- Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing by Ian Bogost, and: Jet Plane: How It Works by David Macaulay, and: Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things by Jane Bennett
Aircraft fairing, High-lift device, Vortex generator, Aft pressure bulkhead, Ballute, Monocoque, Fuselage, Flight test instrumentation, Drogue parachute, Empennage, NACA cowling, Accessory drive, Flight-data acquisition unit, Wire strike protection system, Duramold, Air data boom, Skin, Arming plug, Auxiliary power unit, Airframe, M10 smoke tank, Air brake, Longeron.
Airbus A319 STL → PHX → LAS
Well, don’t you look at me like life don’t hold you anymore mystery.—Modest Mouse, “History Sticks to Your Feet” (2009)
The human experience of flight is thoroughly objective, driven, as it is, by the airplane as an object. But airplanes are not simply objects to which we, as subjects, attend. Airplanes lay claim on us, get their blades into us, and so modulate the way we think about and engage them. Broadly speaking, airplanes take part in how we think and talk about flight. They are objects that mediate our relationship with air, with gravity, and even with our own bodies. But airplanes are perhaps even more than this and for things other than us. What Ian Bogost argues with respect to computers is equally applicable here: “[F]or [it] to operate at all for us first requires a wealth of interactions [End Page 333] to take place for itself” (10). Jane Bennett resonates with Bogost in her insistence that things “act as quasi agents or forces with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own” (viii). Our critical engagements with flight must be about more than what Bennett calls demystification, which “presumes that at the heart of any event or process lies a human agency” (xiv).
What approaches such as Bogost’s and Bennett’s bring to critical air studies from their external vantage point is an insistence that in critically engaging flight we work not only to reveal, expose, or unveil the human in the cockpit, but also to find even more objects that enable both flight and our thinking of it. As Christopher Schaberg writes of what he calls “airport reading” in The Textual Life of Airports, “[T]his type of reading depends on the airport itself to have already emerged as a primary text of sorts, a legible space where there are … planes roaring into the air … (among many other informational signs, auditory cues, and aestheticized views).”1 To think about airplanes is to already be with airplanes.
In this short essay, I review Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology (2012) and Bennett’s Vibrant Matter (2010) alongside David Macaulay’s Jet Plane (2012), which is devoted to a child’s experience of airplanes. While composed for different audiences in traditionally discrete contexts, all three books do critical, speculative work in providing explicit articulations and implicit performances of alternative ontologies from which critical air studies might benefit. Gathered around Jet Plane, Vibrant Matter, and Alien Phenomenology, we can get a taste of a speculative critical air studies: the philosophy of nondualist ontologies and the politics of distributed, material assemblages. I begin with Bogost, move to Bennett, and conclude with a reading of Macaulay’s children’s book, which productively, if implicitly, performs the philosophies of Bogost and Bennett.
Asking about “what it’s like to be a thing,” Bogost articulates other ways of doing philosophy while at the same time explicating his own unique strain of speculative realism. Bogost places his work in media studies and computer science in a line with object-oriented philosophers Graham Harman and Levi Bryant and sociologist-turned-all-things-for-all-people Bruno Latour. Primary for Bogost is the argument that...