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Metaphysics

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.

Would you say that the interaction among people, objects and ideas is more like balls on a pool table or the goo inside a lava lamp? I know this seems like an esoteric question. Hang with me though. The answer you give is really important.

In my last post I wrote about pragmatist philosophy. One element of this way of thinking is an emphasis on the interconnected nature of experience. This isn’t to say that “all is one”– the world is certainly made up of lots of different kinds of stuff– but instead, that all is relational, dynamic. People and ideas and objects, as William James says, exist in a state of constant flux. They’re always changing, always influencing each other in new, unpredictable ways. In other words, to James and John Dewey and myself, the world looks like the goo inside a lava lamp– everything in constant motion, effecting change, but at the same time, being changed.

Of course, not everyone is a pragmatist. Some thinkers view people, objects and ideas as separate, self-contained entities. Things exist as they are. Good is good, dog is dog, Bob is Bob. When they come into contact, one thing can affect another, for example, Bob can pet dog, but change isn’t necessarily mutual. There’s a certain consistency to things, which means that given enough time (and computing power) courses can be charted, consequences mapped. In other words, for these thinkers human experience is like a pool table– a world of cause and effect, solid objects and straight lines.

I know this is some heady stuff. It’s not just metaphysical speculation though. For example, consider the case of Paul Ehrlich, author of the 1968 best-seller The Population Bomb. Ehrlich claimed that by the mid-1970s the world was going to run out of food. He wanted to put sterilants in water and cut off India from foreign aid (because the Indians were all going to starve anyway). Ehrlich is a respected figure; his claims were reasonable, based on statistics and historical data.

Of course, nothing Ehrlich predicted came to pass. Food supplies have increased, while almost universally, population growth rates have declined. Where did Ehrlich go wrong? In my opinion, his predictions were off because he failed to see the world as a dynamic system. Humans, unlike numbers in an equation, change in response to their environment. In this case, scientists discovered new agriculture methods. Women stopped having so many children. In short, people, objects and ideas influenced each other and began to interact in new, unpredictable ways. They didn’t just bounce around like balls on a pool table.

The case of the defused population bomb is just one example of the dangers of static, atomistic thinking. Our world is in constant flux. Whether writing poetry or predicting the apocalypse, we should keep this in mind.

Why should we spend money on space travel? A common argument, made for example by Elon Musk, is that the exploration and eventual colonization of space is necessary to ensure the continuation of our species. As long as humans are earth-bound, the argument goes, all human life could be wiped-out by an a single event, an asteroid or supernova or something.  Today I want to ask: would that necessarily be a bad thing?

I know this sounds terribly nihilistic. Allow me to explain though. First, following evolutionary theory to its fullest logic, I view human life (and human consciousness) as totally contingent, a fluke. Driven by the requirements of physical existence, humans became conscious. We developed a sense of self and time and ultimately, an awareness of our own finite nature. This self-awareness is traumatic. The inevitability of death makes consciousness itself traumatic. Following Freud, my basic claim here is that life = pain. The reduction of this pain should be the goal of all intentional action.

It seems to me that by seeking to extend the lifespan of the species, we are only seeking to extend our pain. Therefore, instead of dreaming of colonizing distance stars, we should dream of a day when our species fades away. We should (over the very, very long term, of course) de-develop, de-evolve and ultimately, de-populate. The goal is to turn back the clock. To lose our traumatic self-awareness. Maybe this isn’t possible. But maybe colonization of the stars isn’t possible either. My point is simply that on a purely logical level, the disappearance of our species, rather than its continuation, should be the utopian vision which informs our actions. To quote F. Scott Fitzgerald, “His was a great sin who first invented consciousness. Let us [endeavor to] lose it….”