I’ve spent the day working through some pre reading for the fourth chapter of the dissertation.  This sort of activity is often a very, very painful one that I’m sure many of you are familiar with re: chapters, articles, conference presentations, etc.  That moment of paralysis that occurs when you realize the cavernous gap between what you said you would do about four months ago and where you’re thinking has led you to now is probably my least favorite moment as a researcher . . . but it is also very generative as well.  In my experience today, I meandered among Descartes, Kant, & Hume before getting my priorities in order and doing some (possibly) useful work for the fourth chapter.  I’ll share and see if y’all have some useful contributions to provide as well.  🙂

In chapter three of my dissertation I conducted a (what I would call) rigorous analysis of statements related to intellectual property by individuals participating on piracy websites.  The point of this analysis was to say something substantive about the attitudinal makeup of the piratical subject – an actor capable of making decisions and performing actions.  In a sense, a rational, Cartesian subject.  That may sound rather unfashionable – especially considering all the OOO conversation that’s been about lately; however, when couched in the larger methodological orientation of the dissertation, it will make a bit more sense.  Let me explain.

When I initially proposed the methodology of the dissertation, I wanted to conduct an Activity Theoretic study of piratical activity.  This kind of work would not only account for the motivations of pirates – digital aggregators, authors, and archivists, but would also allow me to make some claims about the ways that technologies of coordination allow networked activity and digital writing to occur.  Put another way, I wanted to study something more than pirates-as-subjects, I wanted to study pirates-as-subjectivities, products of their offline and online experience as well as their utilization of different technologies of composition (more on this in a minute).  By accounting for the material and metaphysical elements of subject/ivity, I hoped to render a more complex picture of the entire system that contests intellectual property in digital spheres . . . with an eye toward future work in comparing the politics and systems of pirates and open access publication.  So, using an Activity Theory (AT) orientation a la Engestrom, my dissertation would attempt to account for the following:

As you’ll note, the “subject” and the “instruments” are highlighted in this graphic as these are the two areas where I hoped to do the analytical work of my dissertation.  I chose the “subject” as this is one area where Writing Studies has a disciplinary & methodological history.  While the work of Flower, Hayes, Bereiter, et al. was rendered somewhat unfashionable by the postmodern/deconstructive/discursive turn in the discipline in the 1990s, and despite the fact that much of our disciplinary work continues to problematize the idea of a unified student “subject”, the more recent work by Haswell, Anson, and other champions of the empirical draws attention to our long-standing attention to studying the “subject” of writing.  I got at that “subject” through a prolonged analysis of statements from piratical subjects themselves (the work of chapter three).  The other important component in my study is the role of tools or instruments in the activity of this particular system.  I chose this node because of the long-standing engagement of Writing Studies with technologies of mediation – most notably, writing.  Further, by understanding these tools/instruments/mediators as rhetorical genres, Writing Studies scholars like Russell, Bazerman, Prior, Witte, Haas, and numerous others demonstrate the ways that technologies are inflected by and reflect social motives and collective action/will, connecting rhetorical genre studies to activity theoretic analyses in novel ways.

So, as I set out to develop the opening sections of Chapter Four, I figured things would be pretty straight forward.  I’d note that I’d already accounted for the “subject” of analysis in the study and would now turn toward the “subjectivity”.  Wait, that’s far too convenient shorthand.  What I mean is that Chapter 3 studied the “writer” or the material object of inquiry constructed in realist terms, a figure that is caught up in textual relations but is, in the final analysis, “not caught in the play of difference” (235).  In other words, Chapter 3 took up study of the empirical – in method and epistemology.  Chapter 4 would instead look to the diffused “subjectivity” that has occupied hermeneutics in the academy since the discursive turn in the late 1980s (but, apparently, often fails to make leaps into praxis or research studies that speak to administrative demands/requests).  To do this, I hoped to bring together work in the posthumanities concerning distributed identity, cyborgization, and constructivism with an analysis of the elements that contribute to that identity: namely, technological mediators that function as genres in this particular activity system.  If that sounds convoluted, it is.  Maybe this graphic will help:

