Author: Tim Richardson

Not my bag, and what’s in it

Recently, a colleague working in animal studies and I were discussing Ian Bogost’s new book Alien Phenomenology and she eventually asked me what I find compelling about the Object Oriented enterprises. This is totally not my bag, but what follows is what I could spill out of in a sitting, for what it’s worth.

I’m tangentially interested in Object Oriented Ontology for a very few reasons. My primary reason is that I’m directing a really smart dissertation that’s trying to cobble an Object Oriented Rhetoric, so I kind of need to know what he’s talking about. Also, my close friend Levi Bryant is one of the primary figures in OOO (along with Graham Harman and recently Bogost, Tim Morton, etc.), so I get an earful whether or not I ask for it (he’s passionate about it and I trust his passion). I have to say that Levi’s flavor of it all sits better with me, as he’s coming at it through Deleuze and Lacan, so I have some purchase there. And I suppose that there’s maybe some overlap between OOO and my proto-project on authenticity; there may be something there I can use for something once I figure out what I want to talk about.

Also, I’m not compelled by the philosophy as much as interested in how it’s explained. Graham Harman’s work is really interesting, but I’m less a fan not because his book on Latour (for instance; it’s the one I’ve read) doesn’t offer interesting reading, but that his examples/analogies are often problematic for me (available here). Levi Bryant (find his latest here) is sometimes better at it, but I’m biased toward the informing background, etc. I like Bogost’s work on games, so I’m reading the new one. My point is that this is my FUN reading, so I want to be entertained while I’m taught.

Really interesting is how these discussions have intersected with recent interest in The New Aesthetic. So Bruce Sterling’s Wired piece gets read by Warren Ellis, Bogost responds to Ellis via Twitter (I was e-mailing with Ellis while they were tweeting – #namedrop), Alex Reid considers all of this in his own way, etc. And they do seem to be having a really useful conversation in this collision. OOO has a nice critique of NA.

I’ve been thinking that the scary thing about OOO (and maybe why some react so viscerally to or against it?) is that it doesn’t seem to have an ethics. I don’t mean that it’s unethical, but that it is non-ethical. It doesn’t make (m)any ethical claims I can identify. Which means that really bad things could come from its deployment. But it also means that very good things could come, too. Because they are taking such a radical stance (that flattening), it’s not just things and (non-human) animals that are objects, but humans, too. So can there be an ethics with/out the human? My answer right now is maybe not.

Of course, OOO also often seems guilty of a kind of animism. I think that’s a strategic move, but it’s still a problem they’ll have to deal with. A lot of the work of course comes from Latour, but insists that networks aren’t everything; that objects exist and aren’t completely knowable or describable except in terms of of those relations shouldn’t elide the possibility that there’s always something more there (this is that withdrawal, I think) that needs to be accounted for (this resonates for me with the Lacanian Real in his later, topological inflection). So where I don’t take the animism charge seriously, I think what they might be up to is an atomism.

I know much less about Animal Studies than I know about this stuff, but what I’ve happened upon through the OOO discussions and other places, I think it might offer a fine critique of OOO. The latter has no apparent praxis (maybe it’s biggest problem) and animal studies (and eco-criticism more largely) clearly does. But OOO might offer something useful, too. I’m looking forward to the inevitable collision to see what comes out.

For instance, when Cary Wolfe was introduced at a recent talk, there was a sentence that said something like his work moves posthumanism away from technology and toward the animal. I hope that it’s more like he expands it to include the animal. My worry is that, say, privileging the bonobo over the dvd ontologically (Bogost equates them?) might dismiss the dvd (and technology generally) as trash (or even sin) and not deal with it seriously (I guess dark ecology address this, though, right? Marine animals mutating from an oil spill is natural, but dangerous and not desirable). And there’s sometimes a sad scientism on OOO’s side that seems to find its corollary in Animal’s “science studies.” And animal studies might sometimes be guilty of the correlationist fallacy Quintin Meillassoux describes and decries.

What I most admire about the OOO work is that it’s so available. I’ve linked to some of the blogs, and these folks are generous to a fault. All of them are invested and engaged. And many of them are committed to open access publishing so that, while we can (and should) buy meat-space versions of their books, they are also available immediately in web or pdf options. Not only does this help include folks in the discussions who might otherwise be cut off, it makes the discussions vibrant and allows nuancing and change on a dime.

(Having said this last, I’m turning off comments not because comments aren’t valuable to me, but because all of the usual end-of-semester stuff is going to keep me away for a while and I don’t want to slight anyone.)

I have never been current

For a while, I’ve been worried about not being able to keep up with new scholarship in new fields. I was talking about this with Levi Bryant, whose Larval Subjects blog I depend on to keep me abreast of what I don’t know yet. Levi’s brand of Object Oriented Ontology appeals to me insofar as it overlaps with my old interests, psychoanalysis in particular, which gives me some purchase. And it was this problem we were discussing: instead of getting super-excited about new ideas and idioms, I’ve discovered that I’m most thrilled when I reread texts I thought I had a handle on and find whole new possibilities in them. Most recently, I’ve revisited Zizek’s Plague of Fantasies for a grad class I’m teaching and, well, it seemed like a new book. Such realizations are old news, of course, but my question is how to engage with really new work when I don’t feel I’ve exhausted the old stuff? Is it possible to slip out of the old frame when it keeps reframing itself for me? Or, rather, I keep repainting the frame to match the redecorations?

Which brings me to our recent Hermanns Lecture Series dedicated to Animals. A great list of scholars presented really fine work in animal studies and posthumanism. These aren’t specialties of mine by any means (especially the former), so each was exciting. But in my inability to abandon my old devices, some ideas occurred to me during Cary Wolfe’s discussion. Wolfe was introduced as someone who helps move posthumanism away from the technological and toward the animal. I don’t know if that’s accurate, but it’s certainly a perception of his work. I like to think that he rather expands the posthuman to include the animal. Regardless, in the day’s discussions – both formal and relaxed – it seemed to me that the animal-studies side of things began to resemble a feminism in its critiques of what seemed to be a primarily masculine understanding of technology and in its presentation of the non-human animal. I don’t want to theorize here too much, since these are new thoughts and likely smeared by my own inability to give up my old mattes, but at least one prior presentation explicitly connected the feminine and the animal (so I don’t think this is entirely made up). And several scholars of renown have moved from feminist-focused work into animal studies in the last decade or so.

In broad terms, is it possible that, in the distinction between human animal and non-human animal, masculine and feminine economies are reinscribed in certain ways? I can only think of these certain ways in Lacanian terms (ok, hell, I am a Lacanian), so my impulse is to sexuate. The human would then maybe be a masculine (castrated, barred) subject infatuated with a phallic technologism (there’s logos in that word, technology, after all) and the non-human would in some way be seen to address a lack in its (human) other? And (per Derrida, et al) THE animal wouldn’t exist as such (just as THE Woman doesn’t?). The non-human animal would thus be situated on the side of contingency, the not-all that was so frequently misunderstood in Lacan?

Too general for any good use, but a sketch of a thought, maybe?

(I’m qualifying so much because I don’t want to step on others’ toes with big phallic feet. But the itch needs scratching.)

Even Cary Wolfe’s discussion – excerpted I believe from his forthcoming book Before the Law – begged for this kind of reading (again, for/from me) inasmuch as I couldn’t abandon the idea of Law in its Lacanian inflection (Name-of-the-Father stuff, etc.). In Wolfe’s primarily Foucauldian reading of Law and politics, he repeatedly turned to figures of machinery and “mechanisms of power,” in effect masculinizing the technological metaphor if not technology proper.

So if it’s possible and useful to talk of such things in these terms, would a look to before the law be analogous to Kristeva’s project of discussing the pre-symbolic imaginary? Is animal studies a preoccupation with the imaginary?

Of course, I have no idea. But there’s something really appealing in Kevin Kelly’s much less academic and often problematic treatment of technology AS animal in What Technology Wants. Which seems to align in some ways with what I understand of Dark Ecology?


“You are not wise.”

Alex Reid’s input to the question of speculative realist lit crit sparked an idea that isn’t new to me (or probably anyone) that I thought I’d throw it up here anyway.

