A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Composing Objects: Prospects for a Digital Rhetoric

Alex Reid, SUNY Buffalo

Enculturation: http://enculturation.net/composing-objects
(Published: October 10, 2012)


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Last year, at a town hall meeting on digital humanities, I said that one of the things I like about this conference is that it operates on the basis of affinity rather than membership. And I meant that quite literally; there’s nothing to be a member of here. As such it has a less territorializing motive than other conferences, which perhaps also makes it slightly more precarious. Our unifying principle is a t-shirt. However, I would like to amend that claim today and characterize our affinity as a shared interest in composing, but I am reluctant to do that. I am reluctant because composing quickly becomes composition and captures us within the gravitational force of our discipline. That is, it becomes a form of membership rather than an affinity. So I need to proceed carefully.

There’s no doubt that part of our interest in composing is a disciplinary interest. However, I imagine that our interest precedes and exceeds that disciplinary connection. More importantly, at least for the purposes of my talk today, composing, this object with which we share an affinity, exceeds our disciplinary interests, exceeds our combined relations. And this is how I come to the subject of my remarks: “Composing Objects.” Not composing objects, as in the tools we use to compose or the process by which we compose objects, but rather the objections, the obstacles, that composing raises. It is admittedly unusual to address composing as a thing and even stranger as a thing that raises objections. Composing offers an excellent encapsulation of a bifurcated ontology, bifurcated at least in our limited ability to understand it, constituting both object and process, thing and activity. Composing is a thing we do, and as we know, composing doesn’t always work out as planned. Composing objects to our will. It is not a mute, neutral tool waiting to serve. Our interest in composing is what brings us into ongoing contact with the world. By composing it becomes difficult to imagine we are alone in our minds with our ideas, particularly when we take up new composing objects that make unexpected demands.

Behind me you can see some images and videos cycling. These are all examples of what is being called the “ New Aesthetic.” In a few minutes I will be discussing the new aesthetic in some detail, but, as way of introduction, I will say that the new aesthetic is an investigation into the aesthetics of digital objects, not so much our aesthetic experience with digital art or design but rather the aesthetic experiences of the objects themselves, how they perceive and respond to the world. Just as it is difficult to imagine composing raising objections, it is difficult to extend aesthetic responses to a camera, an arphid scanner, or a software application designed to read and score student essays. Objections and aesthetics are bundled together in the realm of subjectivity, and for centuries, in the modern world, we have worked hard to separate the realm of natural and technoscientific objects from the social, human realm where aesthetics are ordinary. No doubt you are having aesthetic responses to your lunch right now, and objections are possible. In fact, you might be formulating them as I speak.

And yet, despite those objections, we know it takes a great deal of effort to keep the human world and the world of objects separate. We see the contradictions of this work in our own field of computers and writing. Clearly we recognize the significant role that technologies play in rhetorical practice. In branching out into digital scholarship, we encounter the objections of technologies to our plans all the time, though we may not articulate them as such. And when we mutter under our breath that some damn application doesn’t want to let us do something, we know we don’t really mean that, don’t really mean to extend to some object some kind of agency to object. But I am suggesting that perhaps we should. We see composing practices shifting all around us. Even beyond this hall and beyond this discipline, there is a familiar conversation of the effects of technology upon writing, usually in some alarmist tone, or alternately in a celebratory one. But even then, we speak of mute tools devoid of their own agency or sensibility.

