Alien Phenomenology, Or, What It’s Like to Be A Thing. Ian Bogost. U of Minnesota Press, 2012. pp. 168. $20. ISBN: 978-0816678983
My father’s dog died soon after I finished reading Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology. And I also found myself angry with Ian’s discussion of The Wire in his final chapter, the displacement of the seriousness of social realism with the battered-realism of Cake Boss and Good Eats. I don’t know how, but those two events seem tethered in my brain at the moment, because I feel that (for a number of reasons that I am not conscious of yet) Alien Phenomenology is a game-changer. Ian’s book represents a real turning point in object-oriented philosophy. Whereas Latour and his lists abound in several of the books published by Bryant, Harman, Bennett, and many of the other OOO-philosophers, their work has still been primarily about human philosophers. Ian’s book forced me to wonder: could an engine piston actually practice philosophy?
I say this as someone who talks to animals. When I carried one of my childhood cats into the vet for the last time to euthanize him in 2004 (he had been suffering from a number of increasingly intense strokes, was crying softly. And my mother was whispering to him “almost there, almost there”), I remember feeling guilty for having treated him as a child – for having, in Deleuze and Guattari’s words – oedipalized him. I don’t know if it was a case of Bennett’s strategic anthropomorphism or not, but I kept apologizing to him – over and over again. Even as I heard the news on Facebook from my father, I tried to understand what feelings Leo had for our family, what it was like to smell the scents he smelled everyday, how it felt to be petted. He was named after the Spartan king Leonidas – but wasn’t like him at all.
Cats, dogs, and animals are, of course, not the only thing Ian covers in his book – but the idea that both of my pets withdrew from me (yet also communicated with me) is at the heart of the work Ian does. When, in the last chapter, he critiques the brand of social realism espoused by The Wire and celebrates the “unseen stuff of cookery,” he opens up a strange world where our most cherished humanistic values are overturned in ways that seem flippant, even irresponsible. And yet there is a bizzare, and powerful, ethical stance underlying the book. Consider the following: