Scot Barnett, Indiana University
(Published November 23, 2015)
When I find again the actual world such as it is, under my hands, under my eyes, up against my body, I find much more than an object: a Being of which my vision is a part, a visibility older than my operation or my acts. But this does not mean that there was a fusion or coinciding of me with it: on the contrary, this occurs because a sort of dehiscence opens my body in two, and because between my body looked at and my body looking, my body touched and my body touching, there is overlapping or encroachment, so that we may say that the things pass into us, as well as we into the things.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible
Recent years have seen an increasing (re)turn to materialities in rhetoric and the humanities. Under the banners of object-oriented ontology, speculative realism, new materialism, the posthumanities, and related paradigms, 1 theorists from rhetoric and other disciplines have begun to revisit the question of materiality as a way to rethink assumptions about language, knowledge, agency, and subjectivity rooted in the humanist tradition. Rather than accept the mechanistic view of matter inherited from Descartes and Kant that sees matter as passive or inert, object-oriented theories emphasize the vibrancy, agency, and alterity of matter—the notion that matter and objects are not merely backstops for human subjects, but active and suasive forces in their own rights. One of the concerns frequently raised about object-oriented theories, however, is that they tend to bracket or reject altogether much of what we have learned about human being and communication in favor of speculating about what it’s like to be a thing.2 In giving objects and materialities their due, some argue, object-oriented theorists may in effect be throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. This needn’t be the case. As I argue in this essay, concepts and frameworks that foreground human being—pathos and phenomenology, respectively, in the case of this essay—may indeed overlap with and shed light on object-oriented rhetorics, particularly as they circulate within media-rich environments. Contra philosopher Tom Sparrow and others who have criticized phenomenologists such as Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty for confusing a “rhetoric of concreteness” with a fully realist theory of objects that recognizes their distinct ontological standing, pathos and phenomenology, in my view, offer valuable and fundamental attunements to the material realities of bodies (human and nonhuman alike) that affect, and are in turn affected by, other bodies in relation.
Alongside the rise of object-oriented rhetorics,3 the past two decades have also seen a growing interest in theories of affect and emotion generally. This is not a coincidence. In rhetorical studies, reconsiderations of emotion, including classical conceptions of the path?, have coincided with related efforts to theorize rhetorical activity as embodied and emplaced in social and material contexts. In The Secret History of Emotion, for example, Daniel M. Gross explores the historical and political forces that helped shape conceptions and experiences of emotion, from the emergence of apathy as a public disposition in the Renaissance to modern empirical studies of emotion such as those of Antonio Damasio. For Gross, the best way to develop rhetorical and historical analyses emotion is to ground them in a phenomenological orientation. Early in the book, Gross highlights Martin Heidegger’s commentaries on the Rhetoric and his efforts to incorporate Aristotle’s conception of pathos into his own notion of being-in-the-world. According to Heidegger, the prospect of “having a world” first needs to be understood in relation to one’s moods and comportments as these are the primary rhetorical means by which we establish a sense of world in the first place (Secret 16; see also Gross’ introduction to Heidegger and Rhetoric). Thomas Rickert further develops the prospects for a phenomenological reading of emotion in Ambient Rhetoric, noting that for Heidegger moods and affects are not simply internal mental states but ways of attuning ourselves to the world. Paraphrasing Heidegger, Rickert argues that “Mood is ontological; it takes form in the pre-intelligible background necessary for us to make sense of, experience, and interact in the world” (146). Finally, in his study of Heidegger, Levinas, and the euthanasia debates, Michael Hyde notes that for Heidegger emotion has a distinctly rhetorical import, though not necessarily as the instrumental appeal we sometimes associate with pisteis such as pathos. Again in terms of Heidegger and phenomenology, Hyde concludes, “it can thus be said that the making-present function of emotion has the effect of situating our concern for being in the here and now, in the immediacy of our everyday existence, in that time and place called ‘the Present’” (32).
The reassessment of pathos in rhetorical studies over the past decade echoes related efforts in philosophy and new media theory to develop new conceptions of affect that emphasize affect’s impersonal, autonomous, and preflective capacities to produce intensities via relationality. Building on Baruch Spinoza’s influential theory of affect and its uptake in the writings of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, theorists such as Brian Massumi, Eve Sedgwick, and Erin Manning have offered a revised conception of affect that, similar to Rickert’s rhetorical reading of mood, is not reducible to or locatable within any individual body, but rather “passes through, leaving intensive traces on a collective body-becoming” (Manning 95, emphasis original). For Manning, this body-becoming is not necessarily tied to the human body; instead, “It is a conglomeration of forces that express a movement-with through which a relational individuation begins to make itself felt” (95). Though the theoretical touchstones for affect most often follow a line from Spinoza to Deleuze, contemporary theories of affect share a great deal with phenomenological and rhetorical accounts of emotion, embodiment, and technicity. Phenomenological accounts of embodiment such as the one we find in Merleau-Ponty, for example, similarly explore distinctions between inside and outside, self and other, human and nonhuman in ways that resonate well with affect theory and rhetorical considerations of the path?.
As I suggest in what follows, Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, particularly when read through digital performances and installations, presents an opportunity to reconsider affect and embodiment’s place in object-oriented rhetorics. In his introduction to The Nonhuman Turn, Richard Grusin identifies several theoretical precursors to object-oriented ontologies, including actor-network theory, animal studies, systems theory, new media theory, and affect theory. Though attention to affect and embodied relations may appear to reinscribe the human’s central place in theoretical inquiry, Grusin notes that for scholars such as Sedgwick and Massumi, affect “not only highlights the nonhumanness of embodied affectivity, but also provides a model to think about the affectivity of both animate and inanimate nonhumans” (xvii). Citing Deleuze from Cinema 1, Grusin notes that for affect theorists, “affectivity is a quality of things as well as people” in so far as things have capacities to affect other bodies and in turn to be affected by them. “There are affects of things,” Deleuze writes. “The ‘edge,’ the ‘blade,’ or rather the ‘point’ of Jack the Ripper’s knife, is no less an affect than the fear which overcomes his features and the resignation which finally seizes hold of the whole of his face” (Cinema 118; qtd. in Grusin xviii). Despite appearances, affect is part of the nonhuman world as well. As such, affect and the path? can—and indeed should—be topics of interest for object-oriented rhetoricians.
