Burke's New Body? The Problem of Virtual Material, and Motive, in Object Oriented Philosophy

Steven B. Katz, Clemson University


Distinguishing between Object Oriented Philosophy and Actor-Network Theory this essay applies Burkean theory to question whether in the former Objects as actants can have agency if not motive. Burkean concepts of pentadic ratios, entelechy, Spinoza’s method, intrinsic/extrinsic, symbolic of the body, and catharsis are used to rhetorically analyze claims of Object Oriented Philosophy.

Burke's New Body?

Cosmetics, prosthetics, cybernetics, social medias, actor-network theories, digitalities, virtual realities, electracies, online literati, object-oriented ontologies. In the first two decades of the twentieth-first century alone, philosophies that attempt to shift the focus and privilege the study of (meta)physical systems of objects in the world over traditional human-centric philosophies have quickly emerged in the sciences, social sciences, and humanities (see Dolphijn and Der Tuin), including the field of rhetoric (see Rickert; Barnett; Rivers, "Circumnavigation"). To varying degrees, these new philosophies, loosely collected under the nomer New Materialisms, seem to be in a process of sublimating if not supplanting and replacing the physical human body as the (only) source of motivated agency, intelligence, audience, and language, the traditional subjects of most rhetorical study from the ancient Greeks and Hebrews until now. (The Hebrew tradition of rhetoric is generally not regarded as distinct from the Greco-Roman classical rhetorical tradition, or from the Judeo-Christian rhetorics. For a discussion not unrelated to OOP, see Katz, "Socrates as Rabbi.")

In what we can see as (at least) two movements within New Materialisms, Object Oriented Philosophy (OOP) tends to focus more on the Objects themselves as solipsistic entities (Harman, Speculative; Tool-Being; Bryant; Morton, passim), whereas Actor-Network Theory (ANT) tends to focus on objects in 'equal' and different interactions with one another (Latour, Reassembling; Rivers, "Rhetorical Theory"; Bennett). Latour distinguishes himself from the extremes of OOP by his focus on the different 'social' configurations of objects in the world (most recently in/as "modes of existence"), rather than the transcendental withdrawal of Objects from the world in OOP, and has pushed back somewhat against this more 'extreme' philosophy—even as he co-edits a press with Harman (Latour, Harman, and Erdélyi; cf. Harman, Prince; Latour, Modes of Existence).

In this short essay, the latter 'relationlists' will be less of a consideration; their social stripes, much like rhetoric's, are quite visible, as they manifest themselves in movements of New Materialism (e.g., see Coole and Frost). Because it does not focus on relations as much as Being, Object Oriented Philosophy (OOP) is the most philosophical and therefore least rhetorical of new materialisms (see Rivers, "Rhetorical Theory"; cf. Barnett), and will be the primary focus of this essay. (Henceforth, I will capitalize "Objects" throughout this essay not only to distinguish my use of the term to refer the entities under discussion vs. the more general sense of the word "objects," but also to suggest the Idealistic quality of the term in Object Oriented philosophies, vs. the more socially interactive nature of objects in Actor-Network Theory.)

This essay joins an already ongoing discussion of how these emergent philosophical movements might square with key Burkean concepts of rhetorics and poetics (e.g., see Rickert, esp. 159-90) that in the end still appear to remain recalcitrantly rooted in the human body and language as the source of agency and meaning, and thus in a stubborn distinction between motion and agency, object and body, world and language (see Hawhee; Rickert). But rather than ask how new materialism might apply to and clarify Burke's work on the relation of bodies/rhetoric to language/objects, which has been a new thrust in Burkean studies, this paper asks: can Burke's work begin to help us comprehend the implications of new materialisms, in particular, OOP, for rhetorics, poetics, and even ethics in the twenty-first century? In the language of OOP, Objects are "actants." That is, Objects don't merely behave according to sheer mechanical causation or motion, but rather are characterized as having agency and purpose. From Burke's more humanistic rhetorical perspective, if Objects have agency and purpose, would they be considered to possess motives? Inversely, if humans are Objects/objects in the world, what are some of the rhetorical and moral implications from a Burkean perspective? By necessity this essay will limit its brief exploration to one branch of new materialism, OOP, and barely scratch that. But we will begin to peel back some key rhetorical (t)issues by examining in fine-grained detail salient and sometimes underexplored parts of Burke's corpus: not only his obviously pertinent discussions of substance, materiality, and agency, but also his discussion of entelechy and mimesis in Medieval and Romantic poetics; his pentadic reading of Spinoza's in relation to motion and determinism vs. agency and free will; a book review in which Burke addresses the problem of machine and human consciousness growing out of the physical body; and coacle movements—and/as catharsis—as the basis of a symbolic of substance, motives.


This is the reaction I got when describing OOP to a disbeliever, as if Western philosophy had put its big metaphysical foot right into poo. But (deriving much from the work of Heidegger, who I cannot much discuss here because of space constraints [see Harman, Tool-Being; cf. Rickert]), in many ways OOP is not only elegant but also quickly coming to constitute what Harman calls "speculative realism" (Harman, Speculative). OOP began in the 1970s as Object Oriented Programming, morphing into Object Oriented Ontology (as if keeping up with the reality it was creating), and now is newly (re)minted by Graham Harman, Levi Bryant, and Timothy Morton, among others. Dubbed "the Speculative Turn," as opposed to "the now tired tiresome 'Linguistic Turn,' a phenomenological of subjectivity [that has] become….infested with linguistic marks," Object Oriented Philosophy (OOP) is a counterforce in continental philosophy "[a]gainst the reduction of philosophy to an analysis of texts or of the structure of consciousness" (Bryant et al. 4).

