A READING COMPANION TO BOGOST’S
ALIEN PHENOMENOLOGY OR WHAT IT’S LIKE TO BE A THING
BY P. CARMICINO, M. FOUCHER, N. FRANK & J. KEMPER
WHO, WHAT, WHY? Ian Bogost's Alien Phenomenology, or What It`s Like to Be a Thing is a short book, but also one that's conceptually and theoretically dense. Bogost writes in an evocative and stylized fashion, and allusions to both complex philosophical literature and pop culture phenomena are not uncommon. It's a refreshing and provocative read and one that often had us take to the web to look up specific references. This sentiment inspired the idea of an online reading companion. In this companion, we have summarized all the individual chapters, hopefully establishing a concise and coherent narrative that can help the reader in elucidating Bogost's philosophy. Furthermore, we have included illustrative information about the concepts, phenomena, individuals, and literature that Bogost mentions. We are a group of students enrolled in University of Amsterdamâ€™s New Media & Digital Culture MA programme. If you have any questions, remarks or suggestions, feel free to contact us at: email@example.com 1
ABOUT IAN BOGOST
Ian Bogost can be described as a kind of alien himself, if one considers the many different hats he’s been wearing and some of the funny paradoxes that came along during his career. Holding a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and comparative literature from the University of Southern California and a master’s degree and Ph.D. in comparative literature from UCLA, Bogost is now a professor in Literature, Media and Communication as well as in Interactive Computing at the Georgia Institue of Technology. On his own website, Bogost describes himself as an “award-winning author and game designer whose work focuses on videogames and computational media.” His writing, therefore, digs into videogame criticism and the power of videogames or even journalism. The scholar is also, indeed, a regular contributor of the gaming website Gamasutra.
Bogost’s words, however, also reach a wider audience, thanks to interviews with Forbes, the Atlantic, and even the French newspaper Courrier International. The academic is, indeed, considered an expert in his field. Ironically though, what brought Bogost under the spotlight and made him a celebrity in the industry is not his theoretical work, but an online game under the name of Cow Clicker, in which the main and only goal, as the name suggests, is to click a cow. This game, developed as a critique of Facebook games such as Farmville, became an unexpected (and most definitely unintended) success. Bogost repeats, however, that the game was meant to be a satire and insists that “players were supposed to recognize that clicking a cow is a ridiculous thing to want to do.” Different reward cows from Clow Clicker
“Think games are just for fun? Think again.” On Persuasive Games’ website
Cow Clicker, however, probably earned his company Persuasive Games a bit of money. The studio that he co-founded in 2003 primarily aims at developing games for persuasion, instruction, and activism or, in their words, games that can “become rhetorical tools.” An interview with Bogost on the Colbert Report in which he explains his vision of gaming can be found here. Our interest in Bogost, however, is not linked to Cow Clicker’s fame or in knowledge of game theories, but to one of his most daring and intriguing pieces of work: a philosophical essay called Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing. Bogost describes his work in the following way: “A bold new metaphysics that explores how all things—from atoms to green chiles, cotton to computers—interact with, perceive, and experience one another.” In order to help readers better understand Bogost’s theory, we summarized and illustrated the five chapters of his book. You can purchase the book here.
ALIEN PHENOMENOLOGY “Our job is to write the speculative fictions of [units’] processes, of their unit operations. Our job is to get our hands dirty with grease, juice, gunpowder, and gypsum. Our job is to go where everyone has gone before, but where few have bothered to linger.” (34)
Correlationism is the often unstated theory that humans cannot exist without the world nor the world without humans.
In the first chapter of Alien Phenomenology, Ian Bogost takes us on a philosophical journey in which we explore a variety of philosophical tendencies: those that counter the idea of alien phenomenology and those that more closely resemble it. “Culture, cuisine, experience, expression, politics, polemic: all existence is drawn through the sieve of humanity, the rich world of things discarded like chaff so thoroughly, so immediately, so efficiently that we don’t even notice.” (3) Correlationism, a term coined by Quentin Meillassoux, claims all of existence is only that which is a correlation between the mind and the world. Things do not exist unless the human mind exists to process them. The concept of correlationism can be brilliantly illustrated in Mark Twain’s 1903 essay “Was the World Made for Man?”
Philosophies of Correlationsim Philosophy
Objects are bundles of sense data in minds of those who perceive them
The world is best characterized by the way it appears to the self-conscious mind
QUESTIONS OF BEING
Objects are outside human consciousness, but their being exists only in human understanding
Things are never fully present to us, but only differ and defer their access to individuals in particular contexts, interminably
Being exists only for subjects
Philosophies of access are those which privilege the human being over other entities.
Anti-correlationism, or speculative realism’s main players are Quentin Meillassoux, Ray Brassier, Iain Hamilton Grant, and Graham Harman. While all their philosophies differ somewhat, they have one thing in common: a rejection of correlationism and the abandonment of the belief that the human being is the center of all being. Object-Oriented-Ontology, a term coined by Graham Harman, rejects the notion that human existence is more important than the existence of all other things. No one thing has a more exclusive status over another; everything exists equally.
OOO (triple “oh”) steers a path between two separate ideas of contemporary thought: Scientific naturalism, which claims things are an aggregate of their most basic components (subatomic particles), and social relativism, which bases existence as the construction of human behavior and society.