To explore the possibilities affect and phenomenology hold for object-oriented rhetorics, I turn to the work Susan Kozel, a new media performance artist and philosopher whose installations and writings explicitly engage issues of embodied relations, affect, and technicity. Throughout her work, Kozel draws attention to the co-constitutive nature of human-technology relations and what it means to understand these relations not in terms of fixed essences but, as Merleau-Ponty suggests, as involving things that fuse or coincide with one another such that “we may say that the things pass into us, as well as we into the things.” As I will show, Kozel’s commitments to relationality and affect resonate strongly with classical rhetorical understandings of emotion and the path?. Although pathos is not often discussed in technological terms, its importance in the rhetorical tradition, as well as the kinds of embodied relations it invokes, make it a useful relay through which to explore the phenomenological question of human-technology relations as raised by Kozel and others. My wager is that pathos is not only involved in the kinds of relations Kozel, Merleau-Ponty, and others describe, but that it is the condition of possibility for all such relations. Much more than the instrumental appeals rhetorical handbooks sometimes make them out to be, the path? mark, and indeed make possible, a form of relationality in which bodies-in-relation experience themselves as both subject and object—as a “thing among things” in Merleau-Ponty’s terms. As we will see, this notion of a mutual opening or “dehiscence” between bodies is closely related to Merleau-Ponty’s idea of the flesh and the ways the connective tissues of relationality afford new pathways for communication. The flesh, Merleau-Ponty writes, “is not an obstacle between [bodies], it is their means of communication” (Visible 135). It is my hope that by taking this suggestion seriously—that the relations between bodies, between humans and things, are a means of communication and thus transformation—we open a space in object-oriented rhetorics within which the technical objects of which we’re concerned emerge as vital agents in their own rights that shape us as much as we shape them.
As rhetorical theorists continue to expand the horizons of rhetoric to include a wider range of actors and forces—to develop more elaborate and sophisticated object-oriented rhetorics—we will need to find ways to reconcile, or least negotiate, the tensions between old and new, tradition and innovation, that inevitably emerge out of any reconsideration of language, subjectivity, and agency. The chiasms I trace below between pathos, phenomenology, and the ontology of things offer one illustration of what such negotiation might resemble. To paraphrase Bruno Latour, the future of object-oriented rhetorics is in the mixing up of beings, not in their purification.
Choreographing Phenomenology: The Touching-Touched
In his early writings, especially Phenomenology of Perception, Maurice Merleau-Ponty argues for a renewal of phenomenology that marries the two most influential versions of phenomenology: Husserl’s transcendental idealism and Heidegger’s fundamental ontology. The failure of Husserl to deliver on his promise to return philosophy to the things themselves looms large in the opening paragraphs of the Phenomenology. So too does Heidegger’s attempt to situate phenomenology more firmly in the realm of lived experience rather than envisioning it, as Husserl seemed, as a scientific method capable of producing demonstrable knowledge of experience. In an effort to bring these two strands of phenomenology together, Merleau-Ponty follows Husserl’s lead in prioritizing perception and subjective experience as a way to return philosophy’s attention back to the ontological conditions of everyday life. At the same time, Merleau-Ponty builds on Heidegger and his skepticism of the objectivist notion of a “view from nowhere” and its assumption that knowledge of the world stems from our ability to abstract ourselves from the plane of physical existence. What is most original about Merleau-Ponty and his version of phenomenology, however, is his continued focus on the body and on how corporeal and sensory relations constitute one’s being-in-the-world. The body is not simply an inert object that follows the conscious mind’s lead, as Descartes suggests. For Merleau-Ponty, rather, the body “provides the very horizon and perspectival point which places me in the world and makes relations between me, other objects, and other subjects possible” (Grosz 86). “The perceiving mind is an incarnated body,” Merleau-Ponty writes (Primacy 3; qtd. in Grosz 87). And given that embodiment is always experienced relationally in terms of other bodies and objects, the body as Merleau-Ponty understands it “is both object (for others) and a lived reality (for the subject), it is never simply object nor simply subject” (Grosz 87).
