Invoking Darkness: Skotison, Scalar Derangement, and Inhuman Rhetoric
This article asks that we take seriously (and suggests that we have not yet taken seriously enough) Steven B. Katz’s point that nonhuman rhetoric is “supplanting and replacing the physical human body” as the main site for rhetorical agency. Discussing Ian Bogost’s carpentry and James J. Brown Jr. and Nathaniel Rivers’s adaptation of it as rhetorical carpentry as an example of nonhuman rhetoric that does not go far enough, I suggest that Joanna Zylinska’s concept of “scalar derangement”—the pathological need to put all things on a human scale—is a major impasse for a nonhuman rhetoric founded on representational methods. Instead, I offer a model of rhetorical invocation and suggest that skotison, Richard Lanham’s term for deliberately obfuscatory style, provides a rhetorical practice for addressing the nonhuman at nonhuman scales. Instead of a nonhuman rhetoric of things, I maintain that in the age of climate change we should begin to consider an inhuman rhetoric.
object-oriented rhetoric, speculative realism, object-oriented philosophy, H. P. Lovecraft, new materialism
In a recent article on Burke and the emergence of nonhuman rhetoric, Steven B. Katz argues for a syncretic view of this rhetorical turn, despite it being inspired by a number of different philosophical perspectives: “To varying degrees, these new philosophies, loosely collected under the nomer New Materialisms, seem to be in a process of sublimating if not supplanting [End Page 336] and replacing the physical human body as the (only) source of motivated agency, intelligence, audience, and language, the traditional subjects of most rhetorical study” (2015, n.p.). Katz’s synthesis of feminist new materialism, object-oriented ontology, speculative realism, and actor-network theory may ignore the differences of these systems but does highlight an important unifying strand in a variety of thinkers seeking to engage the rhetorical nonhuman: namely that the human is being dissolved as the key and central figure in thinking about rhetorical agency.
In this article, I argue that if we are to take Katz’s claim that the human is being replaced as central to rhetorical thinking seriously, we must pay careful attention to the rhetorical methods we use when we consider nonhuman rhetoric. As an example, I first consider carpentry—Ian Bogost’s term for “making things that explain how things make their world” (2012, 93) in Alien Phenomenology—as a nonhuman rhetorical method I find to be of more limited use than others in rhetorical theory. As I explain, my concern with carpentry is that it places the human at the center of nonhuman speculation; methodologically, at least as described by Bogost, carpentry lets things explain their world to us. Such a move, demanding an articulation to us of a thing’s world, is an example of what Juliana Zylinska calls a “scalar derangement” in Minimal Ethics in the Anthropocene, a work critical of the object-oriented ontology of Bogost, Graham Harman, and Levi Bryant.
After considering the role of scalar derangement in forming a non-human rhetoric, I offer a model of rhetorical invocation and suggest that skotison, Richard Lanham’s term for deliberately obfuscatory style, provides a rhetorical practice for addressing the nonhuman at nonhuman scales. I consider a recent art project as an example of skotison in the wild and discuss it to highlight strategies of rhetorical invocation that create evacuated spaces for summoning the nonhuman in its own terms. Such a strategy, I conclude, is especially effective for dealing with physically large and temporally slow phenomenon, such as climate change, that are often most difficult to engage using only human-scale rhetorical methods. Instead of a nonhuman rhetoric of things, I suggest that in the age of climate change we should begin to consider an inhuman rhetoric.
In the introduction to their edited collection, Comparative Textual Media, N. Katherine Hayles and Jessica Pressman offer a provocative genealogy of the various turns in philosophy Katz unifies as new materialist. [End Page 337] Specifically, they argue that the emergence of the digital humanities is intimately connected with the arrival of new philosophies of the object. For them, both of these developments represent moves away from print culture and toward an understanding of print in a larger media ecosystem (2013, xi–x). As they argue, both digital humanities and new materialism “unsettle assumptions about the human and the nonhuman actors involved in a medial relation to each other,” especially given that both highlight making things as a key practice in the age of post-print humanities (xi).
In new materialist philosophy, a prominent example of this making orientation is the method Ian Bogost calls “carpentry” in Alien Phenomenology. The philosophical carpenter “creates a machine that tries to replicate the unit operation of another’s experience. Like a space probe sent out to record, process, and report information, the alien phenomenologist’s carpentry seeks to capture and characterize an experience it can never fully understand, offering a rendering satisfactory enough to allow the artifact’s operator to gain some insight into an alien thing’s experience” (Bogost 2012, 114).