I’m sure we each can offer theories as to why this is the case. And I am not here today to assign blame, to scold, or even to rally the troops. Instead, I want to offer a perspective on what might be at stake here for us and why this digital technological shift has been so difficult for the humanities as we watch the marketplace, many industries, and broad swaths of our culture leave us behind. And I want to begin with two quotes from 20 years ago, the first coming from Lester Faigley’s Fragments of Rationality, published in 1992. The book appears at a time when our field was trying to understand the role of postmodernism and cultural studies, hence it’s subtitle: postmodernity and the subject of composition. Faigley writes, “many of the fault lines in composition studies are disagreements over the subjectivities that teachers of writing want students to occupy” (17). We can read this two ways. First, Faigley was observing that the disagreements among composition scholars could be understood in terms of the different ways they theorized subjectivity. This is perhaps still true, though the theories have changed somewhat. The second more complicated reading focuses on the desires of teachers for students to occupy particular subjective positions. That is, fault lines emerge over our desire for students to think and feel, or at least behave, in certain ways. Faigley devotes a chapter to the development of the networked classroom and specifically his practice of having his students participate in a chatroom using pseudonyms. His ambivalence over the results is emblematic of the ways in which we have understood composing as a matter of discourse, culture, ideology, and subjectivity, even when we introduce matters of technology. Why is it, even when we focus upon technology, we turn to subjectivity and discourse? We hold out the hope that technology will offer some solution to an ideological problem. As this famous New Yorker cartoon from 1993 (Figure 1, below), suggests: the Internet can solve the problems of identity. And when it doesn’t, when it instead exacerbates them, as Faigley discovers, then that becomes a criticism. What relationship do we imagine exists among technological objects, language, and social relations that we come to formulate not only the Internet but also our discipline in these ways?

Figure 1

Figure 1

The second quote comes from Bruno Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern, which was published in 1991 and appeared in English in 1993. It is a text that has become increasingly familiar to our field in the last decade, though was far less so 20 years ago. Here Latour argues that, “So long as humanism is constructed through contrast with the object that has been abandoned to epistemology, neither the human nor the nonhuman can be understood. Where are we to situate the human?” (136). Is this the same question that Faigley’s teachers of writing ponder regarding the subjectivities students occupy? I don’t believe it is, and it is in the shift that underlies the difference between these positions that we might find prospects for a digital rhetoric. Latour’s central argument, simply put, is that the divide we have created between the natural world and the social world is untenable. To be sure, we have discussed materiality and material conditions to no end, but almost always in the context of discourse and ideology. Rarely have we considered objects themselves, let alone the objections they might raise.

Though we have seen a growing interest in Latour in our field, I think it is important to note the ambivalent role of rhetoric and writing in his work. In his well-known investigation of the modern split of the world into social and natural spaces, Latour often speaks of this division in terms of two kinds of representation: political representation in a social sphere and scientific representation in the description of the natural world. These are his two branches of government and “the representation of nonhumans belongs to science, but science is not allowed to appeal to politics; the representation of citizens belongs to politics, but politics is not allowed to have any relation to the nonhumans produced and mobilized by science and technology” (We Have Never Been Modern 28). Rhetoric, or more precisely, symbolic behavior, stands in between.

Speaking subjects are transformed into so many fictions generated by meaning effects; as for the author, he is no longer anything but the artifact of his own writings. The objects being spoken of become reality effects gliding over the surface of the writing. Everything becomes sign and sign system: architecture and cooking, fashion and mythology, politics—even the unconscious itself. (63)

This poststructuralist, linguistic turn is familiar language for us. Latour’s complaint is not that discourse comes to play this mediating role but rather the manner in which we have kept science, nature, and language as separate non-communicating spaces. Instead, the fundamental call of Latour’s work is to bring these spaces into communication with one another in the production of hybrid or quasi-objects. And this is the strange place where computers and writing has resided for thirty years, in a field that concerns itself with discourse and with the social, it has investigated technological objects. It has been difficult over that time to frame our discussions of technology except in terms of ideological, social forces or subjective, psychological effects. At the same time, our investigation of digital technologies offers a significant opportunity to stitch back together these three realms. Latour recognizes this as well when he discusses writing and later compositionism.

In this extended passage from Reassembling the Social Latour describes writing:

we, who have been trained in science studies, don’t need to ignore the thickness of any given text, its pitfalls, its dangers, its awful way to make you say things you don’t want to say, its opacity, its resistance, its mutability, its tropism.We know too well that, even in ‘hard’ sciences, authors clumsily try to write texts about difficult matters of concern. There is no plausible reason why our texts would be more transparent and unmediated than the reports coming out of their laboratories. Since we are all aware that fabrication and artificiality are not the opposite of truth and objectivity, we have no hesitation in highlighting the text itself as a mediator. But for this very same reason, we don’t have to abandon the traditional goal of reaching objectivity simply because we consider with great care the heavy textual machinery. Our texts, like those of our fellow scientists, run the parallel course of being artificial and accurate: all the more accurate because they are artificial. But our texts, like those of our fellow scientists, run the risk of being simply artificial, that is full of artifacts. The difference is not between those who know for certain and those who write texts, between ‘scientific’ and ‘literary’ minds, between ‘esprit de géométrie’ and ‘esprit de finesse ’, but between those who write bad texts and those who write good ones. (124)