These early inquiries into embodiment and relationality carry over into Merleau-Ponty’s later works where his emphasis is less on subject-object relations and more on issues of interiority, exteriority, and the ontological conditions of relationality.4 In his last published essay “Eye and Mind” on Cezanne and in his unfinished book The Visible and the Invisible, Merleau-Ponty sets out to develop another version of phenomenology in which bodies and the spaces between bodies “are not simply matter or substance: they are connective tissue, electric and transforming, they are channels of communication. They are flesh” (Kozel 31). Though never explicitly defined, for Merleau-Ponty “the flesh” suggests a sort of fabric that enables bodies to interact, communicate, and intertwine with one another. As the “formative medium of the object and the subject” (Visible 147), the flesh operates on a more primordial ontological plane than the subject-object dualism, one that makes it difficult to easily distinguish between subjects and objects or things and bodies. As Merleau-Ponty writes in “Eye and Mind”:
Visible and mobile, my body is a thing among things; it is caught in the fabric of the world, and its cohesion is that of a thing [. . .] Things are an annex or prolongation of itself; they are incrusted into its flesh, they are part of its full definition; the world is made of the same stuff as the body. (163)
There is a “coiling over” and “reversibility” of things in the flesh where bodies come into being as a result of their intertwining with one another. At such moments, classical distinctions between subject and object hold little sway. When I touch my left hand with my right thumb and index finger, for example, I experience myself simultaneously as both subject and object; I am the “touching-touched,” in Merleau-Ponty’s words. Likewise, as an embodied being in the world, a thing among things, I am also an object of perception for others as well as a perceiving subject myself—a “seeing-seen.” In each of these experiences, I experience myself caught in the fabric of the world to such an extent that it is impossible—if not altogether beside the point—to distinguish between subject and object, self and other. As Shannon Walters suggests in her recent study of touch, haptics, and disability, touch is a fundamentally rhetorical act, albeit one that exceeds (or potentially precedes) linguistic conceptions of rhetorical action. Touch connects us to the world and to each other, Walters argues; it is an acting-together “that propels identification among bodies in contact” (40):
Beyond language, [rhetorical] touch can also create ethical connections not only among people but also among people, animals, technologies, and the various human entities of their environments [. . .] Touch is the organizing principle for how one interacts with her technologies and for how one expects others to interact with her. Touch articulates a meaning beyond words that structures relationships among people, technologies, and spaces. (206, 207)
As rhetorical action, touch corporealizes Burke’s notions of identification and division, conjoining and distancing bodies (human and nonhuman) with/from one another. As Burke says, “Put identification and division ambiguously together, so that you cannot know for certain just where one ends and other begins, and you have the characteristic invitation to rhetoric” (25; qtd. in Walters 40).
Inspired by Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of the flesh, new media artist and theorist Susan Kozel has designed a series of installations that attempt to choreograph intercorporeality in media-saturated environments. In her installation whisper[s], in particular, as well her writings about her work in Closer: Performance, Technology, Phenomenology, Kozel invites participants to experience and play with several phenomenological themes, most notably embodiment, touch, affect, and technicity. In so doing, Kozel’s work opens a space for us to reconsider object-oriented rhetorics from a decidedly phenomenological perspective. Indeed, as Karen Barad has suggested by way of new materialism, performance and performativity can be useful lenses through which to understand the vibrancy of bodies and to contest the prioritizing of language in the wake of the linguistic and social turns. For Barad, “Performativity, properly construed, is not an invitation to turn everything (including material bodies) into words; on the contrary, performativity is precisely a contestation of the excessive power granted to language to determine what is real” (802). Unlike postmodern conceptions of performativity associated with Judith Butler and Michel Foucault, Barad’s posthumanist notion of performativity “calls into question the givenness of the differential categories of ‘human’ and ‘nonhuman,’ examining the practices through which these differential boundaries are stabilized and destabilized” (808). This calling into question the ontological status of the human and human—as well as the self and other—is precisely what is at issue in Kozel’s installations and her subsequent writings on phenomenology and affect.
An acronym for “wearable—handheld—intimate—sensory—personal—expectant—responsive,” whisper[s] offers participants opportunities to play with their own and others’ bodily affects and to share them through wearable sensors and transmitters. Making innovative use of small, wearable biometrics as well as wireless communication devices sewn into specially designed garments, whisper[s] brings small groups of people together to experience the body not as vessel or container for emotion but as an interface through which the intensities of one’s being and being-with others get formed, transmitted, and transformed. The sensors and actuators embedded in the garments allow participants to project and receive bodily affects from other participants. In Closer, Kozel offers a phenomenological description of her own experience as a participant in whisper[s]:
an inwardly directed intention to listen to breath and to translate this into outwardly directed attention to others is achieved by means of a respiration sensor in a personal garment and haptic outputs in the garments worn by others. One person’s breath causes vibrators and fans in the lining of another person’s skirt to come alive with its corporeal rhythm. In addition, the collective breathing patterns of a group of participants is translated into a shared sound composition, effectively a sonic representation of an ecosystem of breath [. . .] Choreographing my data, whether my movement patterns, my voice, my scribbled thoughts, or my heart rate, is like saying I want to play with my data and yours, to flirt with them and with you, to abstract and shape them into expressive portrayals of who and what I am, and of my relationship to you. (280, 274)
Figure 1: whisper[s]. Susan Kozel, Closer: Performance, Technologies, Phenomenology (2007).
In whisper[s], participants are invited to receive and interpret the experiences of others and in so doing participate in the production of a communal choreography of affect. According to Kozel and other members of the whisper[s] research group, as participants learn how to experience and choreograph their affects they are reminded of the extent to which “contemporary Western bodies have forgotten the full scope of our ability to transmit and receive qualitative and affective messages from one another” (282). As Thecla Schiphorst of the whisper[s] research group puts it, whisper[s] “is an incursion into the cultural study of telepathy: impressions are transferred invisibly, mediated both through body and technology. Telepathy is the ultimate wireless network. We create wearables for the telepathically impaired. Whisper[s] excavates the invisible, is a search for lost things” (Schiphorst 8).
Figure 2: whisper[s]. Thecla Schiphorst and Susan Kozel, presented at DEAF03 (2003)
The form of telepathy produced through whisper[s] brings into the open a dehiscence that defines and makes possible relations between one body and another—an openness in the body that is both a letting-in and a letting-out of other bodies through the communicative medium of the flesh. “That which I sense also senses me,” Kozel writes, “whether this is a person, animal, or machine. In other words, to feel one’s body is also to feel its openness to the other: the other’s capacity to receive sensory information from me is implicated in my own sensoriality” (281). For her book Closer, Kozel draws extensively on Merleau-Ponty’s late works to interpret performance pieces such as whisper[s]. As Kozel notes, for Merleau-Ponty the basis of all relationality is reversibility: “it is that I can see and that I am also seen. I am both subject and object through the act of seeing I see the world, but I also see my body in the world” (36). Reversibility, in Merleau-Ponty’s words, “forbids us to conceive of vision as an operation of thought that would set up before the mind a picture or a representation of the world” (“Eye and Mind” 162). For Merleau-Ponty, vision, rather, is fundamentally embodied. “I do not just see things or act on them, I am caught up in the world, and my vision and actions are affected by the people and things in my world” (Kozel 37). My body is a thing among things “because I see but am also seen, by myself and by things. Things see me, whether or not they are intelligent devices with sensors or cameras” (Kozel 281). What the whisper[s] project suggests, then, is that the body—my body, your body, any body—is never a/lonely body; its being is always a being-with, a living and experiencing of its own existence as a certain dehiscence or openneness-toward-the other.