This all seemed fairly straightforward until I started digging around a bit, attempting to pry deeper into a claim that I long believed to be true – or at least wanted to believe (and possibly still do).  Obviously, when we move toward distributed, emergent subjectivity there is a concomitant shift in the way we perceive objects – they often are related participants in the creation of a self – especially when one’s identity (as in this study) is wrapped up in multiple layers of technological mediation.  In other words, objects exert agency and effect our life-worlds in important ways.  You probably remember this if during coursework you ran across the hi-larious and infinitely interesting article “Mixing Humans and Nonhumans Together: The Sociology of a Door-Closer” by “Jim Johnson” aka Bruno Latour.  But this question of object-agency created real questions for my own work with Activity Theory – not so much in the question of whether objects can have agency – that became an interesting detail subordinated to a bigger question:  when researching distributed subjectivity as emergent identity in technological milieus,  am I posing an object oriented ontology or am I (productively!) bound to correlationism?   And, relatedly, where do Activity Theory and Bruno Latour stand on the question of correlationism?

Let me explain a bit further.  There’s a vogue in Writing Studies at present to claim something of an object oriented approach.  I’m not at odds with that; rather, I’m just noting that the neo-realist / neo-empiricist turn in the discipline has led scholars to reconsider the world out there to inform the world in here.  That usually takes the form of recognizing the importance of objects/non-human actors in the constitution of our shared world . . . and in that regard, I’m completely for this re-turn to the material.  Ecological responsibility and a shared concern for the world in all of its constituent parts is an important part of everyone’s duty – a social justice imperative that it is hard to argue with and extends our social relations beyond anthropocentric articulations that have long accompanied the Empirico-Transcendental doublet in Western humanism over the past couple hundred years . . . but let me get on to my question:  When tracing a philosophical history for the work of recognizing objects as agenic, is it necessary to extend that claim all the way to an object oriented ontology?  If not, where do we locate theoretical schemes like AT or Actor-Network-Theory that account for objects but don’t grant them ontological status?

Firstly, on correlationism:  object oriented ontologies – like those of Bryant and Bogost – note that the main problem with Western metaphysics since at least 1781/Kant is the notion that the world cannot be known outside its interaction with the mind.  In what is commonly known as the” Copernican Revolution in philosophy,”, Kant  inverts the Western philosophical project, noting that “objects must conform to our knowledge.”  In Kant’s new metaphysics, man becomes the center of existence and the existence of objects is forever tethered to knowledge of them.  In other words, Kant posits a necessary correlation between the mind and the world.  One cannot be thought without the other.  The extension of Kant’s thesis is wide-ranging as it reframes Western philosophy not as an exercise in observing and discussing the world but instead frames inquiry as a study of representations of the world in the mind.  This coupling of mind-world created a necessary disassociation between mind and world – a kind of anthropocentric, narcissistic turn in inquiry that turned philosophy to representation and away from the real.

If correlationism undergirds OOO critiques of Western philosophy, what does it offer as an alternative?  I’m not being dismissive here and I’m certainly not running down OOO – that’s not my intention.  Rather, my question is directed back toward our discipline’s engagement with object oriented rhetoric and, especially, its recent love affair with Bruno Latour.  Latour’s Actor-Network-Theory is often grouped into discussions of object-oriented scholarship; certainly, he’s done more than any other single scholar to argue for the importance of objects and their relations . . . and that’s what I appreciate about his approach.  It doesn’t appear that you necessarily must leave behind the mind-world correlate to adopt an Actor-Network-Theory approach.  Latour doesn’t seem to be saying that there’s a real world out there; rather, there are an infinite number of worlds all around us, composing themselves of human/non-human alliances whose network effects structure agency and construct (not deconstruct) subjectivity.  In this sense, Latour argues that there is no separation between world and mind; rather, the human/world bifurcation is an artificial one and all things are related.  In this sense, Latour evades the correlationist problem while also not positing an alternative.  So, what do we have with Latour – subjects, subjectivities, objects?  We only have actors of varying sizes, temporalities, concentrations, and associations.  But surely what Latour is claiming is different from what OOO/R is claiming?  Going forward, in our own work in the discipline, we’d be wise in recognizing such differences.  Latour certainly seems to be object-oriented and poses a flat ontology (in principle before network construction); however, he doesn’t argue against correlationism and I don’t think he could be considered a speculative realist, per se.

