(Note: This post is a modified version of a response I gave to a series of readings required as part of a course on “material rhetorics”)
My response this week focuses primarily on the Law and Singleton essay [Ed. Note, “Object Lessons,” See reference] that discusses objects as part of methodology. In particular, I am interested in how the object of study was not necessarily the object of study, but the uncertainty surrounding methodology and the object. The impetus for the essay originates not from a discovery, but from the lack of such discovery: attempting to trace or map alcoholic liver disease proved difficult within the “noise” of other conditions such as “cirrhosis, liver disease, alcohol abuse or alcoholism.”1 That is, thinking of liver disease as a single object limited the methods by which the object could be mapped. “So why was this? What was the problem? What was going on?” Not a forging ahead, but a reassessment, with that reassessment being generative.
The second section, titled “Rethinking Methods and Object,” sets the stage for the problem and its possible “solution”: methodology only accounted for the object as something that could be accounted for in a single dimension. This speaks back to Law’s introduction to Aircraft Stories in which he discusses both the Modern and Postmodern predicaments of methodology, by which we either assume the smooth unity of observation or shatter it into infinite and intractable multiplicity. Law’s response, harkening back to Bruno Latour’s “Compositionist’s Manifesto,” is to build a singularity from the multiplicity, and to do so with the understanding that the narratives we construct pertaining to particular objects only construct objects from “fractional” possibilities.
Law muses that the “Euro-American culture doesn’t really have the language that it needs to imagine possibilities of this kind . . . this is one of the reasons why the postmodern reaction . . . still finds itself trapped within a version of the modern predicament. For if things don’t cohere together . . . then it is usually assumed that they don’t cohere at all.”2 That is to say, it is either the purity of coherence or the purity of incoherence. But through “Object Lessons,” we see Law and Singleton approach the fractional nature of Liver Disease precisely as a problem of methodology qua generative tension between these ideal, pure states, and present the reader with the possibility that questions of methodology are essentially questions of ontology. Or, to be more precise, it isn’t a matter of one preceding the other (ontology precedes and dictates proper methodology vs. methodology constructs infinite multiple ontologies). Rather, methodology is a mode of being that makes visible particular aspects of the object. This does not mean that the object contains a singular description to which methodological practices can attain, but that objects, like sub-atomic particles, also participate in various modes of being (Euclidean, cybernetic, managerial, etc.).
So, Law and Singleton’s introduction of the “fire” object represents a reassessment of methodology through the narration of an object with presences and absences (that is narrating with the understanding that something always “escapes”).3 We can, I think, make a case for a link between this idea and our discussion of Bruno Latour’s call for radical empiricism (later experimental metaphysics). What I wonder, at the tail end of this, is how we discuss methodology in terms of rhetoric? The rush seems to be, at least in my readings thus far, to fall into the (post)modern problem Law lays out in Aircraft Stories: either we discuss rhetoric (or concerned topics of subjectivity, agency, intentionality, etc.) as a monolithic subject, or as a hopelessly fragmented series of situated “sub-subjects.” Or, following that, how do we define methodological “rigor” in terms of questions regarding rhetoric? What does it mean to empirically work on an object such as rhetoric, to build narrations about rhetoric as a fractional and discontinuous object? And what does this mean for ethics in terms of research? What are the implications for the scholarship produced by our field, if we takes these ideas to heart?