Importantly, for both Kozel and Merleau-Ponty the emphasis on being-with and reversibility does not presuppose a theory of relationality in which everything is one or the same or where there is absolute coincidence between self and other, subject and object. In their introduction to a collection of essays on Merleau-Ponty’s concept of the flesh, Fred Evans and Leonard Lawlor characterize the aim of late works such as The Visible and the Invisible as developing “an ontology that strives, perhaps paradoxically, to provide both more intimacy and more alterity among the denizens of the world (among subjects and objects) than presumably his earlier work was able to achieve” (10). The paradox noted here is crucial to understanding Merleau-Ponty’s vision of subject-object relations. On the one hand, like Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty seeks to problematize distinctions—even his own earlier distinctions—between subject and object by supplementing them with a new conception of relationality in which it is difficult to discern where one body begins and the other ends. At the same time, Merleau-Ponty also suggests that even as subjects and objects intertwine with one another, they retain traces of alterity that exceed their connections to other beings. As Evan and Lawlor put it, “The invisible of the flesh is like the soul of the other into which I can never know. The other is absent, crossed out. Yet, since the soul has been incarnate, I can still feel it, feel with it, feel into it—Einfulung—and believe” (11). Such attunements to otherness and alterity are also evident in whisper[s], which for Kozel aims less to establish frictionless circuits of communication between participants than to scramble the communiqués in such ways that the scrambling reveals something about the nature and limits of intercoporeality itself.
Invisible layers of emotion, physicality, vitality, imagination, gesture, and attention act as the glue of human exchange. Inherently nonverbal and on the fringes of the visual, new mobile devices are required to access and transmit this data offering different configurations of sensors, actuators, and networking protocols. Wearable devices as they are networked together, between bodies or traversing a single body, bear witness to our constant exchange with alterity as a form of having-the-other-in-one’s skin. (Kozel 283)
In foregrounding the felt dynamics of intercorporeal relations, projects like whisper[s] bring into focus the possibilities and limitations of a communication in which intimacy and alterity are equally produced and equally called into question.
Pathos: Being Disposed
What can a work such as whisper[s] teach us about the prospects of phenomenology for object-oriented rhetorics? Again, the question is whether phenomenology and theories of affect can deliver an ontology of things or whether their descriptive powers remain limited to the human subject as a speaking, perceiving, and feeling being. Another clue to this question can be found in Kozel’s attention to affect, which, following Spinoza and Deleuze, she understands as a form of relationality that accentuates a body’s capacities to act. “If you define bodies and thoughts as capacities for affecting and being affected,” Deleuze writes, “many things change. You will define an animal, or a human being, not by its form, its organs, or its functions, and not as a subject either; you will define it by the affects of which it is capable” (Spinoza 124; qtd. in Kozel 259). In drawing bodies together, whisper[s] foregrounds the capacities bodies have for affecting other bodies, human and nonhuman alike (Kozel 266). The participants’ movements and bodily states aren’t just read or interpreted by the garment’s sensors; they affect the sensors and actuators in concrete ways that overlap with but are not identical with the wearer’s experiences of the sensors and the communal choreographies they enable.
The Deleuzian conception of affect is often interpreted as opposing traditional understandings of emotion. Whereas emotion implies something conscious and capable of being strategically aroused through language or other modes of communication, affect emphasizes the pre-reflective moments in which we are unconsciously attuned to other possibilities for being in the world. In Brian Massumi’s terms, emotion, as opposed to affect, is “qualified intensity,” which is to say that it is the qualification or translation of affective intensities “into narrativiazable action-reaction circuits, into function and meaning” (Massumi 28). In contrast to these qualified intensities, affects are “moods or background feelings” (Rickert 144) that, as Rickert argues, are distinct from the emotion/reason or body/mind binaries. By expanding the environs within which rhetoric emerges and circulates to include all of the things that bear on the body’s capacity to act, affect moves us closer toward an ontology of things in which human identity and essence are no longer the central concerns for rhetorical inquiry. This is certainly the case for Rickert, whose engagements with Heidegger’s conception of mood lead eventually to an insightful consideration of things as co-participants in the work of persuasion (207-208). Likewise, in Closer, Kozel situates affect theory as the logical successor to phenomenology with its investments in embodied relationality as well as its concerns for issues of otherness and alterity. Kozel thus provides a model for how we might critically inhabit phenomenology as a way of arriving at a different understanding of things, one where human embodiment and relationality have important roles to play even if they never fully capture or exhaust the being of others-in-relation.
Though affect theory has only recently made its way into rhetorical theory, ideas about affect and emotion are nothing new to rhetoric. As one of the pisteis identified by Aristotle, pathos has long held an important place in conceptions of rhetoric and persuasion in general. And yet, many our ways of talking about and teaching pathos seem at first glance light years away from the ways affect theorists and whisper[s] imagine the communicative potentialities of emotion. Thumbnail definitions of pathos often presume some essential notion of human subjectivity that is capable of executing its will on other beings in the world. This presumption is perhaps most evident in rhetorical handbooks, which often encourage students to master the emotions and strategically appeal to them in their speeches or writing. The better students learn how to recognize and strategically deploy logos, ethos, and pathos, these handbooks suggest, the more effective their overall rhetorical awareness and rhetorical actions will be.
