A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Carpentry in Context: What Does It Look Like to Be an Ethical Materialist Composer?

Kerry Banazek, New Mexico State University

(Published April 24, 2018)

Once communication is understood not only as sending messages – certainly an essential function – but also as providing conditions for existence, media cease to be only studios and stations, messages and channels, and become infrastructures and forms of life.

John Durham Peters, The Marvelous Clouds (14)

Materiality—as a catchall that foregrounds the physical nature of communicative artifacts, communicative situations, and communicators themselves—is hardly a new topoi. Yet, recent years have seen theories foregrounding the materiality of rhetoric’s objects proliferate in a way that signals a kairotic moment in our disciplinary history. In 2016, the collection Rhetoric, Through Everyday Things, edited by Scot Barnett and Casey Boyle, offered a preliminary tour of this moment. The collection’s seventeen essays engage objects of long-standing interest within rhetoric and writing studies while also speaking to a larger “material turn” unfolding in the humanities and social sciences and its relationship to an “ontological turn.” It is possible, of course, to be a materialist interested in the doing of things without paying much direct attention to ontological questions. Yet, as Barnett, Boyle, and others (including Thomas Rickert, Diane Davis, and Byron Hawk) have noted, when studying things leads us to acknowledge how things as vibrant actors are “more than what they mean or do for us,” it also leads us to admit that “things challenge—and potentially exhaust—epistemological understandings of rhetoric” (Barnett and Boyle 1). In short, turning to thing theories and the object world challenges the scope of rhetoric, but it also re-frames interest in how the entanglement of ontology and epistemology shows up for rhetoricians. It presses us to consider newly the questions: how, where, and when do the actions of human rhetors fit into extrahuman dynamics? Thinking about our place in the world in these terms also requires us to reconsider what it means to act well in various contexts. Consequently, while a turn to the object world forces rhetoric to relinquish some of the influence it has garnered via expertise in argument and rational symbolic action, insights gleaned from rhetoric’s long-standing affiliation with ethics and situated ethical quandaries promise to remain essential. In this article, I argue that tending the streamlined question what does it look like to be an ethical materialist composer? can be a compelling way to navigate the uneven, evolving field of rhetorical materialisms.

This question encourages researchers to imagine how the comingling of realist ontologies and materialist practices can benefit both the philosophies at hand and actors involved in their elaboration. 1 It also provides a framework for addressing how shared exigencies unite disparate seeming materialist methods and theories, including not only research that draws on new materialisms, speculative realisms, and Bill Brown’s literary thing theory, but also research that relies on body-centric phenomenologies, infrastructure studies, media archaeology, or anthropological studies of material culture. I use the phrase “object-oriented thinking” loosely to refer to the full range of approaches that could be invoked here. Some readers may find this phrase too close to the specialist phrase Object-Oriented Ontology (a name for Graham Harman’s controversial philosophy) for comfort. My hope is that any slippage or discomfort associated with this phrase will help readers resist a rhetorical trope that has emerged alongside the many approaches associated with the material and ontological turns; this trope allows critics to metonymically dismiss the full range of possibilities associated with new and rhetorical materialisms by decrying Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO). OOO has been dogged by accusations that its focus on things spurs unethical human activity, shuttles limited resources away from humans in need, and despite its emphasis on material forces and the substance of non-human objects, manages (somehow) to favor a disembodied conception of intellect. A full recount of related controversies and rebuttals is beyond the scope of this article, but I want to acknowledge that, while some of these accusations are overblown (reactions to personalities associated with OOO rather than its substantive texts or reactions that fail to treat blog posts as in-progress thoughts rather than dogma), many of them deserve serious consideration. In the latter category, we find criticisms and fears based on realistic recollection of damages caused by one-sided universalism and “equal-opportunity policies” that, when applied flatly, clearly enhance existing power imbalances rather than promoting more equitable systems. It is possible to simultaneously remain mindful of relevant histories and to believe that the metonymic rejection of diverse realisms and materialisms in the name of OOO’s troubles robs us of diverse languages that describe the world well and more fully than idealist materialisms can.

The rest of this article takes as given that it is time to relinquish accusations of faddism and stop asking whether we should be doing object-oriented work in the first place (given how many different kinds of people in and beyond our field already are doing this work). Letting go of that question frees us up to ask instead: how might we do object-oriented work better, with more care, and in ways that are both ethical and respectful of our disciplines’ existing strengths? In short, moving beyond the accusation of faddism frees us up to draw on the imaginative resources of these theories (including theoretical variants that are directly influenced by OOO) and to pay particular heed to particular hazards.2  In what follows, I pursue both those ends by highlighting ways in which Objectivist poet George Oppen’s embedded, materialist ethics resonate meaningfully with contemporary object-oriented principles.3 I work with a specific individual’s detailed personal and literary history in order to show that (while any theory can lead to unethical activity) the core principles of object-oriented work don’t themselves lead in a teleological way toward anti-humanism, anti-liberalism, or isolationism. Oppen modeled a complex way of accounting for a self via life and composed works, ethics and aesthetics. His example provides tools for thinking through how a rhetoric of things that respects writing, wonder, and realism can contribute to flexible ontological models that are capable of guiding—and coordinating—our movements through present and future worlds. In addition to exploring the specific case of Oppen’s life, I argue that the best way to address problems with object-oriented thinking is through clear articulations of materialist practices, and that—because the archives of composition, rhetoric, and writing studies are full of rich examples like Oppen’s—these interrelated fields are particularly well suited to grappling with the problems of materialist ethics. Moreover, because of their rich archives of practice, these fields are well positioned to develop insights that have eluded object-oriented thinkers who work primarily in other fields. The second half of this article elaborates those assertions via exploration of how the idea of “craft,” conceived both literally and metaphorically, operates. Continuing to think with the specific examples Oppen’s life and work offer, I show how the writerly model of care that craft represents might bring together writing-centric models of composition and work concerned primarily with the non-linguist nonhumans of composition and rhetoric—a task supported by OOO’s often overlooked association with poetic principles and the history of poetics.

