Friday, December 23, 2011

OOO as a mode of literary criticism

by J J Cohen

If you missed Eileen's excellent Swedish Twitter University lecture on object oriented ontology as a trigger to a reconceived practice of literary criticism, check out the archive here. Her key question -- which under the pressure of twitter's 140 character limit becomes gnomic -- is:
What happens when we see literary texts as having propulsions of their own, as actants on the same ontological footing as everything else?
I think she's exactly right, and would not limit such activity to texts: architectures work in just the same way, as propulsive and emissive objects rather than passive conveyors of humanly inscribed content.

And, as a follow up, Levi Bryant ruminates over the lecture and intensifies some of its suggestions. In the face of the humanist proclivity to reduce texts to a war of human-given meanings (patent, latent and polysemous), here's how Bryant expresses the liveliness of a text-object:
Object-oriented criticism for its part– and it is here where I am unsure as to whether or not Joy will agree with me –begins from the premise not of the meaningfulness of the text, but of the materiality of the text. The text is something. A text is an entity that circulates throughout the world. And like all bodies or objects that circulate throughout the world, texts have the capacity to affect other bodies. Here then we get the first sense of what it might mean to say that criticism comes after the text. This thesis is not the bland truism that the text must first exist for us to “criticize” it, but rather is the thesis that criticism is a production based on the affectivity of the text. In other words, the question is no longer the question of what the text means with the aim of closing the text, but rather is the question of what the text builds.
Eileen and Levi's pieces are both worth your time. For me, reading through them has elicited an uncanny frisson since so much of what both compose resonates so deeply with the book chapter on Stonehenge and lithic radiance I've just completed.


Jeffrey Cohen said...

Some more on the topic:

i said...

I haven't read the whole lecture, but in the spirit of tweety brevity, I'll reply to the one line. I'm fascinated by the phrasing of:

"What happens when we see literary texts as having propulsions of their own, as actants on the same ontological footing as everything else?"

Doesn't this suggest it's still us seeing texts as actants?

Anonymous said...

it is indeed about us seeing/treating texts (we can not not see/treat/use them as something, manipulative critters that we be) as actants, which is why I have suggested talking in terms of as-if, and taking these gestures/collages as prototypes and not as archetypes.
There is the promise of possible exercises/experiments in how we might interact with objects in ways that get off of the page, to create new response-abilities, but first we must escape cognitive-behavioral models that suggest that we will do better when we know (in an abstract/theorectical way) better.

Eileen Joy said...

There will always be an US; I'm not interested in modes of reading that would erase the human, per se; as I've argued extensively elsewhere, I'm thoroughly invested in hanging on to the terms "humanism" and "humanities" [as actual value-adding forces for good in the world], but made more critically flexible and non-oppressive and ethically generous under the aegis of newer post/humanistic, object-oriented, vibrantly materialist, etc. forms of thought.

Also, a literary text is a special object of *mentation* that relies upon its situatedness within cognitive and other "platforms" and "systems"--human and otherwise--that help to make it intelligible. Any act of observation, whether in the humanities or the sciences, is affected by the observer, of course [and we could also throw in Heisenberg's uncertainty principle--in literary studies this might mean something like the so-called accurate observation of one cultural-historical factor overlooks or mis-measures the import of other cultural-historical factors], but that doesn't obviate the need [in my mind] to try to stand as much as possible outside of the frameworks that only allow us to see things [including literary texts] in relation to how they are supposedly produced and received by and circulate in human-centric networks/contexts of exchange, meaning, etc. Now, these human-centric networks and contexts matter a great deal, and I would never say to stop paying attention to them [that is why New Historicism, as well as symptomatic/psychoanalytic + skeptical-ideological readings have illuminated so much for us, and will continue to do so, regarding the role of literary texts in history as *actants* in the world that are importantly enmeshed with human life--political, religious, aesthetic, whathaveyou], but I think we can also add to these productive reading models other models for reading that might help us to discern better what might be called the uncanniness, or, folllowing Ian Bogost's next forthcoming book, "alien phenomenology" of literature.

Perhaps this also allows us to revisit Derek Attridge's "Singularity of Literature," where he asked us to think about developing a responsible-creative reading that "does not ... aim only to appropriate and interpret the work, to bring it into the familiar circle, but also to register its resistance and irreducibility, and to register it in such a way as to dramatize what it is about familiar modes of understanding that make them unable to accommodate this stranger" [p. 125].

Eileen Joy said...

Also, since Irina mentioned not reading the whole lecture, relative to her and also dmf's commentary here and elsewhere, I would draw attention to these two tweets from the lecture:

--What might emerge: an ecology of literary thought where the human reader is a sort of special tuning station in a great Outside of data.

--The critic, then, is also an object in interaction with other objects, themselves objects all the way down with no bottom. All is implicate.

Anonymous said...

ej, I very much like the "implicate" point tho as I have mentioned elsewhere it raises questions about how we might know what to pay attention to, what to include/highlight, and what can/should be left out of any account (I would suggest a pragmatic process of experimentation). But I still worry about the idea of tuning/attunement as this seems to remove the toolmarks/fingerprints from the product and suggests a kind of access/channeling that gets to, gives voice to, the thing/object in/for itself.

Anonymous said...

critchley on a/theist faith, community, love, and texts as decollage systems: