit of steel is not the spirit of stone’

In his account of Paul Cret’s architectural work on the Delaware River Bridge, Jonathan Farnham explains that the Bridge was built in the midst of a battle between engineers and architects. The architect, argued the engineer, could not stop looking backward, relying on classical forms instead of building a contemporary style. “Battle” is perhaps not the best word, for it was engineers who seemed to be landing the most blows. In fact, even architects noticed the problem. Henry Van Brunt presents an example of this self critique:

“With the distractions furnished by his familiarity with history he cannot adjust himself to his own environment with the frankness and naïveté by which the masters of the classic and medieval times developed architectural style. In this respect, the modern engineer enjoyes a distinct advantage over his brother, the modern architect.” (260)

Paul Cret disagreed with this caricature, but he did insist that collaboration between the architect and the engineer was essential. For Cret, that collaboration would couple remembering with forgetting, historical form with contemporary aesthetics.

But in addition to making this argument in print, Cret presented the Delaware River Bridge, his collaboration with engineer Ralph Modjeski, as an argument in itself. Specifically, the bridge’s anchorages stand as an argument in the form of an object. In his print arguments that architects collaborate with engineers, Cret argued that the architect “cannot allow himself to forget…that the ‘spirit’ of steel is not the ‘spirit’ of stone” (Farnham 263). The anchorages demonstrate this concern, linking the steel towers with massive stone structures. Most importantly, Cret allows the materials to stand separate even as they work together, not allowing the architecture to be collapsed into engineering (or vice versa). The anchorages stand tall against the current of the Delaware river, but they are also the site of a fierce struggle between the cables and bedrock. As Modjeski explained the anchorages “are probably more difficult to design than any other part of the structure…They must remain immovable under the uplifting and horizontal sliding efforts to which they are subjected” (266).

The anchorages are simultaneously tool and sculpture, and this is not only because we humans look AT and THROUGH them. It is also because stone and steel “look” AT and THROUGH one another (or in Harman’s terms, withdraw from one another), doing a delicate dance to ensure that cars and pedestrians remain suspended over the Delaware River. Assistant engineer for the bridge, Clement E. Chase, described the anchorages as “patient giants, passive participants in an endless tug-of-war” (Farnham 267). As Farnham explains, these anchorages are Cret’s argument for collaboration:

“He dressed each anchorage in a rough granite costume, translating it from a concrete and steel machine to a granite house. Transforming the technological device into an architectural form that elicited as well as de-pended upon memories, he shaped an anchorage that resisted not only the pull of the cables but also the passage of time” (267).

Not everyone was willing to be persuaded. Artist Joseph Pennell called the bridge “the ugliest bridge in the world” and master bridge engineer Gustav Lindenthal thought the anchorages were designed “too much on the utilitarian principle of braced telegraph poles or derricks, holding up ropes” (Petroski 409). Maybe this inability to please both engineer and artist only demonstrates Cret’s success. In fact, such arguments push against descriptions of the bridge in terms of “beautiliy,” both beautiful and useful. For Cret’s anchorages do not show objects collapsing into one another. Instead, they remain separate or, again Harman’s term, “vacuum sealed.” Cret combined steel and stone (engineering and architecture) without allowing either to swallow the other.



Do objects persuade one another? Do they identify with one another? How could we know? We need not turn to philosophy for ways to consider this question. In fact, we need only turn to Diane’s Inessential Solidarity, a text that attempts to account for the address of the other, an address that overwhelms. As Levinas explains in Totality and Infinity, the other always “brings me more than I can contain.” The truly other arrives without mediation, and this presents methodological problems. As Diane argues:

The task here—to expose a solidarity that precedes symbolicity—cannot be accomplished through representation (alone), through tireless exegesis, the constative work of describing and explicating. (15)

She goes on to say that this work of explicating must, of course, happen. But she also points to the limits of language in tracing our contact with the other. This is one version of a larger problem: How do we account for the relations between any two objects? One way to address this problem is by asking yet another question: What if we augmented our primary tool—language—with other ways of doing rhetoric? Perhaps this is what Paul Cret gives us with the anchorages of the Benjamin Franklin bridge.