The Poetry of Things: Humans and Language in an Object-Oriented World

In “Composing the Carpenter’s Workshop,” Nathaniel Rivers and Jim Brown describe in compelling detail an (imagined) composition class driven by object-oriented thinking. Their first-year course encourages students to create “interactive arguments” and to take full advantage of the “available means of persuasion,” a task which entails (for various student groups implicated in their tableau) 3D printing, glassblowing, woodworking, and the design of packaging materials. Brown and Rivers argue that—while it may seem strange—this approach, with its wide “range of compositions enacted ecologically[,] introduces students to a multiplicity of composing skills, moves them to many scholarly activities across campus, weaves in an object-oriented approach, and positions rhetoric not simply as humans changing the minds of other humans, but as the work of relations, relations that remain strange and sometimes strained” (34). Theirs is a convincing argument for materialist composition—and an ethical one, given the way it envisions students using rhetorical concepts to address complex environmental problems—but it doesn’t exhaust the possibilities object-oriented composition presents. In addition, beyond usefully illustrating their pedagogical vision, this sample classroom illustrates a disciplinary meta-fact. Thus far we’ve done a pretty good job imagining ways in which interfaces between object-oriented thinking and rhetoric benefit both fields, and we’ve done a good job imagining how importing object-oriented principles can help us credit and consider the nonhumans involved in ecologies of communication, including those that conspire to make both reading and writing possible (the so-called “missing masses” of composition).4 However, there has been less direct engagement with the two-way relationship between object-oriented thinking and writing-as-such.

We could imagine this lack of direct engagement as a necessary corrective. Feminist new materialisms and anti-correlationist speculative realisms alike (and this is perhaps the only thing such diverse theories share) took shape in direct relation to the way high literary theory fashioned discursive structures as prime movers. In short, wariness caused by the memory of post-structuralisms’ discursive monopolies is part of what makes object-oriented thinking feel timely and useful. Still, despite such hard-earned wariness, there are compelling reasons to persist in the development of an object-oriented approach to writing. Such an approach requires continuing to explore the infrastructures and objects that make the act of writing possible for certain people in certain situations, but it also means thinking of words themselves as objects.5One problem with the tendency to use OOO as an excuse to deride diverse works of object-oriented thinking is that it has forced other kinds of object-oriented thinkers to explicitly and emphatically isolate their work from OOO, even when pieces pulled from it or thoughts provoked by it might have been generative. If that wasn’t the case, perhaps we would be much further along in thinking about what taking words as objects makes possible for our fields. Among object-oriented theories, OOO is uniquely pre-attuned to this way of thinking; it is a philosophy for which language—like all things—is of the world, nimble in our hands but also perpetually capable of surprising us. The foundational role language’s materiality plays in the development of OOO is apparent when Harman builds philosophical insights on top of a theory of metaphor elaborated by writer José Ortega Y Gasset (Guerilla Metaphysics 102-110). It is also exposed when Timothy Morton’s background as a Romanticist supplies illustrative examples for his object-oriented work and when Ian Bogost suggests that shared sensibilities underlie speculative realist philosophies and speculative fictions (Alien Phenomenology 28-30). When words are understood as objects, as they are in these contexts, their ability to exert non-representational influence and to engage in playful or meaningfully incomplete ways is emphasized in ways that compliment many of rhetoric’s recently articulated ontologies and materialisms. In addition to calling attention to OOO’s minor head start in this area, I emphasize poems as objects and poetics as guiding principles in this article because poets have been engaging language in related ways—and writing about those engagements—for a very long time. Part of my suggestion here is that elements of this long history are critically important, if sometimes sublimated, parts of OOO and its influence, and bringing them to the fore also foregrounds a sense of humility and a respect for humanity and humanity’s limits (things that ought to be associated with object-oriented thinking but rarely are).

What Does Ethical Materialism Look Like? An Intro to Objectivist Poet George Oppen

The poet’s vocation is often tied to the realness of seemingly immaterial dimensions of personal experience—to those actual, embedded moments in which wonder (recognition of the way world benevolently outstrips our perception and expectations), awe (recognition of the danger such outstripping also involves), and other seemingly inexpressible, ontological realizations erupt. The poet George Oppen (1908-1984) offers a particularly striking example of what this vocation can become when refracted through a mature materialism that leaves room for situational adaptability and speculation. In singling-out Oppen, I borrow a modicum of exigence from Rachel Blau DuPlessis, who in a 2002 note written for Pores: An Avant-gardist Journal of Poetics Research invites us to:

remember with attentiveness the poetry and example of George Oppen, who wanted to look, to see what was out there, evaluate its damage and contradictions, to say scrupulously in a pared and intense language not what was easy or right or neat or consoling, but what he felt when all the platitudes and banalities were stripped away. It is the residue of vision, the residue of hope when all due skepticisms and judgments have occurred. He called it the real, ‘the real that we confront.’

The definitional move which argues that the real might just be what harbors the residue of hope when all due skepticisms and judgments have occurred is for me, as for Oppen and Blau DuPlessis, one of the things that suggests that an ethics based on some kind of object-oriented philosophy is both possible and potentially desirable.

Oppen is a poet’s poet in the sense that—despite having garnered a Pulitzer and solicited a substantial body of literary criticism—rarely do we hear him discussed in a casual way outside creative writing circles. And yet, spare lines, direct phrasing, and evocations of daily life make his work decidedly approachable. His invectives—expressions like “Not truth but each other”—have an aphoristic clarity, which invites non-specialists to their appreciation and extension (New Collected Poems 183). Moreover, as an example to think with, his body of work is telling for the way it invites consideration of the flexibility and courage that maintaining a belief system across time requires.

Oppen “began as a poet in the objectivist weather of modernism” (Baker 55). A first book, Discrete Series, appeared in 1934 and featured a preface by Ezra Pound. Combined with the force of his poetic friendships, this well received volume seemed to assure him a decidedly literary career, but at the time of its publication he was already moving into a poetic silence. His second book, The Materials, wasn’t published until 1962. This silence was neither historical accident nor a renouncement of the values that working on his early poems had helped him refine; rather, in response to the depression’s realities, he explicitly chose the work of labor organizing over the work of poetry because he believed it was the thing those values more urgently demanded in the moment. The demands of World War II (where he was wounded), an exile in Mexico (prompted by a McCarthy-era investigation into the party membership that supported his labor work), and new fatherhood all further delayed his return to writing. One might imagine such a bifurcated writing career would necessarily feature a radical aesthetic break, but if anything, his late work evidences more precisely those things his younger self believed poetry could live up to—it is more insistent upon the depth and strangeness of simple worldly encounters, more wary of the dangers excessive indulgence of subjectivity poses, and more insistent that language is its best self in an open meditative field.

Charles Bernstein wrote rather famously, “poetics is the continuation of poetry by other means,” and the continuity of Oppen’s primary convictions across so many years doing other kinds of work prompts us to credit the degree to which such continuations are indeed possible and to interrogate the possibilities they present (160). Even the abbreviated biography presented here suggests Oppen’s ability to balance practical cautions and preparations with belief in the agential power of poems and poetic ideals. Michael Davidson, a meticulous reader of Oppen and one of the curators first responsible for the collection of his papers at The Archive for New Poetry in San Diego, suggests this more powerfully when he observes: if it is true that under fire in a foxhole during the war Oppen’s “thoughts were sustained by poetry” as later poems suggest, it is also true that “he was cautious enough to bury his dogtags, which would identify him to the nearby enemy as Jewish” (New Collected Poems xxvi). This anecdote acts as metonym for both the poet’s unshakeable faith in the necessity of language and his awareness of the dangers language summons. It is a story that yokes potential to limitation, poetry to an ethics and an idea of ethos invigorated by an individual body’s customs and accustomed places.

The “Simple Intuition of Existence:” Writing as a Point of Contact with Belief

The tenuous nature of these relationships is further thrown into relief in the long poem “Route,” a centerpiece of 1968’s Of Being Numerous (Oppen’s best-known volume). There, the poet describes the confluence of his vocation and its power in these terms:   

Not to reduce the thing to nothing-----  

I might at the top of my ability stand at a window
and say, look out; out there is the world. (New Collected Poems 193-194)

In context this passage is hopeful, almost joyful, rather than melancholy (as it might be for another writer). It unfolds as if to presage Latour’s much later claim that being “irreductionist” is “the highest ethical standard” an account might pursue (“On Actor-Network Theory”). We can also take this passage as a primer on the Objectivist poets’ specialized use of the term “sincerity.” First deployed by Louis Zukofsky in an editorial essay that introduced the idea of being Objectivist to the poetry world, this version of sincerity does not suggest moralistic freedom from guile or actions predicated on emotions; instead, it serves as a name for engagement with “the detail, not mirage, of seeing” (Prepositions 13). Of all the Objectivists, Oppen may have taken this distinction the most seriously, and he continued to speak about it throughout his life. A better understanding of his ontological beliefs helps us understand why sincerity initially resonated for him—and why it continued resonating. Perception is flawed (filled with mirages), the poet admitted regularly, but he also firmly believed that perception and consciousness followed from the existence “of something” (Speaking With George Oppen 11). Sincerity helped him talk about a poem’s nearness to that something, which didn’t necessarily mean representation of it, and trust in sincerity’s necessity as a concept led him to think about each poem-in-progress as test and teacher.

Sincerity as quality had to do with the integrity of worldliness for Oppen, but rather than speaking of that quality in isolation, he tended to speak about the “test of sincerity,” the way in which a “poem is a test of what you believe and what you believe, if not of truth” (Speaking With George Oppen 84). Refracted through the language of later thinkers, this framing of the test of sincerity suggests writing’s obligation to the question, what kind of attunements permit us to trust the world?  One way, then, to think about the relationship between Objectivist writing practice and OOO or other speculative realisms is to reaffirm their mutual investment in this question. In particular, insofar as it names rhetorical activities that respond to moments in which real objects are thrown into view and salience, this peculiar flavor of sincerity calls to mind—and in so doing helps ground—Thomas Rickert’s rhetorical interest in the bringing forth of salience and Harman’s obsession with the peculiarity of individuated things showing up for us. Oppen’s Objectivist sincerity also rhymes with a similarly specialized sincerity that Harman turns to when filling out his object-oriented metaphysics: “the sheer sincerity of existence,” a phenomena Harman carefully dissociates from any “cryptic moral insinuation” (Guerrilla Metaphysics 138, 135).

Still, we are left to wonder what the details of seeing—and the details of existence—get us. Part of an answer is on display in a 1963 letter Oppen wrote to his sister June Oppen Degnan, where he contended, “There is, in some places, at some times, for some people—the simple intuition of existence. Of one’s own existence, and in the same instant the intuition, the pure intuition of the existence of things, absolutely independent of oneself” (Selected Letters 88). In isolation, this insistence might seem wholly metaphysical, but he ties it closely to a specific landscape filled with old codgers, wooden masts, farm houses, and the way being in that place seemed to cause his entire childhood to wash over him. Later letters and interviews assert that it is only by assembling a collection of such moments defined by our “intuition of the existence of things” that we are able to build lives and communities. In these assertions, the poet sketches out a world in which our access to the most essential and sustaining moments is unpredictable (they are grounded to real places but few and far between) and not strictly rational (i.e. reliant upon intuition or a speculative realist attitude rather than a purely realist attitude).

