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  • Object-Oriented Ontology’s Endless Ethics. A review of Ian Bogost, Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing
  • Cristin Ellis (bio)
Bogost, Ian. Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2012.

It is reported that, while out on a stroll with friends one day, the Transcendentalist Elizabeth Peabody walked into a tree limb. Picking herself up, she explained to her concerned companions, “I saw it, but I did not realize it.”1 This story’s appeal lies in its succinct, slapstick debunking of Transcendentalist claims to omniscience: whilst enjoying the view as a “transparent eye-ball,” Peabody got poked in her real one. For scholars in the small but energized field of Object-Oriented Ontology, however, Peabody’s myopia could more broadly be said to exemplify, albeit in cartoon form, a kind of object-blindness that in fact plagues the entire tradition of post-Kantian philosophy.

Spearheaded by the work of philosopher Graham Harman, Object-Oriented Ontology (“OOO”) takes issue with Kant’s conclusion that, since the object-in-itself is beyond human perception, the question of object ontology lies outside of philosophy’s purview.2 It argues that, by exiling object-being from the field of inquiry, Kant’s Copernican Revolution sentenced philosophy to a narrow anthropocentrism, sponsoring a tradition that unjustly privileges human perception as the only available gauge of reality. OOO proposes to remedy this error by framing a new metaphysics that would restore unmediated object-being to the sphere of philosophical speculation. This is not to say that OOO proposes to solve the problem of human finitude—and here is one of many ways OOO diverges from other metaphysics associated with Speculative Realism, the philosophical movement of which OOO is a branch.3 On the contrary, OOO freely concedes Kant’s point that the ontology of objects is inaccessible—being, in Harman’s words, infinitely “withdraws from human view into a dark subterranean reality” (Harman, Prince of Networks 1). Instead of overturning Kant, OOO universalizes the problem of finitude, arguing that all instances of relation—human and nonhuman, animate and inanimate—are subject to the conditions of mediation. On this view, a billiard ball’s encounter with a felt bumper is no less mediated than Peabody’s encounter with a tree limb. OOO would argue that both Peabody and the billiard ball “prehend” (in Whitehead’s term) their worlds according to rules particular to their constitution. Thus OOO strives to combat philosophical anthropocentrism by insisting that human experience is only one of billions of modes of perceiving the world. That it happens to be our mode does not justify the decision to preclude philosophical speculation about others.4

In Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing, Ian Bogost’s enticingly slim and conversational new contribution to OOO, Bogost contends that media studies are uniquely suited to take up this challenge of imagining object “perception.” Since Alien Phenomenology is therefore not a book of object-oriented philosophy per se, but rather a book about object-oriented methodology, it will likely be of more use to those already familiar with OOO than to those seeking an introduction to object-oriented philosophy. Wondering if “scholarly productivity [must] take written form,” Alien Phenomenology envisions an alternative philosophy that would involve fewer precarious sentences and more instructive objects. In this applied practice, objects would serve as “philosophical lab equipment” for exploring and exemplifying theory (89, 100).

For Bogost, this shift from argumentation to objectification is particularly critical to the future of object-oriented studies. That is, while Bogost suggests that all philosophy might benefit from a move away from academic writing (which he finds hopelessly prone to “obfuscation, disconnection, jargon and overall incomprehensibility”), he argues that OOO is particularly disadvantaged by academia’s “semiotic obsession” insofar as this has had the tendency to aggrandize linguistic over other modes of representing the world (89, 91). By contrast, Bogost observes, if we wish “to approach the nonsemiotic world,” we must do so, in Levi Bryant’s words, “‘on its own terms as best we can’” (qtd. in Bogost 90). That means blending conventional philosophizing with extralinguistic...

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