As Bryant et al. continue in The Speculative Turn, "Deleuze was a pioneer in this field, including in his co-authored works with Fèlix Guatarri [who] set forth an ontological vision of an asubjective realm of becoming, with the subject and thought being only a final, residual product of these primary ontological movements" (4). In the historical introduction to what is an apologia for posthumanism, critiquing everything before, Bryant et al. state:

Humanity remains at the centre of these works, and reality appears in philosophy only as the correlate of human thought. In this respect phenomenology, structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstruction, and postmodernism have all been perfect examples of the anti-realist trend in continental philosophy. Without deriding the significant contributions of these philosophies, something is clearly amiss in these trends. In the face of the looming ecological catastrophe, and the increasing infiltration of technology into the everyday world (including our own bodies), it is not clear that the anti-realist position is equipped to face up to these developments…. By contrast with the repetitive continental focus on texts, discourse social practices, and human finitude, the new breed of thinker is turning once again to reality itself. (3)

Unfortunate metaphors aside here to describe the philosophical effect of prior work, including that of the Jewish Derrida, Bryant et al. rightly claim that OOP is at the intersection of a new realism. Critiquing Heidegger's concept of Zuhandenheit—"ready to hand," by which Heidegger understands our relation to nature as means-ends, consciousness as Enframing, and nature itself as "Standing Reserve" for human need and use, in Toward a Speculative Realism Graham Harman comments: "[T]he theory of equipment is not an account of human practical comportment, but an ontology of entities or objects themselves"; Harman thus uses "the word 'objects' interchangeably with 'beings' or 'entities', despite Heidegger's own restriction of the term 'object'; to the pejorative sense of 'mere correlate of a representation'" (46). To summarize Harman's position briefly, OOP holds the following tenets: that all Objects, even inanimate objects, are "actants" in social networks; that humans, as Objects, are ontologically co-equal—at best (see Bryant's Democracy of Objects); that humans become aware of Objects only as they emerge in consciousness when we need them and/or when they malfunction as we use them; and that empirical knowledge and control of the Objects themselves remain, in their infinitudes of relations, beyond us.

Among some new object oriented philosophers, there is a feeling that the fields of philosophy, rhetoric, social sciences, should recognize and move beyond its historically human-centric position to consider the reality and realm of Objects. Speaking of Latour's three "purifications" in We Have Never Been Modern—"naturalization, "socialization," and "deconstruction"—Harman states: "[S]cience deals neither with reality nor power nor rhetoric, but with all of these insofar as they belong to a network of animate and inanimate actors…"; quoting Latour, Harman continues: "'Rhetoric, textual strategies, writing, staging, semiotics—all these are really at stake, but in a new form that has a simultaneous impact on the nature of things and on the social context, while it is not reducible to one or the other'" (Harman, Speculative 77).

Thus, Objects, properties as the only known entities, appear to be not merely at the mercy of the sheer mechanical motion of things, but also possess the self-determination of beings that exist equally and electrate in the new ontological frames of material, social, and digital matrices and networks. Indeed, as a philosophy of rhetoric, OOP can be understood to ontologically underlie both cybernetic and 'virtual' theories of meaning and agency. Once understood as the natural result of subjective, material, and physical bodies (with all the ambiguities of "substance," which Burke etymologically explicates in the Grammar of Motives), meaning and agency are now considered the effect of super-objective post-human Objects (seemingly without any of the rhetorical ambiguity of substance at all). OOP will be seen to appear to presuppose, if not will itself, to become the ontological ground of some contemporary developments in philosophy, science, and technology. Within a rising maelstrom of quantum and genetic modification, communication technologies, and artificial intelligences, OOP, and new materialism generally, can be understood going forward as the ontological basis not only of rhetorics of new media and digital experience (Bay and Rickert), but also of physics (Barad; cf. Rickert 281-84, 303n.5), synthetic biology (see Thacker; Coole and Frost), and non-sentient life forms (Morton, Realist Magic).

Society is treated as the domain of all that pertains to the human in the form of freedom, agency, meaning, signs, and so on, while nature is treated at the domain of brute causality and mechanism without agency. As a distinction, the concept of society thus encourages us to focus on content and agency, ignoring the role that nonhuman actors or objects play in collectives involving human beings. Within the distinction pertaining to nature, nature is treated as already gathered and unified and we are encouraged to focus on causality and mechanism alone. (Bryant 270-271; cf. Latour, Politics; Assembling; Bennett; Davis)


For Bryant, Harman, Morton, and other Object Oriented philosophers, both human and nonhuman actors, or objects, are "actants"—material entities that don't merely behave according to sheer mechanical causation or motion postulated and presumed by Newtonian science; they also 'act', are not entirely predictable, and possess their own purpose within a system of relations that are not wholly or even mostly known to us. The realm of unknowable and infinite realm of Objects is a "flat ontology" (Bryant 245-290). Perhaps the pressing issue is that Objects are not only actants along with humans, but also are becoming the more important focal point of philosophy and rhetoric in a 'posthuman', digital age. And these Objects include machines: "[W]hen Deleuze and Guattari refer to machines," says Bryant, "I see no reason not to treat these machines as objects. In short, a collective is an entanglement of human and nonhuman actors" (270). As Katherine Hayles' states in How We Became Post-Human, a study of cybernetics, literature, and society:

