Alien Phenomenology: add ecology and stir

by Christine Skolnik

From the perspective of cultural theory instead of philosophy, the OOO strain of speculative realism might bear some resemblance to more familiar arguments again anthropocentrism (such as posthumanism). Environmental philosophy, for example, has argued that humankind is to ecology as man is to feminism or Anglo-Saxonism is to race.

Alien Phenomenology (7)

Though it may not be quite true that Environmental Critique has declared its love for object-oriented ontology, EC certainly speaks to strange strangers and dabbles in “carpentry.”[1] In that spirit I offer a “tiny” (as opposed to lofty) review of Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology, Or What It’s Like to Be a Thing, released this month on University of Minnesota Press (posthumanities series). (The connections to stated EC interests here are mostly implicit, but I solicit comments to make them explicit.) Ian was kind enough to send me a PDF about the time I published my “Babooon Metaphysics” post (and suggested the title as I recall), and I am grateful for the e-copy because it’s so good about search and seizure; however, I am also very happy that I bought a hard copy. The colored plates are wonderful, as is the general look and feel of the book . . . as is the price: $13.95. Yes, I am peddling the book . . . I’m a blog post.

Alien Phenomenology is a succinct exploration of object-oriented ontology (OOO) in conversation with posthuman phenomenology. “If ontology is the philosophical study of existence” Bogost explains, “OOO puts things at the center of being. We humans are elements, but not the sole elements, of philosophical interest” (6).[2] Similarly, phenomenology, “the area of metaphysics concerned with how stuff appears to beings,” is uncoupled from consciousness, which privileges the mechanisms by which human beings in particular attempt to grasp objects (32). Alien Phenomenology extends OOO and posthuman phenomenology through application—reading, writing, and otherwise “metaphorizing” a rich variety of objects in pop culture, personal memory, junk food, video games, old jokes, expensive cakes, plastic fruit, etc. Bogost is partial to Graham Harman and Bruno Latour throughout, and to the computer “as prompt” (9). Geeks (I use the term reverently) will swoon. Non geeks will also find much of value and interest, including the sections on Atari VCS graphics.

The book is an exceptionally smart, original, provocative, and charming essay (in the techno-scientific sense), with broad relevance and appeal. Tim Morton described it as “tasty chunks” at about the same time I voiced my initial response, “chewy and delicious.”

This is no doubt partly due to the book’s gastronomic leitmotif. (Even now I’m admiring what looks like a “hot-wing” drumstick in the upper right hand corner of the cover.)

The “Ontography” chapter opens with a slightly indulgent Foucauldian vignette, but moves quickly into a persuasive performance of ontography as the description of ontology (36). Lovely diagrams here and throughout. Indeed the visuals are an unexpected pleasure in an academic work. They require the reader to take a foot of the gas and shift gears. Though one might not give oneself permission to really study them at first, the rich plates and intricate diagrams promise an opportunity to double one’s pleasure at a later date. (Perhaps this is one of the reasons the book seems so much bigger on the inside than the outside.)

Tableau Machine (one possible visual state)

This chapter bests Latour “litanies” (his quirky lists of unrelated objects) with excerpts from Moby-Dick, Tom Jobim’s Aguas de Marco (bossa nova lyrics),[3] and Francois Blaniciak’s “speculative architectural” Siteless sketches. (Here are some examples of Blanciak’s work, though the ones in the book are far more interesting . . . buy now.)

“Metaphorism” (chapter 3) reminds us that all language, representation, and indeed cognition, is metaphoric. In this context Bogost cites the old joke about the world being a flat plate supported by turtles “all the way down” (83). The moment reminds me of the syllogism as a groundless cognitive apparatus, and what a dear professor used to say about premises: they’re based on syllogisms . . . all the way down.[4] There is much to praise in this chapter, as in all the chapters, but let me metaphorize just one more thing. The “Daisy Chains” section suggests that ecological ethics, indeed ethical action in general, may rest on an expansion of experience as metaphor collection. While objects “recede from one another, forever enclosed in the vacuum of their individual existences” we may remain obligated, in some manner, to strive to “understand something about interobject perception” in order act effectively beyond self-interest (65).

Bogost’s “Carpentry” chapter assembles additional compelling topoi, some disturbingly close to home. For one thing, academics don’t make much. (And maybe this is why.) Academic writing is not very well crafted, it’s fixated on argumentation, and as the ubiquitous occupation of the profession (“only one form of being”) it’s severely limiting—“dangerous for philosophy” (90). I might add that we don’t understand the tools of our trade, or even our audiences very well. Bogost’s descriptions of computer platforms, for example, illustrate for me how far I am from understanding what it’s like to be a computer, and (dare I say) a typical member of my audience of computer science aliens—majors. OOO is humbling in so many ways. Among other strong notes are the links between craft and knowledge, and the implication that we have ever been modems.[5] Impressive too are the things that Bogost fashions: The Latour Litanizer, text and image versions (Playboy bunnies not included),[6] and I am TIA, a program that approximates the worldview of a television interface adapter (94 – 104).

