[The following is a project I’m working on for my Rhetorics of Craft seminar. It is far from settled, or even really articulate, but it is articulating. It is an exploration of taking up Ian Bogost’s carpentry, from Alien Phenomenology, through Nathaniel Rivers and Jim Brown’s forward of the concept as rhetorical carpentry. While working with rhetorical carpentry in my own scholarship and pedagogy is thought provoking enough to me, I am working to understand it more on terms of the materiality of objects – that is articulating their agency (affordances and limitations). My questions concern whether or not understanding what happens when objects interact, in terms of techne in making an object, better situate rhetorical carpentry as a method of enacting rhetoric.]
What does it mean to make with objects?
Note: not make texts with objects, but make with objects as a rigorous academic process. My interest in making as rhetoric began in the summer of 2012 in discussing Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology, Or What It’s Like to Be a Thing with a reading group in my MA program. Much attention was devoted to his chapter on “Carpentry”; Bogost posits the philosophical practice of making to destabilize the mostly unquestioned practice of producing written texts as products of scholarship. He explains that
“‘carpentry’ borrows from two sources. First, it extends the ordinary sense of woodcraft to any material whatsoever—to do carpentry is to make anything, but to make it in earnest, with one’s hands, like a cabinetmaker. Second, it folds into this act of construction Graham Harman’s philosophical sense of “the carpentry of things”…to refer to how things fashion one another and the world at large. Blending these two notions, carpentry entails making things that explain how things make the world” (93).
Bogost begins his carpentry chapter by calling attention to the dominance of writing as the work of philosophers, which I would extend to academics, by explaining that its unquestioned dominance comes from convention (89); “writing is only one form of being. The long-standing assumption that we relate to the world only through language is a particularly fetid, if still baffingly popular, opinion. But so long as we pay attention to only language, we underwrite our ignorance of everything else” (90). This is reminiscent of conversations we’ve had about craft and it’s difficulty communicating knowledge – the knowledge that is embodied in making something doesn’t necessarily render well to written accounts, thus the struggle in legitimizing craftsmanship (making objects) as valuable. Bogost defines carpentry as the “practice of constructing artifacts as a philosophical practice” (92) that “entail making things that explain how things make their world” (93). He borrows carpentry from woodcraft (perhaps a bit too easily) and extends it to any material – “to do carpentry is to make anything, but to make it in earnest, with one’s own hands” (93), and combines it with the philosophical sense of “the carpentry of things” (from Graham Harman and Alphonso Lingis) that refers to “how things fashion one another and the world at large” (93). To Bogost, making things (with things) remakes us in the making by opening a “non-human, alien perspective onto everyday activity” (106) (maybe this is where his use of carpentry becomes odd). This is his work toward representing practice as theory – moving beyond putting theory into practice (111).
In preparation for one of the discussion meetings of Bogost’s text, Derek Mueller posed the following questions on his blog post – “The OOOist Writer and the Great Outdoors”
“ 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).”
What we discussed, summarized here succinctly by Mueller, was an enthusiasm, but also a hesitation to embrace the making of objects totally – as scholars (students and faculty) situated within a writing program. While carpentry seemed rich in potential, enacting would take theoretical and methodological work. After reading, Bogost’s notion of carpentry as legitimate practice in scholarship is something that has lingered. What if objects could be made with other objects in earnest that were accepted as rhetorical texts? What would those look like? And moreover, how would they be made? In enacting carpentry at greater depth than metaphor (like concepts of craft are sometimes appropriated to describe the process of making something, while not accounting for interacting with the materials in making), what does it mean to make?
Making as Techne
Before I can work toward an understanding of making, the concept must be made specific by giving it a definitional frame. I borrow from the work of Kelly Pender in Techne: From Neoclassicim to Postcolonialism to situate making in terms of techne, specifically Pender’s definition of techne as a form of poeisis, or the act of bringing something into being. Althought Pender works through techne as poeisis in a number of definitions that she provides meticulous historical accounts of, I take interest in her use of techne as a non-instrumental mode of bringing forth – the bringing forth of something, an object, from concealment to unconcealment (35). Making framed in this way builds from Martin Heidegger’s work (particularly An Introduction to Metaphysics, The Origin of the Work of Art, and The Question concerning Technology) that argues that techne is a kind of knowledge that has nothing to do with technique or skill. Techne cannot be reduced to any kind of action or practical performance that results in a product; it is knowledge that provides an opening through which the being of a work can come into appearance in the world (35). Heidegger’s framing of techne reconciles its opposition to nature in terms of physis – or emergence from an object. Physis, often translated as nature, referring to the natural world, opposes techne as instrumentality – conceived not of nature, but upon it (the example Pender refers to is seeing a forest not for the trees but for a housing development). But Heidegger frames techne as complicit with physis, producing something in the sense of techne is to allow for its own way of presencing (36). In rhetoric and composition, this is what has been taken up as post-techne, particularly in the work of Byron Hawk. Techne as a non-instrumental mode of bringing forth locates writers in complex, ambient situations that reveal constellations that thus allow them to invent or see something as something else. We are not acting on nature, but with it in embeddedness (37). What is of importance are the relationships among elements in a situation – what exists between objects. But how can these relationships become noticeable? They must be articulated.