In Alien Phenomenology, Bogost suggests that understanding the relations between objects requires more than watching, listening, and reporting. It requires more than language. It requires tinkering, or what Bogost refers to as carpentry:

In the context of alien phenomenology, ‘carpentry’ borrows from two sources.
First, it extends the ordinary sense of woodcraft to any material whatsoever–to do carpentry is to make anything, but to make it in earnest, with one’s own hands, like a cabinetmaker. Second, it folds into this act of construction Graham Harman’s philosophical sense of ‘the carpentry of things,’ an idea Harman borrowed in turn from Alphonso Lingis. Both Lingis and Harman use that phrase to refer to the ways things fashion one another and the world at large.

Carpentry here is both about humans making things and about nonhumans fashioning one another. Bogost suggests that carpentry offers an alternative to attempts to render object relations in language, and it is another way to deal with the straining of language that we discussed at the beginning of this presentation. I should say that I’m stretching Bogost’s notion of carpentry just a bit here by suggesting that Cret as a carpenter. Cret was not position girders or cables with his own hands. Further, a more complete use of this theory would not involve writing a paper about rhetorical carpentry but would involve making something. This is an approach that Nathaniel Rivers and I are currently working on in another project. Still, the concept is useful as a way to do rhetorical history as well as a way to build and make things. We can retell story by way of objects and their relations. And while Bogost’s focus is on philosophical carpentry, I am suggesting here that Paul Cret has given us an example of rhetorical carpentry. Rhetorical carpentry constructs objects (and conversations among objects) in order to demonstrate approximations of the strange, alien conversations happening around us.

Carpentry offers one answer to the problem raised by Diane in Inessential Solidarity. 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. 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. The project of rhetoric has always been tied up with trying to understand the attitudes and motives of others. And in this sense, OOR is not controversial at all.



While Modjeski acted as head of the Delaware River Bridge Commission, it was another engineer who put a more direct stamp on the bridge’s design. Leon Moisseiff acted as consulting design engineer for the Benjamin Franklin Bridge and his “deflection theory” meant that he helped design most suspension bridges built in the early part of the 20th Century. Petroski explains Moisseiff’s deflection theory:

This theory, by taking into account the interaction of the cables and roadway of a suspension bridge, enabled design engineers to make a more accurate determination of how forces were distributed among the various parts of the structure. By knowing more accurately the distribution of these forces among the parts of the structure, the steel components could be designed more optimally and hence the bridge built more economically. (409)

Moisseiff, it would seem, had an object-oriented design theory, one that accounted for the relations happening amongst cables, bridge decks, and trusses.

But Farnham shows us that Moisseiff’s deflection theory was ahistorical, and in more ways than one. With the success of the Delaware River Bridge (and many others) under his belt, he carried the deflection theory to its limits with the Tacoma Narrows. The engineer aimed to construct a suspension bridge that looked only forward and that was not bound by the shackles of stone. Instead of large anchorages, the Tacoma Narrows bridge used “sleek plate girders instead of the bulkier trusses” (Farnham 273). This was a bridge of the future. But the bridge’s design wasn’t the only object that had little concern for time. The deflection theory itself had no theory of time. It only accounted for gusts of wind happening at any given moment and took no account of the effects of wind over time. This sleek ribbon, cutting across the sky succumbed to a wind storm on November 7, 1940.

Tacoma Narrows was not only an engineering failure, it was a rhetorical failure. And that rhetorical failure was not only about what the bridge meant to the humans who drove across it (many did so prior to the collapse to experience the undulations of what became known as “Galloping Gertie”). The rhetorical failure here was also about an engineer not understanding the decorum of objects, the peculiar way objects act when in particular configurations. While Cret’s anchorages staged, in Jonathan Farnham’s words, the “tragedy of time,” they were also a work of rhetorical carpentry. The anchorages demonstrated an understanding that a bridge is about constructing relations amongst objects of all kinds: cables, eyebars, steel beams, stone trusses, engineers, ideas about engineering, architects, ideas about architecture, wind. All of these, from the perspective of object-oriented ontology are objects. And a rhetorical carpenter understands that these relations are as important as the human eye gazing upon the bridge or the New Balance tennis shoe tapping its walkways or the hand gliding along its railing or the tire rumbling across its deck.


Works Cited

Bogost, Ian. Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing. Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2012. Print.

Davis, Diane. Inessential Solidarity: Rhetoric and Foreigner Relations. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010. Print.

Farnham, Jonathan. “Staging the Tragedy of Time: Paul Cret and the Delaware River Bridge.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 57.3 (1998): 258-279. Print.

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

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

Petroski, Henry. “Engineering: Benjamin Franklin Bridge.” American Scientist 90.5 (2002): 406-410.

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