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Alien Phenomenology - Ian Bogost

reading notes from Alien Phenomenology, or What It's Like to Be a Thing by Ian Bogost

a field called astrobiology, one unique in the research community for possessing not a single confirmed object of study.

We’ve been living in a tiny prison of our own devising, one in which all that concerns us are the fleshy beings that are our kindred and the stuffs with which we stuff ourselves. Culture, cuisine, experience, expression, politics, polemic: all existence is drawn through the sieve of humanity, the rich world of things discarded like chaff so thoroughly, so immediately, so efficiently that we don’t even notice.

How did it come to this, an era in which “things” means ideas so often, and stuff so seldom?

Meillassoux has been tentatively housed with Ray Brassier, Iain Hamilton Grant, and Graham Harman under the philosophical shingle “speculative realism.” But this title does little to unite the different positions of these four thinkers, which range from neomaterialism to neonihilism.[9] The speculative realists share a common position less than they do a common enemy: the tradition of human access that seeps from the rot of Kant.

the four horsemen of anticorrelationism

Reality is reaffirmed, and humans are allowed to live within it alongside the sea urchins, kudzu, enchiladas, quasars, and Tesla coils.

If ontology is the philosophical study of existence, then from Harman we can derive an object-oriented ontology (or OOO for short—call it “triple O” for style’s sake).[14] OOO puts things at the center of being. We humans are elements, but not the sole elements, of philosophical interest. OOO contends that nothing has special status, but that ever ything exists equally—plumbers, cotton, bonobos, DVD players, and sandstone, for example. In contemporary thought, things are usually taken either as the aggregation of ever smaller bits (scientific naturalism) or as constructions of human behavior and society (social relativism). OOO steers a path between the two, drawing attention to things at all scales (from atoms to alpacas, bits to blinis) and pondering their nature and relations with one another as much with ourselves.

You might notice the similarities between OOO’s objects and other philosophical concepts, such as Alfred North Whitehead’s occasions in process philosophy or Latour’s actors in actor-network theory.

posthuman approaches still preserve humanity as a primary actor. Either our future survival motivates environmental concern, or natural creatures like kudzu and grizzly bears are meant to be elevated up to the same status as humanity. In every conception of environmental holism from John Muir to James Lovelock, all beings are given equal absolute value and moral right to the planet—so long as they are indeed living creatures. One type of existence—life—still comprises the reference point for thought and action. In Latour’s words, political ecology “claims to defend nature for nature’s sake—and not as a substitute for human egotism—but in every instance, the mission it has assigned itself is carried out by humans and is justified by the well-being, the pleasure, or the good conscience of a small number of carefully selected humans.”

In ecological discourse, an alternative perspective might look more like the one the journalist Alan Weisman offers in his book The World without Us.[21] Weisman documents the things that would take place if humans were to suddenly vanish from earth. Subways flood; pipes cool and crack; insects and weather slowly devour the wood frames of homes; the steel columns of bridg es and skyscrapers corrode and buckle. The object-oriented position holds that we do not have to wait for the rapturous disappearance of humanity to attend to plastic and lumber and steel.

As Steven Shaviro has said in a passing criticism of the zoocentrism animal studies exhibits, “What about plants, fungi, protists, bacteria, etc.?”[23] As an alternative, Michael Pollan has offered an attempt at a plant’s-eye view of the world, one that grants the potato and the cannabis at least as much subjectivity as the dog or the raven. But he too seeks to valorize the apple or the potato only to mobilize them in critiques of the human practices of horticulture, nutrition, and industrialism.

Posthumanism, we might conclude, is not posthuman enough.

If we take seriously the idea that all objects recede interminably into themselves, then human perception becomes just one among many ways that objects might relate. To put things at the center of a new metaphysics also requires us to admit that they do not exist just for us.

They may facilitate work and play, but computers do not fill one’s nostrils with the crisp scent of morning or ruffle one’s feet with evening purrs. Unlike redwoods and lichen and salamanders, computers don’t carry the baggage of vivacity. They are plastic and metal corpses with voodoo powers.

anyone who has ever had to construct, repair, program, or otherwise operate on a computational apparatus knows that a strange and unique world does stir within such a device. A tiny, private universe rattles behind its glass and aluminum exoskeleton.

If we wish to understand a microcomputer or a mountain range or a radio astronomy observatory or a thermonuclear weapon or a capsaicinoid on its own terms, what approaches might be of service?

The “akinness” of various material behaviors to human thought and feeling has promise, but it also draws far too much attention to the similarities between humans and objects, rather than their differences. Whitehead was careful to distinguish prehension from consciousness, while still managing to hold that entities are “throbs of experience.”

Timothy Morton rightly calls vitalism a compromise, one that imprecisely projects a living nature onto all things.[27] With this in mind, Morton suggests mesh instead of nature to describe “the interconnectedness of all living and non-living things.”[28] But to take such interconnectedness seriously, we must really mean it. The philosophical subject must cease to be limited to humans and things that influence humans. Instead it must become everything,

Harman’s answer is “vicarious causation.”[29] Things never really interact with one another, but fuse or connect in a conceptual fashion unrelated to consciousness.

In short, all things equally exist, yet they do not exist equally. The funeral pyre is not the same as the aardvark; the porceletta shell is not equivalent to the rugby ball. Not only is neither pair reducible to human encounter, but also neither is reducible to the other.