Articulation as Making
In Pandora’s Hope, Bruno Latour defines articulation outside of human privilege (human as dominate over mute objects) as a common property of propositions, in which many kinds of entities can participate. As a ontological property of the universe of objects, not a property of human speech, articulation occupies the position between the object and the subject (303). He states that propositions are not positions, things, substances, or essences pertaining to a nature made up of mute objects facing a talkative human mind, but occasions given to different entities to enter into contact (141). Many differences exist between propositions, and there isn’t a knowing in advance of what these are; “Whereas statements aim at a correspondence they can never achieve, propositions rely on the articulation of differences that make new phenomena visible in the cracks that distinguish them” (143). Articulation isn’t a description of one object in terms of another, but the consideration of objects in their relation to one another. He explains,
“The point to be made now is that, in practice, it is never the case that we utter these statements by using only the resources of language and then check to see if there is a corresponding thing that will verify or falsify our utterances…our involvement with things we speak about is at once much more intimate and much less direct than that of the traditional picture; we are allowed to say new, original things when we enter well-articulated settings like good laboratories. Articulation between propositions goes much deeper than speech. We speak because the propositions of the world are themselves articulated, not the other way around. More exactly, we are allowed to speak interestingly by what we allow to speak interestingly” (144).
In allowing for the articulation of objects, we are in the workshop of carpentry. In Composing the Carpenter’s Workshop, Jim Brown and Nathaniel Rivers construct their concept of rhetorical carpentry, building from the work of Ian Bogost. They summarize Bogost’s carpentry as both a description of how objects make one another and a practice of doing philosophy (2), they extend carpentry one step further “suggesting that such making can be undertaken in an effort to do rhetoric” (2). In doing rhetorical carpentry, we would be engaged with “how we might ‘construct objects (and conversations among objects) in order to demonstrate approximations of the strange, alien conversations happening around us’” (quoting Brown) (2). Rivers and Brown carefully work to show rhetoric and composition as not only a hospitable space for carpentry, but a vital space –
“The field’s interest in ecologies of writing and its pedagogical commitment to making strongly indicates that it can be yet another place to explore how objects carpenter one another and the world. An ecological approach to rhetoric and writing can fold together the work of making and relating, while keeping in place the withdrawn actuality of all objects” (3).
They work to establish connections between rhetorical carpentry and innovative work being done in the field that is considering the rhetoric of objects in composing – working with and against the agency of objects. They are careful to account for the usefulness in this speculation of objects in explaining that
“Rhetoric is always speculative: about its objects, practices, effects, and, importantly, audiences. Rhetoric’s audience is always withdrawn, and this means that issues of race, class, and gender might also call for a speculative approach. Rhetorical instruction again and again drives home the key claim that a rhetor can never fully know or understand an audience” (2).
The end of their article sets the scene of a classroom enacting rhetorical carpentry as methodology from the perspective of an outside onlooker entering the alien environment of working with objects. They narrate, “Part of what throws visitors and colleagues alike is that the class is not about the objects; the objects under composition are part of the class (they are what the students work on, of course), but, more importantly, the objects are also what the students work with” (5). Rhetorical carpentry is made possible through the articulation of objects in working with them to craft rhetorical texts that account for the complex relations of political actors both human and nonhuman. But in crafting texts through rhetorical carpentry, how are the objects articulated? What is the action that brings forth objects?