I would say this could also be true for those of us who have been trained in rhetoric. Certainly the first part is largely true of rhetoricians. We recognize the thickness of texts. I am less sure if “we” share the awareness that fabrication is not the opposite of objectivity but rather that artificiality and accuracy are partners. This is the other key element of Latour’s work for us: his recognition that representation, whether political or scientific, is constructed from the deployment of quasi-objects, but that this construction does not itself make the representations any less accurate or objective. The real question is not whether something is constructed or true but whether the construction, the composition, is good or bad. As I see it, the difficulty that we might have recognizing the objections of composing might be tied to the challenge of understanding the link between the artificial and the accurate. If we imagine knowledge as built from a network of other objects, then perhaps we can also see the way in which those objects’ objections would participate in the act of composing. Of course, the term “objection” might still seem to be injecting an unnecessary vitalism into these objects, but I want to suspend that concern for a moment and introduce the other theme of this talk, the prospects of a digital rhetoric.

In his recent “An Attempt at a ‘Compositionist Manifesto,’” Latour connects his interest in composing directly with a pressing exigency: our ecological crisis. In doing so, he calls for a different notion of the future than the one offered by modernity and so many manifestos. Just as he described his actor-network theory as a process of slowly following trails, like an ant, the action of compositionism is “one of tentative and precautionary progression . There is still a movement. Something is still going forward. But ... the tenor is entirely different” (473). My topic this afternoon is not the environment, but I am interested in our notions of futurity. I believe rhetoric and composition, and computers and writing in particular, are unique in the humanities for the degree to which they concern themselves with the future. If we think of the digital humanities as an effort to grapple with emerging technologies, we might likewise see digital rhetoric and composition as meeting the rhetorical challenges of the future. And it is here that I believe that the affinity we share with Latour for composing suggests a shared view on how the future should be constructed “from utterly heterogeneous parts that will never make a whole, but at best a fragile, revisable, and diverse composite material” (474).

This is a departure from the modern view of the future. Undoubtedly modernity defined itself by its break with the past, the familiar refrain to “make it new.” For Latour, however, the modern emphasis on the future was always formed by looking backward, as an escape from the past. As such, he seeks a different kind of invention, one that is made facing forward, looking at the object to be composed, but more importantly a composition that recognizes its hybridity, its intermixing of the natural, social, and discursive. I believe these are also our concerns in computers and writing. Those of us who have maintained computer labs or networks. Those who have built websites or software. And those who have run writing programs or scholarly publications. We have all had the opportunity to see composing in this way, as building from heterogeneous parts. It is likely that we have all encountered the humanities as a particularly backwards-looking enterprise; we have seen the backwards-looking futures our disciplines have built. And Latour is not asking us to abandon the past. After all, that is the modernist call, to look to the past in order to depart from it, to employ our hybrid devices to keep the various realms of modernity separate. However, computers and writing, of necessity, cannot function that way. It implicitly recognizes the hybridity of machine, discourse, and subject. Perhaps we have not always found a way to compose from that hybridity, perhaps we have found ourselves doing the work of modernity, but that prospect is there for us and for others, as we can see in the work of the New Aesthetic.

The images that have been cycling behind me are part of a shift that is going on around us and is deeply involved in this changing notion of how objects are being viewed. The term “ new aesthetic ” was coined by London designer James Bridle in a blog post, and he maintained a tumblr for a year where he collected examples of the new aesthetic, including most the images you are seeing here. Bridle says,

One of the core themes of the New Aesthetic has been our collaboration with technology, whether that’s bots, digital cameras or satellites (and whether that collaboration is conscious or unconscious), and a useful visual shorthand for that collaboration has been glitchy and pixelated imagery, a way of seeing that seems to reveal a blurring between “the real” and “the digital”, the physical and the virtual, the human and the machine. It should also be clear that this ‘look’ is a metaphor for understanding and communicating the experience of a world in which the New Aesthetic is increasingly pervasive.

