Alien Phenomenology, Or What It's Like to Be a Thing
(University of Minnesota Press)
US: Apr 2012
After the postmodern came the posthuman, and after that came this book by Ian Bogost, for whom posthumanism “is not posthuman enough” (8).
What then is the posthuman? It’s a way of thinking about people and the world that stresses, well, not so much thinking as simply being. Just as a machine and an insect are, so we are, and so is everything else that exists. Posthumanism, then, is about denying that there’s anything special or worthy about the aims and achievements of the human race.
The cyborg, the alien, the zombie, and the contemporary dancer twitching and thrashing on the stage are trendy cultural incarnations of this idea, wittily satirized in movies such as The Stepford Wives and Dawn of the Dead, but handled by posthumanists in earnest. Alien Phenomenology goes even further, speaking in tones of “awe” and “wonder”, and taking as its basic unit not the dehumanized human body, but just stuff, the entity at its most minimal, the thing.
Hence the book’s subtitle, a twist on philosopher Thomas Nagel’s famous essay, ‘What Is It Like to Be a Bat?’ Nagel drew attention to the mind’s distance from what others (bats, for example, or next-door neighbors) experience, to the fact that sensations, emotions, and thoughts are private and subjective—a problem philosophers have long discussed under the label of “phenomenology”. Now Bogost extends this problem to inanimate things, to everything, implying that subjective detachment is not actually a problem to be solved—nor, perhaps, a solution to a problem—but simply something that’s in the nature of things.
The counter-argument is that it’s precisely the special nature of human agency—including our enhanced subjectivity—that gets us close to other beings and helps us make the world our own. After all, we understand flight and echo location better than bats do—well enough to build aircraft and sonar; while our remarkable powers of empathy and communication allow us to approximate, and even shape, what others (including bats) experience.
Bogost himself—a professor of digital media – demonstrates some of these skills. His writing is engaging, unpretentious, and often beautiful, which suggests he has a good idea of what it’s like to be a philosophy reader.
Yet in theory, if not always in practice, such human forms of knowing and acting hardly matter for posthumanism. They carry no more weight than the bite of the insect, the cry of the bat, or the hum of the machine—an approach Bogost and others have developed into a fully-fledged “object-oriented ontology” (OOO for short). Alien Phenomenology intends to be a justification, as well as an example, of this kind of philosophy.
Let’s at this point bring in Bob Dylan, that well-known pre-posthumanist thinker. When he asked “how does it feel/ to be on your own/ with no direction home/ a complete unknown / like a rolling stone?”, he was protesting alienation; he was making an ethical point that humans should not be treated like things, and that solidarity, purpose, and knowledge are of special value to us—no offence to the stone. Brilliantly, the question was its own phenomenological answer, instantly evoking in the listener the experience, the “how-it-feels”, the “what-it’s-like”, of social abandonment, and showing that such an inner experience is a means to connect with others.
The shocking thing about Alien Phenomenology is that it affirms, without protest, that we are like stones. The shocking thing is that it abandons us to abandonment.
It’s one thing to admit things, all things, into the realm of being; it’s another to refuse to discriminate among things, and especially between humans and things. This is effectively what OOO theorists do when they fill their books with arbitrary lists of entities, as if taking a stroll through a junkyard. See? Here’s a pile of “plumbers, cotton, bonobos, DVD players, and sandstone” (6); there’s “the lighthouse, dragonfly, lawnmower, and barley” (39); everywhere “toilet seats, absinthe louches, seagulls, trampolines” (65); and so on.
According to this approach, not only life but the whole universe would be like a box of chocolates, with no special flavors and no possibility of meaningful choice. Everything is different, yet equally unimportant, and nothing is significantly related to anything else.
Where does this view come from? Possibly, one of the reasons a philosophy of alien and stand-alone things resonates in our epoch is that the experience of making physical stuff, as opposed to videogames and academic theories, has become rare and devalued. It’s a curious coincidence that objects are being sung up to the skies, and simultaneously reduced to their lowest common denominator—to the mere fact that they exist—at a time when consumerism rains on us massive quantities of things that appear, ready-made, as if out of thin air, and are mostly headed for the dump.
Not that OOO theory has given much thought to the social and economic environment in which it operates. Characteristically, when Bogost extols “carpentry” in one of his chapters, he hardly has in mind real carpentry, but his own kind of skillful word- and videogame-playing; even less is he thinking about the skill-, leisure-time-, and wage-poor workers who actually make the shoddy furniture the world consumes today.
What we forget, as consumers—and sometimes as philosophers—is that things have a history, involving, often, other humans. Sadly, our society values the disposable people who make the things even less than it values the things themselves; hence people and things, and by extension everything else that exists, easily become, in our eyes, alien, indifferent, and devoid of dignity. Posthumanism thrives in this kind of trash-heap because it captures some of its aroma.
Bogost’s advice is to “go outside and dig in the dirt” (133). Sure, if we hold our noses tight, some fun can be had with stuff. More fun, though, and more real, is poking fun at our stuff-obsessed culture.
The bat, as it flies around its cave, is an expert phenomenologist, able to perceive its surroundings with pinpoint accuracy; the stone rubs flawlessly against everything in its path; yet both are blind to their nature, to their own history, and to the wider possibilities of the world. Consequently, the bat will stay in the cave, and the stone will keep on rolling, for a very long time. The question is whether human philosophy should be any different.