This understanding of carpentry builds on Bogost’s “tiny ontology” in which all things (human and nonhuman) work on the world through unit operations: “processes by which units perceive, relate, consider, respond, retract, and otherwise engage with one another” (2012, 26). For Bogost, unit operations are the tiny decisions that make up interactions not only between objects but also within objects themselves. He catalogs various ways of looking at a Slurpee as an example of different unit operations that range from “from physical matter (a Slurpee frozen beverage) to properties (frozenness) to marketplaces (the convenience store industry) to symbols (the Slurpee brand name) to ideas (a best guess about where to find a 7–11)” (23–24). In the section on carpentry, Bogost suggests that the task of the philosopher in the present is to seek out these unit operations and build machines to simulate them for human audiences. Bogost offers carpentry as an alternative to the linguistic bent of philosophy in the late twentieth century. Observing that radical philosophy “has meant writing and talking incessantly,” he argues that the way to properly do philosophy today is through this process of carpentry, by making things rather than writing words (110).
James J. Brown Jr. and Nathaniel Rivers point out a strong connection between Bogost’s call for carpentry and the focus on action rather than reflection in the rhetorical tradition. They develop a model for rhetoric that “needs to remain . . . actionary rather than reactionary” (2014, 31). An actionary “rhetorician works with things rather than observes” and “cobbles together strategies, practices, and tactics in order to address engagements [End Page 338] to come” (31). Actionary rhetoric further abandons critique, “a reactionary mode of engagement with objects,” in favor of “the making at the heart of rhetoric” (31). This practice of actionary rhetoric leads to “strange conversations” between all manner of human and nonhuman actors. These strange conversations, Brown and Rivers argue, can help shape public rhetoric around the complex, global problems faced by humanity at present.
As an example, they ask readers to imagine a future composition classroom in which students are extruding a blue plastic sphere from a 3D printer. As this object emerges into being, it becomes clear that it is a strange puzzle in which “the grooves on the inside of the sphere allow users to place and replace dividers to create a series of self-contained compartments on the inside of the sphere. Users are first asked to pour a certain amount of the water into the sphere (proportionally representing the amount of fresh water in the world). The challenge is to evenly apportion the water in all of the compartments by sliding open and close the dividers inside the sphere” (34). The choice of the word “represent” is telling for the reading of carpentry I want to advance here. Rather than imagining college composition as a series of position papers on issues such as smoking or gun control, Brown and Rivers put forward an example of an active composition that makes things. Like Bogost, who scorns philosophy’s writerly inclination, Brown and Rivers assume that making things more directly engages students with the world of things.
Writing of a similar approach to publicizing complex global problems, Bruno Latour suggests the term “object-oriented democracy” for a process that seeks
to bring together two different meanings of the word representation that have been kept separate in theory although they have remained always mixed in practice. The first one . . . designates the ways to gather the legitimate people around some issue. In this case, a representation is said to be faithful if the right procedures have been followed. The second one . . . presents or rather represents what is the object of concern to the eyes and ears of those who have been assembled around it. In this case, a representation is said to be good if the matters at hand have been accurately portrayed.(2005, 6)
Objects on Latour’s account can be fashioned by humans to represent problems in two ways, a double meaning also present in Brown and Rivers’s account of actionary rhetoric. These objects seek to assemble the right people around a problem while also allowing the problem to accurately speak to the assembled audience. [End Page 339]
This double move (gathering and showing) is at work in the account of the blue sphere in Brown and Rivers: “The object of the object is to foreground water itself as a political actor. Aside from the human intention to fairly distribute fresh water (which might or might not be present), the puzzle presents water as an object with its own purposes and features, both of which make it difficult to control” (2014, 34). The language of “control” here is also important for my reading of carpentry. As much as the thinkers I have been quoting purport to represent a nonhuman experience in itself, in practice carpentry opens itself to the instrumentalization of the nonhuman. While these objects may raise a greater awareness of the nonhuman, they do so in terms of their resistance to human will. “We must do a better job managing water” does not necessarily grant us access to the nonhuman being of water in its own terms. It merely turns the nonhuman into a factor to be managed toward human ends. So while the nonhuman is represented as an element in our politics, it is represented as an element we must control.
My suggestion that Bogost’s “simulation” is an instance of human control is inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche’s account of the “finding of ‘truth’ within the territory of reason” in “On Truth and Lying in a Nonmoral Sense.” There, he claims that the human quest for truth using human language is on a par with “someone hid[ing] something behind a bush, look[ing] for it in the same place and then find[ing] it there,” and he reminds us that this sort of “seeking and finding is nothing much to boast about” (1999, 147). If, following Bogost, we determine the unit operations of the nonhuman that is to be probed and then build the probe seeking those operations, what have we simulated other than our own perceptions? Brown and Rivers suggest that a carpenter’s approach to rhetoric shifts environmental rhetoric from “the task of shaping human hearts and minds to ‘save the world’” to “the recognition that the ‘world itself ’ is likewise populated by a plethora of nonhuman political actors” (2014, 34). However, their language of representation and control similarly suggests that this recognition of the “world itself ” is still a world for us. What I explore in the remainder of this article are strategies and theories for not exploring nonhuman rhetoric in a way that makes the world for us.