The contemporary pressure toward dematerialization, understood as an epistemic shift toward pattern/randomness and away from presence/absence, affects human and textual bodies on two levels at once, as a change in the body (the material substrate) and as a change in the message (the codes of representation). The connectivity between these changes is, as they say in the computer industry, massively parallel and highly interdigitated. (29)

Of particular concern in this essay on Kenneth Burke, then, is the "new consciousness" of electronic being in relation to agency, to which both OOP and ANT lead if not bring us. At the time of this writing, new algorithms, e-life forms, viruses, procreate and proliferate, are continuously forming in, from, and around media (think smart phones and computers), e-mersing, e-merging, mixing, and replacing bodies (think telepresence and screens), morphing, generating, and instantly publishing new versions of themselves (think Facebook, Twitter), all through a new reality of media, social networks, satellites, and clouds. If we can imagine such a thing, are these virtual bodies real outside of ANT, OOP's Speculative Reality, and other ecologies of New Materialism? (Are they real virtual bodies? Are they virtually real?) Quoting Delanda, who is citing Deleuze, Harman states: "'The virtual is not opposed to the real but to the actual. The virtual is full real insofar as it is virtual…. Indeed, the virtual must be defined as strictly as part of the real object—as though the object had one part of itself in the virtual into which it is plunged as though into an objective dimension'" (in Speculative 175; cf. Bryant 105-106). More importantly, whether they are "real" or not, and even whether they possess sentience yet, if Objects as actants possess agency, do they possess intention? Motive? Free will? If not, what kind of (un)real bodies are these? And what about their philosophical relation to human bodies, our bodies, half flesh, half media prosthetic?


The Objects and ontologies of OOP are not ones Kenneth Burke specifically anticipated in his theory of Dramatism. (Nor do these continental ontologies acknowledge this American "philosopher," where until the first conference on Kenneth Burke in Europe at the University of Ghent, Belgium, from whence the essays of this special edition of the KB Journal come, Burke had only a marginal presence.) Can Burke's work, particularly his pentad of motives (Grammar of Motives) or any of the many analyses derived from it, such as entelechy and mimesis in poetics, and his analysis of Spinoza, help us account for or at least better understand these "new" Objects, which are presented as both actants and environment (agents and scenes, whether virtual and real), in which human and nonhuman activities, operations, and interactions exist and conceal themselves?

We will start with the basic premise that OO Objects, like other virtual entities, are all created, supplemented, enhanced, and supported not only by science and technology, but also by rhetorics and poetics. Because the Objects of OOP are presented to us as a vision of a future realism in its infancy (e.g., Bryant et al. 7), we can and will treat them as we would any rhetorical, poetic or philosophical objects—without diminishing their ontological potency by ignoring their persuasive power. That is, we will treat them as metaphors, which transcendental, postmodern, and posthumanist philosophers (Nietzsche; Derrida; Ulmer, Teletheory, respectively) have argued underlie philosophical forms of knowledge.

Where in the pentadic ratio would Burke locate the "actant" Object? As Act? Agent? Agency? Scene? Even Purpose? In accordance with OOP, the actant Object might occupy any/all of these. We will see that this ubiquity is important. For now, we will place the Object in the agent/scene ratio, where the Object can be seen to either shift between the active actant and the environment, or to totally fill both sides of the ratio simultaneously, even overflowing the equation and so overwhelming the ratio, space. Thus, scientifically, the Object (as object in environment) is either seen as an existing thing subject to mechanical causality, or dramatistically, the Object becomes in its totality its own entire and only motive (if it has one). This pentadic view of the Object is in keeping with OOP as articulated here. (The issue of mechanical or scientific causality vs. motivated or embodied agency also can be understood to animate much of the corpus of Burke's work.)

But we will see through Burke's own analyses that this dramatistic proposition is much too simplistic and unsatisfactory to reveal motive. Would Burke regard Objects as having "motive," as understood in the humanistic rhetorical tradition from which Burke emerges? To the exclusion of human will, as presented by Object Oriented philosophers? How might physical or virtual Objects act with agency but not have motive?—an important question as we create new biological and mechanical life forms. (Will there come a time when it can be said that Objects possess free will? What will the ethics of those life forms be?) Or, despite the supposed protestations of Object Oriented Philosophy, does the Object qua rhetoric represent what Burke might call "scientism"—with the focus and force mechanically relayed as material power alone? We will apply Burke's distinction and discussion of agent/scene, which also indicts act, agency, and purpose and so engages the entire pentad of motives, to help us understand not only the nature of Objects as the new Forms of Actors/Environments (or as objects/mechanistic causality) that are emerging and merging in "speculative realism" as a new empiricism. Through our pentadic analysis we will 'begin to arrive' at the ethical relationship of the Object/object to the human bot, and some implications for OOP, human agency, and the valuation of rhetorical self-determination in a posthumanistic world.