In noting the necessity of both openness to moments of intuition and patient assembly of them, Oppen also helps us understand why his praxis needed the second key term associated with Zukofsky’s definition of Objectivism, “objectification.” This second principle of composition demanded the “making an object of the poem” and honored “the necessity of form” (Selected Letters 139). Its assertion of form’s importance resonates with the complex, aesthetic, and vicarious causalities of object-oriented work. “Objectification” further required the poet to assemble units of sincerity into something that invites complete apprehension. Seen from one angle, this requirement resonates deeply with the exploration of an “unspeakable unicity” inherent in all objects—including made objects and linguistic objects—that drives studies like Timothy Morton’s Realist Magic (16). Seen from another angle, this requirement differentiates Objectivism from OOO’s core. It resists the way anything conceived—including a concept—necessarily rushes into full-on objecthood for Morton, Harman, and their compatriots. An imperative that writing practice must aim toward making a poem an object implies the ability of writers to create linguistic objects (drafts, carelessly composed poems, prose, daily writing) that are not objects. It is worth mention, this does not just conflict with OOO’s specialized, flat conceptions of objecthood, it also conflicts with common materialist understandings. Indeed, every poem might be considered an object in the sense that it, somewhere, materially exists—on a page or pages, as a series of sound waves travelling through the medium of air, or as a file stored on a hard drive. Even memories of poems are material.

The issue at hand is, in some ways, the degree to which a well composed poem has a different claim to materiality than a poorly composed poem. That this slippage happens around the concept of discernment is useful for my study because it also calls to the fore the degree to which any materialism exposes nuanced valances when the powers of individual objects are called for examination. Whether we are investigating these nuances and their implications as Objectivists or in light of newer materialisms, we can see strong resonances with conversations in the creative writing world about the role “craft” plays in production of texts.

Craft almost always invokes some degree of technical mastery, but how much this mastery defines a writer or a text is widely contested. Technical prowess can be all that matters, or it can be a necessary but woefully insufficient condition for production of a compelling object.6 In the next sections, I trace out one materially oriented version of the “craft” conversation by following Oppen’s example a little further. While I do not explicitly leverage ways in which other writers use the term craft here, I do mean to invoke the term’s ubiquity and to expose some of the ontological quandaries that its use can mask. I suggest that an Oppenesque version of this term that remains yoked to both sincerity and objectification as values is notable in part for the way it sidesteps questions of individual prestige and writerly genius while still caring deeply about how specific poetic objects operate. Questions of ontological exceptionalism are questions that object-oriented thinking is emphatically uninterested in, so finding ways to filter them out without losing the ability to engage discerningly is an important step toward developing an ethical, materialist writing practice.  

Craft as a Generative Metaphor: How the Poem-as-Object Gets Made

In highlighting craft one of the things I mean to emphasize is how Oppen’s somewhat lofty conceptual attunements helped him tune to more “ordinary” materialities of writing and to learn from them while working. As Cope observes, “For Oppen—who was employed at various times as a carpenter, construction worker, and factory worker—the issue of ‘craft’ in poetry was more than merely metaphorical” (Selected Prose, Daybooks, and Papers 4). That Oppen was both a literal carpenter and a writer interested in the objecthood of poems is particularly noteworthy for the Object-Oriented Ontologist, given how Ian Bogost’s vision of “philosophical carpentry” has gained traction in composition and rhetoric. A term for “constructing artifacts as philosophical practice” or for “making things to explain how things make their world,” carpentry comes into play in defenses of multimodal composition and (either implicitly or explicitly) in conversations about how public writing and rhetoric classrooms can more fully engage the non-human world (Alien Phenomenology 92, 93).7 This carpentry frequently folds respect for objects’ independent agencies into a romanticized notion of craft insofar as it “extends the ordinary sense of woodcraft to any material whatsoever—to do carpentry is to make anything, but to make it in earnest, with one’s own hands, like a cabinetmaker” (93). As useful as the idea of philosophical carpentry has already been, there’s a liability there—both in general and with regard to writing as material practice. Part of what looking to Oppen as a maker helps make clear is that it isn’t necessarily the earnestness of making via hand that distinguishes craftsmanship; rather, it is a way of thinking that lets both the materials at hand and the body’s knowledge of the task at hand (and the world) do at least some of the leading.

It wasn’t simply that Oppen liked to imagine that building a cabinet and making a poem shared something. His life gave him occasion to test the limits and uses of this kind of comparison. His bodily understanding of how things got made was always inflecting his adoption of objectification as a goal. As an experienced cabinetmaker, Oppen also made language into objects. Yet, even for him, being sophisticated about the relationship between world and word was very different from being sophisticated about wood, about how it shrinks and cracks and how it might respond to a given tool. This dual-knowledge was part of what prompted him to caution directly, “The sentimental bourgeoisie believes—and I remember my father on this point particularly—that the craftsman has a certain manual knack and that he, the bourgeois, has a higher intelligence, but there’s something about his hands that just won’t work. Whereas of course it’s not the hands; it has nothing to do with the hands. It has to do with intellectual capacity” (Speaking With George Oppen 115).8 I believe that the kind of intellect required by both woodcraft and wordcraft is distributed, and that some of it does live in the hands. Still, I consider myself duly warned. If we want to extend the sense of woodcraft but are not convinced that “earnestness” is the thing most extensible (or most desirable as an extension), then we need to ask: what precisely is the nature of the difference between these kinds of careful making? Where are there useful schisms in the metaphor of carpentry? How might identifying this metaphor’s “failures” help us extend the concepts of philosophical and rhetorical carpentry?