Juliana Zylinska, in Minimal Ethics for the Anthropocene, diagnoses this tendency, present in much contemporary work on metaphysics, to measure [End Page 340] everything on a human scale as a “scalar derangement” (2014, 27). Zylinska argues that any attempt to speak ethically about material as a human can only ever hope to offer “pragmatic temporary stabilizations of time and matter”; anything more permanent is a deranged quest for mastery of reality (31). For Zylinska, scalar derangements are produced when humans attempt to “first posit and locate . . . at a distance” the presumed entity we call the world “and then try to act on it” (27). Inspired by Bergson, she argues that this derangement comes from attempting to manufacture processes as objects for our thought to speculate about. She argues that when we “say anything about [the world]” or “engage in any kind of philosophizing, we are at the same time bringing forth this world in necessarily cut-up, solidified and inadequate way” (44). These cuts are not the final exhaustion of “the flow of life” but instead are “temporary stabilizations” of that flow (38). Our experience of moving through the world, of interacting with and as a part of this world, is only one manner of cutting up this total flow. There are others, Zylinska reminds us.
Zylinska’s interest in this derangement is more than just philosophical. She argues that the boundedness of objects, rather than the liquidity of process thinking, equips “us with a God-like fantasy that we can indeed control and regulate” the objects we study (44). The distinction between object and process can be understood as a distinction between two modes of thought: on the one hand, objects create a world of bounded things and thus a thought that thinks in terms of discrete boundaries; on the other hand, process thinking opens up a world of multiple, overlapping frames of references and numerous, incomplete perspectives. As Zylinksa argues, thinking in a bounded fashion is a fantasy, but it is a fantasy that (usually) works. The fantasies of bounded thinking may allow for the consideration of the things that normally confront our consciousness, on our human scale, things like pencils, phones, baskets, tables, and plates. How does this thinking work in the face of something as boundless yet simultaneously real as climate change?
In order to have a nonderanged relationship with the world around us, we have to have solutions that knock us out of our customary habits of being. Zylinska uses the image of “filling the kettle only halfway” as a refrain throughout Minimal Ethics, to speak to the way in which ecological catastrophe is always articulated as a human-scale problem: “Suggestions to repair the environmental damage by only filling in half of the kettle, using one rather than two sheets of toilet paper, or buying an electric car fail precisely due to the inability to distinguish between process and entity and [End Page 341] to think across different scales without collapsing them into a (singular) human measure of things” (43).
Rather than attempt to reference climate change in terms of each of us doing our part, Zylinska highlights the struggle at the core of the effort to address the dissolution of the climate. Each of us doing our part is the process of “completely blanking out the scale of phenomena we are facing” (43). The absurdity of these individual choices, she argues, is underscored by the vast scale of oil extraction: Exxon’s $500 billion investment in Arctic oil extraction, two hundred new North Sea drilling licenses issued in the UK in 2012, and so forth. Given the scale at which the climate is being destroyed by consumer culture, how does remembering to turn off the light in the bathroom help?
These individual acts scale a massive global problem down to the level of human choice, making something unprecedented into something with which we are intimately familiar (making smart consumer choices as opposed to contemplating the complete collapse of our planet’s ability to sustain human life). For Zylinska, thinking in terms of bounded objects is a process of “engaging . . . in the construction of ontological edifices that float like palaces in the sky—and then passing them off as descriptions of reality on to others” (41–42). The account of ontology Zylinska puts forward in Minimal Ethics, then, is one in which there is an element of deception, often unconscious, at its core. She accuses a number of contemporary philosophers of using bounded thinking as a way of passing off the human perception of reality as the only perception of reality.
Drawing on Zylinska’s concept of scalar derangement, I want to return again about Brown and Rivers’s example of the blue sphere. The challenge of representing water as a nonhuman actor is a necessary step in imagining a nonhuman rhetoric, but, at the same time, the language of “control” highlights that this representational object brings water into politics as a force that humans feel they need to manage. This distinction is at the core of debates over what counts as politically engaged philosophy in an age of so many crises, a debate that unifies much of the work I have been citing in this article. Although Bogost maintains that the turn to carpentry is a move away from “writing and talking incessantly,” he adds that carpentry specifically rejects incessant writing engaged in “theorizing ideas so big that they can never be concretized but only marked with threatening definite articles (‘the political,’ ‘the other,’ ‘the neighbor,’ ‘the animal’)” (2012, 110). Radical philosophy spends its time “writing inscrutable tomes,” while “real radicals . . . make things” (110). For Bogost, and for Brown and Rivers’s [End Page 342] actionary rhetoric, the only way to do radical, politically engaged work is by being as concrete as possible, hence my putting Latour’s representation in concert with Bogost’s carpentry. As Zylinska shows with rather devastating clarity, this process, the building of ontological castles in the sky, is not more real but in fact less real. Concretizing objects to radicalize philosophy only more fully reinscribes human scale as the only scale that matters for politics, even while it seems to admit the nonhuman through representation.
