Alien Phenomenology

Ian Bogost’s “Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing” (2012) represents a seminal work in speculative realism and object-oriented ontology (OOO). This book provides an intricate exploration of how objects interact and perceive the world, positioning itself against the traditional anthropocentric views of phenomenology. Bogost’s methodology involves several key concepts: ontography, metaphorism, carpentry, and wonder. These ideas collectively form a framework that allows for the understanding and appreciation of objects beyond human-centered perspectives.

Years before in “Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism” (2006), Bogost argues that similar principles underlie both literary theory and computation, proposing a theory that can analyze a variety of media, including videogames, literature, and art, as configurative systems of interlocking units of meaning. This theory of unit operations is crucial to understanding the discrete, interconnected actions that form the basis of meaning-making in different media and connects with the author’s latter explorations on OOO.

Ontography #

Ontography is the practice of cataloging the existence and relations of objects without reducing them to mere human uses or interpretations. Bogost describes ontography as a method to document the “existence and action of objects” by highlighting their relationships and properties without anthropocentric bias (Bogost, 2012, p. 35). Ontography thus aims to reveal the network of relations among objects, offering a way to understand their interactions and dependencies.

Bogost uses the example of the ill-fated Atari game “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” to illustrate ontography. He details how the game can be seen not only as a consumer product but also as an assembly of various components: 8 kilobytes of 6502 opcodes, a mask ROM, a molded plastic cartridge, and so forth. Each of these components represents a different facet of the game, showing its complex nature when viewed through the lens of ontography (Bogost, 2012, p. 18).

Metaphorism #

Metaphorism is Bogost’s approach to understanding how objects perceive one another through analogical thinking. He argues that human language and thought inevitably rely on metaphor to bridge the gap between human and non-human experiences. This approach is encapsulated in his assertion that, “the only way to perform alien phenomenology is by analogy” (Bogost, 2012, p. 64). Metaphors, although anthropocentric, help illuminate the subjective experiences of objects.

Bogost expands on this by referencing the philosopher Thomas Nagel’s famous question, “What is it like to be a bat?” He suggests that understanding objects involves a similar act of imaginative speculation, where we must use analogies to grasp the subjective experiences of non-human entities (Bogost, 2012, p. 64). This speculative method allows for a richer, albeit imperfect, appreciation of the myriad ways objects exist and interact.

Carpentry #

In connection with Harman, Carpentry in Bogost’s framework, refers to the practice of making things that explain how objects experience their worlds. Unlike traditional philosophical writing, which relies on abstract theorization, carpentry involves creating artifacts that embody philosophical ideas. Bogost defines carpentry as “philosophical labors that construct artifacts as a means of grasping how things encounter” (Bogost, 2012, p. 93).

An example of carpentry is Bogost’s project “Tableau Machine,” an installation that uses a non-human social actor to interpret and report on the state of its environment through abstract art. This project demonstrates how carpentry can materialize the inner workings of objects, offering a tangible exploration of their phenomenology (Bogost, 2012, p. 106).

Wonder #

The concept of wonder in Bogost’s philosophy emphasizes the importance of awe and curiosity in engaging with objects. He argues that wonder disrupts the mundane perception of everyday objects, revealing their intrinsic complexity and strangeness. Bogost states, “The alien isn’t in the Roswell military morgue, or in the galactic far reaches… It’s everywhere” (Bogost, 2012, p. 134).

This notion of wonder serves as a counterbalance to the analytical rigor of ontography and carpentry, encouraging a more intuitive and emotive engagement with the world of objects. By fostering a sense of wonder, Bogost aims to cultivate a deeper appreciation for the richness and diversity of object-oriented experiences.

Unit Operations #

In “Unit Operations,” Bogost extends his exploration of objects and their interactions by proposing that any medium—videogames, literature, cinema—can be read as a configurative system of discrete, interlocking units of meaning. He states, “Unit operations are modes of meaning-making that privilege discrete, disconnected actions over deterministic, progressive systems” (Bogost, 2006, p. 3). This approach contrasts with system operations, which interpret singular literary authority or deterministic processes.

Bogost illustrates this methodology with examples from various fields, such as his analysis of freedom in large virtual spaces in “Grand Theft Auto 3,” “The Legend of Zelda,” and literary works like Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary” and Joyce’s “Ulysses” (Bogost, 2006, p. 1). He argues that unit operations allow for a richer understanding of the configurative aspects of human processes, emphasizing the importance of discrete, referential, and dynamic units over static, totalizing systems.

Methodological Implications #

Bogost’s approach in “Alien Phenomenology” and “Unit Operations” suggests a methodological shift in philosophical and critical practice. Traditional phenomenology focuses on human experience and consciousness, often marginalizing the non-human. In contrast, Bogost’s speculative realism and object-oriented ontology call for a broader, more inclusive perspective that acknowledges the autonomy and agency of all objects.

His methodologies—ontography, metaphorism, carpentry, wonder, and unit operations—provide tools for philosophers and scholars to explore the world beyond human-centered confines, a philosopher-programmer-engineer Bogost calls for, who implements all these methods encourage the documentation, analogy, material construction, and emotive engagement with objects, offering a multifaceted approach to understanding their existence and interactions.

References #

  • Bogost, I. (2006). Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism. The MIT Press.
  • Bogost, I. (2012). Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing. University of Minnesota Press.