This ontology is not a Parmenidean monism; existence is not singular and unchangeable. Yet it is not a Democritean atomism; existence is not composed of fundamental elements of equal size and nature. Yet once more, it is not an abstruse and undefined indeterminacy, like the lumpy Levinasian il y a or the undistinguished Anaximandrean apeiron. Instead, things can be many and various, specific and concrete, while their being remains identical. Levi Bryant calls it flat ontology.

quarks, Harry Potter, keynote speeches, single-malt scotch, Land Rovers, lychee fruit, love affairs, dereferenced pointers, Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino, bozons, horticulturists, Mozambique, Super Mario Bros.

In my previous work I’ve given the name system operations to the top-down organizing principles symbolized by ideas like “the world” in Bryant’s sense. System operations are “totalizing structures that seek to explicate a phenomenon, behavior or state in its entirety.”[34] They tend to assume that some final, holistic, definitive explanation accounts for and explains being. In our current age, two such system operations are dominant: scientific naturalism and social relativism.

For the scientific naturalist, the world exists for human discovery and exploitation. And for the cultural relativist, humans create and refashion the world. That the two sides have so long argued about how to approach worldly knowledge—either experimentation or criticism—has only shrouded the real problem. To wit: both perspectives embody the correlationist conceit.

Posthumanism has signified “human enhancement” for too long—whether through technologies of replacement or addendum or through newer, more pliant cultural understandings of human identity. A true posthumanism would neither extend humanity into a symbiotic, visionary future nor reject our place in the world via antihuman nihilism. Instead, as Bryant puts it, a posthumanist ontology is one in which “humans are no longer monarchs of being, but are instead among beings, entangled in beings, and implicated in other beings.”

Latour calls it irreduction: “Nothing can be reduced to anything else,” even if certain aspects of a thing could be considered transformative on something else.

A generous effort to retain Latourian actor-network theory might replace network with Latour’s later notion of the imbroglio, a confusion in which “it’s never clear who and what is acting.”

An imbroglio is an intellectual kind of predicament, a muddle to be sure, but a muddle wearing a monocle.

John Law

Law promotes mess to a methodological concept, one that resists creating neat little piles of coherent analysis. Instead, it’s necessary to pursue “non-coherence.” Says Law, “This is the problem of talking about ‘mess’: it is a put-down used by those who are obsessed with making things tidy. My preference, rather, is to relax the border controls, allow the non-coherences to make themselves manifest. Or rather, it is to start to think about ways in which we might go about this.”

Law, “Making a Mess with Method.”

A mess is not a pile, which is neatly organized even if situated in an inconvenient place underfoot. A mess is not an elegant thing of a higher order. It is no t an intellectual project to be evaluated and risk-managed by waistcoat-clad underwriters. A mess is a strew of inconvenient and sometimes repellent things. A mess is an accident. A mess is a thing that you find where you don’t want it. We recoil at it, yet there it is, and we must deal with it. Yet for all its aesthetic appeal, I find the mess wanting as much as the imbroglio. If the network is too orderly, the mess is too disorderly.

Theories of being tend to be grandiose, but they need not be, because being is simple. Simple enough that it could be rendered via screen print on a trucker’s cap. I call it tiny ontology, precisely because it ought not demand a treatise or a tome. I don’t mean that the domain of being is small—quite the opposite, as I’ll soon explain. Rather, the basic ontological apparatus needed to describe existence ought to be as compact and unornamented as possible.

Every object, says Harman, “is not only protected by a vacuous shield from the things that lie outside it, but also harbors and nurses an erupting infernal universe within.”

Flat ontology suggests that there is no hierarchy of being, and we must thus conclude that being itself is an object no different from any other.

strange mereology

For OOO, “one object is simultaneously a part of another object and an independent object in its own right.”[49] Things are independent from their constituent parts while remaining dependent on them.

To invoke the principle of tiny ontology, the objects of object-oriented thought mean to encompass anything whatsoever, from physical matter (a Slurpee frozen beverage) to properties (frozenness) to marketplaces (the convenience store industry) to symbols (the Slurpee brand name) to ideas (a best guess about where to find a 7-11). The density of being makes it promiscuous, always touching everything else, unconcerned with differentiation. Anything is thing enough to party.

Counterintuitively, a system and a unit represent three things at once: for one, a unit is isolated and unique. For another, a unit encloses a system—an entire universe’s worth. For yet another, a unit becomes part of another system—often many other systems—as it jostles about. These systems of units are held together tenuously by accidents.

just as Harman repurposes “object-oriented” from computing, I have absconded with “unit operation” from chemical engineering, a field in which the name refers to the steps in a process (extraction, homogenization, distillation, refrigeration, etc.). The unit reveals a feature of being that the thing and the object occlude.

Alphonso Lingis calls these behaviors the imperatives that structure the perception of things: “The inner ordinance which makes the grapefruit coagulate with its rubbery rind, its dense dull yellow, its loose inner pulp” or the “inner formula of a mango, a willow tree, or a flat smooth stone.”[65] These inner ordinances or formulas of things withdraw; they are not grasped, even if they order perception like an imperative.

things are not merely what they do, but things do indeed do things. And the way things do is worthy of philosophical consideration.

Units are isolated entities trapped together inside other units, rubbing shoulders with one another uncomfortably while never overlapping. A unit is never an atom, but a set, a grouping of other units that act together as a system; the unit operation is always fractal. These things wonder about one another without getting confirmation. This is the heart of the unit operation: it names a phenomenon of accounting for an object. It is a process, a logic, an algorithm if you want, by which a unit attempts to make sense of another.

even if we accept the rejection of correlationism as overtly, selfishly anthropocentric, how do we deal with things that are also complex structures or systems crafted or used by humans? And even more so, how do we as humans strive to understand the relationships between particular objects in the world, relations that go on without us, even if we may be their cause, subject, or beneficiary? How do we understand the green chile or the integrated circuit both as things left to themselves and as things interacting with others, us among them?

Despite their luridness, speculative realisms remain philosophies of first principles. They have not yet concerned them selves with particular implementations, although they are also not incompatible with them.

Perhaps the theory I seek is a pragmatic speculative realism, not in the Jamesian sense but more softly: an applied speculative realism, an object-oriented engineering to ontology’s physics. Such a method would embolden the actual philosophical treatment of actual material objects and their relations. If we take speculativism seriously, then why might philosophy not muster the same concrete grounding as, say, speculative fiction or magical realism?

Only some portion of the domain of being is obvious to any given object at a particular time. For the udon noodle, the being of the soup bowl does not intersect with the commercial transaction through which the noodle house sells it, or the social conventions according to which the eater slurps it. Yet there is no reason to believe that the entanglement in which the noodle finds itself is any less complex than the human who shapes, boils, vends, consumes, or digests it. When we ask what it means to be something, we pose a question that exceeds our own grasp of the being of the world.

The significance of one thing to another differs depending on the perspectives of both. Since units remain fundamentally in the dark about one another’s infinite centers, the unit operations that become relevant to them differ. A unit’s means of making sense of another is not universal and cannot be explained away through natural law, scientific truth, or even its own perspective.

In philosophy, “speculation” has a particular meaning that must be overcome. Traditionally, speculative philosophy names metaphysical claims that cannot be verified through experience or through science.

Speculative realism names not only speculative philosophy that takes existence to be separate from thought but also a philosophy claiming that things speculate and, furthermore, one that speculates about how things speculate.

For Husserl, in order to consider appearances seriously we must avoid commonsensical presuppositions. We cannot escape the attitude we portray toward the world, but we must bracket its validity. Husserl gives the name epoché (έπχή, suspension) to this procedure of bracketing our natural assumptions about perception.

Harman uses the name “black noise” to describe the background noise of peripheral objects: “It is not a white noise of screeching, chaotic qualities demanding to be shaped by the human mind, but rather a black noise of muffled objects hovering at the fringes of our attention.”[73] Black is the color of sonic noise that approaches silence, allowing emissions of but a few spikes of energy. Similarly, in physics a black body is an object that absorbs all the electromagnetic radiation it encounters, emitting a spectrum of light commensurate with its temperature.

Dialogic Model for interstellar message design

SETI’s fundamental assumption: if there is life in the universe, it ought to be able to recognize its counterparts by pointing radio astronomy apparatuses like the VLA in their direction, and to understand their answer.

Extraterrestrials, Rescher suggested, are perhaps so alien that their science and technology is incomprehensible to us; we could never understand it as intelligence

Nicholas Rescher

The true alien recedes interminably even as it surrounds us completely. It is not hidden in the darkness of the outer cosmos or in the deep-sea shelf but in plain sight, everywhere, in everything. Mountain summits and gypsum beds, chile roasters and buckshot, microprocessors and ROM chips can no more communicate with us and one another than can Rescher’s extraterrestrial. It is an instructive and humbling sign. Speculative realism really does require speculation: benighted meandering in an exotic world of utterly incomprehensible objects.

As philosophers, our job is to amplify the black noise of objects to make the resonant frequencies of the stuffs inside them hum in credibly satisfying ways. Our job is to write the speculative fictions of their processes, of their unit operations. Our job is to get our hands dirty with grease, juice, gunpowder, and gypsum. Our job is to go where everyone has gone before, but where few have bothered to linger. I call this practice alien phenomenology.

The true alien recedes interminably even as it surrounds us completely. It is not hidden in the darkness of the outer cosmos or in the deep-sea shelf but in plain sight, everywhere, in everything. Mountain summits and gypsum beds, chile roasters and buckshot, microprocessors and ROM chips can no more communicate with us and one another than can Rescher’s extraterrestrial. It is an instructive and humbling sign. Speculative realism really does require speculation: benighted meandering in an exotic world of utterly incomprehensible objects

gentleman–scholar protagonists who accidentally release supernatural wrath from an antique collectible.

In his 1988 book The World View of Contemporary Physics, Richard F. Kitchener declares, “Ontology is the theory of the nature of existence, and ontography is its description.”

Michael Lynch suggests that “ontography is a descriptive alternative to its grand-theoretical counterpart.”

According to Susan Schulten, the geographer William Morris Davis (who was also an American contemporary of James and a professor at Harvard) deployed the term to describe “the human response to the physical landscape.”[5] Schulten argues that ontography “moved geography toward a general concern with the causal relation between humans and their earth.”