This instrumental notion of pathos is certainly not foreign to the rhetorical tradition. Though ancients such as Aristotle and Quintilian rarely imagine the pisteis in such formulaic and discrete terms (see Walker), their understandings of the path? nevertheless tend toward the rational and instrumental. Indeed, one of the most striking things for modern readers of Aristotle and Quintilian is the lengths they go to define and taxonomize the emotions. In Aristotle, for example, “The path? are those things through which, by undergoing change, people come to differ in their judgments and which are accompanied by pain and pleasure, for example, anger, pity, fear, and other such things and their opposites” (2.1.8). In the case of each emotion, Aristotle considers the reason for it, the state of mind of the person who feels it, and those toward whom it is directed. Similarly, for Quintilian the emotions constitute a particular “class of feelings,” which includes “the stronger passions,” such as love, and which collectively can be adapted to “command” and “disturb” audiences (6.2.9). Efforts such as these to classify and define the path? were largely pedagogical in nature in that they aimed to teach young speakers how to recognize emotional states in others, including how certain emotions dispose auditors to receive persuasion in distinct ways, as well as how to effectively arouse the emotions in their audiences and, sometimes, in themselves as well.
As in many contemporary adaptations, the classical conception of pathos tends not only to privilege human states of mind (Aristotle, for instance, has virtually nothing to say about how nonhuman factors such as spaces, geographies, or climates affect mood), it also emphasizes the rhetor’s ability to anticipate and strategically arouse the path? in specific kinds of people. At the same time, pathos has also almost always been figured in relational terms, as a powerful and seductive force circulating among and constituting both speakers and hearers. And it’s this relational quality to pathos, I want to argue, that continues to make it relevant to digital media projects such as whisper[s]. In the Institutes of Oratory, for instance, Quintilian insists that it is crucial for speakers to experience within themselves the same emotions they’re attempting to arouse in their interlocutors. “The chief requisite [. . .] for moving the feelings of others,” he says, “is, as far as I can judge, that we ourselves be moved, for the assumption of grief, anger, and indignation will be often ridiculous if we adapt merely our words and looks, and not our minds, to those passions” (6.2.26). While this assumption does not preclude the possibility of rhetors simulating the spontaneous appearance of emotion rather than experiencing it authentically—like Aristotle, both Quintilian and Cicero concede that persuasion can also work when a speaker “seems to be imprinted and branded” (Cicero, Ideal 2.189) by a certain emotional state—it does indicate that the arousal of emotion in others demands at least comparable willingness on the orator’s part to allow oneself to become similarly moved along with his interlocutors. In Quintilian’s words:
We are not burned without fire or wet without moisture, nor does one thing give to another the color which it has not itself. Our first object must be, therefore, that what we wish to impress upon the judge we may impress upon ourselves, and that we may be touched ourselves before we begin to touch others. (6.2.27-28)
There is a certain relational quality to pathos, Quintilian suggests, a connection that is established between orators and audiences and that helps make each party amendable to persuasion. As Jeffrey Walker notes, the Greek word pistis, which is usually translated as “proof” or “appeal,” actually has a more literal meaning: “assurance, guarantee, trustworthiness, faith” (84; quoting Burke 51-52). “Being-persuaded, then,” Walker suggests, “is trusting or a form of trusting, and in that sense it is a specific type of pathos. Simply to be able to become persuaded, [therefore], one must already be in a state of affect that impels one to attend to the rhetor’s presented pisteis, to endow them with salience and relevance to some developing and exigent concern, and to draw inferences and to form evaluative judgments and responses” (84). Bryan Garsten echoes this sentiment in his book Saving Persuasion where he defines persuasion not just as something an orator does, but, more importantly, what audiences themselves do: “When someone sits back and decides, ‘All right, you have persuaded me,’ he is not merely describing something that has happened to him. In spite of the grammar, he is describing something he has done” (7). Much more than an appeal one makes through rhetoric, pathos constitutes the very possibility of rhetoric itself. It is the disposition—the openness to the other, the openness to being persuaded, to being moved or affected by an other, even one’s self—that establishes the terrain from which rhetorical relations take place.
Alien Phenomenology: The Seeing-Seen
Pathos presumes and enacts relationality. In the classical tradition such relations were imagined almost exclusively in human terms, as the ways by which human beings engage one another through the give-and-take of the rhetorical dance. This is also how Kozel asks us to see the path? in whisper[s]—as circulating intensities that dispose us (the human ones) toward others (humans and nonhumans) in the shared flesh of the world. However, for Aristotle and Quintilian as well as for Kozel, the relationships established through affect are not always harmonious or symmetrical even if they seem to privilege distinctly human modes of connection. In rhetorical accounts of the path? as well as in whisper[s], difference and alterity are equally important and equally a part of one’s affective experience in relation to others. The flesh, as Merleau-Ponty describes it, is a space of both inter-corporeality and differentiation. Where there is alterity, so too is there difference and differentiation. If we imagine the flesh as a kind of primordial soap in which differences get dissolved and absorbed (which is sometimes how Merleau-Ponty is read), then we’re left to wonder where our sense of difference comes from in the first place—that commonsense understanding we possess which tells us that this thing over here is not the same as that thing over there. For Kozel, it is the ontology of difference we find in Merleau-Ponty’s late works that, for her, makes phenomenology such an attractive framework for theorizing digital media performativity (and perhaps what object-oriented rhetorics have the most to learn from phenomenology). While relationality has always been the name of the game for phenomenology, Kozel and Merleau-Ponty remind us that relations are not always consensual or symmetrical. Extending this to pathos, we can say that while the path? help dispose interlocutors to one another, they do not bridge the ontological chasm that separates one being from another. In the thick and thins of rhetorical relations, we are all simultaneously subject and object, the seeing-seen and the touching-touched.
