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:
Midgrade dealer D’Angelo Barksdale, detective James McNulty, kingpin Avon Barksdale, police lieutenant Cedric Daniels, stevedore Frank Sobotka, mayoral Gus Haynes: these are the objects of concern for the drug scene. These are the actants that form the network of its operation. Yet despite the show’s rhetoric of inclusiveness and complexity, others are summarily ignored: the Maryland Transit Authority bus that trundles through the Broadway East neighborhood; the synthetic morphine derivative diacetylmorphine hydrochloride, which forms the type of heroin powder addicts freebase; Colt .45 (the firearm), and Colt 45 (the malt liquor).
I wasn’t prepared to go this far. The Wire is one of the best television shows of all time. Could Bogost be mocking us? I had heard the argument before. The chapter was part of a presentation that Bogost gave at the 2010 OOO symposium at Georgia Tech that I attended, and one of my colleagues was very disturbed that Bogost didn’t reinscribe the seriousness of The Wire at the end of his talk. He wanted at least a short gesture of “well, we all know that The Wire is important,” but Bogost never made that gesture. Instead, he replied that there should be other stuff that scholars focus on in addition to the tried and true categories of race, gender, and class.
I didn’t really get that until I found myself confronting all of the conflicting feelings that came out of reading Alien Phenomenology. Who cares about the phenomenology of a chicken wing, really? It seems like such a useless and meaningless thought. But, then again, I’m reminded of the fact that the category of the human is simply a category of privilege – something we use to ignore the fact that we’ll all be trash and refuse at some point in the future. We think we’re special, and philosophical discourse has closed itself off to thought by reinscribing that special status again and again – by submitting to the cultural theorists and saying “Yes, human beings are the most important part of narrative; yes, animals and plants don’t matter; yes, culture is here and nature is there.” The most powerful message to come out of the OOO movement is the idea that, no, actually, we aren’t special. The Wire is an essential drama for understanding the lives of people in Baltimore, but there are other dramas equally worth paying attention to – and it is a useful exercise to try and imagine just what it might mean to base an entire novel on the perceptions of a Bat, for example, or a philosophical system on whatever experiences (if we can call them that) happen to tree bark or air molecules.
This is not to say that I didn’t find some of the chapters more compelling than others. For example, I’m less convinced about Bogost’s theory of metaphorism – especially since the Blakean/Deleuzian in me is not all that interested in allegory or metaphor. I had a wonderful conversation with Bogost, Steven Shaviro, Ron Broglio, and Levi Bryant about just that distinction on Facebook. The conversation is Storified here. I also found his genealogy of the OOO movement at the beginning of the book rather stale, but that may be because I’ve read several OOO treatises – from The Speculative Turn to Tool Being to The Democracy of Objects. I wanted burgers and grass, bricks and blood vessels, rather than Plato and Kant. In fact, I skipped most of Bogost’s philosophical genealogy to get to his more interesting descriptions of objects and ecologies. I loved how these descriptions threw readers into alien worlds without philosophical anchors and forced them to create their own conceptual apparatuses.
Having said all that, the chapter on “Carpentry” is, perhaps, the most powerful philosophical statement I’ve read in many years. Philosophers and literary scholars love to gab. But Bogost, not surprisingly given his hybrid identity as both academic and game developer, sketches an alternate form of scholarly productivity – one that I believe is becoming increasingly vital in an age where people want to see material outcomes. His description of what a metaphysician should do, is particularly apt.
If a physician is someone who practices medicine, perhaps a metaphysician ought to be someone who practices ontology. Just as one would likely not trust a doctor who had only read and written journal articles about medicine to explain the particular curiosities of one’s body, so one ought not trust a metaphysician who had only written books about the nature of the universe. As Don Ihde puts it, ‘Without entering into the doing, the basic thrust and import of phenomenology is likely to be misunderstood at the least or missed at the most.” Yet, ironically, Ihde is forced to explain such a sentiment in a book, just as I am here. What else can be done?
To respond, Bogost gives a needed shout out to Hugh Crawford’s class on building a wooden hut “as part of their study of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden.” Crawford is probably one of the most innovative philosophic minds to flirt with the OOO movement (though he’d probably respond with suspicion to my claim). I did think that, given Bogost’s work at Georgia Tech, he should have included a mention of the innovative Writing and Communication Program and their multimodal WOVEN curriculum: especially the work of Brittain Fellows Kathryn Crowther (who has her students construct Steampunk artifacts as a way of engaging with the genre’s obsession surrounding mechanical tinkering) and Jesse Stommel (who asked his students to create zombie films to explore the horror film industry). I’m obviously biased, since I worked in the WC program for two years, but I firmly believe that OOO is a movement that often inspires people who work in very different areas and yet do not explicitly engage in the types of philosophical conversations that most OOO books highlight. Bogost fully admits this. “Real radicals,” he argues, “make things. Examples aren’t hard to find, and some even come from scholars who might [not?] be willing to call themselves philosophers.”
The question of what makes a philosopher philosophical is at the heart of this impressive short tome. If we can imagine cats looking at trees in wonder, we can surely call car tires philosophical. As a critic of 19th century British Literature, I’ll still read Dickens and cry every time Little Nell dies. But I also feel that I’ll be more attentive to the non-human entities that populate novels and films and all the little curiosity shops I encounter each day.