Tobias Kuhn, a Swiss informaticist who has developed a method of ontography for depicting controlled natural languages (CNLs)—grammatically and semantically simplified languages for use in situations where reduced ambiguity is desirable, such as in technical documentation.[7] Kuhn’s method uses a graphical notation he calls “ontographs.” Each ontograph “consists of a legend that introduces types and relations and of a mini world that introduces individuals, their types, and their relations”

Quentin Meillassoux uses the phrase “the great outdoors” to describe the outside reality that correlationism had stolen from philosophy.[10] The great outdoors involves both untold cosmic and worldly paraphernalia as well as the reentry into a singular existential domain, one no longer broken down into crass hemispheres of nature and culture. Both Meillassoux and Bruno Latour describe this binary as closed-minded, blinkered.

As Latour sums up, “If you are mixed up with trees, how do you know they are not using you to achieve their dark designs?”

Latour, Pasteurization of France, 194.

But the alien is not limited to another person, or even another creature. The alien is anything—and everything—to everything else.

Let’s adopt ontography as a name for a general inscriptive strategy, one that uncovers the repleteness of units and their interobjectivity. From the perspective of metaphysics, ontography involves the revelation of object relationships without necessarily offering clarification or description of any kind. Like a medieval bestiary, ontography can take the form of a compendium, a record of things juxtaposed to demonstrate their overlap and imply interaction through collocation. The simplest approach to such recording is the list, a group of items loosely joined not by logic or power or use but by the gentle knot of the comma. Ontography is an aesthetic set theory, in which a particular configuration is celebrated merely on the basis of its existence.

Latour litanies

A storm, a rat, a rock, a lake, a lion, a child, a worker, a gene, a slave, the unconscious, a virus.

Elections, mass demonstrations, books, miracles, viscera laid open on the altar, viscera laid out on the operating table, figures, diagrams and plans, cries, monsters, exhibitions at the pillory.

The tree that springs up again, the locusts that devour the crops, the cancer that beats others at its own game, the mullahs who dissolve the Persian empire, the Zionists who loosen the hold of the mullahs, the concrete in the power station that cracks, the acrylic blues that consume other pigments, the lion that does not follow the predictions of the oracle.

Harman also adopts the rhetoric of lists

He offers a defense and justification for lists: Some readers may . . . dismiss them as an “incantation” or “poetics” of objects. But most readers will not soon grow tired, since the rhetorical power of these rosters of beings stems from their direct opposition to the flaws of current mainstream philosophy. . . . The best stylistic antidote to this grim deadlock is a repeated sorcerer’s chant of the multitude of things that resist any unified empire.[18]

The inherent partition between things is a premise of OOO, and lists help underscore those separations, turning the flowing legato of a literary account into the jarring staccato of real being. Lists offer an antidote to the obsession with Deleuzean becoming, a preference for continuity and smoothness instead of sequentiality and fitfulness. The familiar refrain of “becoming-whatever” (it doesn’t matter what!) suggests comfort and compatibility in relations between units, thanks to the creative negotiations things make with each other. By contrast, alien phenomenology assumes the opposite: incompatibility.

Lists remind us that no matter how fluidly a system may operate, its members nevertheless remain utterly isolated, mutual aliens.

When made of language, lists remind the literary-obsessed that the stuff of things is many. Lists are perfect tools to free us from the prison of representation precisely because they are so inexpressive. They decline traditional artifice, instead using mundaneness to offer “a brief intimation of everything.”[21]

Perhaps the problem is not with lists but with literature, whose preference for traditional narrative acts as a correlationist amplifier.

Ontographical cataloging hones a virtue: the abandonment of anthropocentric narrative coherence in favor of worldly detail.

Visual Ontographs

Shore compose s entirely different images. It is easy to say that the subjects—city streets and motels mostly—are more mundane, but to be fair, the streets of Paris before the war and Wyoming before the Jackson Hole National Monument were also mundane in their eras. Shore’s images are deflationary not because their subjects are subordinate but because their composition underscores unseen things and relations

consider the photography of Stephen Shore. He is an artist best known for two things, documenting Andy Warhol’s Factory in the mid-1960s and popularizing color photography as a fine arts practice in the 1970s. But such a characterization ignores the remarkable creativity in Shore’s photographs.

Yet at a time when Henri Cartier-Bresson and Garry Winogrand’s tiny Leica rangefinders still set the standard for the subtle documentation of the outside world, Shore returned to the film plates of Brassaï’s era

Today, photography has become so commonplace that we scarcely think about its equipment, except perhaps to compare statistics on the latest gadget. But Shore’s photography cannot be fully appreciated without an understanding of the nature of the view camera.

Everywhere, all across the image, objects tousle one another. To list them underscores the difference between a Latour litany and a Shore ontograph: floodlight, screen print, Mastercard, rubber, asphalt, taco, Karmann Ghia, waste bin, oil stain. The Latour litany gathers disparate things together like a strong gravitational field. But the Shore ontograph takes things already gathered and explodes them into their tiny, separate, but contiguous universes. As Christy Lange explains, “This was a new conception of the landscape picture, one in which the details themselves—their density and abundance, rather than their entirety—were intended to be the focal point or subject.”

Meanwhile is a powerful ontographical tool. The unit is both a system and a set. Under normal conditions, its state remains jumbled, inconspicuous, unseen in its withdrawal. In its most raw form, the Latour litany offers an account of a segment of being. It’s an account in the literal sense of the word, like a ledger keeps the financial books. The practice of ontography—and it is a practice, not merely a theory—describes the many processes of accounting for the various units that strew themselves throughout the universe. To create an ontograph involves cataloging things, but also drawing attention to the couplings of and chasms between them.

Photographic ontography is effective as art and as metaphysics. But photographs are static; they imply but do not depict unit operations. For the latter, we must look to artifacts that themselves operate.

Ontographic Machines

Scribblenauts offers a more encyclopedic account of things. It’s an unusual videogame created by the developer 5th Cell and released for the Nintendo DS handheld in 2009. On first glance, the game looks like any other 2-D platform or adventure game. The player controls a cute, pixelated character named Maxwell. Each of its two hundred levels takes place in an abstracti on of a realistic environment, be it city, ice floe, mine, or ocean.

the player can summon objects into the level by typing their names into a notebook in the game. The game recognizes almost anything—its dictionary includes some 22,800 terms, from air raid shelter to zucchini.[38] After the player types a word that the game recognizes, the requested object drops into the game, bearing an appearance and behavior befitting its name. The player can then move, connect, operate, and manipulate these objects to complete the game’s puzzles.

Scribblenauts puzzles ask the player to retrieve only the starite, but they also offer incentives to explore the operational possibility space formed by the level scenario along with the many thousands of summonable objects.

Here are the some of the sixteen attempts the critic Stephen Totilo tried before completing the level: Attempt 3: Made bear; bear killed bee. Laid down bear trap, ran away. Bear didn’t chase. Ran back over. Caught self in bear trap. Mauled by bear. Level failed. Attempt 6: Made exterminator. Exterminator fumigated bee. Did not grab first flower. Approached piranha lake. Made fishing boat. Dropped big boat into lake. Boat must have crushed flower. Level failed. Attempt 10: Made gun. Tried to shoot bee dead. Bullet ricocheted and destroyed first flower. Level failed. Attempt 12: Made hot air balloon. Put Maxwell in it. Flew over piranha lake. Made gun. Shot at fish. Gun destroyed hot air balloon instead. Fell into lake. Jumped out of lake. Made corpse. Threw it into lake to draw fish away. Made gun to shoot fish while it ate corpse. Shots didn’t hit. Made new corpse and tried with sniper rifle. Didn’t work. Dove in and just grabbed flower. Success. Bee was gone. Put lake flower in basket. Put bee flower in basket. Made helicopter to get to high ridge for final flower. Was afraid to land helicopter on ledge, out of fear of destroying flower. Tried to jump out of helicopter. Fell into piranha lake. Died. Level failed. Attempt 13: Made gun. Shot bee dead. Got first flower. Made two corpses. Tossed them into piranha lake for distraction. Dove and recovered second flower. Made truck and dumped it into lake. Did same with a boat. Tried climbing over those vehicles to get to ledge and final flower. Vehicles shifted; Maxwell thrown into ridge wall. Died. Level failed. Attempt 16. Made gun. Shot bee dead. Made hot air balloon. Flew to ridge. Got out, grabbed flower. Got back in balloon. Safely put cliff flower in basket. Put bee flower in basket. Threw corpses into piranha lake to distract fish. Dove in and grabbed lake flower. Jumped out. Put lake flower in basket. Starite found! Success!

Shore’s photographs catalog the way things exist in a given situation. Scribblenauts catalogs the way things work in one. Both approaches explode the density of being, giving viewer and player a view of a tiny sliver of the infinity of being, through reconfiguration.

Words do not just denote, they also operate.

In a Pickle, a card game about words. Play is simple: each card is emblazoned with a word, and under the word is an arrow pointing downward.

The game instructions encourage players to “think creatively and play cards that might not ‘fit’ in an obvious way.” Players can challenge such “creative” interpretations, and opponents vote to allow or invalidate them. The designers offer such an example in the rules: “Yes, you can fit a Turkey in a Purse. It’s sliced turkey.”

In a Pickle is based on homography. In linguistics, homographs are two different words that share the same orthography yet have different meanings. For example, “bark” (the sound a dog makes) and “bark” (the surface of a tree) are homographs. Homographs are helpful lenses for tiny ontology, which maintains that being multiplies and expands.

Things just get weirder: A Movie could be in a Letter (“I just saw this strange movie about an incompetent, vinegar-loving bank robber”), which could be in an Atlas (as a bookmark), which could be in a Tornado, in a Dream, in a Woman, in a Marriage. Or better, a Movie could be in the Universe, which could nevertheless also be in a letter (“ I wouldn’t give up pickles for anything in the world”), in the Mail, in Time.

A Latour litany is an ontograph made of words. By contrast, In a Pickle is a machine for producing ontographs about words. It bears the tagline, “The what’s in a word game,” and in this case “in a word” means two things.

For the ontographer, Aristotle was wrong: nature does not operate in the shortest way possible but in a multitude of locally streamlined yet globally inefficient ways.[41] Indeed, an obsession with simple explanations ought to bother the metaphysician. Instead of worshipping simplicity, OOO embraces messiness. We must not confuse the values of the design of objects for human use, such as doors, toasters, and computers, with the nature of the world itself.

