I’m re-reading Chs. 4-5 of Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology to prepare for the second meeting of our summer reading group this afternoon. Ch. 4, Carpentry, sets in tension writing and the making of things; Ch. 5 proposes wonder as a way of doing OOO, as a means of grasping the ways objects orient (124). Last week’s meet-up attracted seven readers, and I’ve heard we’ll have several more joining today. I’m not leading the group with any particular goals in mind. It has very simply been an opportunity to engage with a book–and a philosophy–that a handful of our graduate students have wanted to talk more about since Eileen Joy, Tim Morton, and Jeffrey Cohen visited for last semester’s JNT Dialogue, “Nonhumans: Ecology, Ethics, Objects.”
To prepare for today’s conversation, I’ve been dusting back over a couple of recent blog entries here and here and here (as well as the comments, which begin to explore some lingering questions I have about OOO), and I also took a look again at Bogost’s entry from 2009, “What is Object-Oriented Ontology? A Definition for Ordinary Folk.” The point about OOO needing a “simple, short, comprehensible explanation” leaves me wondering to what extent the elevator pitch has been satisfactorily laid down and also whether a short-form version can adequately answer to its skeptics (e.g., those who, upon reading a bit about OOO lead with,”Yeah, but what about X?”). I suppose what I’m thinking around is whether OOO can really be boiled down to a 100-word account and whether, especially considering what looks to me like a surge of interest in units/objects/things/nonhumans, there could be a coherent statement that many of the main participants would stand behind. Yet another way, just how raging are OOO’s debates, now? And how much are new/cautious/fringe enquirers capable of exploring those debates?
Looking again at Chs. 4-5, I felt this time like writing, as counterpart to carpentry, isn’t given much of a chance. Writing is a foil–a thin backdrop against which a preferable set of practices are cast. The generating question follows: “[W]hy do you write instead of doing something else, like filmmaking or macrame or sumi-e or welding or papercraft or gardening?” In this context (and in this contrastive framing), writing is something of an attention or activity hog. It gets overplayed in the liberal arts; it gets over-valued in exceedingly strict economies for tenure and promotion. According to the chapter, these are cause for concern because 1) “academics aren’t even good writers” (89), and 2) writing, “because it is only one form of being” (90) is too monolithic a way of relating to the world. I generally agree with Bogost’s argument that scholarly activity should be (carefully!) opened up to include other kinds of making, but I’m less convinced that the widespread privileging of writing is the culprit here. It’s fine to say that academics aren’t good writers (though I’m reminded that we should never talk about writing as poor or problematic without looking at a specific text/unit in hand), but why would they be any better at “filmmaking or macrame or sumi-e or welding or papercraft or gardening” or coding APIs?
So while I’m interested in the call for an expansion of what can be considered scholarly activity, it remains unclear to me why writing should be at odds or brushed aside with that expansion. Instead of “Why do you write instead of doing something else?”, I would rather consider “How is your writing and making and doing entangled?”, whether gardening, drinking beer, or even welding (the second slide here suggests that writing and welding are compatible, though paper-based dossiers are already heavy enough; also weld-writing does not correspond to slideshow-encoding). It’s a relatively minor tweak of an otherwise compelling set of arguments about scholarship-in-computational-action, and yet with just a bit more nuance, rather than concluding that “When we spend all of our time reading and writing words–or plotting to do so–we miss opportunities to visit the great outdoors” (90), perhaps we don’t have to scrap composition to get beyond the limited and limiting definitions of writing still in circulation. And this may be one of the reasons an object-oriented rhetoric remains a promising complement to OOO.