In A Grammar of Motives, Burke discusses at length in various places the problem of substance as it relates to issues of causality and will: mechanical action vs. agency, determinism vs. freewill. Dramatistically, the issue is discovering motive in thought, matter, and motion, specifically that of the human/body. Even scene embodies the paradox of substance (Grammar 21-24); in a discussion of the pentadic method, Burke sums up the issue this way: "In behavioristic metaphysics (behaviorists would call it No Metaphysics) you radically truncate the possibilities of drama by eliminating action, reducing action to sheer motion" (Grammar 10). Therefore the comprehension of motion with a motive must connect act or agency or agent to purpose, rather than simply to scene, to give the agent freewill.

We get a hint of the implications of the actant as operant in the scene/agent ratio in Burke's discussion of entelechy—of teleology or purpose—in dramatic stereotypes in the Middle Ages, based on one of Aristotle's Four Causes, the last of which, Final Cause, finds the agent 'by nature' teleologically bound up with its own purpose. (For the sake of metaphorical analogy, and in keeping with a dramatistic analysis, I will suggest that we can and should also look at the actant Objects in OOP as "characters," which is sometimes how Object Oriented philosophers seem to discuss or advocate for those Objects.) For the first problem of action vs. motive in the scene/agent ratio becomes the problem in drama of entelechy vs. its absence. In his essay "A Dramatistic View of 'Imitation'," Burke argues that beginning in the Middle Ages, the translation of mimesis as "imitation" no longer completely captured the philosophical dimensions of Aristotle's concept of mimesis; for Burke, the translation was too scientific, too representationally "statistical," to be "particularlistically," and thus morally, accurate. Even more, in such translations, the stress was on the "scenic" element of the pentad—the spectacle, according to Burke, which for Aristotle was the lowest of six parts of tragedy ("Dramatistic" 6-7). Burke adds that what is missing from the concept of imitation from the Middle Ages is Aristotle's notion of entelechy, "the idea that a given kind of being fully 'actualizes' itself by living up to the potentialities natural to its kind" ("Dramatistic" 8).

Indeed, "'entelechy' is essentially Dramatistic, a term for action, in contrast with the great Renaissance inquiries into motion" ("Dramatistic" 7). The more mechanical version of mimesis that Burke in "A Dramatistic View of 'Imitation'" locates as motion in the Middle Ages is perhaps a phenomenon that would become increasingly magnified not only with the scientific discoveries of the sixteenth century, the Newtonian revolution of the seventeenth, and the rise of industrial societies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but also with the development and propagation of cybernetics in the 1950s, the world wide web in the 1970s and 80s, digital and social medias in the 1990s, and increasingly articulate avatars in highly well-animated environments in the first decades of the twenty-first century and beyond. The problem in medieval drama, for Burke, is the difference between scientistic and entelechal notions of imitation (i.e., causality and motion).

For Burke, the scientistic conception of imitation that emerged in the Middle Ages resulted in a set of deviations from Aristotle's conception of entelechy. For Aristotle, the potential to be realized in the human being is rationality (Burke, "Dramatistic" 8). In medieval and Renaissance poetry, "[t]he didactic emphasis (the Renaissance stress upon 'instruction' as an important element of poetry" [10]), and "the use of stock characters and stock situations" (11)—all of which ends in "moral pragmatism"—is scientistic, even "to a faulty analysis of poetic excellence" (12). In short, the characters became too rigid, socially, morally and emotionally, too much like allegorical categories in a chemical formula. Could this also describe the Objects as actants in OOP? Commenting on literary criticism, "Critics would suggest that the writer appealed by purely naturalistic imitation," says Burke, "after several centuries during which 'nature' came progressively to be equated with the processes of technology" (13). More than mere anthropomorphism, is this what Object Oriented philosophers do with actants?

Of course, the answers are not this stable, and perhaps even wrong. Just as the stuff of the scientific study of nature, its categories of apprehension, and its apparatuses of entelechy and detection, increasingly became the substance of nature, so too in rhetoric and poetry such models became the reality that defined mimesis. Both the arts of rhetoric and poetry during the Middle Ages and early Renaissance demonstrated this degeneration from degraded genus to type that Burke discusses. As Burke suggests, "low canons of rhetoric would spontaneously lead mercenary playwrights into this path since one must appeal through an audience's sense of the 'natural,' and a convention can become 'natural' in this sense" (11). Thus the typical becomes the natural, Burke suggests, which then can be tested scientifically against particulars, such as the characteristics of an audience: this is the new "bond" between "'imitation' and the 'universal'" as an "idealization." Hence, Kenneth Burke's comment about Coleridge, that "an obscuring of the distinction between imitation and copy results…from the use of Aristotle's term without reference to the theory of the 'entelechy' that was an integral part of it" ("Dramatistic" 7) perhaps can be understood to apply only to the functioning of the 'secondary imagination' and the 'fancy,' to the definitiveness of forms as objects of synthesis or mimesis, and not to the 'primary imagination'. In short, it is clear that just as in Medieval plays, a character, or in science, the empirical object, can become an ideological sign or social symbol for any analogue (cf. Harman, Speculative 16). But a reading of any of the philosophical texts of OOP (ironically) reveals that the Objects as actants are not simply stereotypes of "objects."

Kenneth Burke's assertions concerning the lessening role of entelechy and the increasing role of mechanism in mimesis (as well as any corresponding ethic of causation as an entelechy of "natural law") merely suggests, then, that the Object as an actant in OOP may be a problem of telos. Since OOP itself postulates that we only know the Object via our "stance" or "attitude" toward it (my use of Burkean terms to suggest the ambiguity of "substance" in the first place, and the unarticulated pentadic motive [attitude] in the second [cf. Hawhee]), it is actually impossible (and apparently not necessary) to know the teleology or whole reality of an Object, human or no (e.g., see Bryant 105-106; cf. Turing; Simon). This goes much further than early Latour, for example, for whom normal scientific "fact" was a closed black box into which all the history, theories, examples, experiments, apparatuses, arguments, assumptions, and uncertainties have been stuffed, and by consensus, shut (e.g. Latour, Laboratory Life; Science in Action).

In addition, since teleology itself is its own teleology, a kind of "natural determinism" that can be understood in its strong form to actually preclude freewill (the ability to become something else), our discussion thus far merely implies that OOP is a debased version of a philosophy of Final Cause, one that is perhaps more closely related to Material Cause (substance), Formal Cause (form), or in 'worst case' scenarios, Efficient Cause (its 'trigger,' or origin), than Final Cause, which is the most purposeful (see Aristotle, Physics). While OOP is more "action-oriented" and less "motivated," this in and of itself does not negate agency, although it lessens that component of rhetorical motive within it. Therefore, to say that Burke would regard OOP as a new scientism, never mind a transcendental empiricism that also would compete with Dramatistism, is merely to acknowledge possible positional relations of philosophical and rhetorical elements within and without the Object, which for Object Oriented Philosophers is central to "understanding" the unknowable interior (what used to be called 'essence'?), as well as the only partially knowable exterior of Objects (see Harman, Speculative; Bryant 106-108).


This distinction between "interior" and "exterior," or to use Burke's terms in the Grammar, "intrinsic" and "extrinsic," also may be important in comprehending the metaphysical empiricism of some kind of "speculative realism"—not only as new materialism, which the collectives of philosophy and media theory seem to embrace to interface and bring the virtually real into physically being (see Ulmer, Avatar xv), but also as transcendental idealism that they ethically may rebuke but that nevertheless motivates them and their movement (I am thinking of Heidegger here). Of course, Burke has explored the phenomenon of intrinsic and extrinsic too in a Grammar of Motives, in his detailed analysis of the philosophy of Baruch Spinoza. A necessarily quick examination of Burke's discussion of Spinoza, into whose geometric labyrinths many philosophies, including OOP, can trace some of their tangled roots (see Bryant et al.), would help us determine what kind of "bodies" the Objects of OOP are, and the implications for humans who already inhabit their virtual media worlds—whether in textual stasis, the subatomic topoi of random affect, or "flash reason" in an age of diffused electracy (Ulmer, Avatar xvi)—and the rhetorical and ethical prospects for talking about and interacting with post-human objects we meet on and off line everyday.

In his close reading and cross-ranging treatment in The Grammar of Rhetoric, Burke exposes in Spinoza's work every pentadic swell, great and small, every ratio swing in Baruch's book, shifting with constantly active and moving motive, sentence by sentence, right to the cliff-hanging edge of reasoning, affect, and materialism. Burke begins with the problem of a "naturalistic ethics" in which "God equals Nature," or "action equals motion" (Grammar 137), where Spinoza's sheer geometric equation clearly seems to imply there is no room for human motive or freedom since God would fill all of space. (We noted the similar effect when Objects are both agent and scene in the agent/scene ratio.) For Burke, the ethical choices that remain are to submit to a religious absorption (or substantiation) into a transcendental deterministic value system, or to be left laying helplessly at the non-mercy of a brute, mechanistic empirical realm run by an ethics of causality and necessity (see Burke's analysis of Hobbes in the Grammar, 132-37).

But to better comprehend the complexity of Spinoza's treatise, Burke asks us to shift the terms of "Nature" away from our "over-naturalist usage by thinking of 'Nature' also in the sense we have in mind when we speak of a person's or poem's nature" (Grammar 138). From a Dramatistic point of view, Burke says, we have the theological moment in history, when we seem to have a "narrowing of the circumference from a scene comprising both creation and creator to a scene comprising creation below" (Grammar 138), which could have been enacted by Spinoza. "Dramatistically," Burke implies, "this narrowing meant the shift from a poetic or moralistic vocabulary of action and passion to a scientific or mechanistic vocabulary of motion" (Grammar 138). But for Burke, this is at best ambiguous in Spinoza: "[B]y proclaiming the two circumferences to be identical in scope," Burke suggests, "Spinoza leaves you somewhat undecided whether he has naturalized God or deified Nature. The thought readily suggests why pantheism provides a perfect transition from theistic to naturalistic vocabularies of motives. And we also can see why materialists could claim Spinoza as one of their own, by stressing the Nature side of the equation…" (Grammar 138). (The less obvious ambiguity of the [in]decision—which appears to be lacking in OOP—is crucial for understanding the operation of the scene/agent ratio. For the separation provided by the slash equals human freedom.)

But Burke is not done yet. The key turning point and term (Burke's "god-term") in Spinoza's ethics is not Nature, but Reason. Thus Burke begins a discussion of Spinoza's concept of "action and passion" (139), which unlike Hobbes' movement of motive by "strict reduction to motion," proceeds "formalistically and systematically with the whole structure of terms developed in accordance with such dramatistic logical" (Grammar 139). That is, Spinoza's geometry of ethics, in which "purpose retreats behind the concept of rational necessity," is ultimately motivated by Reason, which leaves purpose in his philosophy as a "terminology of action" (Grammar 139). Thus, Burke argues, "Spinoza's naturalism is primarily ethical in its stress" (Grammar 139). Further, for Burke, "Reason is as essentially dramatistic a term as Substance, the key word of the entire Spinozistic terminology" (Grammar 139). Without going into all the machinations, Burke argues that "'[C]ause' would contain connotations of action and freedom, while 'Caused' would contain the connotations of passivity and constraint" (Grammar 141). The result for Burke is that Spinoza's philosophy contains both an "active" and "passive" causality, in which God "caused," not "causes," and Nature is rhetorically stressed, thus leaving room in this partial and past determinism for agency (Grammar 140-41). "If we are but the partial cause of something, we are constrained or passive to the extent of this partiality," Burke explains (Grammar 141). Likewise, "intrinsic motivation" for Burke involves totality being delimited so that the part or individual can express if not contain the whole (Grammar 468). Thus, in Spinoza's world, unlike the Object world of OOP, God, universe, action, as scene, withdraw, making room for creation, agency, passion.

Therefore, Book I Definition 7 of Spinoza's Ethics "gives us explicit justification for equating action with freedom and passion with necessity or determined things," which Burke points out is similar to Spinoza's disquisition on the affections in Book III of the Ethics (Grammar 141). Pointing out and pursuing the strong pragmatic, materialistic, and geometric form of Spinoza's reasoning, Burke arrives at what is most important for our inquiry here into OOP: that unlike OOP, Nature as a scene in Spinoza is only partially determined, even though it is also only partially knowable. "Just as Infinite Substance goes on forever, so every finite or determinate mode of Substance would forever persist in its nature if its existence were not terminated by the boundaries imposed on it by other determinate things" (Grammar 144).

Geometries of Virtual Power

In OOP, the opposite of the above seems to pertain to Objects, not only as scenes, but also as actants or agents: they too are only partially knowable (even when 'virtual', or human-made), but they seem to be largely determined intrinsically! As Bryant demonstrates:

The virtual always belongs to a substance, not the reverse. Moreover, the virtual is always the potential harbored or carried by a discrete or individual being. In this regard, we must distinguish between the two halves of any object, substance, or difference engine. On the one hand, there is the actual side of the object consisting of qualities and extensities, while on the other hand, there is the virtual side of substances, consisting of potentialities or powers. (105)

Thus, in OOP, at least this version, the Object, motivated intrinsically, would be the universal scene. It is the Object as scene, not as the actant, that is the source of agency for Objects in OOP. And the motive of that agency, even in OOP, would be relational. According to Bryant, for Deleuze, "the virtual is relational. These relations, however, are not relations between entities, but constitute the endo-structure of an object, its internal topology" (Bryant 105). We might remind ourselves that the internal structure of the Objects is unknowable (Simon). Indeed, so are at least some of the Objects themselves—or as Harman wrote, "whatever objects might turn out to be, which remains a mystery for now" (Speculative 115). "[I]t is entirely possible—if not common— Bryant adds, "for actually existing entities to remain in a state of virtuality such that they are fully real and existent in the world, fully concrete, without producing any qualities and extensities" (Bryant 105). These are Objects whose reality is totally out of reach of humans.

In the Ethics, Burke concludes, Spinoza dramatistically has shown us the moral relationship and benefit of the physical to the human, but also perhaps the benefit of the human to the physical world—a world of realized and lived-in reason, ethics. It's not just that rhetoric as a phenomena of language compensates for division and helps us overcome mechanical causality by building with intent consubstantial bridges of relational action—not just identification vs. "function." More pentadically precise, compensation is the "purpose" the motions of rhetoric serve, and their natural or non-human objects use. Virtual Objects, on the other hand, are focused wholly on themselves. Like their teleology (in OOP), the relations of virtual Objects serve nothing but themselves, and neither want nor need nor know any relations with humans even as other-motivated objects. In short, Objects in OOP occupy the totality of space, just as Burke argues God does not for Spinoza. The Object is an amoral, indifferent, and overly determined virtual universe.

Whose Body Is this Anyway?

Where does the Object in OOP leave the human being? Within physical constraints and among numerous (and noumenal) Objects (according to Kant, noumenal objects are those independent of the mind). But for Burke, the existence and exercise of agency and free will belong to the physical human being as a symbol using entity and animal, as an agent of meaning and change. In Burke's analysis of Spinoza we've seen not only how scene may change to agent, but also how scene becomes agent, and what happens when it does. And the human body as object? It is cast among decidedly physical and thus rhetorical and poetic objects—unlike the metaphorical Objects of the virtual world—objects that we have struggled to define in an ever-indeterminate and meaningful structure that we have called daemon, soul, psyche; id, ego, mind; consciousness, individual, self; persona, personality, presence; social construction, agent, actant; robot, android, avatar; cyborg, clone, cloud. Burke ends his discussion of Spinoza by saying: "As for purpose: it is apparent that the endeavor towards self-preservation provides at least for a stimulus in the purely biological sense, and we shall see that the equating of self-preservation with action and the development of adequate ideas gives us purpose in the rational sense…" (Grammar 145).