And meanwhile, at the Trail’s End Restaurant in Kanab, Utah, a bowl snuggled a half cantaloupe, and butter seeped into the caramelized surface of a pancake (Plate 4).

But unlike the jobs of horticulturists, physicists, or forest rangers, alien phenomenology is not a practice of scientific naturalism, seeking to define the physical or causal relations between objects. To do so would take things for constituents. As Bruno Latour puts it, science “is forced to explain one marvel with another, and that one with a third. It goes on until it looks just like a fairy tale.”

Nagel calls this encounter “the subjective character of experience.”[4] That character, he suggests, entails “what it is like to be that organism.” For Nagel, the very idea of experience requires this “being-likeness,” a feature that eludes observation even if its edges can be traced by examining physical properties. Because of this elusiveness (which OOO calls withdrawal), physical reductionism can never explain the experience of a being.

As Nagel puts it, “B at sonar, though clearly a form of perception, is not similar in its operation to any sense that we possess, and there is no reason to suppose that it is subjectively like anything we can experience or imagine.”[5] The best we can do is to try to conjure what it might be like to be a bat, and in that task we will always fail, given that imagining what it’s like to be a bat is not the same as being a bat.

On the one hand, phenomena are objective, often easily measured, recorded, or otherwise identified by some external observer. On the other hand, such an observer cannot have the experience that corresponds with those phenomena, no matter how much evidence he or she might collect from its event horizon

the character of the experience of something is not identical to the characterization of that experience by something else

Unlike objective phenomenology, alien phenomenology accepts that the subjective character of experiences cannot be fully recuperated objectively, even if it remains wholly real. In a literal sense, the only way to perform alien phenomenology is by analogy: the bat, for example, operates like a submarine. The redness hues like fire.

The risk of falling into anthropocentrism is strong. Indeed, I’ll take things farther: anthropocentrism is unavoidable, at least for us humans. The same is true of any unit (for the bats, chiropteracentrism is the problem). The subjective nature of experience makes the unit operation of one of its perceptions amount always to a caricature in which the one is drawn in the distorted impression of the other. This is true not only of the encounter itself but also of any account of the encounter, which only further distances the one from the other by virtue of the introduction of additional layers of mediation.

Bats are both ordinary and weird, but so is ever ything else: toilet seats, absinthe louches, seagulls, trampolines. By revealing objects in relation apart from us, we rediscover and refine the method of M. R. James’s haunted Professor Parkins: to release objects like ghosts from the prison of human experience.

Objects float in a sensual ether. When they interact through vicarious causation, they do so only by the means they know internally but in relation to the qualities in which they “bathe.” In a move he is completely serious about, Harman equates such interaction with metaphor.[15] It’s a move that solves Nagel’s puzzle: we never understand the alien experience, we only ever reach for it metaphorically.

“Theses on Metarealism and Conceptualism”

Epstein, Genis, and Vladiv-Glover, Russian Postmodernism,

The new theses extended metaphorism from the playfulness of metaphor into “metarealism,” which Mikhail Epstein describes as an “earnest attempt to capture . . . the realism of metaphor.”

Such work strives to apprehend reality in metaphorphosis, rather than merely use metaphor representationally.

If we take seriously Harman’s suggestion that relation takes place not just like metaphor but as metaphor, then an opportunity suggests itself: what if we deployed metaphor itself as a way to grasp alien objects’ perceptions of one another.

the same ontological plane as human, gearshift, perception, or red-rosed wind

How the Sensor Sees

From early forms of writing like parchment and clay, and from fine arts like painting, we inherit misconceptions about the inscription of surfaces.

The way a film emulsion or a CCD perceives an object is not merely an accident of the photographer’s agency . It is a material process that deserves attention for its own sake before questions of agency, reference, meaning, or criticism enter into the picture. Like Nagel’s bat, the experience of the camera cannot be reduced to the operation of its constituent parts.

Rather than ask how the equipment fails to see as its operator does, let’s instead ask what characterizes its experience. To do so, we can first trace the edges of the device’s qualities, nipping at the event horizon that conceals its notes from public view.

We might say that color shift is the Foveon’s high ISO equivalent of Bayer’s image noise. But the resulting sensation is unfamiliar: color shift as a consequence of higher light sensitivity feels alien to the human photographer. Why? Because the Bayer sensor’s method of amplifying light sensitivity is analogous to that of the film emulsion, while the Foveon sensor’s method of amplifying light sensitivity is not.

The human eye uses different photoreceptor cells for different light levels. In low light, the eye uses rod cells, which are sensitive to green-blue wavelengths but less sensitive to red wavelengths. In well-lit conditions, the eye uses cone cells, three types of which provide high sensitivity to red, green, and blue light. Maurer describes the Foveon’s perception as analogous to mesopic vision, the effect that human eyes experience in dim light when our eyes are confused about which types of cells to use, resulting in a rapid switching between cones and rods. Mesopic vision is the phenomenon that makes it difficult to drive at dusk.

Maurer: In sunlight we see in colour; in moonlight we see in monochrome; in transitional “mesopic” levels of dim light we see partially in monochrome and partially in colour. When painters want to represent dim light, they portray it mes-opically

Garry Winogrand called a photograph “the illusion of a literal description of what the camera saw,”

As light sensitivity is adjusted up on the sensor, it is as if the sensor had been shrouded in increasing levels of dusk. Such is what it’s like to be a Foveon digital image sensor, even if this isn’t what it is to be one.