Like Brown and Rivers, Zylinska suggests that rhetorical calls to “save” the world merely further inscribe human-centric views at the core of environmental rhetoric: “Even the generic call for the protection of life is misguided, even if well-intentioned, because it, somewhat hubristically, turns life into an object, one that needs protection and that is posited as separated from us humans so that we can offer it protection, while equipping us with a God-like fantasy that we can indeed control and regulate it” (2014, 44).
Unlike Brown and Rivers, Zylinska points out that thinking in terms of objects is the problem that blocks effective conversations about environmental policy in the age of climate change. By reading Brown and Rivers through Zylinska, I want to highlight the precision with which we must approach nonhuman rhetoric about extrahuman scales. While Brown and Rivers agree with Zylinska that rhetoric of “saving the world” is not enough, their recourse to representation as the solution to this objectification of life itself still inscribes human environmental control as the end product.
“A minimal injunction for our ethics of the Anthropocene would not,” Zylinska concludes, “therefore call on those of us who call ourselves human to protect ‘life’ at all cost but rather to recognize that life itself is a system constituted by a dynamic movement of forces, that time itself is movement, that we are just wayfarers in the world, and that microbes were there before us . . . and will no doubt survive us” (2014, 45). For Zylinska, the challenge of imagining life in its massive complexity is extremely difficult for a rhetoric that is not attuned to concerns beyond the human. If we are to truly push, rhetoric beyond the embodied human, as Katz suggests we ought to do, we have to imagine a rhetoric that is not indebted to the human body as a reference, one that does not always articulate its aims and goals in terms of human control. As Zylinska asks, “perhaps a modest experiment in reimagining life—and in thinking and living critically—can actually be seen as a viable and vital alternative?” (2014, 45). With an eye toward thinking and living alternatively, in the next two sections, I propose imagining an environmental rhetoric that does not engage with a nonhuman scale but instead with an inhuman one that exists beyond our own human perception. Such a [End Page 343] reimagining of rhetoric beyond the human reveals, I hope, processes that move the human out of the way as a reference for rhetorical production and thus route around the scalar derangement that so perniciously pops up in attempts to build rhetorics that engage with more than just the concerns of humans.
In a recent article, Nathaniel Rivers has put forward “deep ambivalence” as a key term for an environmental rhetoric trained beyond the human: “Deep ambivalence names our agonistic entanglement with nonhuman nature that continually withdraws and resists human mastery” (2015, 424). This entanglement suggests an approach to the environment in which “we leave open as radically kairotic, as rhetorical, the question of our responsibility to the wild objects with whom we inhabit the earth” (425). Deep ambivalence does not amount to ignoring the world around us; rather it is an awareness that the unpredictable responses from the wild mandate a constant renegotiation of our approaches to living on the planet, a kind of mindfulness to the “footprints” all life leaves in various modes of living (438).
This figure of ambivalence is an important one for escaping the scalar derangements that appear to creep into accounts of rhetorical carpentry. Rivers illustrates deep ambivalence and the strange environmentalism that results through a discussion of the film Trollhunter. Building on his use of monsters as an illustration of a wild and environmental rhetoric beyond the human, in this section I consider the growing trend in philosophy of using monstrosity, specifically the non-Euclidean horrors depicted in the fiction of H. P. Lovecraft, as a means of capturing the kind of incomprehensible scales that increasingly seem to shape our thinking about the wild in the age of climate change. In doing so, I argue that the more useful term for thinking in terms of deep ambivalence while also avoiding scalar derangement is “inhuman,” rather than “nonhuman,” the term that has become standard in rhetorical theory that moves beyond the human. An inhuman rhetoric acknowledges rhetorical actors that exist at temporal or physical scales beyond our limited perception by moving the human out of the way and using the nihilism inherent in the kind of worldview implied by Rivers’s and Zylinska’s arguments as a mode of invention.
A certain strand of speculative realist philosophy, most prominent in the work of Ray Brassier and Eugene Thacker but also present in Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude, deals with a kind of cosmic version of the [End Page 344] ambivalence we find in Rivers, though under the name “indifference” rather than “ambivalence.” Most clearly articulated in Thacker’s trilogy on the horror of philosophy (which begins with In the Dust of This Planet), this version of speculative realism, heavily influenced by nihilistic philosophy, imagines a confrontation with the absolute of the world beyond human perception as an encounter with a coldly indifferent universe. Thacker sees this encounter as representing a third term beyond the binary of “world-for-us” and “world-in-itself ” implied in many metaphysical schemes. Instead, he forwards the idea of a “world-without-us”:
the world-without-us cannot co-exist with the human world-for-us; the world-without-us is the subtraction of the human from the world. To say that the world-without-us is antagonistic to the human is to attempt to put things in human terms, in the terms of the world-for-us. To say that the world-without-us is neutral with respect to the human, is to attempt to put things in the terms of the world-in-itself. The world-without-us lies somewhere in between, in a nebulous zone that is at once impersonal and horrific. The world-without-us is as much a cultural concept as it is a scientific one.(2011, 5–6)
We might think about this “nebulous zone” that is both “impersonal and horrific” by recalling the famous example of the hammer in Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time. For Heidegger, the hammer is either “present-at-hand” (“Vorhandenheit”) or “ready-to-hand” (“Zuhandenheit”). When an object is ready-to-hand it is grasped by perception as being capable of use. When an object is considered outside of its use, as in the analytical gaze of a scientist or when it is broken, it is present-at-hand. However, what of the moments when the hammer misses the nail and smashes my thumb? I argue that this is an example of Thacker’s world-without-us: the world violently striking back, not out of malevolence but simply because thumb-smashing is also a function of the hammer.
Thacker’s world-without-us can be best understood through methods derived not from philosophy but instead from horror fiction, especially the style of weird or cosmic horror pioneered by H. P. Lovecraft. In Lovecraft’s fiction, Thacker—along with other philosophers affiliated with speculative realism—finds a model of the world that is not easily divided between active subjects and passive objects.1 Instead, the world is marked by the kind of nebulous flicker between indifference and malevolence described by [End Page 345] Thacker. We can see this understanding of the world in the opening of one of Lovecraft’s most famous stories, “The Call of Cthulhu”:
We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.2005, 167)
The narrator of the story goes on to summarize the series of disparate documents he has assembled to constitute incontrovertible proof of an ancient and inhuman being slumbering beneath the Pacific Ocean, waiting for the stars to be right again, so that he can return and devour us. However, we can also read Lovecraft as a thinker of modernization: so far, the opening of the story suggests, we have been relatively unharmed by the products of our striving against our biological limits. Someday soon, we might reach a point, however, when the beasts we discover through our exploration of the universe unseat our understandings of ourselves as supreme masters of our fate. The narrators of Lovecraft’s stories are usually driven insane by their encounters with these monsters, “the single glimpse of forbidden aeons which chills me when I think of it and maddens me when I dream of it,” as the narrator explains in “Call of Cthulhu” (167).
The titular beast in this story has become something of an icon for thinking about the beasts being unleashed by a modernity that is increasingly seen as having run amok. In a short article introducing his longer project on the topic, object-oriented thinker Timothy Morton introduces his concept of the hyperobject through recourse to Lovecraft’s Old One. Hyperobjects, for Morton, are so large as to be rendered incomprehensible by humans and, as he makes clear in his book on the topic, climate change is the preeminent hyperobject facing our age: “Hyperobjects are time-squished. To this extent H. P. Lovecraft’s monstrous god Cthulhu is a hyperobject, a giant squid-like being floating asleep in a non-Euclidean realm out there in the Universe. Our ecological devastation has summoned these Cthulhu-like hyperobjects to terrorize us” (2011, 84).
Similarly, in The Emergence of the Digital Humanities, Steven E. Jones suggests that the non-Euclidean geometries of Cthulhu’s body and his [End Page 346] submerged home of R’yleh offer a way of thinking about digital landscapes in video games (2013, 56–57), and Alexis Madrigal on his blog for the Atlantic proposes that Cthulhu’s merciless and alien otherness is a way to think through the growing dominance of big data in shaping our lives (2013, n.p.). Each of these examples—climate change, virtual worlds, and big data—are illuminated by the comparison to Lovecraft’s Cthulhu, a beast whose nature and visage cannot be comprehended by the human brain.
Cthulhu not only unhinges the minds of many of Lovecraft’s skittish and neurotic narrators but is also intended at the level of language itself to disrupt our sense of human superiority and produce a sense of a being that is fully and truly alien. As Lovecraft notes in explaining the monster’s name,
The word is supposed to represent a fumbling human attempt to catch the phonetics of an absolutely nonhuman word. The name of the hellish entity was invented by beings whose vocal organs were not like man’s, hence it has no relation to the human speech equipment. The syllables were determined by a physiological equipment wholly unlike ours, hence could never be uttered perfectly by human throats. In the story we have human beings who habitually use the word as best they can; but all they can do is to approximate it.(1976, 10–11)
Cthulhu is neither object nor hailable as a human subject, and his will is enacted in the world by those either too feebleminded to resist his call or whose artistic temperament opens them to the non-Euclidian dreamworld his consciousness inhabits during his slumber. Cthulhu does not want our death; we are just in his way, like ants that have gotten into our house that we have chosen to exterminate for being inconvenient.