More than a “rhetoric of concreteness,” the version of phenomenology we find in Kozel and Merleau-Ponty offers a genuine account of otherness that is at once concrete and inclusive. In their respective phenomenologies, otherness and alterity are not understood to be exclusive human qualities or characteristics (even though their examples focus on human comportments and relationalities); instead, they are constitutive effects of our being in the flesh where distinctions between things matter as much as their convergences. And as effects rather than attributes, otherness and alterity play equally important roles in the relations between nonhumans as well, be these wearable computers, garments, houses, or paintings. As Kozel observes, there is a profound animism, or attribution of life to the nonliving, that underwrites Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of the flesh. “When we speak of the flesh of the visible,” Merleau-Ponty writes, “we do not mean to do anthropology, to describe the world covered over with all of our own projections leaving aside what it can be under the human mask” (Visible 136; qtd. in Kozel 224). If “everything can be seen to be alive and possessing its own being” in the Merleau-Pontian chiasm, Kozel wonders, “what is to prevent the worlds of rocks, creatures, spirits, and disembodied forces from projecting their nonanthropomorphic forms and affects onto us” (225)? In other words, what if phenomenology was not simply a human science?
This is the question Ian Bogost explores in his aptly titled book Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing. While phenomenology is traditionally focused on understanding the structures of human perception and consciousness, Bogost leverages some of its core methods as a way to speculate on the experiences of nonhumans as well. Such a phenomenology, he predicts, will explode “like shrapnel, leaving behind the human as solitary consciousness like the Voyager space-craft leaves behind the heliosphere on its way beyond the boundaries of the solar system” (32). Bogost’s short book offers a wealth of examples and speculations. For our present purposes, however, one example is particularly illustrative of the entanglements of affect and alterity that can occur between humans as well as between humans and nonhuman machines.
In his chapter on carpentry,5 Bogost describes a 1998 research project at Georgia Tech that developed and built an “Aware Home,” a residence north of the Georgia Tech campus that was outfitted with wireless devices, screens, interfaces, cameras, and sensors. Dubbed the Tableau Machine by researchers, this “smart” project sought to represent the perceptual apparatus of the house—that is, what a thing such as house “perceives” about its occupants—by harnessing data received by the sensors and interpreted through a custom-built visual algorithm that measures motion (106). Rather than simply reproduce these visualizations as, for example, a surveillance camera might, Tableau Machine instead offered residents representations of the home’s perception of them as “an occasionally changing work of abstract art shown on a plasma display mounted in the home” (107). As Bogost recounts, the researchers’ aims were to produce an “alien presence” that “does not try to mimic human perception and interpretation, but rather to open a non-human, alien perspective onto everyday activity” (qtd. in Bogost 106). As Bogost puts it, “[Tableau Machine’s] creators surmise that the home can perceive, but they add an additional presumption: a home’s perception is unfathomable by its human occupants. Instead of understanding it, the best we can do is trace the edges of its dark noise, producing a caricature of its experience in a form we can recognize” (107).
Figure 3: Tableau Machine. Ian Bogst, Alien Phenomenology, or What Its Like to Be a Thing (2012).
While whisper[s] utilizes some of the same technologies as Tableau Machine, it certainly doesn’t go so far as to ask what the sensors or garments themselves see or feel. In whisper[s], digital media function primarily as facilitators and catalysts for participants to explore human experiences of embodiment, affect, and relationality. With Tableau Machine, however, it is the question of thingness—and of perception itself generally—that is most at issue. What does a thing see? In what ways does a thing see? And what does it mean to be seen by a thing and to be affected by it? Much like zoologist Jakob von Uexküll’s phenomenologies of animal perception in the early twentieth century, Tableau Machine invites us to consider what a phenomenology of the nonhuman might look like. For Uexküll, such a phenomenology took the form of speculations about how animals perceive and interact with their environments. Rather than imagine animals as mere mechanisms or bundles of reflexes, Uexküll’s phenomenologies illustrate how animals “animate Nature” in very different ways based on their unique perceptual capacities. Woven throughout Uexküll’s text are dozens of drawings that attempt to represent how specific animals perceive and inhabit their environments.
Figure 4: “Surroundings (top) and Environment (bottom) of the bee.” Jakob von Uexküll, A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans (1934).
For the cynical reader, drawings like this one suggest little more than what Uexküll himself imagined about animal perception—his own anthropomorphic renderings of beings that can never be fully known or, for that matter, represented in such decisive forms. Such a reading is possible, but it would also miss the point of Uexküll’s project. Though he draws extensively on then current research on animal sensation and perception, Uexküll seems ultimately more interested in inspiring a sense of wonder in his readers, an enchantment with the fantastically different lifeworlds of other beings. As Deleuze and Guattari argue, Uexküll’s phenomenology “is not an analogy, or a product of the imagination,” but rather a model for understanding affect and relationality within and across all bodies (258). For Uexküll, then, much like for Merleau-Ponty, “there is no space independent of subjects,” no god’s eye view from which we can see the world for what it truly is (Uexküll 70). Instead, “Every subject spins out, like the spider’s threads, its relations to certain qualities of things and weaves them into a solid web, which carries its existence” (53). The brilliance of Tableau Machine, like that of Uexküll’s phenomenologies, is that it gathers together different subjects in such ways that their webs emerge as comparable objects of inquiry.
Despite their differing points of emphasis, whisper[s] and Tableau Machine each attempt to produce the same effect—that is, to get us to see and experience what it’s like to be a thing among things. As Bogost writes of the Tableau Machine, “it’s an alien probe that turn us into the aliens, gathering data from a strange visual field, analyzing it according to a curious and unfathomable internal logic, and reporting back its distorted impression of our extraterrestrial world” (107, emphasis original). Isn’t this sense of alien presence what whisper[s] seeks to evoke as well? And isn’t this what constitutes affect and relationality in general, whether relations among you or me or between us and the machine? Aren’t we all alien presences of one form or another? And isn’t this what pathos and phenomenology teach us at the end of the day?
If the path? are modes of openness, connection, and relationality, as rhetoricians have long suggested, then pathos might well constitute the rhetorical mechanism by which things not only relate to one another but also come to experience something of the other’s alien presence. Of course, questions of otherness, alterity, or thingness were probably not on the minds of ancient rhetoricians as they thought about pathos. Quintilian, as we saw, was more concerned with the symmetrical relations enabled by pathos—how I, as a speaker, affect you and vice versa. While such relations are certainly at play in digital works such as whisper[s] and Tableau Machine, neither of these projects assumes that the circuit between you and me or between us and things can ever be seamlessly established, or that it is at all possible to master and control the path? once we are disposed to being moved by an other. As Merleau-Ponty suggests, in the flesh each being is “bound in such a way as to make up with [other beings] the experience of one sole body before one sole world, through the possibility for reversion, reconversion of its language into theirs, transfer, and reversal, according to which the little private world of each is not juxtaposed to the world of all the others, but surrounded by it, levied off from it” (Visible 142). The flesh constitutes a sort of placeholder in the space between beings that serves both to bind and distance one body from another. The flesh is a form of connection and differentiation, a certain “depth or darkness within the weave of perception” that opens a body in two, exposing within it a “central cavity” that can never be fully known, experienced, or exhausted by the other (Kozel 42). Where classical thinkers tend to treat pathos as a symmetrical relation between one person and an other, whisper[s], Tableau Machine, and Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of the flesh remind us that relations are always prone to deflection and distortion, and that such asymmetries are precisely what is at play in our dealings with other beings in the world.
Toward a Glitchy Phenomenology of Things
As I alluded to in my introduction, phenomenological accounts of experience, including those that foreground issues of embodiment and affectivity, have increasingly come under question by object-oriented theorists. And while much of the backlash against object-oriented ideas has thus far come from scholars outside of rhetoric, it’s a safe bet that many in rhetoric share this same skepticism: how, one might ask, can rhetoricians learn to accommodate things and nonhuman agencies if so much of our expertise lies in understanding human communication and social practices? Indeed, the issues rhetoric runs into with object-oriented ideas are analogous to problems phenomenology poses for these same ideas. In his recent book on phenomenology and object-oriented ontology, Tom Sparrow claims that despite phenomenologists’ provocative descriptions of things, as a method phenomenology remains tethered to what Graham Harman has called the “philosophy of access” or the assumption that the world’s existence depends on humans’ abilities to know, perceive, and understand it. According to Sparrow, when phenomenologists such as Merleau-Ponty speak of the body as a “thing among things” they do so only metaphorically. Rather than the concreteness of things themselves, he argues, phenomenologists such as Merleau-Ponty offer only a “rhetoric of concreteness.”6
The reductive sense of rhetoric in Sparrow’s book is telling, and not just for what it reveals about his particular reading of phenomenology. By charging phenomenology with offering only a “rhetoric of concreteness,” Sparrow seems to accept the idea that, 1) rhetoric is coterminous with language, and 2) that language and other modes of communication are not objects in the same sense as the “concrete” objects these rhetorics purportedly obscure. From an object-oriented rhetoric perspective, I believe both of these assumptions must be rejected. Though not without controversy, the first assumption, that rhetoric is coterminous with language, is perhaps the easiest to contest. The second, however, is more complex as it compels us to rethink many of our oldest and most essential concepts in rhetoric, including the nature of persuasion and affectability, the ontological status of rhetor and audience, and the prospects of nonhuman forms of communication that affect human beings but may precede and exceed us as well. In this essay, I have offered a phenomenological account of pathos and embodiment as one possible framework for beginning the second movement of object-oriented rhetoric, one where we begin to shift our attention from projects of inclusion (“where are the missing masses?”) to studies that attempt to theorize the complexities of relationality and intercorporeality in rhetorical history and everyday rhetorical life.
Put simply, there is still much we can learn about “philosophies of access” and the “rhetoric of concreteness” from an object-oriented perspective. The challenge in continuing to explore these ideas, of course, is finding the places where “access” and “language” gather not only human actors and interests but all relevant beings and forces. In this sense, we might think about the next movement in object-oriented rhetoric as “glitching” existing rhetorical concepts and assumptions in such ways that something of the world’s alien otherness begins to shine forth. In his keynote address to the 2013 Computers and Writing Conference, Alex Reid suggests that we think about philosophies of access as a kind of “glitch,” a sudden change or slipping that reveals a program’s definitional borders or intrinsic capacities.
like Latour, I am unwilling to accept the premise that the natural, the discursive, and the social are separate realms. Instead, we might have a kind of hybrid or quasi access: a glitch access if you prefer. Of course we cannot have access to some pure natural world of unconstructed, unmediated truths, because that world does not exist beyond our Modern imaginations of it. On the flip side, we cannot reside in some world of signs or a purely social milieu, because those worlds do not exist either. As such one might say that humans are glitch. We lack perfect vision, perfect reason, and perfect communication. We identify our imperfections as the limits of our agency and build technologies to overcome those limits.7
If glitches render visible the limits of agency, perception, and communication, then perhaps we can rethink frameworks such as phenomenology not as rhetorics of access but as glitchy rhetorics of hybrid or quasi access. This is certainly one way to understand Kozel’s whisper[s] project and its attempt to bring participants and technology into new relations and new potentialities for being-with others. Glitch access also offers a way to read embodied conceptions of pathos and affect from ancient to contemporary times where the emphasis is on the complex relations these dispositions enable.