But what does this have to do with my own work?  Well, I think there is a cogent connection to be made between the research methodology I’ve adopted here (see chart above – Activity Theory connected to Rhetorical Genre Studies) and correlationist epistemology.  Obviously, Activity Theory doesn’t attempt to give an account of reality or the world-as-we-know-it; rather, it makes claims about the cultural and historical genesis of an activity and then provides the means to trace that knowledge-as-action – action that is always already framed in terms of the mind-world doublet.  Interestingly, while Rhetorical Genre Studies ostensibly makes genres into agenic objects, it follows along the correlationist epistemology as well, claiming that genres are social actions, inflected by human desires, ideologies, and cultural rationalities.  As genres, they enable particular social actions and constrain others – but are always conceived of in terms of a relation necessarily between mind and object – never one without the other.

So what’s the take away?  Well, as far as I can tell, I’m using an appropriate methodology in chapter four for tracing textual activity, ascribing agency to objects, and locating those objects inside larger material-metaphysical networks of activity.  I also apparently don’t need to adopt an OOO approach as I’m unconvinced (likely because I haven’t read enough, yet) of an adequate alternative to correlationism beyond Latour’s Actor-Network-Theory.  And because Actor-Network-Theory offers an ontological – not epistemological or, really methodological (I mean, really, can you please point me to a lovely methodological summary of Latour beyond his own Reassembling the Social?)- argument, I don’t think I can incorporate his work beyond the kind of smart use that Spinuzzi has made in the past.

If you have suggestions on how I can get beyond the correlationist problem (I know, Meillassoux, right?), please let me know.  🙂

2 Responses to “What’s “correlationism” got to do with it?”

  1. Alex Reid (@digitaldigs)

    I think you’re asking some smart questions here. I am also interested in thinking through productive connections between OOO and Latour (and others such as DeLanda). I don’t think any of the folks you are mentioning deny the ontological situation described by correlationism. Maybe Meillassoux or Brassier want to assert some mathematical or scientific real, but certainly not the OOO folks. Instead, they want to say that correlationism isn’t a special quality of relation between humans and others but rather a general withdrawal that pertains to relations among all objects.

    As to believing in a real world, my sense is both Latour and the OOO folks would assert that nonhumans can exist independent of their relations with humans. Do they require minds? That’s a different question and I think there are varying degrees of pan/poly psychism and experientialism out there.

    I suppose my main concern with CHAT, including how it has been adopted within our field, is its asymmetrical focus on humans. In my view, the central limitation of our field (and the humanities broadly speaking) is its continued presumption of a human exceptionalism. That’s what I see Latour attacking in his arguments against modernity and critique.

    BTW, I am not sure that correlationism is a problem unless one imagines that absolute knowledge would be a boon. I would suggest, to the contrary, that the glitchy disconnect among objects is the space where thought and agency (and rhetoric) shows up.

    I look forward to reading more of your work.

  2. justin

    Thanks for the great comments, Alex. It is funny that you mention that last bit about the possible (non) problem of correlationism. A few days after I wrote this post, Bryant posted on Barad’s contention that relata do not precede relations ( and I began to see exactly what you mention here: the correlationist “problem” is really a boon for folks studying rhetoric as we’ve always been suspicious about absolute knowledge anyhow. As rhetoricians, the pragmatic emphasis on action, negotiation, and entanglement seem paramount . . . so I’ll leave this problem to folks like Badiou and Meillassoux. 🙂

    I think a more interesting question is one that you raise in your post from today ( concerning fissures/breaks in external relations and the implications from/for Latour. It’d be great to find some scrap of his writing that takes up object-object relations instead of his primary focus on hybrids and subject-object relations.

    On the CHAT problem: it is a problem, for sure. I think AT makes a gesture toward recognizing that the life-world is composed of both subjects and objects but it definitely doesn’t make any attempt to think the world in object-object terms and foregrounds human consciousness as the base level for starting any analysis. For me, this raises the question of whether CHAT is an epistemological or ontological account. I purposefully strayed away from ontologies masquerading as methodologies (obviously, Latour says ANT isn’t a methodology, but people are using it that way) when planning out my dissertation as I was shy to take on a task that I haven’t seen executed very effectively in the field. I think this points to an important consideration for OOO/R going forward: when we accept that the world is a bigger place than us, what do we do with our methodologies? Is it enough to revise the ontological premises of our methodologies and proceed (I’m thinking here of the smart work that Rivers does on connecting Latour to Burkean rhetorical analysis) or do we need to develop something new? I guess it is difficult to move on to discussions of methodology when there’s still so many misunderstandings about (an admittedly difficult) conversation.

    Thanks again for the comments. I read your blog regularly.

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