A Technical Imagination: Reality and the Possibility of Meaning

It becomes possible in this context to think about craft and carpentry in relation to a minor definition of the word “earnest.” Appearing as a noun rather than an adjective, it can mean a thing regarded as a sign of what is to come. If we let go of the idea that making by hand is somehow inherently better and focus instead on the idea that naming a craft ethos can help us understand making as an engagement with the future—then I retract my issue with the term. This way of thinking opens a space in which the distinguishing feature of the craftsman—or craftswoman—is neither hand nor creative genius but rather capacity for attunement, the ability to tune to (and so intervene in) the mechanisms by which many orders—the bodily, the intellectual, the technical, and the imaginative—co-inform life and world. I contend that this kind of attunement is what is exposed when we admit a relationship between the speculative aspects of Oppen’s realist ontology and the manual actions of his daily life, which included many kinds of daily writing practice. And I offer the suspicion that much of what Oppen means (and what many others mean) when uttering the word “intuition” in relation to “the existence of things” has to do with ways imagination and other abstract concepts, including ontological concepts, feed back into manual, technical ways of knowing.   

Michael Kindellan, a scholar intimately and physically familiar with Oppen’s papers, attests to the degree to which Oppen worked with and in relation to “ordinary” or daily aspects of materialism, remarking:

It is difficult to describe to the reader who has not seen Oppen’s drafts just how extraordinary they are as records of process. His manuscripts and papers at UCSD are replete with copious amounts of typing and handwritten annotations crammed onto haggard-looking foolscaps suggesting incessant reworking. (“The Labor of Revision”)

Those poetic drafts—which arrived at the archives interspersed with grocery lists, phone numbers, quotations from philosophers, and observations on films—have been organized to fit the shape of a formal archive, but Oppen’s daybooks still offer a testament to the material aspect of his writing, including the “Nailed Daybook,” papers bound to a small block of wood with a single nail, the “Stapled Daybook,” and the “Pipe-Stem Daybooks,” which are also bound with the objects their monikers suggest. Pins and pieces of wire take their place as binding agents too, and letters and private musings (not just poems) often feature sedimentary revisions—layers pasted upon layers that expose writing’s ability to take on geological and sculpic qualities.  

In short, the preserved physical artifacts that continue to illustrate Oppen’s writing life are stunning. Beautiful for their betrayal of his dedication to trying—again and again—to get things “right,” that is to get things into words. Still, for Oppen the materiality of writing was not of value in-and-of itself. He was a publisher as well as a writer, and the white spaces of finished manuscript pages clearly held import for him, too. Elaborate, tactile revision comprised a generally necessary but never sufficient step in the composing of objecthood. For Oppen, poems-become-objects were not distinguished by their surfaces but rather by their ability to “hold the meanings which make it possible to live,” which meant for him, “one’s sense of reality and the possibility of meaning” (Selected Letters 123). It is the last phrase that draws him together most clearly with those object-oriented thinkers who are speculative realists. In addition to the material supports that make biological life possible, it is not the content of a meaningful discourse or ideology that makes life possible; it is instead the possibility that meaning might exist. Here again “one’s sense of reality” is not a strict nod to an anthropocentric phenomenology but rather a nod to humanly unpredictable phenomena that permit “in some places, at some times, for some people—the simple intuition of existence.”

Building a Surrogate for Ontology: Extending This Other Sense of Craft

The condition “we might live—it is possible” doesn’t mean we will get to. That we might need to do things to shore this possibility up is a thing Oppen believed and a thing our present tense demands. The idea of a craft ethos that informs attunement to environments is useful here. Also useful is the reminder that where craft conventionally means to make skillfully, the way a member of a guild might, it can also refer directly to things that have been well made by a skilled human, a team of humans, or a collective composed of humans and non-humans. This sense points not only to the potential of poems understood as objects but also to things like seacraft and aircraft, which makes it worth noting that in addition to being a carpenter Oppen was a skilled sailor. He took pleasure in those things that taking to the sea revealed to him. He also respected the threat that being ill-prepared at sea might pose to his life. What exactly this lent his philosophy and his poetry is, of course, part speculative and part substantiated by the writings he left and the writing of those who knew him well.

Oppen’s wife Mary shared as a partner in both his artistic endeavors and his itinerant adventures, and it would be remiss to discuss his ethical convictions without mentioning her participation in the sustenance of those convictions.9 Their mutual friend Bobbie Louise Hawkins acknowledges this relationship succinctly when, asked to contribute to a special George Oppen tribute in Jacket Magazine, she wrote of George and Mary both, “I love the friends I have who are couples that work and continue to work, both of them looking full size, and the warmth between them an atmosphere.” It is, given this idea of atmosphere, more than fitting to draw an introduction to their mutual way of thinking about the sea from a passage in Mary’s autobiography that detailed a 1929 trip down the California Coast. Before Weather Watch existed and without a radio, their survival depended on both manual skills—sewing torn sails to keep them from disintegrating, climbing a mast to sight a narrow passage—and “uncanny luck,” a category in which Mary included the fact that the young Oppens both had excellent eyesight. She elaborated, “We always test our compass and make sure it will be as accurate as possible, but there are currents that change with the tides and with the winds” (102). In short, sailing demanded testing and re-testing of the degree to which their best tools represented the world. Where it required constant re-aggregation of information in the Pacific Current Book, knowledge acquired via either personal experience or from other sailors, and best guesses about current conditions, it revealed: that things exist out there means that we humans can and do get things wrong. Indeed, faced with complexity, what is surprising is that we get things right enough to survive at all.

