It seems that one of the underlying premises of ontological investigations, whether philosophical or technical, is that its objects of inquiry – what exists and relations between existants – are understood as givens. They are given by God, Nature, Evolution, Computer Programmers, the World, etc. There is either a creator or a mechanism or process by which creation occurs and things thereby come to be. In this sense, that creator or process of creation gives something its existence. At least this is what our theories tell us. Some folks use terms like “social construction” and “products” of an environment to talk about ideas and how they affect us rhetorically. Our epistemology – the tools by which we understand the world around us – is a product of culture and history and not an objective state. It is, quite literally, given to us by virtue of what has come before and we, in turn, are to take care in passing it on to those who follow.
In other circles, ontology has arisen as a useful way to understand how material things bear upon persuasion and belief. We see a similar dynamic here even as ontological approaches attempt to move beyond the confines of epistemology. Ontological material is much more than “available means” (endekhomenon). Rather, like epistemological material, ontological material systems and tools shape us as communicators. They persuade us into a certain type or pattern of belief (pisteis). Sometimes, perhaps more often than we care to admit, a great number of material entities have a hand in shaping us. And, for many new materialists, the epistemological and the ontological are best seen together. We work alongside material things, interacting with them and communicating with them in all sorts of ways. Bruno Latour calls them “actants.” Donna Haraway and Karen Barad call them “nature-cultures.” There are many terms for the things given as, in Jane Bennett’s term, “vibrant.” Bu they are given as real, as descriptions of the real that is given, that is there, that can be pointed at because it is what happens to be.
Tentatively, then, let’s assume that ontology, especially ontological rhetorics, is always a matter of givens. Material things are given to us by some creator or force or process or mechanism – perhaps even by a combination of many of these all at once. European and European-derived thinking almost always start with things as a given. Aristotle had first principles. Kant had postulates. These things are given. They establish that which really exists and which we can take as already given. It is a matter of data since data are, quite literally, given.
Yet much of contemporary thinking is concerned with how that which is given is placed, located, or given within particular systems. This is often where we might ask questions about how a given is given meaning: a double giving. Derrida famously takes this up with his methods of deconstruction and its proceeding by way of “a double gesture, a double science, a double writng” (margins 195). Still, rather than see data or things as simply given, we are rather comfortable seeing these as given-within-systems. That is, they are given in and of themselves, but also given meaning because of their situatedness within various, often overlapping, and sometimes competing systems. Darkly pigmented skin is a given in and of itself, but it takes on new dimensions within systems of American slavery, immigration enforcement, biomedical blood treatments, and exposure to sunlight. It is given meaning. Another thing, given.
But doesn’t a giving also entail a taking? And does that mean we take our existence? If so, how can we exist in order to take that which gives us our existence or being?
In “Immanence: A Life,” Deleuze turns to Charles Dickens’ description of a life, of an existence. For Dickens, a “rogue, held in contempt by everyone, is found as he lay dying” (28). Over and around him, there is much consternation and vexation at his state, nearing death until he slowly begins an arduous recovery. Deleuze tells how “to the degree that he comes back to life, his saviors turn colder, and he becomes once again means and crude” (28). For Deleuze, this play of events and reactions demonstrates how “The life of the individual gives way to an impersonal and yet singular life that releases a pure event freed from the accidents of internal and external life, that is, from the subjectivity and objectivity of what happens: a ‘Homo tantrum’ with whom everyone empathizes and who attains a sort of beatitude” (28-29). For Deleuze the indefinite a life is pure immanence, not transcendence. “A life is everywhere,” he writes, “in all the moments that a given living subject goes through and that are measured by given lived objects: an immanent life carrying with it the events or singularities that are merely actualized in subjects and objects” (29).
Of course Deleuze is working though and thinking with Gilbert Simondon’s concepts around individuation, a project founded on rejecting the “hylomorphism” of traditional ontologies, where being is mere matter and form. Life is a matter of stamping out a number of bricks or widgets. Both Simondon and Deleuze see instead formative events, energies, and systems designed to carry that energy. Being and the ontological questions of existence need to take up such technical questions. Is this to also ask how ontology is not a given, but a taken?
We can imagine beings themselves – individual beings – as taken rather than as given by switching from the notions of social production to notions of social consumption. The world is a social system. Even before homo sapiens sapiens began to play in the warm, shallow waters of the western Indian Ocean, before even homo neanderthalensis explored cold Europe and Asia, even before the development of apes and mammals, and even before the development of life itself, the world and its totality constituted a complex system. There was a complex system already when our star, Sol, swirled as gas and dust while it accreted into a configuration that could produce nuclear fusion. Out of that complex system and energy, iron eventually took shape. Its being and very existence was taken out of the star.
So, too, do we exist by taking. We are not given, nor are we rightly produced or given as beings, neither by natural or social processes that occur systematically. To exist, to be requires taking. But we still have not determined who or what does this taking, especially since something cannot be brought into being by taking before it even exists. Further, what, exactly is taken? In what sense do we mean this?
In the sense of an atom of iron or Simondon’s brick, we can say at least two things: first, that being takes place. There is a sense of unique determination whereby something can be one thing as opposed to something else, or even to be at all. Being is always located. This raises several problems we can get to later and certainly aligns with rhetorical and composition theories foregrounding locatedness (e.g., Dobrin and Weisser, Dobrin, Hawk, etc).. For now, let’s just say that place is always a system. It is not Cartesian coordiantes by any means. However, the means and ways are crucial. Second, we can say that being takes from that location those means and ways for its own existence. This is Simondon’s point on the individuation of objects and why hylomorphism is an inadequate ontological approach and, I think, part of what Rickert points to w/r/t khora.
So, being is always enmeshed in a location that is also systematically connected or in relation to other things. Now, this is tricky because what is that system but other beings? We cannot move on up to abstraction or generalization. There is no transcendence here. Systems may be categorized by function or effect, but they can still be differently constituted. As Deleuze writes, “One is always the index of a multiplicity: an event, a singularity, a life” (30). So, as located and within systems, a being or an existent thing is what is by virtue of its taking from within that system: its development, its process of individuation, its becoming.
Yet, in order for this to be, it cannot start the process itself. It cannot be thought of as autochthonous. Yet it also is not – at least not always – a matter of input, either. Rather, because we have other beings existing in and as parts of systems, we have taking. The system or set of congruent other beings takes from itself and from other systems in order to be. And within that taking, a life becomes my life or your life or the life of an individual. It is taking that amounts to genesis and becoming individuated because of a subtraction from virtuality into reality.
We take from a surplus of meaning. The world is overdetermined. The virtual is everything that can be taken from, but not everything is available to us to take. And sometimes, we take from things available that we shouldn’t (violence, negative force, dispellings, subjugations, etc.)
The questions of what can a body do, then, as a rhetorical capacity depends upon available means (endekhoumenon) thought of not as other beings in the world out there, but as what means an individual being can avail themselves of: how does it allow itself to be taken? And how can a body take from the virtual in order to realize its own potential?