- Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing by Bogost, Ian
Images of a microprocessor, a chicken wing, a panda, and a carton of cigarettes adorn the cover of Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing, disrupting and almost asserting themselves as components of the title. The effect is a fitting first impression for an eminently readable book that throws philosophy off balance and then tries to teach it to walk in this newly unsettled state. Although the work Bogost does here is philosophical, it contributes to an interdisciplinary conversation interested in the relationship between human and nonhuman actors that includes Bill Brown’s thing theory, Cary Wolfe’s and N. Katherine Hayles’s posthumanism, Bruno Latour’s brand of Actor-Network-Theory, and Graham Harman’s version of Speculative Realism. In light of Bogost’s previous three monographs, all of which focus on videogames, Alien Phenomenology is both a clear departure and a logical next step. It is a departure because it is not a work of videogame theory, but it is also a logical next step because Bogost’s videogame theory has steadily led him toward a more direct treatment of the phenomenological questions that trouble the pages, and even the titles, of Unit Operations (MIT 2006), Persuasive Games (MIT 2010), and How to Do Things with Videogames (Minnesota 2011). Whereas these books reimagine the possibilities of videogames as cultural phenomena and push the implications beyond the realm of game design and play, Alien Phenomenology revises our understanding of what phenomena are, in and of themselves. For Bogost, the central question philosophers face in the age of handheld universes like the Nintendo DS is no longer “What is a thing?” – a question that Heidegger or even Derrida might have pondered – but rather, “What is it like to be a thing?” “That things are is not a matter of debate,” Bogost observes. What concerns him is: “What it means that something in particular is for another thing that is: this is the question that interests me” (30; emphasis in original).
The problem Bogost identifies in this line of inquiry is that human thinking privileges human perception. That is, we only tend to take an interest in things in terms of their relations to human actions, cultures, and politics, and any change in this default position would require a rejection of anthropocentrism so complete that it would make posthuman tacks look tame in comparison. On this front, Bogost’s work does not disappoint. In setting his sights on an ontology, one which is both flat—“mak[ing] no distinction between the types of things that exist but treat[ing] all equally”—and which is, in his words, “tiny”—“as compact and unornamented as possible”—Bogost develops a truly alien phenomenology (17, 21). This [End Page 190] title phrase works in a double-helix fashion; it both suggests that things alien to humans have their own phenomenologies, and simultaneously calls to mind the otherworldly dimensions of this philosophical approach. Thus, this phenomenology is “alien” because it leaves “behind the human as solitary consciousness like the Voyager spacecraft leaves behind the heliosphere on its way beyond the boundaries of the solar system” (32). “Our job,” Bogost asserts, “is to go where everyone has gone before, but where few have bothered to linger. I call this practice alien phenomenology” (34; emphasis in original). In the succeeding chapters, Bogost offers a method, “Ontography,” a language, “Metaphorism,” an action plan, “Carpentry,” and a proper response, “Wonder,” for understanding the effects of this alien phenomenology. Bogost outlines how his particular object-oriented ontology of units provides an alternative to the various “-isms,” such as scientific naturalism and social relativism, that dominate philosophy in the twenty-first century.
Neither scientific naturalism nor social relativism escape the correlationist mindset that imagines humans and the world as both mutually exclusive and mutually dependent and that subjugates the world to human will. Bogost’s hostility toward this philosophical tradition blooms in his description of its...