I am interested in the world-without-us and the monsters that inspire it as a way of thinking about current rhetorical challenges posed by environmental crisis. Owing to its incomprehensibility, Cthulhu is the ultimate figure for attempting to think beyond scalar derangement. Like the trolls in Trollhunter that Rivers uses as an example of the deep ambivalence of the wild, Cthulhu serves for Lovecraft as a means of disrupting our sense of ourselves as the chief agents of our lives. As Rivers writes, “By giving ourselves the responsibility to save or fix the planet, we have over-invested [End Page 347] in our own agency, enacting the same hubris that results in dispositions toward the nonhuman nature that environmentalists themselves might very well (and rightly) condemn” (2015, 423).
The use of Cthulhu in recent thinking about climate change makes clear that the effects of a degrading environment are often indistinguishable from random inclement weather and not discernable as climate change because of the temporal scales at which these changes unfold. It is hard to tell if something is an anomaly or the new normal. Moreover, as Morton’s use of Cthulhu makes clear, climate change seems to have a kind of agency. We caused it and continue to cause it, but climate change ultimately acts. If we think about this agency in ways that remain subject to scalar derangement, we fail to see not just that this agency is acting against us but also that acting in a malevolent way is not this agency’s purpose. Writing about Lovecraft, the French novelist Michel Houellebecq captures something of the character of the relationship between humans and beings beyond our comprehension:
In order to imagine how they might treat us were we to come into contact with them, it might be best to recall how we treat “inferior intelligences” such as rabbits and frogs. In the best of cases they serve as food for us; sometimes also, often in fact, we kill them for the sheer pleasure of killing. This, Lovecraft warned, would be the true picture of our future relationship to those other intelligent beings. Perhaps some of the more beautiful human specimens would be honored and would end up on a dissection table– that’s all.(2005, 32–33)
Life that we consider beneath us is not something we think about actively, nor do we hesitate to destroy it. The reason I think scholars such as Morton have resorted to Lovecraft to capture the kind of larger-than-human agency (such as big data and multinational corporations as well as climate change) that increasingly structures our lives is that Cthulhu exemplifies the sense of indifference that characterizes such agency.
Keeping in mind Thacker’s idea of a third term, I call this kind of agency “inhuman.” McKenzie Wark also uses “inhuman” to designate this notion of a third space between human and nonhuman.2 Wark concludes his analysis of the role Marxist theory and philosophy can play in confronting climate change by suggesting that for too long our philosophizing has hinged on oscillating between subject and object. Following Donna [End Page 348] Haraway’s interventions in feminist science studies, Wark argues that the apparatus—the technical assemblages of machines, algorithms, protocols, and experiments that allows humans to know and study their environment—might be a more helpful focus for theory in the age of climate change. He labels this apparatus “inhuman”: “The apparatus, like sensation, is liminal and indeterminate—an in-between. It is an inhuman thing, neither object nor subject. One of its special qualities as such may, however, be to generate data about a nonhuman world. The apparatus renders to the human a world that isn’t for the human. An apparatus is that which demonstrates some aspect of a monstrous, alien world” (2015, 151).
These “monstrosities,” Wark maintains, “never add up to that consistent and absolute world,” suggesting that the inhuman, like Cthulhu and other Lovecraftian monsters, can never be grasped fully by human consciousness (151). We can only ever experience a portion of the inhuman. Wark argues that “one can be a realist about the object of knowledge or about the process of knowledge, but it is very hard to be both at the same time. To be a realist about the object of knowledge requires putting oneself in a quasi-Godlike position, outside of the process. To be a realist about the process of knowledge requires bracketing off the idea of the noumenal object and engaging closely with practices and their particular point of view” (158). For Wark, then, the world is monstrous and alien, ultimately a space of inhuman speculation.
Benjamin Bratton offers another example of the inhuman in the introduction to his book on the planetary-scale infrastructure of contemporary computing when puts forward two questions we must now ask of computation as a process reshaping governance: “What can we do with it? what does it want from us?” (2016, xvii). The second of these questions points out why I label this strand of speculative realism “inhumanism”: what would it mean for us to ask computation, a paradigm for thinking about data and the world, what it wants from us? Informed by an invigorated nihilism and emboldened by the impending doom of climate change, amok neoliberal economics, and increasingly brutal planetary-scale software ecologies, inhuman thinkers document a world in which human knowledge is absurd and that dooms us to reaping the consequences of our misguided attempts to control it.