But even if human bodies are not Objects (or parts of other Objects) in OOP, we are still left with the question of how to account for dramatistic motive of the physical human body as a material scene. In "Thinking of the Body," as well as books reviews such as "More Dithyrambic than Athletic" (Equipment 351-55), Burke troubled about the entelechy of flesh. As he remarks in this 1967 review of Norman O. Brown's book, Love's Body,

As regards the term 'body'…[t]he more one speculates upon the paradoxes of the term "substance," the more difficult becomes the task of isolating the 'individual'. We all merge into our environment, the circumference or scope of which can be extended to the farthest limits of 'nature' (and beyond, to the 'supernatural', if you are theologically minded). Even when considered close up, the identity of the 'self' or 'person' becomes part of a collective texture involving language, property, family, reputation, social roles, and so on—elements not reducible to the individual. The same is true of our physical nature. (Equipment 351-52)

But Burke adds, "with one notable exception. Physiologically, the centrality of the nervous system is such that…I as a person may sympathetically identify myself with other people's pleasures and pains…." (Equipment 352).

It's Personal

These questions of object vs. body, cause vs. motive, were not just abstract or bizarre for Burke. Burke often referred to himself as "'a word man'" and his own poetry as a "'wordy human body,'" by which David Blakesley said Burke meant "a word-being. Who 'he' is—the cluster of physiological and motivational drives—is indistinguishable in the molten center of being but emergent in his distinguishable becoming" (xvii-xviii). But according to William Rueckert (Towards a Symbolic xviii-xix), one of Burke's students and close friends, Burke wrestled with the symbolic of the body, particularly the basic bodily functions, such as the "coacal motives," his whole life (see "Thinking of the Body"). Rueckert affirms that this struggle arrested the full development of Burke's projected third book, a Symbolic of Motives, in his rhetorical trilogy of the Grammar and the Rhetoric (of Motives). For as Burke knew and grappled with, the grotesqueness of the actual physical body entails some unpleasant attributes. As Bakhtin wrote in Rabelais: "[t]he main events in the life of the grotesque body, the acts of the bodily drama, take place in this sphere. Eating, drinking, defecation, and other elimination (sweating, blowing of the nose, sneezing), as well as copulation, pregnancy, dismemberment, swallowing up of other bodies—all these acts are performed on the confines of the body and the outer world, or on the confines of the old and new body" (317; see Hawhee, esp. Ch 7).

Debra Hawhee asserts that Rueckert seemed to have resented this blockage, and the physical body that was the cause of it. As she demonstrates in a 'medical examination' of a "body biography" (Burke's personal letters during the attempted writing of the Symbolic of Motives), "[i]n the 1950's, Burke's own body was falling apart" (Hawhee 129). Indeed, there seems to be a correlation between the "mechanical breakdowns" of Burke's body, and the writing. In various essays contained in Essays Toward a Symbolic of Motives, 1950-1955 (e.g., "Goethe"; "Mind, Body"; "Rhetoric and Poetics"; "Thinking of the Body"), Burke can be seen to struggle with how to understand and represent the "physical" as motive, as symbolic action, without falling into the trap of causality and mechanical force. Hawhee believes Burke does this in part through the concept of catharsis, discussed below. We now know that OOP will not help this effort—cannot provide a rhetorical metaphysic for human motivation (cf. Rickert, who argues for a rhetorical metaphysic that is not based on the human body at all, but rather the rhetorical interrelations of everything in the environment as "ambient"). But from Burke we have no full dramatistic treatment of bodily functions as motives in rhetoric and poetry (but cf. Hawhee 105-155, who does give us a treatment).


This question of the body, too, can be related to Aristotle's theory of poetics—this time, to catharsis. But perhaps like Burke, we may discover that Aristotle's notion of catharsis was a wholly rational process (cf. Hawhee [136-146], who persuasively makes the case for a more physical conception catharsis in Aristotle than I do). In the essays for the Symbolic, and according to William Rueckert, subsequent unsuccessful revisions of them, Burke sought to counterbalance and supplement Aristotle's treatment of catharsis by taking into literary and rhetorical account bodily excretions and purging. For Hawhee, Burke, in his writings on the subject ("Catharsis"), finds some relief by considering catharsis as a crowd-polluted collective, and in the awful offal of ecology (141-147). As Rueckert discusses in his introduction to Essays Toward a Symbolic of Motives, to Aristotle's non-physical notion of catharsis, Burke adds not only pity, fear, and pride to emotions purged in tragedy, but also "the whole concept of body thinking (the demonic trinity, the physiological counterparts of pity, fear and pride—the sexual, urinal, and fecal—to the cathartic process)" (xviii). In fact, says Rueckert:

"Catharsis—the purgative, redemptive motive"—has been at the center of Burke's thinking about literature since The Philosophy of Literary Form, but what is added in "Poetics, Dramatistically Considered" is what Burke describes as his great 'breakthrough' in his thinking about his dramatistic poetics… Burke's insistence in that essay [is] that, to be complete, all cathartic experiences must also express the three major bodily motives, or Freud's cloacal motive, the whole realm of privacy. (xviii-xix )

In this, Rueckert and Hawhee seem to agree (see Hawhee 146-147).