Similar philosophies to OOO, with traces of Correlationism Philosophy
ALFRED NORTH WHITEHEAD
Rejects philosophies that value static notions of being over dynamic notions of becoming and "things" over events in process
Entities are de-emphasized in favor of their couplings and decouplings
Forest and wildlife should be seen as equal status to humans
JOHN MUIR / JAMES LOVELOCK
All beings are given equal value and moral right to the planet, so long as they are living
Preserves humanity as primary actor
Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us documents the things that would take place if humans were to suddenly vanish from earth.
Bogost makes it clear that he doesn’t want to exclude humans completely from the OOO scope as humans are part of the everything that is included in the term “objects.” He only seeks to decentralize the human as the basis for all existence.
“If we take seriously the idea that all objects recede interminably into themselves, then human perception becomes just one among many ways that objects might relate.” (9)
What’s it like to be a thing? Bogost purports one might use science studies to answer this question, but even this will inevitably fall short as a human agent remains at the center of analysis. Fields that fail to accurately measure up to the task of defining what it feels like for an object: • Vitalism - projects a living nature onto all things • Panpsychism - the mind is a universal feature of every object’s existence • Panexperientialism - the view that all matter has consciousness
Bogost says of non-living objects, “They are weird yet ordinary, unfamiliar yet human-crafted, animate but not living just as much like limestone deposits as like kittens. In a world of panexperiential meshes, how do things have experiences?” (10, 11) Harman answers Bogost’s question by invoking the concept of vicarious causation - objects don’t interact but connect in conceptual ways unrelated to consciousness. He uses an analogy of pieces of a jigsaw puzzle fusing together, but always remaining separate.
“In short, all things equally exist, yet they do not exist equally.” (11) Bogost admits that this is an extreme notion to wrap one’s mind around. The ontology is such that things can take many forms but the quality of their being remains the same. Levi Bryant borrows the term “flat ontology” from Manuel DeLanda’s original usage to mean that existence is composed entirely of entities rather than clusters or groupings of things. Bryant’s expands the concept, granting all objects, from the Harry Potter series to lychee fruit to love affairs, the same ontological ranking. “The power of flat ontology comes from its indiscretion. It refuses distinction and welcomes all into the temple of being.” (19) Bogost revisits the ideas of scientific naturalism and social relativism as the two main system operations we currently utilize. He argues that even though they have a long history of intellectual conflict, they are both cut from the same cloth: they are both human-based; the world exists for human discovery and exploitation.
Can machines think? This question is already spoken from the correlationist viewpoint; a computer’s worth can be decided depending on how well it performs intelligent human tasks or behaviors. Alan Turing rephrased this question by instead borrowing from an old parlor game in which a participant tries to guess the gender of two hidden guests by asking simple questions. He suggested replacing one of the two humans with a computer in order to see if the computer can fool the human participant as often as the other hidden human. This ultimately became known as the Turing test. 8
In the Chinese Room experiment, Searle argues that the machine, in this case the man, would not actually possess a mind or be able to think intelligently.
Descendants of the Turing Test can be found throughout computer science and engineering fields. Star Treck LCARS and the Loebner Prize are two examples. John Searle critiqued the Turing Test as not taking into consideration human understanding and experience. He proposed a concept called the Chinese Room. In this thought experiment a human in a closed room would be slid instructions under a door allowing them to manipulate Chinese characters into comprehensible sentences. A native Chinese speaker would think the man in the room was fluent in Chinese, even though he was just following instructions. “Flat ontology of computation (or anything else) must be specific and open-ended, so as to make it less likely to fall into the trap of system operational overdetermination.” (17) Bogost uses the example of ET: The Extra-Terrestrial for Atari Video Computer System, describing an assemblage of everything ET is; there is not one “real” way to explain what E.T. the video game is. Latour calls this irreduction, nothing is able to be reduced to any one particular thing.
Imbroglio vs. Mess Latour’s notion of imbroglio is any situation in which you don’t know who is doing the acting. John Law’s notion of mess is a methodological concept that resists organized, coherent analysis of things. For Bogost, the network that reveals itself in Latour’s imbroglio is too orderly, while a mess is too disorderly; and both contain correlationist threads, “Whose conception of reality gets to frame that of everything else’s?” (21)
Bogost takes the two-dimensional flat ontology one step further and coins the phrase tiny ontology, a one-dimensional singularity that contains an infinite density of both messes and networks inside a point. Similar in concept to a black hole, Harman makes the observation that every object “is not only protected by a vacuous shield from the things that lie outside it, but also harbors and nurses an erupting infernal universe within.” (22) To illustrate the infiniteness of an object, Bogost uses the description of a container ship.
“The container ship is a unit as much as the cargo holds, the shipping containers, the hyrdraulic rams, the ballast water, the twist locks, the lashing rods, the crew, their sweaters, and the yarn out of which those garments are kit. The ship erects a boundary in which everything it contains withdraws within it, while those individual units that compose it do so similarly, simultaneously, and at the same fundamental level of existence.”(22)
Bogost prefers the term unit to object, as objects imply subjects, which is directly related to correlationsim. He also prefers it to thing, which comes with a charged philosophical history. Unit, on the other hand, remains indifferent to the things it describes; it is ambivalent, isolated, unique, and specific. A unit can encapsulate an entire system or an individual atom that. Unit operation refers to how units behave and interact. Bogost gives the functions “brewing tea, shedding skin, photosynthesizing sugar, igniting compressed fuel” as examples of unit operations.