So whether we are looking at pixelated sculptures, computer glitches, splinter camouflage, or digital infoscapes, the new aesthetic is partly a world designed to be perceived by machines and partly an attempt to represent human aesthetic encounters with the digital world. Bridle views the new aesthetic as a response to the popularity of nostalgic design, steampunk for example, that implies that real human, aesthetic experience has been short-circuited by digital technologies. One way of thinking about this is that in our nostalgic reflections the past does not glitch.

Of course, we are not idiots. We understand that the past was not truly idyllic. However, our pre-digital past gives us access to an imaginary time when the division of the world into nature, society, and discourse seemed more tenable. Today we have a virtual world where physical spaces are interpenetrated with digital information. In such formulations, we can still see the borderlines between the physical, the discursive or informational, and us. When the computer glitches, we take this as a reminder of those borders. Pixels are glitch. Minecraft is a glitchy world. We view glitches as technological flaws to overcome and perhaps as evidence of the limits of human planning or design.

But I would prefer to think of the glitch as a key ontological condition.

The word “glitch” is interesting in itself. It was first used by astronauts in 1962, specifically John Glenn, to describe a sudden change or spike in voltage. There is some contention that the word comes from German and Yiddish words for slipping. Perhaps there is a onomatopoetic quality to the term. If you could hear a voltage spike in a circuit, maybe it would sound like glitch. Glitch was almost immediately both a noun and a verb, and today we also speak of glitching in reference to the gamer activity of taking advantage of programming glitches. I would like to expand that use. As in, I spend a good amount of my time as a WPA glitching university bureaucracy. My point is that glitches are everywhere, and they are features, not bugs.

Perhaps the most significant philosophical glitch is that which Quentin Meillassoux characterizes as correlationism: “the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other” (7). Also termed philosophies of access, correlationism describes the post-Kantian position wherein we are never able to access the world directly but can only access it through language and thought. We can never know the world in terms other than our own, and as such we can never really know the world. Rhetoric operates within this correlationist frame, focusing conventionally on symbolic behavior with the premise that we do not have direct access to the world referenced by the symbols. And, to be clear, I am not here today to argue that we do have the kind of direct access that is imagined as lost. But, 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 glitchy 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 no exist either. As such one might say that humans are glitchy. 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.

But what if we view these glitches as features rather than bugs? What if glitches were the source of agency and thought rather than their limits? If so, then we might also recognize the objections in composing as integral to the process. Cameras, GPS satellites, facial recognition software: we adopt such technologies as an extension of our sensorium. But as the New Aesthetic explores, in doing so we do not create a seamless expansion of our perception of a natural world but rather progressively build out another glitchy realm.

The New Aesthetic has been connected to the philosophical movement termed speculative realism, with which Meillassoux is often associated, and with a particular brand of speculative realism called object-oriented ontology, of which the most well-known investigators are Graham Harman, Ian Bogost, Levi Bryant, and Tim Morton.

Of these, Ian Bogost’s most recent work strikes me as most directly taking up these issues, specifically his discussion of carpentry. By carpentry, he not only references the familiar sense of the term but also its use in philosophy by Graham Harman and Alphonso Lingis as the process by which objects compose each other and their world: a concern that is embedded in the new aesthetic. In his book, Alien Phenomenology, Bogost devotes a chapter to carpentry and focuses heavily on writing, particularly the writing of humanities scholars. As he notes, and I am sure we are all aware, “even given the trends in digital publishing and online distribution, including blogs and open access presses, questions about the material form of published work go unasked and unanswered. The answer is obvious: writing, always writing” (88). He notes two problems with this focus. First, academics are not necessarily good writers. This may seem like a cheap shot, but if we dislocate the perception of bad writing from the individuals and put it into the network, as I would suggest that we should do with student writers as well, we can see this as a productive observation. Poor compositions can be addressed as network effects, as glitches. We can treat those glitches as problems to be fixed by revising the compositional networks. Or we can investigate those glitches as compositional objections that might tell us something about the world we inhabit. Both are useful approaches.