When I was training in creative writing (poetry, MFA, Old Dominion U), my thesis director was fond of saying “You’re not going to tell me anything I don’t already know. You are not wise.” I took this to mean (and still do) that the writer has no special insight into the animal, vegetable, or mineral condition. What the creative (and, I suppose, any successful) writer hopes to do is create an occasion. The project is to create a thing (we actually called poems things then) that had shape, built ethos through techne, was superficially appealing, while at the same time allowed for uses the writer had never considered, maybe even could never consider. After poetry readings, for instance, folks might come up to me and say “I really liked the poem about….” and I would only know which one they meant from the nouns they used that I recognized from the poem.

Leaving aside the question of whether my own poems were literature (I had some successes), I’m thinking about lit in terms of potential and hacking per my last few posts. Using the tricks of the trade, as it were, poets build in potential exploits via word choices and combinations, sure, but also in line breaks (enjambed or not), in white space, diction, meter, all that. Far from trying to plan for every contingency, the job of the poet is to multiply potential occasions (dunamis), to make a thing that is useful beyond whatever was derived from its composing. So whereas I agree that there’s no truth to discover (no innate wisdom wrapped in a container) in literary or other writing, that it’s about composing knowledge, I do think that one’s encounter with these potential exploits as an occasion (a contingent encounter between two or more things) may feel like discovery. (And this is maybe what’s meant by authenticity?)

One of the things Pride & Prejudice & Zombies from a few years back demonstrated (and rhetoric is a kind of demonstration) is that the Austen book could have always had zombies in it. It just took Grahame-Smith to discover that for us.

To my mind, the above may not be all that OOO, since it’s less about keeping things flat and separate and more about encounters, potential, exploitation, etc. And none of this is new. It’s what Scott meant when he kept telling me I’m not wise.

If I had (something that could be made to work as) a hammer

In a comment to my last post, Cedrick pointed out:

Though I certainly fall more on the hack side of things, I think the yack is nevertheless important and I engage in it daily with my classes. I say this with one caveat: as you suggest, code is a theoretical construct in itself. Anyone doing work in digital humanities work should be willing to understand and be involved in the coding side of things rather than just focusing on the surface of the tech being examined.

Right-o. And those who study literature should take creative writing classes. While I don’t (or haven’t) worked much in the digital humanities, I feel what Cedrick describes pretty often as I try to cobble a media piece to explore some idea I have and need to see and then my few skills fail me. But my previous post was mostly quibbling with the notion of hack as “just” composing. I wonder if hacking isn’t more like substantial revision, in which one discovers and exploits some potential in the thing that arises through some contingent exigency? Of course, composing is also about exploring potential, etc., but it doesn’t often get thought of in those terms (hence, the “just”). For me, revision is where the fun is. In these terms, body modification folks who’re “hacking the properties of the device they’re born with” are revising substantially, I’d say.

One complaint about theory I found in the blog discussions used the axiom “when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” That’s certainly a complaint, I guess, as it points out that, say, a post-colonial reading is going to treat its object as something postcolonial and maybe ignore other possibilities. But maybe hacking is more like “When you discover a nail, you start looking around for what can be used as a hammer”? That is, you reuse, re-purpose, exploit what you have available at that moment. My thought is, I guess, to align hack with rhetoric under the banner of contingency.

A side note is that the hack vs. yack argument reminds me very much of the creative writing vs. theory arguments from decades back. “Creative writers produce! Theory people just talk about our work after we’ve moved on.” Much like Ion, creative writers really like the ideas of inspiration, possession, individual genius. Theory folks just don’t get it. My first graduate hat was as an MFA poet who discovered (Lacanian) theory accidentally. I’ve since then balked at so easy a distinction. Back then, though, the creative writers bought the expensive chips and depended on all-natural authenticity.

More chips and more hack

Ron Brooks pointed me to a great example of the kind of authenticity I described in my first post.

The pithily titled “Enticing words printed on bags of potato chips have a lot to say about social class, Stanford researchers find”  argues that “whether you crunch an ordinary chip or the priciest-exotic-root-vegetable chip, consumers of all social classes value the product that they think is most authentic.” The rundown of this study points to differences between claims at authenticity where the least expensive chips packagings frequently refer to tradition, nation or region, old family recipes, etc. and pricier chips evoke natural, hand-made, small-batch sea-saltiness.