Being realists required of the Oppens, as it requires of anyone, a measure of humility. Another way to put this is to suggest seacraft make good teachers—both as physical objects and as metaphorical grounds—because the ocean cares more for ontology than for epistemology. Travel by sea reveals the degree to which even the most scientific knowledge retains within itself some mystery. As John Durham Peters notes in his theory of elemental and infrastructural media, the craft that is a boat or ship is “an enduring metaphor of the ways in which we stake our survival on artificial habitats amid hostile elements—that is, of our radical dependence on technics” (101). He means this quite literally:

The ship is not only a metaphor; it is an arch-medium that reveals the ontological indiscernibility of medium and world. On a ship, existence and technology are one. Your being depends radically on the craft. If the journey goes well you disembark onto terra firma and leave the craft behind, but if it starts to malfunction during the journey, catastrophe looms: the ship’s fate is your fate too. The vessel stands in for being. Craft builds a surrogate for ontology. (102)

If medium and world are indiscernible, then of course the poetic (and object-oriented philosophical) insistence that language and form matter—that they influence and act, that the aesthetic is causal—seems a kind of given.

To Exist in Any Considerable Way: Where the Poems Come In

We can now assert that thinking of poetic craft in relation to seacraft helps us imagine poetics’ ability to stand in for ontology, but this is the kind of claim that easily dissipates. In order to keep it tethered to my example, it bears note that I am not imposing from the future-outside the idea that there was a connection between Oppen’s love of boats, his respect for ocean ontologies (and their distinctness compared with city ontologies), and his poetics. During George’s most productive years in a traditional poetic sense, the Oppens spent a significant number of summer months in coastal Maine. In a note to his friend Diane Meyer, dated July 1968, George asserted that one of the great values he found each time they returned to Maine was the kind of daily sailing it offered easy access to; sailing, he wrote, seemed to restore in both him and Mary an everyday sense of balance, which was related for him to a sense of poetic judgment that sometimes felt distant in New York. He explained to Meyer:

The cruises re-establish a standard ----- one begins again to know how good a poem must be really to exist in any considerable way in the face of the forest and rocks and
           or how decent it must be in the face, if it has a face, of the little boat (Selected Letters 178).

This is in keeping with his broader compositional ethos. The world must provide ground for a poem. Then, once made, the poem as object remains bound to the processual insomuch as it bears significantly on what it means for the poet him or herself to go on living with “things as they exist.” If a poem, having been released into the world by the poet, cannot face the rock islands and the pine trees, then it is not well composed. Of course, this standard is one that remains in flux, in composition even after many years of sailing, many years of visiting different coasts.

The next line in that letter is, “We’re STILL learning how little the little boat is” (Selected Letters 178). Part of the miracle of this is that finding the little boat to be even smaller than they first imagined—an ontological truth which might have come as a disappointment—allows the Oppens to anchor in creeks and paddle up on beaches, to act as “canoe-ing naturalists” as well as open-water sailors. Imagination, vision, and access to the world as it exists are bound in a very literal way in this minor example. Bound via a mechanism that balances humility (a measure of lack and limitation as much as it is anything else) with the flexibility afforded by approaching smallness with generosity of vision (where generosity speaks to abundance insofar as it permits—an excess which can be engaged, which can perhaps be given way). This is all another way of saying something like, “hope when all due skepticism has occurred.”

Worldly encounters offer a heuristic for measuring one’s “finished” poetic, written work. Do the poems stand up as objects? As things that might live well among other things? Oppen asked these questions again and again of his own works, across the many decades of his life and career, and in so doing left us a way to think about measuring our own writing. His poetics are clearly suggestive of the idea that the process of making poems re-makes writers as humans in ways that are worth paying attention to, and there are few reasons for us to believe that other makerly activities—especially other kinds of writing—cannot benefit from similar standards.  

Making “The Little Words” Resonate: Being Humanist in the Object World

Of course, Oppen understood the seeming contradictions and disjunctures that someone might perceive while listening to him speak about these processes, and he did, notably, speak often about these philosophies. In defending the urgency of the kind of linguistic work he dedicated his life to, Oppen knew that his poetic belief system—his ontology—wasn’t self-evident to his interlocutors, even when they were practiced poets he admired (and who admired him). He asked those who listened to him to come along as if what he had said was true, in order to see where it could take them. For instance, in a 1968 interview with L.S. Dembo, the poet said:

I’m trying to describe how the test of images can be a test of whether one’s thought is valid, whether one can establish in a series of images, of experiences . . . whether or not one will consider the concept of humanity to be valid, something that is, or else have to regard it as simply being a word. (Speaking With George Oppen 11)

In the same interview he admitted:

I realize the possibility of attacking many of the things I’m saying and I say them as a sort of act of faith. The little words that I like so much, like “tree,” “hill,” and so on, are I suppose just as much a taxonomy as the more elaborate words; they’re categories, classes, concepts, things we invent for ourselves. Nevertheless, there are certain ones without which we are really unable to exist, including the concept of humanity. (Speaking With George Oppen 10)

This is the belief that gave him permission to believe “a poem may be devoted to giving clear meaning to one word” and to spend much of his life attempting to figure out how clarity itself operates (Selected Prose, Daybooks, and Papers 78). The poet conveyed a related idea—scaled in a different way—in the tiny poem “Semantic,” which suggests that language is nearly sacred in its lack of plasticity because:

There is that one word
Which one must
Define for oneself, the word
Us. (New Collected Poems 336)

This is the entirety of the poem; its sparseness partakes of a particularly Oppenesque generosity. And it is easy to suggest because of the way his invitations to community live in the littlest words—“we,” “us,” “also”—we are pressed by this particular form of generosity into understanding those words as vibrant matter, as tiny pluralist worlds. Moreover, here, in these examples, is where we finally see in direct terms what’s truly at stake for Oppen in working with language as a realist and what’s at stake for him as a humanist in asserting the primacy of the object world. Here we feel the urgency with which he understands a need for words to remain tied to the material world because we see how the principle “Not truth but each other” can be an exigence for Objectivist realism, despite its surface affiliation with something that seems like a social or constructivist attitude (New Collected Poems 183).

