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Alien Phenomenology, or What it's Like to be a Thing (Posthumanities) [Paperback]

Ian Bogost
2.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Product details

  • Paperback: 168 pages
  • Publisher: University of Minnesota Press (19 Mar 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0816678987
  • ISBN-13: 978-0816678983
  • Product Dimensions: 14 x 1.5 x 21.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 2.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 437,022 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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5 of 8 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Alienated Phenomenology 9 July 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
An entertaining rollercoaster of incoherence and contradiction. Don't pay too much attention. But then again; do. It's thoughtless, incoherent fun. Bogost admits as much himself: `..speculative realism must also make good on the first term of its epithet: metaphysics need not seek verification, whether from experience, physics, mathematics, formal logic, or even reason.' And so he doesn't concern himself with these. Like John Law, whom he quotes, Bogost promotes `mess to a methodological concept.' Stripping his text [as he does objects] of relationality even to itself, structure and coherence over a larger scale can be disavowed. He teases such pedants: `Among the consequences of semiotic obsession is an overabundant fixation on argumentation, such that pedantry replaces curiosity.' This is an in joke running through the book, to catch out anyone who imagines this might be other than a jaunting romp.

Bogost grants all objects the same ontological status - as objects! And so demonstrates the ridiculousness of presumptive, self serving definitions. The book is a deliberately profuse bricolage, a random pile of gewgaws like the lists of things he fetishizes and pretends have nothing to do with him or his particular social environment and political context or personality. He is rife and undisciplined in his own speculations, going wherever his objects [whatever they are] take him; one moment apparently siding with things, the next abusing them as dumb, but always as a winking paraphrase of someone else he has skimmed and taken on board perversely. He evidences philosophers like CP Snow in a parody of appealing to authority to justify what he's saying. What he's actually saying doesn't matter because, `Things are independent from their constitutive parts while remaining dependent on them.
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Amazon.com: 3.8 out of 5 stars  10 reviews
37 of 41 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Alienated Phenomenology 9 July 2013
By MotionlessArrival - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
An entertaining rollercoaster of incoherence and contradiction. Don't pay too much attention. But then again; do. It's thoughtless, incoherent fun. Bogost admits as much himself: `..speculative realism must also make good on the first term of its epithet: metaphysics need not seek verification, whether from experience, physics, mathematics, formal logic, or even reason.' And so he doesn't concern himself with these. Like John Law, whom he quotes, Bogost promotes `mess to a methodological concept.' Stripping his text [as he does objects] of relationality even to itself, structure and coherence over a larger scale can be disavowed. He teases such pedants: `Among the consequences of semiotic obsession is an overabundant fixation on argumentation, such that pedantry replaces curiosity.' This is an in joke running through the book, to catch out anyone who imagines this might be other than a jaunting romp.

Bogost grants all objects the same ontological status - as objects! And so demonstrates the ridiculousness of presumptive, self serving definitions. The book is a deliberately profuse bricolage, a random pile of gewgaws like the lists of things he fetishizes and pretends have nothing to do with him or his particular social environment and political context or personality. He is rife and undisciplined in his own speculations, going wherever his objects [whatever they are] take him; one moment apparently siding with things, the next abusing them as dumb, but always as a winking paraphrase of someone else he has skimmed and taken on board perversely. He evidences philosophers like CP Snow in a parody of appealing to authority to justify what he's saying. What he's actually saying doesn't matter because, `Things are independent from their constitutive parts while remaining dependent on them.' He's an anarchist and this verbiage is his parodic aim; disruptive of coherence or anything beyond the singular. He complains about the zoo-centrism of animal studies. He asserts, `all things equally exist, yet they do not exist equally,' and describes this as a tautology. Very funny. He similarly miscategorises and deliberately wrongly understands other ontologies. But he is free to contradict himself because, as he says, `anthropocentrism is unavoidable.'