What I like about this is the assumption that authenticity is manufactured as much as it is evoked. Or, rather, its summoning is also its creation. So, some chips bank on heritage and patriotism while others conjure a pure nature and craftsmanship. Really, both depend on closing the distance via nostalgia for a values lost to the past and/or a nature unavailable in the city. And so there would be nothing “authentic” in gathering your family to the kitchen to slice and fry up your own potato chips. That’s work.

Which brings me very late to the fascinating discussion of theory and the Digital Humanities that occurred a few weeks back. While it’s taking a while to catch up and this isn’t exactly my field, it seems to me that a great deal of the discussion focuses on what counts as theory. It isn’t difficult to see the “more hack, less yack” mantra as an argument that hack is more authentic (in this sense, practical and useful and human) than the yack that is theory. Many others point out that practice is always predicated on theory and that theory is a kind of hacking, too. Fair enough. But while there is a lot of discussion about what counts as theory and it value, there is (with a few exceptions) not a lot of attention paid to what counts as hacking. By and large, at least in the discussions and posts I read, it seems that hacking means coding, data management, etc.

This is certainly a broader definition that I offered before and I wonder if it’s too broad. If any kind of tool production is counted as a hack, then is there much difference between the coding and theory? I mean, I suppose making a hammer means hacking a tree and a mountain (for wood and metal) in order to discover some new potential in them. So hacking is defined by a goal and its means are exploitation. (Exploitation can be good; it means spelunking the gap.) Theory – and especially the philosophical kind – does pretty much the same thing to the library, etc., right? I don’t know.

Regardless, in the phrasing “more hack, less yack,” folks responded to the dismissive yack pretty strongly. It might not have been meant so aggressively, though. It’s entirely possible that it was meant to just be fun and colloquial. Yack also rhymes with hack, and so was maybe chosen for that rhyme? If so, hack counts first. There’s a mystique to hacking – movies, books, all that – that can certainly be capitalized on, and that mystique (myth) of the hacker is everywhere these days. Hack is rebellious and young.  Yacking is what old people do. And hacking seems more American. Or less European (theory is European). Hack is definitely more punk rock. And nothing matters more to punk than authenticity.

We aren’t zeros!

Grinder symbol in Doktor Sleepless

In The Lost Cause of Rhetoric, David Metzger points out that Aristotle, when he defines rhetoric he calls it a dunamis, “a faculty for discovering the available means of persuasion.” This means (among other things) that rhetoric is not any specific act or performance, but is primarily the condition for any such act. It is potential. I wonder if it’s possible to talk about hacking in these terms. What seems to differentiate the hack from the prosthetic (that talk I linked to last note) is that the latter is a replacement in kind, a surrogate that may or may not live up to the standards or utility of the original (and may or may not appear authentic). The hack, though, is all about new functionality. So it might be that all hacks are prosthetic (though maybe they address a lack, not a loss?) but not all prosthetics are hacks? Is it wrong to maybe think this is a way of reading Ellis’s “the primary goal of my work has been to force outbreaks of the future” (in Shivering Sands)? Does the future mean potential?

Then the question would be how does one perform the future in a way that makes it available, palatable, “authentic” for others? I think it’s Shaviro’s talk on Doktor Sleepless that points out that we can’t seem to escape the cyberpunk future of the 1980s. Certainly, complaining that we don’t have jetpacks refers to the 1950s as much as now. If (also in that talk of mine) authenticity depends on a certain distance that is both necessary and hidden, can distance in time, both past-present and future-present, be read (or felt or whatever) as identical? Vladimir Nabokov (in his autobiography?) said something like the reason so many people imagine an afterlife is that they can’t deal with two voids (one after their deaths and one before their births; I think the occasion was seeing photos of his nursery taken before he was born; it was unsettling).

Anyway, I remember the simplest piece of powerful rhetoric I ever encountered was on the Long Now Foundation website in, maybe, 1998? And it was that the year was written as 01998. That “0” registers as potential in all the right ways. But it occurs to me that no one would write the date of a thousand years prior as 0998. Actually, that “0” is pretty horrifying, since it’s us.