And finally, explicitly, “Wonder.” In his concluding chapter Bogost asserts that wonder is a thing of value in itself, and not merely that which precedes and motivates discovery. This chapter presents a hearty critique of the STEM agenda (science, technology, engineering and math education) as an anthropometric set of assumptions that constrict creativity and reproduce questionable cultural values. The instrumentality of STEM brings to mind the philosophical pairing of the virtual and the actual. Unlike the possible which is constrained by a priori notions of the real, the virtual is a place of wonder, experimentation, and carpentry, where creativity blossoms before it is—or is not—culled into the actual.[7] Bogost’s conclusion also reminds us that the alien is not “in the Roswell military morgue” but everywhere (133). The ubiquity of the alien is emphasized throughout the monograph. Particularly compelling is an earlier reference to Nicholas Rescher’s suggestion (re. SETI) that extraterrestrial technology may be incompressible to us, and Bogost’s extension, that “their very idea of ‘life’ may not correspond with ours” (33-34). (I’m delighted by the possibility that aliens could be sitting on my head as I type this post.) But this is straying from Bogost’s thesis that what we apprehend as quotidian, “a partly eaten hamburger,” is the first line, lien, mien . . . of the alien (50).

See also this fabulous video based on Terry Bisson’s classic science fiction story, They’re Made Out of Meat.

And now that I’ve learned the tune to Aguas de Marco, thanks to Ian, I’ll end by singing again:

A stick, a stone,

It’s the end of the road,

It’s the rest of a stump,

It’s a little alone

More responses to Alien Phenomenology posted here:

[1] carpentry: see Randy Honold’s EC posts in particular. For example “Objects Indian and Otherwise”:

[3] bossa nova lyrics: While reading this chapter I actually started singing the text to the tune of The Girl from Ipanema. For Aguas de Marco, you can search “Elis Regina & Tom Jobim – Waters of March – English subtitles” or “Elis Regina, Aguas de Marco,” though the sound quality of the former isn’t very good. (Buy now . . . )

[4] they’re based on syllogisms. Marie Secor in the environs of Penn Sate, circa 1995.

[5] we have ever been modems. What I’m trying to evoke with this silly phrase are the ethical ramifications of our brains emulating the machines to which they are tethered, at the same time that those machines reflect the brains of human carpenters. Not to say that computers are merely anthropomorphic (like any complex system, they may beget their own forms). Rather, I am grasping at that the idea that self knowledge, another piece in the ethical pie, might include an agenda to better understand the technologies that make us.

[6] Playboy bunnies not included. An image version of the Latour Litinizer was featured on the home page of the first OOO symposium in 2010. At one point this application displayed an apparently static image of a woman in a Playboy bunny suit. The image caused Bogost some grief and prompted him to change his “Boolean criteria,” but also raised the question “Are women or girls or sexiness to have no ontological place alongside chipmunks, lighthouses, and galoshes?” (96 – 99).

[7] the virtual and the actual. My reference point is Elizabeth Grosz’s Time Travels: Feminism, Nature, Power (93-11), through which I read Deleuze and Bergson on this concept.



Filed under OOO, Uncategorized

4 responses to “Alien Phenomenology: add ecology and stir

  1. Christine Skolnik

    Teaching as “carpentry”:

    See the end of Alex Reid’s post:

    And these most innovative teacher videos:

  2. Christine Skolnik

    From Guy Zimmerman at *Times Quotidian*:
    Tasty review, Dr. Skolnik. Fresh off Harman’s Prince of Networks I’m looking forward to working through Bogost’s book. I’m currently engrossed in Christian Kerslake on Deleuze (Deleuze and the Unconscious) and am intrigued by the question of how Latour’s view of time lines up with Deleuze-Bergson on the same subject. Kerslake views Bergson’s view of time – and specifically memory – as central to the definition of the unconscious that put Deleuze in conflict with Freud (but not Jung). Essentially, in Bergson, the past as memory exists contemporaneously with the present – as in Lacan we as subjects are fundamentally split, but split not by language but by time itself. In Latour, at least according to Harman, time has a retroactive dimension: “To rethink the past for Latour means to produce an alternate version of the past retroactively, a time that never really existed at the moment.” To what extent does this line of thinking originate in Bergson? How do we define the Latour-ian unconscious? Intuition tells me it would lie in the arena of occluded relationalities…but the whole question of ooo and the unconscious is intriguing – is it simply synonymous with the virtual capacities of objects? Questions, questions…

    See Zimmerman’s latest post “Dark Capital” with a stunning new video (poetic theatrical work), *Found.* Seriously great work:

  3. Christine Skolnik

    Guy: Last night my dear and brilliant colleague Kay Read noted, re. nature as “other” and alien phenomenology, that we are surely alienated from ourselves. (I was asking her why nature should have some special abject status.) I might add we are alienated from the very fact of our alienation from ourselves. So dark capital is not the only reason for alienation (as I implied in response to your blog post) . . . but what’s the relationship between dark capital and our ever shifting shadow selves.

  4. Christine Skolnik

    Christine—About your blog post. I checked it out and tried to respond, but I’m not sure it worked. My main point was that your question about the relationship between the dark capital and our inner thoughts reminded me of E. Dickinson’s

    Pearls are the Diver’s farthings –
    Extorted from the sea –

    Pinions – the Seraph’s wagon –

    Pedestrian once – as we –

    Night is the morning’s Canvas
Larceny – Legacy.
Death, but our rapt attention

    To immortality.

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