Bogocentrism seems pretty much unavoidable too. The book is humanly affected and inflected throughout, not just anthropocentric but circumscribed by its author's particular viewpoint, which finds a transcendent access to things inherently impossible and yet equally denies their relational constitution. Perhaps precisely because the author is not reflexively aware of its own conditioning as an object in a particular political environment. Surrounded by ontological individualism, the author has difficulty accessing shared, subjective experience. He repeatedly characterises people and things [objects and subjects and the subjectivity of objects] as mutually inaccessible.

Bogost gives a comic and key metaphor of the author's entertaining struggle with the head-bound-ness of his own ego, which separates him from the experience of others and the objects he finds so inaccessible yet simultaneously rambling: `The embroiderable shorthand for tiny ontology might simply read, `is,' but only because semantic coherence cannot be contained in the tittle atop the i alone.'

When he mentions the object's withdrawal from others, he's obviously talking about himself - in spite of his appeals to how `we' experience the world; `we never understand the alien experience, we only reach for it metaphorically,' his is a circumscribed experience - generally of course, it is this projected use of the `we' which, by avoiding relativizing experience, keeps folks contained in their absolute alienation. `Units are isolated entities... rubbing shoulders with one another uncomfortably, while never overlapping.' His own inversion into a black hole, which he often refers to as a metaphor of the world's inaccessibility to his constitution, becomes his ontology. `I arrived at my metaphysics by way of inanimacy rather than life... A tiny, private universe rattles behind its glass and aluminium exo-skeleton.'

The `being-with' of Heidegger is overlooked in the appropriations of object oriented ontology, which repeatedly enplaces the independent subjectivities it can neither escape nor access: `object encounters are caricatures,' `objects recede from one another, forever enclosed in the vacuum of their individual existences.' This is very much an American experience; `One can never entirely escape the recession into one's own centrism.' Yet, even so: not the experience of all Americans. This book is a comic psychological study and valediction, showing how the author is transparently obsessed with his own particular human viewpoint, trapped like the things around him in their [to him] apparent self-containment, recession and small headedness in an air-conditioned nightmare. In this exculpatory confession, he demonstrates the exact neurosis that must be overcome. It's a practical book about alienated subjectivity. Bogost demonstrates the trap of imagining an independent existence. `All objects recede interminably into themselves.' This is his experience as a computer scientist involved with the objectification of ideal objects. This is a book in which an individual's psychology is revealed as their ontology. He experiences himself as a thing, with a thing's interiority, hoarding its own independent existence, like a sufferer at a Buddhist convention. `Things [including people] never really interact with one another...'

But self-explanation or sustained interpretive understanding is not his purpose, or, perhaps, he has decided that his theory is carried out best by demonstrating projective description as the foundationally presumed objectivity of objects - and purported object-subject/ subject-world independence which underpins every digression of the book and his thinking. It's the exact demonstration of a gerbil in a wheel or a neurotic in a consulting room or refried beans at Taco Bell.

Ironically, those moments in which Bogost does seem to transcend his much touted isolation are those in which he speaks about the sorts of objects he is most familiar with - so familiar that he seems [mysteriously to him no doubt!] to have actual sympathetic access to them [as if knowledge were all!] Once explained, these things seem to offer themselves as accessible and not self-hoarding. His descriptions of the inner [therefore no longer inner] workings of the Foveon sensor or the Television Interface Adaptor are tours-de-force in which he demonstrates OOO instead of bemoaning its inaccessibility. Equally, the injunction that next time you watch TV, watch the objects in a show and not its characters, is salutary. Bogost has sympathy for neglected things. Yet: `To acknowledge the garbage truck as object is to acknowledge the real object that isolates, while refusing to hold that it must always connect to any other in a network of relations.' As Margaret Thatcher said, `There's no such thing as society, only individuals.' OOO is a reactionary ideology which misunderstands its own derivative nature.

In a further contradiction, which further demonstrates his anthropocentric humanity, at the other incoherent extreme of this dualist bi-polarity, his work is richly sensual and indulges in a poetic replication and fetishization of things, which is a pleasure to read, though slightly disturbing. The first three pages and his general love of things are so patently demonstrative of him that they undermine the decentering project.

So, in sum, it's a comic, clever and incoherent ride which demonstrates the diverse ways in which things have written themselves on him - in that way that they have without you knowing it. He demonstrates how too much self-obsession, interiorisation and western-socialised outlook inhibits actually reaching objects or other subjects in their subjectivity -and this is the primary contemporary western social experience stripped of the relationality of humanism. The assertion of ontological individualism demonstrates the experience of the society that authored the work and represents that society's attempt to individuate and confine objects while simultaneously spouting their equality.

The analysis patently comes from a contemporary American perspective. What Bogost is talking about is his own access to himself and to things, as an American. This is constructed and delimited entirely by the understanding that it is - and so that's how things appear to be. The delimitations advocate the correlationism of the social construction of all reality.

Bogost fails to see that what he most describes is patently himself. He claims to be writing about the world and yet, at every moment, what he most reveals is his own conditioned subjectivity - perhaps it is the objects of American society that are avowing themselves and their view through him. The book's a contemporary product - rather cheap paper for the thirteen quid. From the isolation of this subjectivity, he repeatedly does the opposite of what OOO espouses; the outlook is not just anthropocentric but confined to that of a citizen circumscribed by the perspective of just one human culture.

`A fundamental separation of things is fundamental to OOO,' yes, and to contemporary consumer capitalism in its diversification of products and purchasers. This re-objectification of things and people is an attempt to re-establish the right-wing ontology that Adorno and Horkheimer critiqued in the Dialectic of Enlightenment; ratiocination as the alienated subject. In re-instating the inaccessibility of things-in-themselves, object oriented ontologists demonstrate a failure of sympathetic imagination [demonstrative of their position] which they flail in - drowning with lack of communion and fellow feeling; alienated by the consumer capitalism they simultaneously fetishize appealingly in their lists of commodities. Even after so may years of deconstruction of such a presumption, Bogost hangs on to the ideal that objectivity is a non-anthropocentric way of looking rather than a man-made thing.

A pity, because, if they were able to get out of this scopic fetishism, the fundamental project of OOO [the equality of all beings and the ground of being, taking up the relativity of all perspectives] could be a fruitful one. But they are condemned to consider this an outside and inaccessible world which they merely speculate about, with no access to its reality. `Speculative realism names speculative philosophy... that takes existence to be separate from thought...' and thought from existence. Poor things.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An adept attempt at understanding the alien world around us 29 April 2012
By J. Krajewski - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Philosophy has always been a field I admired from afar, and this book was my first entry into the subject. I chose it because as a video game programmer I was interested to hear Bogost's unique perspective on the topic. It addresses (in the most general way possible) the problem of experience, from the viewpoint that humans must occupy no special place in the order of things, and they are simply one of an infinite number of objects capable of 'experiencing' the world. How then does the coffee cup, camera, or chile pepper's experience compare to our own? 'In ways impossible to understand', Bogost argues, and it is taken for granted that these objects do indeed 'experience' in some sense of the word. He asserts that the only way we can approach an understanding of this experience is through the blunt instrument of metaphor, as blunt as describing to a blind man that the color red yields a sensation like fire.

What drew me to this book was the idea of addressing the problems that will be posed by artificial intelligence in the (surely) not too distant future, specifically how we might construct a sense of meaning such that AI beings could be regarded on the same level as their human counterparts. I found what I was looking for in this book, albeit indirectly as Bogost doesn't touch on the subject of AI at all. Perhaps more correctly, he instead focuses on the much lower-fidelity objects of our universe: houses, cameras, the microchips of the Atari, etc. I found the book to be strongest when exploring the imagined experiences of specific objects, describing 'carpentry', which is Bogost's term for works of philosophy that don't include writing (like building a game on the Atari, or creating a house that can sense), a form which he argues yields insights seldom explored and potentially more powerful than writing. That argument of course leads the reader to wonder why then he is reading a book instead of consuming carpentry, a question which also finds the admitted answer that writing is what's required in the philosophy field to get ahead and be noticed. Bogost may want to break out of the shell that philosophy has constructed for itself, but he still has to play by the rules at least part of the time.