However, even when written compositions are strong, they are limited, as Bogost explains with his second concern: “writing is dangerous for philosophy... not because writing breaks from its origins as Plato would have it, but because writing is only one form of being” (90). Writing is arguably a more complex tool than a hammer but the analogy might work here. If the hammer sees everything in the world as a nail, perhaps writing sees everything in the world as discourse. Bogost suggests that humanists might benefit from extralinguistic modes of engaging the outdoors.

I might respond to Ian’s argument by saying that at this conference at least, questions of the material form of published work do not go unasked and that many of the panels here have offered answers to this question. We have gone well beyond the efforts of MLA and university presses to address digital scholarship and publication, which I believe still remain heavily indebted to legacy scholarship practices. If we look at the history of a journal like Kairos; it begins with the web page, hyperlink, and image and then moves through the multimedia of Flash and Director toward video and social media. And now there are games and software and mobile devices that we seek to build and employ in our work. And it is not only digital technology, a point both this conference and Bogost have emphasized. But despite this, we are far, far from addressing such matters to the extent that we might. And we might begin with the suggestion of agency that lies behind the objections of composing.

As we know, agency is a perpetual problem for rhetoric and composition and for the humanities. It is evident in Faigley’s remark about the subjectivities we want students to occupy, in our conceptions of power, ideology, and discourse, in our hopes for empowerment, and in the implicit agency that allows us to hold students accountable for our evaluation of their compositions. Part of the modern constitution was its attribution of agency to one side of the equation. Humans have free will that is divinely granted or a product of rationality or both. Agency is the pinnacle of being human, but as such it is also the human quality that is most easily threatened, by technology, by government, by materiality, or perhaps even twinkies, as the apocryphal legal defense goes.

However, it is also possible to locate agency in a very different place, in the virtual, potential spaces that emerge within and among objects. It is imprecise to say that agency is simply the ability to act freely, that is, the ability to act in a way that is not solely determined by some external force; it is also the ability to act in a way that is determined by the self. It’s not that I can order anything from the menu but that I can order the specific thing that I want. When I am suggesting that composition objects it is not simply that it acts as an obstacle, not responding in the way we have determined composition should respond, as in this talk isn’t going where I intended for it to go. I am also suggesting that composition, as an object or a network of objects, makes decisions in much the same way as we order soup, which is to say out of habit or by some social pressure or with regret or uncertainty, etc. etc. Now perhaps this might be taken as some form of panpsychism, but we might also recognize agency as a product of relational capacities rather than strictly inhered characteristics.

I would like the tomato soup.

That doesn’t seem to work. Is it more accurate to say that I have the inherent agency to order soup or that it is a capacity that emerges when I am sitting in a restaurant? If we think of agency in the latter sense then we have something closer to distributed cognition. Knowledge is produced and decisions are made in the network or relations. Does this mean that humans have no capacity for thought or agency on their own? Not exactly, because we are already the emergent phenomenon of other relations that compose our bodies. We cannot be reduced to those parts or their qualities anymore than our subjective sense is the totality of the parts that compose it. However, since humans do not exist in a vacuum, at least not for very long, human thought and agency is almost always produced out of the capacities that we develop in relation to other objects. And humans are not special in this way. The capacities we produce may be singular, but our development of capacities is not.

Bogost offers an example of the compositional objections of technology in his discussion of two different sensors working in different camera brands. As he notes, most cameras use a Bayer sensor where each photocell is sensitive to one light wavelength: red, blue, or green. The Foveon sensor, however, measures each wavelength at each photocell. In theory, the Foveon sensor should result in pictures with better color and resolution. However users discovered that the colors of objects would shift when the camera’s light sensitivity or ISO was altered. Where the Bayer sensor was meant to mimic the way non-digital cameras worked, the Foveon sensor employs a different algorithm. Neither camera has agency over how it senses the color green anymore than I do. However each camera is expressing a phenomenological experience, just as I am. The response of the Foveon sensor is analogous to the human experience of mesopic vision, when our eyes are confused by dim light and keep switching between cones and rods, between color and monochrome. Bogost writes, “just as the bat’s experience of perception differs from our understanding of the bat’s experience of perception, so the camera’s experience of seeing differs from our understanding of its experience. But unlike the bat, the Foveon-equipped Sigma DP provides us with exhaust from which we can derive a phenomenal metaphor to chronicle that experience” (72).