Rather than a rhetoric of concreteness, perhaps what a phenomenological account of pathos offers in the end is a glitchy method for bringing forth the experience of hybrid or quasi access. In titling his last completed chapter of The Visible and the Invisible “The Intertwining--The Chiasm,” Merleau-Ponty no doubt had in mind the rhetorical figure of the chiasmus. A reference to the Greek letter X (chi), chiasmus performs a literal “crossing” in language in which one phrase doubles over and intertwines with another. These criss-crossings produce distinct rhetorical effects based on chiasmus’ ability to link and differentiate one phrase from the other as in the famous example, “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” Like pathos and phenomenology, chiasmus draws different parts together while at the same time coiling them back over again. The result is a kind of glitchy relationality that, though it “seems to set up a natural internal dynamic that draws the parts closer together” (Lanham 33), continues to bleed out, incorporating more bodies and more possibilities for future couplings.
Of course, in claiming that pathos and phenomenology can open the way toward an ontology of things, I have left myself open to charges of anthropomorphism. So be it. Perhaps we are better served by not attempting to transcend anthropomorphism but instead learning how to critically and creatively inhabit it. As Jane Bennett has argued, anthropomorphism can sometimes be exactly what’s needed to break out of the assumption that subjects are active and objects are passive. “We need to cultivate a bit of anthropomorphism—the idea that human agency has some echoes in nonhuman nature,” she says, “to counter the narcissism of humans in charge of the world” (xvi; see also Bogost 64-65). If engaged thoughtfully and responsibly, anthropomorphism (a hallmark of phenomenological approaches to digital media) can help us move toward “a sensibility that finds a world filled not with ontologically distinct categories of beings (subjects and objects) but with variously composed materialities that form confederations” (Bennett 99). When we anthropomorphize things, when we glitch them in ways that interrupt the usual relations between one being and another, we move one step closer to Adorno’s reassuring claim that “granting the physical world its alterity is the very basis for accepting otherness as such” (qtd. in Brown 18).
I would like to thank the two peer reviewers for their thoughtful feedback on this essay. I would also like to thank Casey Boyle at Enculturation and Steve Holmes who read and substantially commented on an early version of this essay.
- 1. Other related areas include actor-network theory and thing theory. A detailed elaboration on the differences between these schools of thought is beyond the scope of this essay. However, for the sake of ease, I have adopted the label “object-oriented” to designate work that foregrounds the ontologies and agencies of humans and nonhumans.
- 2. Alexander Galloway offers one of the strongest rebuttals to object-oriented ontology. For Galloway, in advocating for a flat ontology of things in which all beings exist equally, object-oriented theorists fail to see (or own up to) the political implications of their theories. In a much circulated blog post, Gallows worries that OOO “falls prey to a kind of ‘Citizens United fallacy’ . . . everything is an object, and thus Monsanto and Exxon Mobil are objects on equal footing just like the rest. Like other (human) objects, Monsanto is free to make unlimited campaign donations, contribute to the degradation of the environment, etc.” Taking a similar stand against OOO, David Berry points to a possible performative contradiction in OOO, one that, for him, seriously challenges the merits of any object-oriented project: “So object-oriented ontology (OOO) is trying to do two things here, on the one hand deny the specialness of humans’ existence in relation to other objects, whilst simultaneously having to write for them and to make arguments supporting their claims—thereby acknowledging the very special existence that humans possess, namely qualities of understanding, taking a stand on their own being, etc. This is a classic performative contradiction.” For another rebuttal to OOO, see Galloway’s “The Poverty of Philosophy: Realism and Post-Fordism.”
- 3. Given the wealth of work emerging in this area, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to offer a complete list of citations for object-oriented rhetoric. That being said, in addition to the scholars mentioned here, notable works in rhetoric that engage object-oriented themes include: Barnett and Boyle; Brown; Gries; Hawk; Lynch and Rivers; and Rivers.
- 4. In his working notes published posthumously in The Visible and the Invisible, Merleau-Ponty refers to the problems of the Phenomenology of Perception as “insoluble” due to that work’s commitment to the “consciousness-object” distinction (200). In emphasizing more ontological concerns in his later works— “brute or wild being,” in his words—Merleau-Ponty seeks to develop a new model of relationality that emphasizes folds and entanglements rather than oppositions.
- 5. For more on Bogost’s notion of carpentry and its connections to rhetoric, see James Brown and Nathaniel Rivers’ “Composing the Carpenter’s Workshop.”
- 6. According to Sparrow, the rhetoric of concreteness emerged historically in response to Husserl’s founding version of phenomenology as transcendental idealism. Terms such as “embodiment,” “throwness,” “facticity,” “tools,” “lifeworld,” and “praxis” that suffuse Heidegger’s and Merleau-Ponty’s writings were, Sparrow argues, intended “to denote the here-and-now of phenomenological investigation, as opposed to the abstract or merely historical or conceptual matters of classical philosophy” (76).
- 7. Casey Boyle has also commented on the rhetorical nature of glitch. When glitches appear, Boyle argues, “an in-between cease[s] to be a transparent mediation and reveal[s] itself as something that manipulates and as something that can be manipulated” (12). Like Reid, Boyle sees glitches as rhetorically generative rather than as something to be immediately corrected. He concludes by suggesting that “glitch can help inform a rhetoric that is an ongoing practice of affirming the multiple relations available in any given moment of mediation; it is an ongoing practice of speculating ‘what comes next’” (28). My own take on glitch echoes Boyle in that, in projects such as whisper[s] and Tableau Machine, glitches reveal and affirm different modalities of relationality and affectability.
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