A Final Invitation: Writing Ourselves into More Ethical Object-Oriented Paradigms

I’ve done my best to position Oppen as an exemplary ethical and materialist composer by describing some of the complex relationships that existed between his poetics (including his formal aesthetics), his expressed ontological beliefs, and the daily practices that made up his life (including his writing life). While my experience leaves me hopeful that Oppen’s specific example will be helpful to others as they try to think through the nuanced relationship between writing practices, object-oriented thinking, and ethics, more importantly, I hope that the way in which I have engaged Oppen might spur readers toward new ways of thinking with their own best examples. My stated goal of short-circuiting narratives about object-oriented thinking’s teleological relationship to an unethical anti-humanism is one that requires both specificity—careful accounts grounded in specific places and to specific lives—and multiplicity.

I end by inviting readers to consider additional ways in which their favorite examples from the archives of writing practice might offer alternative pictures of ethical materialist composition. Describing in detail the beliefs and practices of individuals who we believe composed their lives more well than badly has the potential to change us and our orientations, to make us more aware of how our beliefs inform certain of our actions—including the act of writing—and how beliefs manage to persist despite activities that contradict their values. As importantly, it teaches us about the interfaces between humans and the extrahuman world. Dwelling in this kind of description saves for later those ingrained analytical moves designed to maximize our contributions to compositions (whether they be texts, individual lives, or social milieus). This kind of dwelling leaves us more open to an understanding of the ways in which the world is always intervening in our understanding of what might just be waiting for us out there and why writing—among other actions—might be an appropriate response to ecological, ontological conditions that are more felt than known. In other words, offering detailed descriptions of the beliefs and extra-communicative practices of writers we admire can help us see connections between ambient rhetorics and writerly acts.  

Dwelling in poetic description can become a habit, and habits, as Marilyn Cooper reminds us in the collection Rhetoric, Through Everyday Things, are “wagers concerning the world;” for all their ordinariness, they “are risky” (18-19). For Cooper, remembering such things is useful because it forces us to adopt a more open definition of persuasion than rhetoric as a field has sometimes accepted. Studying the habits of dedicated writers like Oppen concretizes the relationship between this approach to object-oriented rhetorics and writing as such—a relationship that remains undertheorized by both rhetoric and composition. Where the material turn’s contribution has been its ability “to spark a new attuning to things,” I ask that we do not overlook the opportunity to attune ourselves to words as things (Rickert, Afterward 231). In particular, I hope the way Oppen’s example helps us tune to the material dimensions of language and language use might open the door to future work that sees poetry and poetics as part of a more unified field that encompasses composition, rhetoric, and writing studies—a hope buoyed by the vibrance of the emergent, allied field of creative writing studies, which launched an official organization, journal, and conference in 2016. Scot Barnett has suggested, “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” (“Chiasms”). Acknowledging poetry and poetics as spaces long engaged with both “the world’s alien otherness” and the productive, artful wielding of linguistic “glitches” helps us imagine why and how studies of writing and rhetoric are poised to offer insights to object-oriented thinking that other fields cannot.

I also hope that readers who are generally critical of object-oriented work might find something worth thinking with in the poetic principles that OOO itself couldn’t have been built without. Expansive approaches to suasion like Copper’s (which follows Morton) open the door to a theory of language itself as “strange stranger” that is clearly allied with many kinds of poetic projects, and Rickert (following Tim Ingold) suggests that the material substances from which works of art are assembled “illuminate how we are laced into a dense stitchwork of things that make us what we are,” a statement which for the poet translates into an idea like language as substance illuminates human situations in precisely the same way (Afterward 229). I have extended these observations both by showing how we might understand poetic logics and poetic practices as essential, foundational elements of object-oriented thinking (not incidental ornaments that obscure OOO’s faults) and by insisting on the importance of turning directly to the ethical potentials offered by adopting a precise understanding of words as material.

I’ve contended both explicitly and through my description of Oppen’s example that histories of writing and poetics can help with the task of providing intelligent and humane responses to some of the ethical critiques that plague object-oriented thinking. As a concluding gesture, I want to double down and argue even more forcefully that we can’t do object-oriented work well without the help of these histories.  It is possible for me to argue this because I see poetic tools as widely useful to living—not just to writing poetry. It is also possible because whenever I am reading critiques of object-oriented thinking, my training in rhetoric, poetics, and writing studies helps me see two problem sets collapsing on one another. The first problem set is structured by the big question: how exactly do humans fit into object-oriented thinking and (new) materialist philosophies? The second is structured by two questions: (1) how does language fit into the work of multimodal composition? and (2) what roles does language play in the most expansive theories of communication, those that extend ecologically and far beyond semantic realms? Implicit in my wording is the assumption that humans and language have particular roles to play.

Oppen’s example has been useful to me because he was so thoroughly engaged with the task of figuring out what, precisely, the machine of language could do. That is also part of what is at stake in the argument that multimodal composition is a turn toward a “composition made whole” rather than a turn away from language.10 This argument is increasingly acknowledged within composition and rhetoric as an effective and important re-framing; object-oriented thinkers should take that acknowledgement as an encouraging precedent because of the way this composition-specific argument contains structural echoes of the philosophical complaint that object-oriented thinking inspires a denial of human needs. This precedent also encourages object-oriented studies to take the time to respond directly to the accusation that their frameworks imply a turn away from recognizing human vulnerability. The alternative is to claim that all well-conceived object-oriented work’s objective is to create a more precise understanding of how humans are vulnerable. This objective is consistent with the imperative to pay close attention to materials because many human vulnerabilities stem from the way we are sheathed in a shared world—one comprised of non-human objects and systems with their own vulnerabilities. In the end, I take my place in the “us” generated by Levi Bryant’s assertion, “While humans are certainly exceptional, for us they are not ontologically exceptional. To be sure, they differ in their powers and capacities from other beings, but they are not lords or hierarchs over all other beings. They are beings that dwell among other beings, that act on them and that are acted upon by them” (OC 215). Our capacities, we can admit without becoming exceptionalists, include wielding and being impacted by the objects that are words.