What do our apparatuses want from us? Bratton’s provocation to think about the world as a computer is, more generally, an exigence ideally [End Page 349] suited for consideration in rhetoric. Bratton suggests that asking what our apparatuses want from us is a way of understanding ourselves as subjects of computing rather than a matter of Latourian representation through which we figure out how we can understand it. In other words, the move beyond nonhuman, representational, carpentry-based rhetoric I am proposing here situates human consciousness (and its tendency toward scalar derangement) as the rhetorical problem a nonhuman rhetoric must solve. The inhuman will always fail to be represented in human terms, so what would an inhuman rhetoric look like? I suggest that it might look like a demonic invocation. Writing of magic circles, Eugene Thacker points out that spaces for invoking unseen, often demonic forces through ritual are “what allows the ‘hiddenness’ of the world to reveal itself, as well as that which protects the human subject from the rational unacceptability of this hidden, world-in-itself ” (2011, 65). Magic circles are the deliberately constructed spaces in which “the supernatural can manifest itself ” (65). They are where “the rules of the game are constructed” (65). The magic circle constructs a space in which inhuman agency can appear without while human consciousness being subjected to the full ramifications of it.
Writing of Egyptian invocation practices and Ammon (whose name means “hidden”) in “Plato’s Pharmacy,” Jacques Derrida quotes Serges Sauneron’s Priests of Egypt: “In addressing the primordial gods . . . as an invisible, hidden being, they invite and exhort him, calling Ammon, to show himself to them and unmask himself ” (1983, 87). For the Egyptian priests, address to this god takes the form of an invocation to him in his hiddenness and as request for his appearance. As in Lovecraft’s stories in which the narrators can only see the Old Ones at the price of their sanity, this Egyptian practice of calling to the hidden highlights how contacting inhuman agencies involves grappling with the limits of human consciousness. Where Latourian representation codes and constrains nonhuman agency in order to render it legible to human audiences, a magic circle protects its human occupants from whatever inhuman agency might appear when the invocation is complete. Magic circles, as a model for rhetorical practice, remind us that we often have the burden of translating ourselves when interacting with things other than humans. In other words, an inhuman rhetoric evacuates the human—and by extension the tendency toward scalar derangement—in order to produce a managed space for the inhuman to appear in whatever way it sees fit.
As a model for this practice, I turn to Richard A. Lanham’s work on the rhetorical concept he labels “skotison”. In the fifth edition of Revising Prose, [End Page 350] Lanham includes a chapter on the rhetorical figure he had first named in the second edition of A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms. The term comes from the advice of an anonymous rhetoric teacher Quintillian cites: “Darken it!” (2006, 56). This figure, heretofore unnamed in rhetorical theory, refers to the practice of deliberately making discourse obscure, whether to enhance the art of the speech (or the intellectual appearance of the speechmaker) or to serve as a marker of community membership (think of the various lexicons that might mark a scholar as Marxist or Deleuzian or Lacanian) (Lanham 1991, 141–42). Lanham cites Alexander Pope’s parody Peri Bathous: The Art of Sinking in Poetry as a poem that uses this figure, as it offers to translate “poetic diction” into “plain English.” “The wooden guardian of our privacy / Quick on its axle turn” is helpfully rendered as “Shut the door,” for instance (2006, 57). Lanham goes on to connect skotison to a playful elevation of language, an exercise in style in which parody—putting “plain sense into bureaucratic language”—becomes “an analytic tool” (57).
As Lanham defines it, skotison is a “love of obscurity” but, more importantly for the present discussion, it is also a “cultivation of darkness” (56). While most of his chapter is taken up with outlining the analytic value of parodying an inflated style, he briefly mentions the value of cultivating darkness as a practice of skotison. Reflecting negatively on the role played by what he calls the Official Style in deforming American student writing, he suggests that a dark style often becomes a kind of “rhetoric of display” through which a writers indicate “their in-group status. They know the secret handshake and all the arcane terms” (63). Where Lanham views this rhetoric of display as a negative in academic writing, I consider skotison, understood as the cultivation of darkness, to be a valuable ally for dealing with the inhuman agencies that increasingly shape the course of our lives. In the realm of rhetoric, I consider skotison to be a cultivation of obscurity in rhetorical performance that removes the human scale as a gauge and instead promotes insight into the nature of the inhuman.
As an example of skotison and rhetorical invocation, I want to consider Sabina Keric and Yvonne Bayer’s 2007–9 art project titled Urban Camouflage. In this project, the artists produced suits of camouflage for urban spaces, specifically big box stores like Ikea and supermarkets. These suits were modeled on ghillie suits, which are the traditional camouflage outfits worn by gamekeepers in Scotland and northern England when hunting poachers (2007, n.p.). Ghillie suits feature a shaggy or wooly appearance whose moss-like strands hang off the limbs and bodies of the wearer in addition to the abstract colored pattern most commonly associated with camouflage on [End Page 351] the fatigues of soldiers. This extra layer of camouflage breaks up the human outline that we scan for when differentiating between figure and ground.