Articulation of Objects
Exploring what articulates objects in making is speculation on my part – informed both by theory as techne and rhetorical carpentry, and as methodology borrowed from Bruno Latour’s “A List of Situations Where an Object’s Activity is Made Easily Visible” (80-81 Reassembling the Social) and from Laurie Gries’ processes for conducting object analyses from her “Iconographic Tracking: A Digital Research Method for Visual Rhetorics and Circulation Studies” (by way of Nathaniel Rivers’ course syllabus for Problems in Rhetoric: Animal, Vegetable, Mineral). Davies explains that “Too often, we miss the opportunity to acknowledge the force of things because we assume they are inert tools used by human agents to whom we typically credit with full-blown agency” (Rivers “Methodology”). I hope to establish these methodoligcal approaches as ways of doing rhetorical carpentry that is more focuse don making at the level of object and their articulations. Latour’s means of bringing forth objects are as follows:
- study innovations in the artisan’s workshop, the engineer’s design department, the scientist’s laboratory, the marketer’s trial panels, the user’s home, the many socio-technical controversies – object’s multiple, complex life
- approach through/with distance – in time as in archeology, distance in space as in ethnology, distance in skills as in learning – make the normal course of action novel/strange
- accidents, breakdowns, and strikes – objects that were automatic, autonomous, and devoid of human agents are now frantically moving humans with heavy equipment
- bring objects back through archives, memoirs, museum collections, documents to artificially produce through historian accounts the state of crisis in which machines, devices, and implements were born
- use of fiction can bring the solid objects of today into fluid states where their connections with humans may make sense – use of counterfactual history, thought experiments, and ‘scientification’
Each of these works to account for objects through different articulations – relations between objects and what they have contributed or thwarted. To study innovations is to follow an object through its making, use, and circulation to take note of its situatedness as it (re)articulates itself. Approaching an object through distance changes the scale at which an object is interacted with, therefore rendering it strange enough to notice its action. In breakdowns, accidents, or strikes, an object once muted in its action is noted in tis failure to continue on in concealment. In creating account of an object’s articulation, elements can be better documented through tracing to speculate factors of objects. Lastly, fiction can destabilize objects that are no longer noticed because they are accepted as unwavering facts.
Rhetoric scholar Laurie Gries describes “seven different yet overlapping rhetorical processes: composition, production, distribution, assemblage, circulation, transformation, and consequentiality.” These seven processes provide the framework for constructing object analyses that “empirically discover how this thing becomes eventful and rhetorical as it circulates with time, enters into new associations, transforms, and affects a multiplicity of consequences.” The seven processes are exemplified by the following definitions (Rivers):
- Composition can best be understood as the design of an object
- Production indicates the techno-human labor devoted to create or bring an object to life, to reality.
- Distribution is the way in which objects get to where they are intended, by the designer, to get
- Assemblage, perhaps a process more readily recognizable to traditional understandings of rhetoric, captures how objects bring other objects (humans and nonhumans) together
- Circulation describes the movement between and within assemblages irrespective of the designer’s or producer’s intent
- Transformation is a particularly interesting process, and it’s constantly overlapping the other processes. How are objects changed by and through their distribution, circulation, and assemblages?
- Consequentiality is where we can find meaning from and in an object. Meaning, in other words, is a consequence of (re)composition, (re)production, (re)assemblage, (re)circulation, and (re)transformation
Like Latour’s situations, these processes work to articulate objects. While I see this as useful conceptual work in terms of definition, I would like to apply them to an example from recent coursework. I employ these methodologies to make noticeable the articulation of objects in a screenprinting project for a seminar course. My focus is not on the process of screenprinting, but in the failure to clean the screen after producing a print. The relationship between objects, and the articulation of them, while not an action of making, seek only to notice – to bring objects forth – at a small scale.
Articuable Objects of Screenprinting
For the Rhetorics of Craft: Techne to DIY seminar with Dr. Krista Kennedy, part of our understanding of craft came from selecting a craft skill to develop, its focus described in the course syllabus as
“Your work on this project will involve learning and taking auto-ethnographic notes on your progress, as well as re-search into pragmatic and theoretical aspects of the craft that you are working on. Field notes should be posted to your blog weekly. The end result will be an essay that incorporates situated experiential knowledge within a well-researched theoretical framework that is drawn from course readings as well as your own reading.”
I selected screenprinting to develop my skillset in, particularly in the drawing fluid and/or screen filler method. To produce a screenprint using this method, one must have (at minimum) the following:
- a nylon screen
- a squeegee
- screen filler
- acrylic ink
- something to print onto
The print is created by first planning a design. The design (and this is one that is only of a single layer) must consider what the ink should pass through on the screen and what will serve as negative in the print – that is blocked with the painted on screen filler. “White space” is painted around with screen filler to create the parameters of the print; think of the opposite of painting to create an image; space is what creates the image for the print. The ink is applied to the screen on one edge and is dragged across with the squeegee. I arrived at enacting this process through a combination of watching and reading expressive instruction sets posted on the web by both amateur and professional printers, as well as in reading the instructional labels on the jars of the printing materials. The written instructions nor the accounts on the labels account for amount of materials (ink, screen filler, and drawing fluid, if used – something that can help control the creation of the “white space” in the print for sharper lines using the screen filler that has the consistency of watered down acrylic paint), nor the drying times of the materials (the screen filler must be dried before ink can be pulled through the design) or what the material looks like when it is ready for printing, nor the technique for pulling the squeegee across the screen to distribute the ink to produce the print. This is to say that language falls short in this process; much of the action that producing a print requires necessitates an attention to the materials, or objects, that are being used to print – what the screen filler looks and feels like when dry, how much is enough ink to create a design that is evenly coated without bleeding from over saturation, what type of brush will produce the cleanest lines of screen filler for the image. The objects in this process of printing articulated themselves – moving from mute characteristics to determining agents in the action. And as a fellow object, I worked with and against them to produce a screenprint. No part of the printing process, from design to production, could be enacted without the articulated relationship between objects and the characteristics, affordances, and limitations of each.
While accounts for process of printing were available, they mostly account for the process in terms of steps and lacked the same robust explanations in accounting for the objects themselves. Nowhere was this more articulated to me than by the process of cleaning a screen after the print has been made.
From reading expressive accounts of screenprinting on the web before beginning my midterm project, I noticed a cleaning agent was mentioned that removed screen filler. When I purchased the materials to print at a local art store, the cleaning agent was carried. Most of my concern was on working with the materials during the printing; little thought was given to cleaning. Assuming the cleaner, designed for the purpose of dissolving screen filler, would act in this way, I read and followed the instructions. However, the cleaner did not clean the screen. In reading the instructions again, an account of the process that does not focus on making the objects involved accountable, I could only look at the objects that were involved in cleaning (all of these could be broke down further into constituent items, but for my purposes I will highlight the following):
- myself – the source of scrubbing pressure
- the screen
- the screen filler
- the bathtub
- the faucet
- water – water pressure and temperature (this could get reduced further)
- a paintbrush
- a nylon brush
These were not accountable beyond my speculation on water temperature, water depth, water pressure, amount of cleaner, type of brush based on experiences interacting with like objects before in cleaning situations. While these helped me to approximate, they did not make the objects in this situation accountable. I sought articulation through language and action on the web by means of tutorials in videos and forums. The following are three accounts of cleaning: one from the bottle of the cleaner, one from a DIY web community, and one from a screen supplies website. The process and objects of cleaning are highlighted.
Slide One: Instructions on cleaning screens from Speedball using their Speed Clean
Objects: cleaner, paint brush, nylon brush, (pressurized) hot water
Slide Two: Instructions on cleaning screens from a user in the Instructables dot com community
Objects: garden hose, pressurized water, hand, scratchy side of a kitchen sponge
Slide Three: Instructions on cleaning screens from Silk Screening Supplies dot com
Objects: small pressure washer of 1000-1500 PSI
These cleaning accounts highlight different objects, and even describe articulations of the objects in terms of water – it is pressurized. But knowing what the objects are, even some conditions of them, does not fully encompass the action (they why and the how) taking place with the objects.
To better make visible the articulation of objects involved in cleaning, I created a short video that explores articulation through the methodical definition work of Bruno Latour, in relation to working toward an understanding of objects through the theory/methodology of rhetorical carpentry. The focus of the video is not on me cleaning the screen as a human controlling nonhumans, but as a situation of complexly articulated objects interacting with one another. The screen doesn’t come clean. In addition to the cleaner, other household cleaners were used (bleach based degreasers for tile, soapscum, glass), as well as paint thinner, before the pressure washing tool at the drive thru car wash was brought into interaction. What is left is not the screen imagined through the written account of the cleaning process, but blood knuckles, a bathroom full of swirling cleanser vapors, and a screen weathered by water.
In looking at the objects involved in the cleaning process, I wonder what is articulated. Employing the methodologies of Latour and Gries, I can see application of the following to this situation:
From Latour: a breakdown between the cleaner, the brushes, the screen, and the water in the process of cleaning, as articulated in written instructions, did not act as expressed. Although written to describe the characteristics of the objects in the process, they could not articulate the objects in this situation.
From Gries: the assemblage created between the cleaner, the brushes, the screen, the water (bathtub and car wash), and myself. This was articulated through different object failures – the cleaner and brush and me, other household cleaners and brush and me, the power washer and screen and me, and so on.
What does this articulate? Although this is a small scale, a very close examination of objects, and is more focused on unmaking than making with objects, the emphasis is on the exploration of articulating objects. In contemplating what it means to make with objects, to do rhetorical carpentry, the ability of objects is something to be considered. Understanding these abilities through methodologies that work to make objects and the relations between them knowable, speculatable, articuable, might help further build these concepts.