- Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing by Ian Bogost
Who could have guessed that things would make such a roaring comeback in the twenty-first century? What were the odds that the object could leap over such high hurdles: the deontologizing orthodoxies, the fascination with the subject, fixations on the image and the word? And yet, shining brightly, there it is: the object now luxuriating in the critical spotlight.
But what do you suppose an object’s pleasure feels like? And what if one object or another isn’t really relishing the attention? What if it’s somewhat abashed or rather repulsed or (most predictably) indifferent? [End Page 554]
Those are the kinds of questions that Ian Bogost might be willing to tackle, though Alien Phenomenology doesn’t quite address the emotions of objects. The book assembles “thought experiments,” admittedly messy, that are concerned to depict the ways objects experience one another—and to speculate about topics like the ethics of things: “Is what a thing tends to do the same as what it considers noble or right?” The book should be read for its successful ontography: descriptions of the being of things meant to uncover “the repleteness of units and their interobjectivity.” When Bogost describes “the camera’s own perception,” he does a fair job (from this human’s point of view) of tackling the (admittedly impossible) task of answering the question of “what it’s like to be a Foveon digital image sensor.” The book is fun, often funny; it will let you know what you find refreshing and what you find foolish about object-oriented ontology, a perspective that means in the first instance to grant all objects (cameras and flour and humans and spark plugs and computers and sugar) the same plentitude of being.
Hence the celebration of “flat ontology” or, in Bogost’s revision, “tiny ontology.” To overcome the flatness, Bogost (but not just Bogost) indulges a bit in the grandiose. After his impressive descriptions of Stephen Shore’s photographs, a board game, and a videogame, he concludes that they each “explode the density of being, giving viewer and player a view of a tiny sliver of the infinity of being, through reconfiguration.” Such density and infinity can become (at best) a bit distracting. But these days: ontology is in. (Epistemology and Kant are out.)
Bogost teaches digital media, designs video games, and writes very well about them. Unit Operations (2008) develops an analytical mode that works in and on the overlap between literary theory and computation. In Alien Phenomenology, he also begins by deploying unit and unit of operation in lieu of object or thing; when that deployment breaks down, it compromises the very particular contribution he has to make (from the computational world) to the field of object studies. When he argues that the realist metaphysician ought to get his hands dirty practicing ontology (by which he means making things—and not making things like a good cup of coffee, but making things like tables and machines), it feels as though, instead, he wants the machines he has made to count philosophically: to count as what, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, were called “philosophical toys.” It’s hard to imagine wishing that Quine, the self-declared “robust realist,” had made machines instead of sentences; it’s no less hard to imagine wishing the carpenter to be at work “making the object itself become the philosophy.” What about the object’s repleteness in the absence of philosophy? Bruno Latour stands out among the scholars who have drawn attention to objects because his radical de-taxonomizing (doing away with any number of distinctions—subject/object, human/nonhuman, culture/nature) is pursued on behalf of establishing new epistemological norms by which to apprehend the distribution of agency in a concrete case—to understand, for instance, why a transit system wasn’t implemented in [End Page 555] Paris. He gets rid of the human on behalf of perceiving Gaia, the earth’s systems and the...