So what is the value of the system of thought this book introduces? What does Bogost aim to achieve by promoting it? It felt throughout the book that the author was arguing that 'objects should be regarded in their own right', and that science, art, and all culture is woefully human-centric. He seems to suggest in one instance that the television show 'The Wire' inadequately presented the perspective of objects, focusing solely (and incorrectly) on the human beings of its story and not on the inner worlds of the graffiti, crack pipes, and miscellaneous objects instead (the results of such a focus I can imagine would result in a show watched by even fewer people than 'The Wire'). Is this a problem that really needs addressing, that we are not considering the world from the point of view of objects? What would we as humans gain by taking such an approach? To which the book answers with the implied rejoinder, why should human objects, among all objects, be the ones that must gain? However as the book itself makes clear elsewhere, our experience is inexorably tied to our humanity, and to realize that but still insist that we not put ourselves at the center of our world felt unjustified.

As a tool for viewing the world, the philosophy espoused in this book was at its weakest when addressing the topic of morals. What are the morals of objects? Are we violating the morals of the chile pepper when we chew it up? It is impossible to fathom except as a metaphor of a metaphor of a metaphor, the book asserts, and as a result the very concept of morals itself is exploded, which feels like an untenable position for a philosophy to lie in. Perhaps starting from the position that morals must exist and working backwards would yield a more useful philosophical tool, but that is not the goal here. And indeed I approached the end of the book wondering what the goal of this school of thought was, if it was indeed none of the above? The final chapter's title 'wonder' seems to hint at the best explanation.

As a newcomer to formal philosophy this book was a difficult read at times, and it is not written with the newcomer in mind, brandishing lots of references to other philosophers and metaphysical positions which were completely lost on me. Nevertheless, it ultimately offered a lot of value, giving a new perspective on the supremely alien nature of the familiar world around us, and I can imagine the structure of thought here as one that may form the foundation for understanding a future world where we are not the only sentient objects.
15 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The World is Weird and That's Okay 30 April 2012
By Darius Kazemi - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Alien Phenomenology has replaced Prince of Networks as the best introduction to object-oriented ontology for someone who may only have a few undergraduate philosophy surveys under their belt. (This is not surprising, considering that the author's blog contains the definitive layperson's definition of OOO.)

Enough of the other reviewers here have talked about the chapter on what Bogost calls 'carpentry,' and with good reason, as it's the highlight of the book. However, I want to highlight the chapter on 'metaphorism' as well--it's equally valuable and is in fact the concept that makes philosophical carpentry possible. As Bogost puts it, metaphorism is the deployment of "metaphor itself as a way to grasp alien objects' perception of one another." Perception IS metaphor, and this concept leads into a six-page section probing an intersection of ethics and OOO. Does an automobile engine "have a moral imperative to explode distilled hydrocarbons? Does it do violence on them? Does it instead express ardor, the loving heat of friendship or passion?" This may seem like anthropomorphism or panpsychism, but Bogost defends himself well against those claims. Where panpsychism emphasizes how objects are similar to humans, Bogost's phenomenology is interested in emphasizes their differences--hence the 'alien' descriptor.