Once object relations become metaphorized, we must take care to avoid taking the constructed metaphor for the reality of the unit operation it traces. A metaphor is just a trope, not a copy. Consider how quickly a metaphorism can be taken for what it caricatures, particularly when matters of human controversy are at work.

The criticism of selective effrontery has long plagued veganism

No matter how we may feel about eating or abstaining from meat, appeals to feeling and suffering exemplify the correlationist conceit: the assumption that the rights any thing should have are the same ones we believe we should have; that living things more like us are more important than those less like us; and that life itself is an existence of greater worth than inanimacy. These are understandable biases for us humans. We are mortal and fragile in specific ways, and we worry about them. Things become more difficult when we move beyond the animate and into the great outdoors.

Metaphorism issues a strange challenge to problems of ethics. When we theorize ethical codes, they are always ethics for us. Whether deontological or consequentialist, moral standards sit on the inside of the unit human being; they’re part of our inner formula, situated in our molten cores. Even in the most liberal interpretations of external responsibility, such as Emmanuel Levinas’s notion of the wholly unknowable other that cannot be converted into selfhood, the object of ethics relates back to the self that maintains such responsibility. While such a principle might modulate our attitudes and intentions toward objects—be they migrant workers, cocker spaniels, or plastic sporks—it can never help explain the ethics of such objects themselves.

Metaphorism is necessarily anthropomorphic, and thus it challenges the metaphysician both to embrace and to yield the limits of humanity. When perception is at issue (“How does the digital sensor perceive the puppy?”), this is a relatively uncontroversial affair. But when it comes to action, particularly action in which the human actor is implicated, the ethics of objects quickly becomes unthinkable.

Thanks to feminist studies, postcolonial studies, animal studies, environmental studies, and other accounts of human relationships with nonhuman entities, we tend to doubt that some things ought to thrive at others’ expense. Today, most would accept that British men are no more intrinsically worthy of preservation and prosperity than women, Congalese, horses, and redwoods. But few would accept that fried chicken buckets, Pontiac Firebirds, and plastic picnicware deserve similar consideration (unless their existence or use might disturb people, animals, or nature). When we form these theories, we mount accounts of why and how humans ought to behave in and toward the universe, but not about how other objects ought to behave in relation to it.

one could argue that no matter what sort of thing a unit is, it ought to have the right to be preserved and not destroyed. This is an impractical sentiment, however, because beings often need to eat or molt or burn or dissolve.

driving is a kind of sloth that loosens the physical and the social body alike.

Does the 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? Such questions must be asked quite separately from any ethical inquiry into the processes sourcing and extracting crude oil to produce fuels and other products.

Take another, weirder case: theories, concepts, and memes. Is there an ethics of ideas? Not an ethics for their application, as by human hands advancing a political cause, but an ethics for the interactions of ideas as such? When I utter a phrase, does it owe more than its utterance? When it enters into relations with other utterances—whether as inscription on surface, as charge on magnetic storage devices, as disruption in the fluid dynamics of a cold morning—what responsibility do I have to it through my having uttered it? Likewise, what rights do they have relative to one another? When I encounter a catchy chorus on the radio or a clever edition of a web comic, does its desire to propagate create duty?

Why is it that one’s disregard for laundry, blogs, or elliptical trainers entails only metaphorical negligence, while one’s neglect of cats, vagrants, or herb gardens is allowed the full burden of genuine disregard?

Latour would describe the relations among engine parts or memes as forces between actors in a network—quasi-objects, he sometimes calls them, which are neither human nor nonhuman.[28] The forces between these objects exert transformations, Latour’s replacement for relations of power. Latour helps us see the many conflicting stakeholders in a situation, all grasping for differently shaped handles to pull a network in one or another direction: “None of the actants mobilized to secure an alliance stops acting on its own behalf. They each carry on fermenting their own plots, forming their own groups, and serving other masters, wills, and functions.”

When we speak of things, are we prepared to equate their forces with their ethics? Is what a thing tends to do the same as what it considers noble or right? We might observe in an object what Aristotle calls hexis (ἕξις), or what Pierre Bourdieu dubs habitus—a way of being, a custom or routine. But a disposition is quite different from a code. Here a further problem arises, as the fact of relations shouldn’t be sufficient to affirm that the actors involved in those relations act according to an ethics or in violation of one. A unit operation does not an ethics make.

When we ask after the ethics of objects, we are really asking if moral qualities exist as sensual qualities. I’ll float a categorical response: no. When the vegan eats the tofu, she bathes in its moisture, its blandness, its suppleness, its vegetality. Yet the soy does not bathe in her veganism. Through its sensual properties, she constructs a caricature of the soy, which does more than render it nutritive or gratifying; it also renders it moral. It is what Levinas calls enjoyment, an egoistic process for which he favors the metaphor of eating: we eat the other to make it the same.

An object enters an ethical relation when it attempts to reconcile the sensual qualities of another object vis-à-vis the former’s withdrawn reality. Perhaps counterintuitively, ethics is a self-cente red practice, a means of sense making necessitated by the inherent withdrawal of objects. It is a filing system for the sensual qualities of objects that maps those qualities to internal methods of caricature, a process often full of struggle. Here we find the limits of metaphorism and a good reason to respect anthropomorphism’s frontier.