  • 1. For two alternate takes on the relationship between realism and materialism informed by related theories, readers might consider blog posts on the topic from Levi Bryant and McKenzie Wark. Bryant’s “Realism is not a Synonym for Materialism” follows Harman in suggesting that their realisms (along with those of Bogost, Latour, and Stenger) are not properly materialist, and that this distinction is important because much of what goes by the name materialism is built on idealist philosophies. Wark’s “From OOO to P(OO)” proposes that turning to the category “Praxis (Object-Oriented)” might solve some problems that Object-Oriented Ontology sets out but can’t actually handle.
  • 2. Similar projects are undertaken in the Object-Oriented Feminism collection edited by Katherine Behar. This collection offers cyborg-forward blending of (often very strong) resistance to dominant articulations of OOO and deep engagement with aspects of OOO and other theories associated with the ontological turn. In the words of Jesse Bordwin who reviewed the essay for Critical Inquiry, “Object-oriented criticism and feminist theory are not obviously compatible—their commitments and assumptions seldom overlap—but that tension is precisely what energizes” the works in this collection (296).
  • 3. The terms new materialism, speculative realism, and even literary thing theories, of course, post-date Oppen, and he wasn’t particularly interested in such labels. Yet, we might choose to say that the new materialism, if it is about anything, is about precisely the intermingling of metaphysics and materiality that obsessed Oppen, insofar as it is an endeavor to bring together diverse insights—e.g. ideas drawn from feminisms, Marxisms, and science studies—related to the world as it shows up for us. Manuel DeLanda and Rosi Braidotti are generally credited as independent coiners of the term “new materialism” (or “neo-materialism”), a coinage that dates to the mid-1990s. For an introduction to new materialisms that addresses  DeLanda and Braidotti’s formative contributions in specific terms, see the cartographies of Dolphijn and van der Tuin (2012). For an introduction to variants of Speculative Realism, a distinct intellectual tradition that is sometimes conflated with new materialism, see Bryant, Srnicek, and Harman (2010).
  • 4. The phrase “missing masses” echoes Bruno Latour’s sociology; in the context of composition and rhetoric, it suggests both Nathaniel Rivers 2014 framing of materialist public rhetoric pedagogy and a review essay by Scot Barnett that framed Harman’s first two books on OOO for use by scholars in composition and rhetoric. Alex Reid’s blog work blending thoughts on Object-Oriented Rhetoric with his experiences as a WPA also resonates here.
  • 5. My observations in this section resonate with Ian Hodder’s admission in Studies in Human-Thing Entanglement that his own earlier work focused too tightly on material things but still led to the conclusion, “it is important to extend the discussion of entanglement to HH [human-human] relations, and to a consideration of words, ideas, institutions as things that can entrap and channel” (5). The “thing-ness” of words and composite linguistic structures is clearly emphasized in this volume; where it acts in “corrective” ways, it does so by extending the insights of Hodder’s most object-oriented work, not by attempting to erase it or by providing a contradictory account.
  • 6. Tim Mayers’ work on “craft criticism” offers a good introduction to both the way writers tend to use the term “craft” and why composition and rhetoric might want to pay attention to those conversations. A full exploration of the claim that “craft” often finds itself a denigrated term for surface features is out of scope for this article, but readers may find it useful to consider Seamus Heaney’s distinction between craft, “what you can learn from other verse,” and technique, “the whole creative effort of the mind’s and body’s resources to bring the meaning of experience within the jurisdiction of form” (47). My use of the term craft makes no such distinction, and is in fact closer to Heaney’s technique than to many definitions.
  • 7. Bogost’s usage is based on the way Harman adapts the phrase “the carpentry of things” from Alphonso Lingis and uses it to explain to the way objects—by coming into relation—manufacture one another.
  • 8. This assertion resonates with Richard Sennett’s trans-historical study of craftsmanship, which argues first that “all skills, even the most abstract, begin as bodily practices; second, that technical understanding develops through the powers of imagination” (10). These ideas are further consonant with many rhetorical understandings of technē.
  • 9. A full account of their relationship is beyond the scope of this article, but it bears note that Mary was present for many interviews George gave, her words intertwining with his in non-trivial ways to clarify their shared convictions. For more, see Swigg’s introduction to Speaking with George Oppen.
  • 10. This phrase suggests an affiliation with Jody Shipka’s 2011 Book, Toward a Composition Made Whole, especially its interest in multimodal composition practices that are not digital (or at least not solely digital); it more loosely invokes other works that—like Shipka’s book—have responded in some way to Kathleen Blake Yancey’s 2004 CCCC Chair’s address, “Composition in a New Key.”
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---. “Toward an Object-Oriented Rhetoric: A Review of Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects and Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things by Graham Harman.” Enculturation, vol. 7, 2010. Accessed 8 Jan. 2016. http://enculturation.net/toward-an-object-oriented-rhetoric

Barnett, Scot and Casey Boyle, eds. Rhetoric, Through Everyday Things. U Alabama P, 2016. 

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Bryant, Levi, Nick Srnicek, and Graham Harman, eds. The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism. re.press, 2011. https://www.re-press.org/book-files/OA_Version_Speculative_Turn_9780980668346.pdf

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---. “On Actor-Network Theory: A Few Clarifications Plus more than a Few Complications.” Soziale Welt, vol. 47, 1996, pp. 369-381. Accessed 15 July 2016. http://www.bruno-latour.fr/sites/default/files/P-67%20ACTOR-NETWORK.pdf

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---. The Selected Letters of George Oppen, edited by Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Duke UP, 1990.

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