Here we can see my iPhone camera is seeing part of the audience, translating those light waves into digital information, communicating that data wirelessly with my laptop, which is then using a specific application to reproduce that image on my screen. Of course then it is also going out the external monitor into the projector and finally reflecting back into your eyes. There is no doubt that in each step there is some design concern that intersects with the expectations of human vision. However, there are obviously many other economic and technological considerations we could name. Furthermore, we could, hypothetically, investigate the many different actor-networks that participated in the production of each of these processes and devices that are now linked together to bring you this image. Where do we locate the agency that produces this image? How do we describe the cognitive work involved in its composition? It is certainly more than my decision about where to point the lens. It’s not so simple as saying that the lens has agency or thinks, but it is also not so simple as saying that I am the lone thinking agent in this compositional network.

In the nonhuman outdoors of composing objects, rhetoric has a significant role and we might investigate that role if we can manage to extricate ourselves from the anthropocentric symbolic action that has largely defined our discipline in the modern era. In my view, rhetoric, a minimal rhetoric as I have called it, operates in all relations that have a capacity to generate cognition and agency. We see these relations in house flies, slime molds, and bacterial colonies. We see them in robots and software. Certainly, as Bogost reminds us, we are seeing the exhaust from which we can derive a phenomenal metaphor. Or to put it in Latour’s terms, we must compose that knowledge. There is no doubt that these compositions are limited, not only by the limitations of our human perspective but also by the objections that composing raises for us. At this conference, we share an affinity for composing, not simply the disciplinary interest in composition as an institutional task, but Latour’s compositionism as well. We claim an interest in the composing of, by, with, and for digital technologies and spaces. I am increasingly certain that we are entering an ever-stranger compositional environment where the rhetorical roles we imagined for ourselves as modern humans will not function, where the quasi-objects that have mediated our democratic, cultural, and intellectual discourses will no longer remain silent. Today, we measure the output of digital data in zettabytes and acknowledge the growing role of machine-generated data as more and more objects become “smart” and networked.

As I see it, the prospects for a digital rhetoric might begin with an investigation of the rhetorical operation of these objects so that we might understand how our democratic, scientific, and cultural discourses develop with these objects as participants. However, it might go further than that into the composition of new rhetorics built for an object-oriented democracy, as Latour terms it. Doing so begins, I believe, with recognizing that an object-oriented rhetoric does not emerge suddenly as a result of technological developments. It is instead a realization that rhetoric was never and could never have been a solely human province. This is not a wholesale rejection of the theories and philosophy that have shaped our field but rather a recognition of their limits in addressing rhetorical challenges that we can no longer afford to imagine as simply discursive. From living and learning in digital communities to facing up to climate change, we must now compose rhetorics that incorporate technoscientific objects and build a future that includes them rather than divides them from us.

Author's Note

I want to thank Daniel Anderson and his colleagues for recording this presentation and others at the conference. I also thank Susan Miller-Cochran, Wendi Sierra, Jeff Swift and the rest of the Computers and Writing conference organizers for inviting me to speak and for their hospitality during my stay.

Works Cited

Bogost, Ian. Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to be a Thing. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012. Print.

Bridle, James. “The New Aesthetic.” Really Interesting Group. Riglondon.com. May 26, 2011. Web.

Faigley, Lester. Fragments of Rationality: Postmodernity and the Subject of Composition. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburg Press, 1992. Print.

Latour, Bruno. “An Attempt at a ‘Compositionist Manifesto.’” New Literary History 41.3 (2010): 471-490. Print.

Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Clarendon Lectures in Management Studies. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Print.

Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993. Print.

Meillassoux, Quentin. After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency. New York: Continuum, 2008. Print.