“The unit reveals a feature of being that the thing and the object occlude. The density and condensation of tiny ontology has a flip side: something is always something else, too: a gear in another mechanism, a relation in another assembly, a part in another whole. Within the black hole-like density of being, things undergo an expansion.” (26) Bogost uses the concept of sets to describe how units relate to one another and introduces the idea of configuration. He claims, “If everything exists all at once and equally, with no differentiation whatsoever, then the processes by which units perceive, relate, consider, respond retract, and otherwise engage with one another - the method by which the unit operation takes place - is a configurative one.” (26) But ultimately, Bogost has trouble with the idea of sets, as well, for who is the one that does the counting (correlationism at play, again)? “Units are isolated entities trapped together inside other unites, rubbing shoulders with one another uncomfortably while never over-lapping. A unit is never an atom, but a set, a grouping of other units that act together as a system; the unit operation is always fractal. These things wonder about one another without getting confirmation. This is the heart of the unit operation: it names a phenomenon of accounting for an object. It is a process, a logic, an algorithm if you want, by which a unit attempts to make sense of another.” (28) Bogost suggests pragmatic speculative realism in order to philosophize about what it’s like to be a thing, claiming if taken seriously, it could have the same grounding as speculative fiction or magical realism.
"Robert A. Heinlein advocates speculating about possible worlds that are unlike our own, but in a way that remains coupled to the actual world more than the term science fiction might normally suggest. Magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Isabel Allende suggests that the spectacular is real insofar as it actually comprises aspects of culture." (29, 30)
Naïve realism claims that the world is just how we perceive of or know it.
Speculate, from Latin speculātus, past participle of speculor (‘look out’), from specula (‘watchtower’), from specio (‘look at’).
Speculative realism names not only speculative philosophy that takes existence to be separate from thought but also a philosophy claiming that things speculate, and furthermore, one that speculates about how things speculate.” (31)
“Everything whatsoever is like people on a subway, crunched together into uncomfortably intimate contact with strangers.”(31)
We can never know what goes on between to particular units, a philosopher can understand them better by amplifying and evaluating their background noise, or black noise.
“Just as the astronomer understands stars through radiant energy that surrounds them, so the philosopher understands objects by tracing their impacts on the surrounding ether.”(33)
Bogost evokes Edmund Husserl’s use of epoché to explain how we should consider and explore the state of objects: in a suspension of disbelief. SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence)’s research project Earth Speaks aims to collect messages from Internet users to see what kinds of things people would like to be sent into outer space. Nicholas Rescher argued against SETI’s insistence that the signs of extraterrestrial life would resemble detectable communication technology, claiming they might be so alien as to be impenetrable to us.
Bogost takes this further and claims it might not just be the way in which aliens communicate that evade our understanding, but that their very idea of what life if might not be recognizable to ours. “The alien is anything - and everything- to everything else.” (34) Alien Phenomenology is the name Bogost gives to the practice of object-oriented philosophy. “Our job is to write the speculative fictions of their processes, of their unit operations. Our job is to get our hands dirty with grease, juice, gunpowder, and gypsum. Our job is to go where everyone has gone before, but where few have bothered to linger.” (34)
ONTOGRAPHY "Ontography is a practice of increasing the number and density, one that sometimes opposes the minimalism of contemporary art. Instead of removing elements to achieve the elegance of simplicity, ontograhy adds (or simply leaves) elements to accomplish the realism of multitude. It is a practice of exploding the innards of things -- be they words, intersections, shopping malls, or creatures. This "explosion" can be as figurative or as literal as you like, but it must above all reveal the hidden density of a unit." (58)
Ontography aims to find techniques capable of chronicling objects in a fashion that is illustrative of alien phenomenology.
In this chapter, Bogost explains his notion of ontography. Crucially, ontography is not just a theory, but a practice as well; it's concerned with actively revealing the existence and density of objects. Ontography (as Bogost uses the term) is a theoretical and empirical practice rooted in Bogost's phenomenological belief that all objects don’t only exist for us, but for themselves and for one another as well. It concerns itself with finding techniques capable of chronicling objects in a fashion that is illustrative of these circumstances. Bogost proposes a set of different strategies that can serve as ontographical, helping us in mapping out the hidden depths and diversity of things. One such technique is the compilation of (Latour) litanies; lists that group objects and concepts together purely on basis of their existence. These lists don't impose hierarchy or seek logical or narrative coherence, but simply present us with accounts of things that exist in the world; in this regard, a (Latour) litany establishes a flat ontology wherein no thing holds more existential value than another.
A list of lists, or litany of Litanies “Lists, as it happens, appear regularly in Latour’s works. They function primarily as provocations, as litanies of surprisingly contrasted curiosities”. (38)
Lists and litanies are devices capable of grouping together disparate elements with no implied hierarchy and with no regard for regimes of knowledge and power. The only similarity that elements share within such a litany is the fact that they exist, and that none exists more or less than the other. Bogost also uses lists litanies as a stylistic, narratological and/or rhetorical device throughout the book. David Berry, a scholar at Stockholm University, created a litany of linaties found in Bogost’s book. Here are several illustrative examples of ontographic practices: • Tobias Kuhn's idea of an ontograph concerns a diagram or model that serves to simplify complex (technological) matters by reducing them to graphical representations of all elements and their relations. 15
The primary goal of Kuhn's ontographs is to simplify and reduce vagueness.
Devising such ontographs is an ontological exercise that accounts for everything that exists within a given (complex) system. It echoes Bogost's notion of ontography in the sense that it depicts singular elements as existing separately but also in relation to one another. Latour litanies are lists that posit human beings as 'mere' objects existing on equal basis with other (non-human) objects
â€˘ Bogost coins the term Latour litany as an homage to anthropologist and philosopher Bruno Latour, who in his works makes plentiful use of extensive lists that posit human beings as 'mere' objects existing on equal basis with other (non-human) objects. There's a curious sense of irony to an anthropologist employing such a non-anthropocentric point of view. The ontological belief that underpins the Latour litany is also evident in Latour's famous actor-network theory and more recent work on modes of existence; no object holds inherent existential privilege over another and nothing can be reduced to anything else.
To illustrate OOO, we created a short film that can be considered as an ultimate Latour Litany, introducing both visual and aural concepts of units to the viewer. OOOliens: A Provocation exemplifies what Bogost refers to as the "rich variety of being," as well as the idea that everyday objects, are, in essence, alien.
OOOliens: A Provocation, by Paula Carmicino
• Francis Spufford's The Chatto Book of Cabbages and Kings: Lists in Literature contains a selection of lists in literature and celebrates the paradigmatic elements at play in list-making (as opposed to the syntactic nature of narrative and grammar). Spufford recognizes the capability of lists to group disparate elements together without having to logically or narratively relate them. • French semiotician Roland Barthes' self-titled autobiography takes the form of a non-sequentially ordered analysis of his own life as if it were a text (this in itself could be conceptualized as an exercise in ontography; Barthes presents his life as a collection of disparate fragments without imposed hierarchical order). • Herman Melville's Moby Dick chronicles the adventures of Ishmael, a man who gets caught up in a frenzied captain's hunt for Moby Dick, an elusive white whale. With regard to ontography, Moby Dick is relevant because of its refusal to maintain a strictly anthropocentric narrative. Melville writes with a detailed pen and while he does describe the sailors' ordeals, he also provides us with extensive accounts of the anatomy of whales, the architecture of ships, the character of the sea and its inhabitants et cetera. “It would be just as appropriate to call Moby-Dick a natural history as it would a novel -- the former is perhaps more apt, even.” (42) • Tom Jobim's Waters of March is a popular Brazilian bossa nova song that could be considered an ontography of the month of March in Rio de Janeiro. It lists a variety of objects and concepts ("death", "sun", "song", "oak") and (according to Bogost) this emphasis on multiplicity has made it a vessel for many ontographical reappropriations.
Waters of March, by Tom Jobim
Visual ontography Another technique described by Bogost, perhaps best illustrated by the photography of Stephen Shore, is that of visual ontography. Rather than registering the world through a framework governed by human subjectivity or functionality, Shore's photographs catalog objects as they appear in the world. Shore's images depict constellations of objects not to be perceived as a singular coherent frame, but rather as a figuration of a variety of separate (yet equal) units. Visual ontography emphasizes the notion of meanwhile rather than the idea of now; instead of narrowing its scope and designating one particular object to be the primary subject, it seeks to document everything on an equal basis. Here are a few ewamples: â€˘ Francois Blanciak's Siteless: 1001 Building Forms is a collection of (seemingly randomly ordered, which is of enough ontographical relevance in itself) 1001 visual depictions of hypothetical architectural shapes and compositions. Blanciak liberates architecture from the strains of human functionality and typology and rather presents us with materialities that might or could exist. These are architectural objects that exist for themselves. The illustrations found in Siteless also bring together disparate elements and show how these elements could relate to one another (often with no regard for matters like gravity).
Beverly Boulevard and La Brea Avenue, Los Angeles, California, June 21, 1975, by Stephen Shore.
• Stephen Shore is a famous and influential American photographer who (besides being a pioneer in the use of color photography) is well-known for his images of (configurations of) trivial objects. Rather than framing his pictures in ways that seek to steer the viewer's attention in the direction of specific persons or objects, Shore's photos present vistas of specificity. Interestingly enough, as stated above, Shore was also the one who introduced color into (popular) photography -this too, one could argue, lends him status as an ontographer as he sought to present objects as they appear (rather than in a stylized black-and-white fashion).
“Like painting, photography usually operates on the temporal scale of now. The landscape or the still life shows the corporeal arrangements of things, arrested before human perception. But Shore’s work rejects the singularity of the now in favor of the infinity of the meanwhile.” (50)
The exploded view diagram acknowledges that an object can exist both on its own and in a relational context.
A third strategy that Bogost mentions is that of the exploded view. An exploded view diagram illustrates the specific relationship between the separate components of an assemblage. As such, it serves to draw the attention to the fact that objects do not exist simply in relation to us, but also for themselves and for one another. The exploded view diagram depicts objects both as separate and as related entities.
Another technique discussed by Bogost is that of the ontographic machine; rather than simply cataloguing existing objects and their relations, ontographic machines allow us to actively engage with elements. â€œPhotographic ontography is effective as art and as metaphysics. But photographs are static: they imply but do not depict unit operations. For the latter, we must look to artifacts that themselves operate.â€? (52)
Scribblenauts, a Nintendo DS game, places players in a variety of levels and gives them the ability to call any of over 20.000 objects into being and use it to solve the level's puzzle. The puzzlesâ€™ unscripted nature encourages to experiment with ontology; summoning a multiplicity of objects into being and finding various uses for them.
Bogost uses the game Scribblenauts as a prime example of an ontographic machine. Scribblenauts lets players summon objects of their choosing and subsequently encourages them to use these objects in a variety of operations. An ontographic machine, then, does not grant attention only to the fact that units exist, but also explores the plethoras of operations these units can engage in.
Rush Hour is a puzzle game invented by Nobuyuki Yoshigahara that has the player move vehicles on a grid in order to maneuver a red car through the playing field. Bogost encourages us to think of Rush Hour as a potential ontological domain
In a Pickle encourages players to explore the ontology of semantic units, cataloguing referents and homographs, and in the process emphasizing their density rather than treating words as abstract units that merely have meaning for us.
Lastly, Bogost covers the practice of conceptualizing language from an ontographic perspective, revealing that language is not simply an abstract construction that solely has meaning for us, but also a set of semantic units that have meaning for themselves. Ontography, in short, deploys a series of techniques that can help us illustrate how not one object exists more than another, and also how these objects are not merely granted existence by decree of human subjectivity but rather exist for themselves and for one another as well. In a Pickle is a card game that invites players to think creatively about words. In Bogost's words, In a Pickle is a "machine for producing ontographs about words" (58). â€œAn ontograph is a landfill, not a Japanese garden. It shows how much rather than how little exists simultaneously, suspended in the dense meanwhile of being:â€? (55)
METAPHORISM ‘’[A]lien phenomenology accepts that the subjective character of experiences cannot be fully recuperated objectively, even if it remains wholly real. In a literal sense, the only way to perform alien phenomenology is by analogy.’’(64)
Experience cannot be reduced to physical or causal relations and is therefore a subjective matter. Bogost cites Thomas Nagel’s essay ‘What is it like to be a bat’ to explain how alien experiences seem to us. Nagel’s essay about bats instructs alien phenomenology by illustrating how alien experiences are even if we can map out unit operations of a specific thing, we still cannot know what it is to be a bat, imagining what it is like to be a bat is something different than being a bat. Even if we try to erase subjective elements in the experience of things by reducing objects to their physical properties we still do not have full access to experience. For example, we can follow the neurochemical unit operation of how the components of a Twinkie reacts to our taste buds but that does not describe the experience of sweetness. For Nagel, the question of what it is like to be an organism is to inquire about the ‘subjective character of experience’. This idea of experience rests on ‘being-likeness’, it eludes the way we map experiences, a feature OOO calls withdrawal. Thus things remain withdrawn, they cannot be grasped by external observation alone. We can imagine what it is like to be something but we cannot have the same subjective experience and thus not know what is to be something. External features or observations may be proof or evidence of the workings of a thing but they do not account for the subjective experience of a thing or as Bogost says:
‘‘But to understand how something operates on its surroundings, or they on it, is not the same as understanding how that other things understands those operations’’(63).
The Clarity of Distortion Bogost states that alien phenomenology accepts the subjective character of things fully, this is in contrast with Nagel who follows an objective phenomenology, a proposed system to objectively describe subjective experiences by analogy. For humans it is impossible to describe the experiences of things without comparing them to human features.
‘’[A]lien phenomenology accepts that the subjective character of experiences cannot be fully recuperated objectively, even if it remains wholly real. In a literal sense, the only way to perform alien phenomenology is by analogy.’’(64) We make caricatures to understand things but we do so by placing human agency as a starting point to make claims about reality. The experience of things remain alien to us.
Humans can only talk about the experiences of things by caricaturing or using anthropomorphic metaphors. By dealing with things by metaphors we have to acknowledge that we are left out in the experience of things (the sonar of a bat can be understood by the metaphor of a submarine, i.e another thing). Thus metaphors assess not the perception of things but perception itself.
Things relate to other things in a similar fashion for us: they use their internal qualities and logics and, by metaphor, relate to each other. Note that this method does not try to erase distortion like objective phenomenology but embraces it since experiences of things are still alien to us. ‘’[T]o begin a process of phenomenal metaphorism, we often must break with some of our own modes of knowing. This is a mindbender: the Husserlian epoché brackets human empirical intuition, but in metaphorism we recognize that our relationship to objects is not first person; we are always removed. It is not the objects’ perception that we characterize metaphoristically but the perception itself, which recedes just as any other object does.’’ (67)
How the Sensor Sees The way a digital camera perceives the world is by analogy of film and the human eye. By understanding how the sensor sees we can take its operationalization into account. By comparing the sensor of a digital camera to the human eye or film we are offered a metaphor which again underlines that the experience of things is essentially alien for humans. Their workings can only be understood by metaphorically speaking about them and thus alienating them from their own experience. 25
Digital cameras use different kinds of sensors to perceive the world: A more conventional Bayer sensor operates in a similar way as film, resulting in images that offer the same granularity. Foveon sensors, on the other hand, operate more like the human eye, offering an analogy of our mesopic vision, resulting in images that in dim light see partly in monochrome and partly in color, similar to how humans see in poor lighting situations.
‘’Just as the bat’s experience of perception differs from our understanding of the bat’s experience of perception, so the camera’s experience of seeing differs from our understanding of its experience. But unlike the bat, the Foveon-equipped Sigma DP provides us with exhaust from which we can derive a phenomenal metaphor to chronicle that experience.’’(72)
Metaphor and Obligation Humans have an ethical relationship with things, for example, a vegetarian can have an ethical objection to eating meat, but these are human ethics. A plant does not “feel” nor does it react to external factors. In other words, it does not feel like us. This relation is necessarily anthropocentric since we always take human ethics as the baseline principle, ‘’when we theorize ethical codes, they are always ethics for us.’’ Therefore, we can say that anthropomorphising metaphors have their limits because they cannot account for ethics which logic exists outside of things. We can only imagine our ethics with things and not the ethics of things.
Objects possess sensual qualities, properties that can be found not in the private depths of things, but on the surface. These qualities render objects into caricatures in which objects “bathe.” Take for example tofu: its moisture, blandness, suppleness, and vegetality. Is soy even meant for eating or to foster new soy plants? This begs the question, can we have speculative ethics? When objects act upon one another do they do so through morals and ethics? Bogost admits that we can only grasp possible object ethics by metaphor, but again, this is not the same as ethics an sich. The ethics of things will always remain inaccessible to us; it’s a logic that is unfamiliar to objects. To solve this problem, Bogost proposes an alternative to speculative ethics in the form of hyperobjects, a term coined by Timothy Morton. These are things that are massively distributed in spacetime. Since ethics exists outside of things, we can only talk about it metaphorically. Therefore, ethics needs to be seen as an hyperobject itself, ‘’a massive, tangled chain of objects lampooning one another through weird relation, mistaking their own essence for that of the alien objects they encounter, exploding the very idea of ethics to infinity.’’ (79)
Daisy Chains With the concept of metametaphorisms, taking the metaphorical perception of a thing as a vantage point instead of our metaphorical perception of things, we can extend the interaction of things in an ideative manner, a term from Husserl that asserts that categorical intuitions can exceed perception. In this way it can be applied to speculative metaphorism. If intuitions can be decoupled from the individual into the universal (i.e. all things) in an ideative manner, alien phenomenologists can use it when they do not have access to object-object relations. These interactions, or how we frame them, are metaphors in themselves which can chain one object to another like phenomenal daisy chains that fits well with the idea of flat ontology where all things exist equally. This chain can go on infinitely where each metaphorical relation distorts the previous one, opening up a multitude of possible relations for us to ponder about. We can chain objects together by speculating on the metaphorical relation between things.
The first chain between two objects would be the clearest but as the chain goes on it strays further from the starting point, accumulating more and more distortions and thus exposing the rich variety of being. ‘’Metaphorism of this sort involves phenomenal daisy chains, built of speculations on speculations as we seep farther and farther into the weird relations between objects.’’ (81) A illustrative example of phenomenal daisy chaining can be found in Ben Marcus’s ‘The Age of Wire and String’ The book illustrates the alien existence of things and how they might perceive or react to other objects and things in the world. The Age of Wire and String consists of incomprehensible chapters, offering the reader a catalog of the lives of various things. The book reads as a chain of metaphors inviting us to think about the relation of things without providing a clear story or plot.
CARPENTRY ‘’[M]ust scholarly productivity take writing form? Is writing the most efficient and appropriate material for judging academic work? If the answer is yes, it is only by convention.’’ (89)
Writing has been the most dominant form of scholarly productiveness; one's academic career is valued mostly by writing articles/books. Two problems arise: academics are not necessarily good writers in the sense that their writing exists in a bubble, only comprehensible to some while conforming to academic conventions, sometimes without being clear about the points they are making. Second, writing imposes limitations on how knowledge can be perceived or used. By excluding a variety of possible artifacts, we can only deal with writing and argumentations, which leads to more written nitpicking of other arguments. In other words, academic work, especially in the case of humanists, is mainly about writing instead of practice. Comic Book Guy is portrayed as a walking nerd encyclopedia, condemning every minor (faulty) detail found in popular culture.
‘’Our tendency towards obfuscation, disconnection, jargon, and overall incomprehensibility is legendary’’ (89) Bogost takes the example of The Simpson’s character Comic Book Guy, which can be compared to academics who possess a wide range of specialised knowledge and are constantly trying to find faults in other people’s work while skillfully exhibiting their expertise. According to Bogost, we should take the example of Matthew B. Crawford, an academic-turned-mechanic, who describes his dissatisfaction with the scholarly obsession with writing in his book Shop Class as Soulcraft.
Crawford argues that knowledge arises when one confronts him or herself with real things and that philosophy should be done in practice, not just theory.
Making Things Bogost derives the term carpentry from Harman’s philosophical sense of “carpentry of things.” Making things increases the variety, playfulness, and earnestness of discourse while potentially fostering the creative power of its maker. Carpentry in the alien phenomenological sense should be objects for philosophical practice, as an alternative to writing. In the case of alien phenomenology it can be made from any material but it has to be an earnest attempt to provoke philosophical thought. Just like scientific experiments or engineering prototypes, carpentry must have a philosophical grounding and cannot just be something for its own sake (like in art). In a sense carpentry should be about making things that make you think things about things. ‘’[P]hilosophical work generally do not perpetrate their philosophical positions through their form as books. The carpenter, by constrast, must contend with the material resistance of his or her chosen form, making the object itself become the philosophy.’’ (93) Bogost’s own examples of carpentry come from his background in computer software. He illustrates the notion of carpentry by two simple programs he made: Bogost’s Latour Litanizer is a script that uses the Wikipedia API to make litanies based on a random query. The litanies show us weird and diverse associations things have with each other. The image toy (no longer functional) is a script that mines Flickr for photos based on tags. Instead of providing a list like the Latour Litanizer, “the image toy” displays just one picture at a time. The program was meant to show what images would show up while using tags like “things,” “objects” and “stuff.”
Philosophical Lab Equipment Carpentry is a form of philosophical lab equipment, with theory, an experiment or a question as starting point and is built with philosophy in mind. Language is not the only tool to expose the experience of things and the world around them - the alien phenomenologist should use carpentry to speculate about the inner experience of things which it ultimately can never understand. ‘’[T]he 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.’’ (100) 31
I am TIA is a simple script Bogost made to allow us to get an idea of how a television adapter interface sees the world. The program displays some of the inner workings of a chip found in an Atari game console by exposing the way it calculates an image on the television screen. This feature would not be possible with a normal Atari where these type of computations are normally hidden from the human perspective.
Ben Fry’s Deconstructulator is another example of carpentry. The program deconstructs Super Mario Bros by displaying an exploded view of the way a Nintendo Entertainment System handles graphics. The Deconstructulator exposes the architecture of a console by giving us insight in the operationalization of the (emulated) hardware and how it processes sprites, colors and animations.
Another example of how philosophical lab equipment can give us insight into the workings of a thing is Firebug, a simple plug-in for the Firefox web browser that shows code while using the browser. Just like the Deconstructulator it exposes all the computations of the program, it is basically a debug mode that lets the user monitor the workings of the browser.
Alien Probes Examples such as the Latour Latinizer, I am TIA, the Deconstructulator, Firebug and the Tableau machine show us how alien phenomenology could be used in practice. They show us how speculation can be applied to objects and what it might tell us about how it perceives the world. This way we can move away from anthropocentrism by exposing some of the experiences and relations objects can have with each other and with us. The Tableau Machine project is a good example of how alien the things around us can be. It asks the question: can a house be aware of its inhabitants. The project features a house outfitted with devices, screens, interfaces, cameras, and sensors, effectively creating an alien presence in a domestic environment. All the gathered data from the house is used to render a piece of abstract art. The tableau machine can be seen as an alien probe, where we are turned into the alien, constantly monitored by objects that record the inhabitants relation with the house and things.
‘’[T]he job of the alien phenomenologist might have as much or more to do with experimentation and constructing as it does with writing or speaking.’’ (109)
Alexander Galloway’s computer version of Guy Debord’s ‘Le Jeu de la Guerre’. Inspired by the military theory of Carl von Clausewitz and the European campaigns of Napoleon, Debord's game is a chess-variant played by two opposing players on a game board of 500 squares arranged in rows of 20 by 25 squares.
A New Radicalism For too long writing has had the privilege of being the default mode of disseminating knowledge. Bogost cites Latour to explain why “Knowledge [...] does not exist... Despite all claims to the contrary, crafts hold the key to knowledge.” (110) He asserts that philosophers have not been radical enough since they can build bigger theories but they are never concretized. Bogost therefore proposes that the alien phenomenologist should see OOO as craftsmanship where creativity and practice can create artifacts that invite us to speculate about the relationship of things. Alexander Galloway’s computer version of Guy Debord’s ‘Le Jeu de la Guerre’, Fergus Henderson’s nose-to-tail restaurant St. John, Hugh Crawford’s wooden hut are all examples that show that there is theory and there is practice and that the two do not have to exist separately, practice can just as well be theory in the sense that they can be artifacts of philosophical carpentry.
‘’Real radicals, we might conclude, make things.’’ (110)
WONDER “The act of wonder invites a detachment from ordinary logics, of which human logics are but one example. This is a necessary act in the method of alien phenomenology. As Howard Parsons puts it, wonder ‘suggests a breach in the membrane of awareness, a sudden opening in a man’s system of established and expected meanings’. To wonder is to suspend all trust in one’s own logics, and to become subsumed entirely in the uniqueness of an object’s native logics.” (124)
Wonder, in the author’s words, is a state of mind that is meant to maintain a distance, reminding us that the only thing we can know, is that we know nothing.
In the last chapter “Wonder,” Bogost explains how television can help us practice tiny ontology. “Smart” television, explains the author, enables the viewer to contemplate every object of a network individually. Television, most of all, can help us realize that we only posess limited knowledge about the world that surrounds us, and more specifically about its infinite components. Bogost refers to the Socrastic paradox, and encourages the reader to wonder. The scholar urges one to permanently consider all the things that surrounds us as alien, calling this practice the alien everyday.
Competing Realisms According to Bogost, The Wire, a TV show depicting the drug scene of Baltimore, can be considered as a form of realism in two different ways: first, the complexity and authenticity of the characters enables the viewer to perceive “the almost impossibly inscrutable intricacy of [the characters’] actions and relations,” and is a perfect exemple of “smart” television. Secondly, the series illustrates the representational realism of cinema or photography, rather than process philosophy or transcendentalism. Charles Dickens
Considered as the most popular novelist of his time, Dickens was also depicted as a social critic. Many of his novels are concerned with social realism, focusing on mechanisms of social control that direct people's lives.
This process, called social realism, can be found in the work of writers as Charles Dickens or Thomas Hardy, or artists as Reginald Marsh and Walker Evans. The Wire, however, remains focused on people’s stories. The problem is both philosophical and material:
“Can we even imagine a dramatic serial that delves deeply into the compression heat of a diesel engine combustion chamber, or the manner by which corn and sugar additives increase the alcoholic content of malt, or the dissolution of heroin in water atop the concave surface of a spoon […]?” (115) Another show that can put the viewer in the position of practicing tiny ontology, according to Bogost, is Ace of Cakes, a catering reality show also taking place in Baltimore. The show, in the author’s words, “deletes human rationales as much as possible” and by showing the whole process of a cake shaped as a Viking ship, succeeds in “flatten[ing] the 36 ontological seas.”
“Clinker-built oak planks and fondant, keel, hull and sponge cake, white-topped waves and spread frosting, oar stay and cookie all take their places next to each other as objects of equivalent existence.” (117)
Cooking shows such as Alton Brown’s Good Eats, says Bogost, allow us to “identify the unseen stuff of cookery.”
“Brown’s cakery embraces tiny ontology. The cake exist, to be sure. So does the Kitchen-Aid 5-Quart Stand Mixer, the preheated oven, the mixing bowl, and the awaiting gullet. But so too do the sugar, the flour granules, the butterfat crystals, the leavener, the gas bubbles. And they do not merely exist – they exist equally.” (119)
Cooking shows, Bogost explains, present every component of a cake as “their own end product, worthy of consideration, scrutiny and awe”.
The Socratic paradox can be summed up by the following sentence: "I know one thing: that I know nothing." It reminds us the need to have humility about the knowledge one does not possess.
“ I know that I know nothing,” or the Socratic paradox Referring to Socrates dialogue Theaetetus, the scholar makes a parallel between tiny ontology and what is sometimes called the socratic paradox. Bogost insists here on the word wonder, linking it to awe or marvel, worship or astonishment. In other words, knowledge has no other meaning than a process of reason; it is “both route and destination, like the object of philosophy is both puzzle to be decoded and object to be admired.” (122) Wonder, according to Bacon’s view, is “the seed of knowledge,” and also “broken knowledge”: it is meant to maintain a distance, in the sense that if “knowledge may intersect or surround ideas and objects, it never permeates them.” This method becomes a “science attached to nothing,” in the words of Joseph-Marie de Maistre, a fundamental separation between objects that Bogost describes as “fundamental to OOO.” “To wonder is to suspend all trust in one’s own logics, be they religion, science, philosophy, custom, or opinion, and to become subsumed entirely in the uniqueness of an object’s native logics.”(124) 38
Bypassing Science’s Correlationism ! Despite its claims for universalism, explains Bogost, science also has embraced correlationism and remains focused on human concerns. For science and philosophy, wonder is a void, a means. Taking the example of the Atari, Bogost explains how, by dismantling it, one can learn more about the different objects that compose the console: the 6502 microprocessor and the Television Interface Adapter (TIA). In this process, however, these components are deemphasized, and only allowed “a relational role as things in a larger network: the evolution of computing, low-level systems programming, pedagogies of the practice of fundamentals,” etc.
“Yet the 6502 is as wondrous as the cake or the quark. Not for what it does but for what it is.”(128)
According to Japanese-American graphic designer, computer scientist and academic John Maeda, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education should include Art in the equation, and be renamed STEAM. This, Maeda says, will allow “a return to the integrity of craft, the humanity of authorship, and the rebalancing of our virtual and physical spaces.” In his view, the 21st century will see a renaissance in arts and craft, where the individual will take center stage. The addition of art to the mix, however, might not particularly enhance the missing focus on things themselves, as science (like philosophy), sees wonder as a type of puzzlement. “For the child, a computer or a robot or a cake or a definite integral is not merely a wellspring for a possible future career, or even a vessel for play, work, sustenance, or measurement. It’s an object worthy of consideration for its own sake, a thing of wonder.” (129) A solution to this issue might be found in Maistre’s interpretation of Bacon’s “broken knowledge,” or “the science attached to nothing.”
The 1997 movie adaptation of Men in Black ends with a scene that could, according to Bogost, illustrate tiny ontology.
At the end of Men in Black’s film adaptation, Bogost recalls, “the universe” is “revealed to be a small glass orb hanging like a charm from a cat’s collar.” If the concept is right, the scale remains too large and too small at the same time: “The two sides of tiny ontology glisten as they flip like a coin: everything is like the marble universe in Men in Black. Partitioned like so many galaxies, each thing […] demands its own broken knowledge.” (130, 131)
Men in Black’s final scene
OOO, Professor of Philosophy Levi Bryant, explains, offers a new kind of humanism.
The Alien Everyday OOO has often been accused of objectifying humans, or even ignoring, conflating, or reducing the cultural aspects of things. Bogost explains with irony: “The idea that one can put non-human objects in front, even if just for a moment, signals a coarse and sinful inhumanism.” (132) Bogost, explains that OOO does exactly the opposite and, quoting Harman, using it will allow humans to be liberated from the crushing correlational system.
Speculative realism offers means for creative work to be done and new argumentative realms to explore, explains Nick Srnicek, an author and a contributor to Speculative Heresy.
Bogost describes the actual conceptual of humanism as intellectually monotonous: “The rise of objects need not be a revolution, at least not all the time. This is not just a rise of fists, but also a rise of bodies, as if to leave a table, politely folding one’s napkin before departing.” (132, 133) One should not be afraid of new ideologies. The alien, explains Bogost, is different: “One does not ask the alien, ‘Do you come in peace?’ but rather, ‘What am I to you?’. The posture one takes before the alien is that of curiosity, of wonder.” (133) Wonder should not be left to natural sciences but used in humanities and metaphysics. The alien, explains Bogost, “isn’t in the Roswell military morgue, or in the galactic far reaches […]. It’s everywhere.“ The wind still blows over Savannah And in the Spring the turkey buzzard struts and flounces before his hens. - Charles Bukowski
Ian Bogost's Alien Phenomenology, or What It`s Like to Be a Thing is a short book, but also one that's conceptually and theoretically dense....
Published on Nov 1, 2013
Ian Bogost's Alien Phenomenology, or What It`s Like to Be a Thing is a short book, but also one that's conceptually and theoretically dense....