While Burke's work on the body bogged down and at least in part defeated his attempt to complete the "trilogy," it also obviously points to the painful need Burke felt to try account for poetic catharsis as a physical as well as an abstract, rational process, and to situate symbolic motives in the material processes and conditions of the organic body itself. This may still be a problem for us, especially in light of OOP and the increasing dematerialization of the human body. As Nietzsche wrote in On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense, "Does nature not conceal most things from him—even concerning his own body—in order to confine and lock him within a proud, deceptive consciousness, aloof from the coils of the bowels…?" (6). It's so much nicer, easier, neater, cleaner, to consider and speculate on the symbolic of the Object as opposed to the symbolic of the body, the holic, the colic, the bawlic, the coacle, the cocoa in the middle of the warm we don't know. Perhaps more important than how to make meaning out of human mush are questions such as the morality of all that stuff.

Genwarks and Netsomes?

I agree that this short exposition is far too general, and not fair. For example, discussions of New Materialisms that emerge out of Bruno Latour's Actor-Network Theory, which I am sure we would all agree seems to account to a degree for the value that social-epistemic rhetorics can bring. And the idea that to survive and succeed in our communication and our daily actions we interpersonally interact with and require not only other human beings, but also things, lots of things, both visible and hidden, seems completely reasonable to me. And that these things play essential parts in our genwarks and netsomes (and the next level of our nature and being as bodies, our netquarks and genano technologies) will be acceptable as well. But Turing's test always strikes me as a bit of a "behaviorist" hoax. And now we have the Object's disappearing act. And we might be amazed at how far this can go. What was once metaphorical is now ontological. And in this ontological scheme, Objects in OOP…natural and technological… not only make up the environment, what Burke dubbed scene, but also facilitate a complete and contradictory transformation of all Burke's ratios, in which Objects are both agents/scene, with their own agency for "their own" purposes, both known and indeterminate, extrinsically and intrinsically, collapsing everything into total, all-encompassing metaphysical Scene.

On the face of it (pun intended), this description of Objects in nature or technology is otherwise quite ordinary, a simple chain reaction, a feedback loop; any thermostat can tell you that! But the symbolic of it!! Given Turing, OOP would seem to exist solipsistic, to have a purpose if not a kind of consciousness of its own. (As Katherine Hayles explains in How We Became Posthuman, the thermostat, with its self-regulating mechanism, was only the first stage [in the first wave] of cybernetics in the fifties. I don't know what wave we're on now.) But accepted without the benefit of Burke's rhetoric, if the Objects in this ontology are taken as fact into which all questions of empiricism are stored, the Objects are metaphysically stacked. OOP does have potential uses in the physical world. I believe OOP can be seen as the epistemological basis of the virtual, the art-ificial (art-official—the opposite of Benjamin's riddance of "ritual" in art). I also intimate that OOP now provides an amoral ethical ground for genetic modification, social engineering, and synthetic biology itself. And it is also my prediction that OOP may constitute the nascent ontology of the independent, sentient, non-human life forms we are working so hard to create. According to our exposition, Objects as actants would seem to lack an "extrinsic" entelechy—or is it that we lack knowledge of their entelechy? Has the mechanical notion of purpose critiqued by Aristotle or Burke become the manifest, non-mimetic, teleological cause in OOP? Or are we imposing the whole Aristotelian philosophy of teleology—or Dramatism—or Object Oriented Philosophy—on Objects, which according to OOP primarily may be undiscoverable? (Would OOP exist if humans weren't here to think it?)

It is perhaps significant that Bryant et al. state: "we must not conclude that collectives as such are composed of human and nonhuman actors," and goes on to point out that "planets and asteroids, and so on," can be considered collectives "without any human involvement whatsoever" (271). Is it a question of consciousness? Comparing human existence to the existence of Objects within contemporary European philosophy, Harman states: "[T]he difference between unconscious use and conscious awareness is insufficiently fundamental. Instead of a single privileged gap between human and world…there are actually trillions of gaps; or rather, an infinite number" (Speculative 115).


Just as Latour, Bennett, and Davis, to respectively increasing degrees, open up for us social and ethical black boxes of nature based on a priori social and/or moral conditions of a rhetoric of relations, our inquiry into Burke's corpus opens up our relation with machines as well. After all, like our bodies, it is machines, Bryant and others state, that also provide Objects a home. In critiquing "mechanistic" notions of causality vs. motivism, Burke would say that when action is reduced to mere motion, humans become objects. Is the inverse true as well? Would Burke say that Objects in OOP, with their solipsistic teleology and relations, have motive, freewill as well? For Burke, this might be the "true test" of sentience in machines. As Burke writes in "Mind, Body, and the Unconscious," "The computer can't serve as our model (or 'Terministic screen'). For it is not an animal, but an artifact. And it can't truly be said to 'act.' Its operations are but a complex set of sheerly physical motions. Thus, we must if possible distinguish between the symbolic action of a person and the behavior of such a mere thing" (63).

If in the posthuman Scene there are no absolute demarcations, no essential differences between bodily existence and object simulation, cybernetic mechanism and biology, causality and substance, we may now say: if Burke had a choice, we might know a little better what kind of ethical relationship with objects, humans, machines he would deem more rhetorical, and why (cf. Katz and Rhodes).

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