Beyond all that, the book is a joy to read. The language never veers into that intentionally obscure academic style, yet retains intellectual value (shocking, I know). But beyond mere accessibility, the prose is beautiful. Opening the book at random and skimming a page, I'm treated to a passage about philosophical speculation as a concrete, pragmatic activity, concluding: "The result is something particular whose branches bristle into the canopy of the conceptual."
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Useless Intelligence 20 Jan 2014
By JB - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
This is an extremely well written book about looking at things from an entirely different perspective. However, that perspective is totally uninteresting. Dragged me back to my college days where I wasted a semester on semiotics and literary deconstruction. Smart folks who write well wasting my time with discourse serving no useful purpose. Three stars because I appreciate good writing. Deduct one if you don't have time for academic onanism. Maybe add one if you're into reading about different philosophies that exist only for purposes of discussion, as opposed to application.
4.0 out of 5 stars Courageous Proposals for Applied Speculative Realism 13 July 2014
By Patty - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
In Alien Phenomenology, Bogost creatively and insightfully provides a handful of applications of the bourgeoning field of continental philosophy that has gone under the moniker “Speculative Realism.” Before Bogost, there were few concrete examples of what Speculative Realism might be useful for if applied. This book should be accessible to undergraduate or graduate students who are interested in what comes next after phenomenology, as well as students of the humanities and social sciences—particularly those that are undaunted by posthumanities and the frontiers of contemporary thought.
To understand the thrust of this book, a brief background of Speculative Realism is necessary. Speculative Realism develops out of a criticism that Kantian traditions of philosophy—most notably phenomenological and analytic traditions—are insufficiently broad in their view of reality. Kant argues that it is impossible to know the object in itself, and that science and philosophy can only approach the limit of the object-for-humans. This is to say that understanding of the world is limited to the world that appears to humans. Phenomenology aims at the structure of consciousness; semiotics, the structure of language. Following Quentin Meillassoux, Speculative Realists argue that these Kantian traditions are “correlationist”—an assumption that all knowledge about reality necessarily comes through the correlate of the human. Devout Kantians understand that this is the only position aside from naïve realism (which is openly ridiculed); Speculative Realists maintain that a post-Kantian realism—a sophisticated realism—is possible. Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology is one such example.
Bogost follows the Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO) of Graham Harman very closely. Harman (Guerilla Metaphysics, Tool-Being, Quadruple Object) provides several lengthy and compelling arguments of the insufficiency of mid-20th century phenomenology, as well as speculation as to the frontiers of a post-Kantian philosophy. Bogost courageously carries Harman’s torch forward. Several reviews of this book have emphasized the speculative and somewhat unjustified nature of Bogost’s work, indicating that this was a downside. It must be remembered that this kind of work is unprecedented in principle—it has never even been attempted; it follows a line of thought that isn’t yet a decade old! This makes Alien Phenomenology a bold, audacious, and exciting contribution to the future of the interdisciplinary humanities and sciences.
I understand that the title is intended to be an oxymoron. As explained above, phenomenology explores reality through the structure of human consciousness. Anything that is alien would be decidedly unphenomenological. Merleau-Ponty says as much in his Phenomenology of Perception: namely, that one cannot have a perception that is alien to him or her because said perception would fail to form a definite gestalt and thus remain at the level of ambiguity. OOO and Alien Phenomenology do not explore the alien as it appears in perception (i.e., the uncanny, as in Trigg’s “Unhuman Phenomenology”), because this would fail to extend beyond correlationism. Alien Phenomenology investigates the structure of interrelationships without presupposing the nexus of humanity. In this book, Bogost proposes a few methods for OOO. Each of these should leave experimental scientists and continental philosophers skeptical. This is because Bogost’s methods are built on metaphysical scaffolding that challenges continental thought and conventional methodologies that have long been steeped in anthropocentric investigation. In this frontier of applied OOO, Bogost sticks close to home by investigating the unhuman (alien) worlds of computer programming code, video game graphics, and some recent work in philosophy and humanities that explores posthuman subjectivities. Again, the examples are intended to test the classical and continental philosophical temperaments of readers. I find that Bogost accomplishes this task. To be sure, applied OOO has much ground to cover if research laboratories are to be erected in the future, but this is not Bogost’s aim. To that end, Bogost fails to propose any detailed method or program to be followed by those interested in conducting an alien phenomenology. But such a project would be within the realm of 21st century science.
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