Like many academics, I’m using the summer holiday to work through my reading list. As such, I just finished Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing. Bogost, a professor at Georgia Tech, is at the forefront of the “object-oriented” philosophic movement. Simply put, this mode of thought seeks to displace humans from the center of the philosophic universe. It’s interested in things—radishes, VCRs and arrowheads, for example– rather than human interpretations of things.
Now, I don’t seek to present myself as an expert on Bogost’s work. My only exposure to this thinker is through Alien Phenomenology and his online presence (I follow his Twitter feed). That said, from what I’ve seen, it seems that Bogost presents a rather radical, even frightening, vision of what we should be doing as teachers and scholars. Let me explain.
According to Bogost, at the core of the object-oriented vision is the idea that “everything exists equally” (6). Within this “flat ontology… the bubbling skin of the capsaicin pepper holds just as much interest as the culinary history of the enchilada it is destined to top” (17). Put into practice, such a view urges philosophers to engage in deep metaphorical description of object-being, to speculate, as the book’s title indicates, on “what it’s like to be a thing.”
Admittedly, Bogost’s methodology makes for fun reading. His descriptions of the inner lives of peppers and engine parts are indeed poetic. It’s important to remember though that every philosophic position makes an implicit moral claim. To do philosophy (or theory or criticism) is to venture that the world is a certain way and to suggest that others see it similarly. Bogost seems to agree. “Flat ontology,” he writes, “is an ideal” (19).
So what sort of action does Bogost’s ideal portend? How does it suggest we relate to one another and the world at large? The best metaphor to describe his position, it seems to me, is that of the autistic. The object-oriented thinker is he or she who is able to tune out the messy, noisy world of human affairs and focus solely, engaged in rapt wonder, on the garbage truck or video game. Bogost indicates as much, writing that “being is unconcerned with… human politics” (99).
Philosophy is just verbal gymnastics, right? It doesn’t impact our daily lives. No, not necessarily. Bogost, like most philosophers, lives his creed. Exhibit A. The past few weeks have been trying times in the U.S. On July 5 the ongoing genocide of black men at the hands of the state was made sickeningly apparent in a pair of internet videos. A few days later, police were targeted for assassination on the streets of Dallas. Twitter, understandably, was abuzz with pain and confusion as people tried to make sense of these events. Not Bogost. During this time, when nearly every post on my Twitter feed referenced our shared trauma, he kept tweeting about the design of the Amazon website and oddly shaped cucumbers. He’s interested in things, remember.
As for me, I like things, but I’m first and foremost interested in attunement. As an ideal, attunement demands openness to the subjective experience of others. This openness is achieved though attention to the affective, the embodied. So what ontology underlies such a vision? Well, it’s definitely not flat. Instead, as I see it, the field of being pulses with energy– human energy— with objects growing or shrinking in size as that energy flows through them. Over the past few weeks objects such as “systemic racism” and “state-sanctioned violence” have come to the forefront of my existence. They loom large, while things like video games and capsaicin peppers recede into the background.
Under the ontology I propose, being is relative— it’s based on context and positioning. It’s determined not by things-in-themselves, but things-in-relation. These means that to be ontologically aware, thinkers must always be looking outward and upward, at the world of objects and subjects, at things and the web of conceptualizations which bind them together. This dual vision inevitably entails (unfortunately, perhaps) a deep concern for “human politics.”
At one point, Bogost describes his philosophy as a “new radicalism.” I agree. If we take his thought to its logical extent it demands an equivalence between the blood soaking through Phil Castile’s shirt and the system of human relations which drew that blood. That’s a truly radical idea. And one as an embodied, affectively attuned human being, I can’t agree with.