Keric and Bayer transport this camouflage from the moors and forests of the United Kingdom to the urban commercial environment. In one example of their project, they fashioned a ghillie suit out of the iconic yellow shopping bags provided to customers at Ikea in Europe. They then documented themselves climbing into a bin of these bags wearing this suit and vanishing into the background. In their artists’ statement, they explain that they chose “the big superstores because of the extreme range of goods, the flashing monitors and the large salesrooms. The camouflaged person blends into the surrounding. He or she can dissapear [sic] for one moment and gets the possibility to merge with the supermarket to defend from the noise of commerce.” In the space of a big box store, they add, “the customer expects nothing out of ordinary.” With that in mind, the artists sought to break up this “clean and untouched area” by injecting a nonnormative artistic practice into. They found that customer reactions to their interventions “were . . . very different”; some wanted “to touch the costume, others reacted irritated. . . . [t]here were also customers who ignored us completely”—which suggests the camouflage worked.
Though ghillie suits are specifically used to protect hunters on private hunting estates, most camouflage—whether human made or naturally occurring—works to protect the wearer. Keric and Bayer state that their project seeks to “defend from the noise of commerce,” but they do not specify what this noise is or why one might want to hide from it. The project could easily connect to consumer fears of ubiquitous surveillance inside these stores or to the tracking of purchasing habits through loyalty cards or to the simple need to perform one’s humanity through exercising consumer choice. However, the artists’ statement does not clarify this. Their project is open to interpretation by the viewer; it is a gnomic or cryptic gesture, deliberately obscure as skotison should be, that produces a human-shaped vacuum into which speculation about the nature of contemporary shopping and multinational capital can flow.
Traditional ghillie suits work by jamming the figure-ground distinction that typically lets humans recognize the human form in nature. Recalling Brown and Rivers’s (as well as Zylsinka’s) discussion of the failure of “save the world” environmental rhetoric, we could here gesture toward the similar failure of antiglobalization discourse to stop multinational capital through an appeal to personal, ethical responsibilities. Keric and Bayer appear to [End Page 352] offer a critique of multinational capital, but it is not phrased in terms of this ethical responsibility or even in terms of object representation. There is no sense that multinational capital is a “political actor.” Rather, Keric and Bayer camouflage the human form within a space of commerce to summon the threateningly inhuman dimension of globalization in terms humans cannot easily understand. The failure of “save the world” environmental rhetoric shows that humans are adept at tuning out rhetorics of personal ethical responsibility. Inscrutable practices, speech and act deliberately made dark, are less easily resisted. These practices do not easily mean, but for that reason, they are also not as easily ignored. By adapting this human-vanishing technology to the built environment of multinational capital, Keric and Bayer model a practice of skotison that, through obscurity, removes the human as a frame of reference.
The difference between Keric and Bayer’s project and Brown and Rivers’s blue sphere—and thus between inhuman and nonhuman rhetoric—is that Brown and Rivers’s project attempts “to foreground water itself as a political actor,” which implies that water can act in ways that are legible as politics, an idea that returns water to human scale. Thinking about water on an inhuman level would look like less like a representational example in the safety of the classroom and more like Herman Melville description of the ocean in Moby Dick as “panting and snorting like a mad battle steed that has lost its rider” (2009, 299). Myths of the ocean drawn from sea-faring tales highlight the ocean as a tempestuous, inhuman space: sometimes friend, sometimes foe, but always doling out both fates seemingly at random. Fiction like Melville’s captures an inhuman ocean. Given the problems associated with scalar derangement, the task of a rhetoric contending with factors beyond the human must be to manufacture an inhuman ocean and adapt human politics to this inhumanism.
So to briefly conclude, I propose that inhuman strategies such as skotison, as seen in Keric and Bayer’s Urban Camouflage project, allow us to move beyond our deranged perceptions of a changing climate and to more directly confront the inhuman in its own way. Strategies for an inhuman rhetoric, unlike nonhuman strategies such as carpentry, focus their rhetorical efforts on removing the human as a reference point rather than on “representing” the nonhuman to human consciousness. Though this shift from representation to obscuring the human is subtle, it is vital if we wish to truly escape the perspective that life and nature exist for us and are therefore our responsibility to save. An inhuman perspective on rhetoric points beyond the human [End Page 353] and toward an indifferent climate that, despite its indifference to our striving, is something we still have to grapple with in its very inhumanity.
Texas A&M University
I would like to profusely thank the three anonymous colleagues who reviewed this article for Philosophy and Rhetoric. Their careful reading and calls to clarify my argument while continuing to believe in its value inspired me through the process of revision. Additionally, Joshua DiCaglio read a draft of this article and provided critical insights into several of the themes developed here.