Can we even imagine a speculative ethics? Could an object characterize the internal struggles and codes of another, simply by tracing and reconstructing evidence for such a code by the interactions of its neighbors? It’s much harder than imagining a speculative alien phenomenology, and it’s easy to understand why: we can find evidence for our speculations on perception, like radiation tracing the black hole’s event horizon, even if we are only ever able to characterize the resulting experiences as metaphors bound to human correlates.

The answer to correlationism is not the rejection of any correlate but the acknowledgment of endless ones, all self-absorbed, obsessed by givenness rather than by turpitude. The violence or ardor of piston and fuel is the human metaphorization of a phenomenon, not the ethics of an object. It is not the relationship between piston and fuel that we frame by ethics but our relationship to the relationship between piston and fuel. Of course, this can be productive: ethical principles can serve as a speculative characterization of object relations. But they are only metaphorisms, not true ethics of objects.

Levinas approaches this position himself when he observes, “If one could possess, grasp, and know the other, it would not be other.”[31] That is, so long as we don’t mind only eating one flavor of otherness.

Timothy Morton observes that matters of ethics defer to an “ethereal beyond.”[32] We always outsource the essence of a problem, the oil spill forgotten into the ocea n, the human waste abandoned to the U-bend. Ethics seems to be a logic that lives inside of objects, inaccessible from without; it’s the code that endorses expectation of plumbing or the rejoinder toward vegetarianism.

We can imagine scores of bizarro Levinases, little philosopher machines sent into the sensual interactions of objects like planetary rovers. Their mission: to characterize the internal, withdrawn subjectivities of various objects, by speculating on how object–object caricatures reflect possible codes of value and response. Object ethics, it would seem, can only ever be theorized once-removed, phenomenally, the parallel universes of private objects cradled silently in their cocoons, even while their surfaces seem to explode, devour, caress, or murder one another.

This confusion of the withdrawn and the sensual realms allows us to make assumptions about the bean curd and combustion engine just as we do with oceans and sewers, drawing them closer and farther from us based on how well they match our own understanding of the world. But when there is no “away,” no unit outside to which we can outsource virtue or wrongdoing, ethics itself is revealed to be a hyperobject: a massive, tangled chain of objects lampooning one another through weird relation, mistaking their own essences for that of the alien objects they encounter, exploding the very idea of ethics to infinity.

To get at the metaphorism the sensor itself performs on a puppy the photographer frames and captures, it is necessary to speculate not only on the sensor–puppy relation from the metaphorical vantage point of the human photographer but also from the vantage point of the sensor itself. This is metametaphorism.

metaphorisms are always self-centered. The photographer’s metaphorism of the sensor can’t help but draw its notes into the event horizon of human exper ience. Anthropocentrism is thus both a torment and a foregone conclusion for us humans, but we need not feel alone in suffering under it. If anticorrelationism amounts to a rejection of only one correlation and an embrace of multiple correlations, then centrism is inevitable—whether it be anthropocentrism, petrocentrism, photocentrism, skylocentrism, or any other. One can never entirely escape the recession into one’s own centrism. A confessional is not enough.

When conceived as units—as systems of members entering and leaving configurations—aspects of the world do not disappear into an anonymous organism akin to a Latourian network or a Deleuzean assemblage. Even if these machines operate as one, they still facilitate their own breakdown into individual unit operations—the dog’s sensation of the grass on its paw as it bounds across the yard, or the camera firmware’s relationship to the SD card, onto which it writes data that a computer software program embedded in the camera interprets as patterns, which the device’s liquid crystal display uses to produce three-color subpixel-rendered hues, which a human observer can intuit as a digital photograph.

Any one of these interactions is subject to potential metaphorism

But what of the sensor’s impression of the dog’s impression of the grass? Or the graphics processing unit’s understanding of the computer display’s grasp of the signal it sends to it? Or, for that matter, the entire phenomenal chain that describes this tiny slice of existence, the one we shorthand as “taking a photograph?”

phenomenal daisy chains, built of speculations on speculations as we seep farther and farther into the weird relations between objects.

metaphoristic daisy chains set up nested metaphorical renderings. The relationship between the first object and the second offers the c learest rendition, insofar as a metaphor is ever really clear. The next is rendered not in terms of the second object’s own impression of the third but as the second’s distorted understanding of its neighbor seen through the lens of the first. It’s like a tuille pastry, delicate and fragile yet discriminating and exquisite. The metaphoristic daisy chain is a challenging structure to imagine in the abstract, yet examples of it are elusive

Ben Marcus’s curious novel The Age of Wire and String

Marcus’s book cannot be solved cryptographically; there is no simple chain of signifiers that the reader must simply replace in succession to produce sense. Indeed, when reading The Age of Wire and String, one gets the impression that sense will never emerge—not in the ordinary sense of the word, at least.

The universe need not literally sit atop an infinite stack of tortoises for her statement to ring true. Rather, things render one another in infinite chains of weaker and weaker correlation, each altering and distorting the last such that its sense is rendered nonsense. It’s not turtles all the way down, but metaphors.

why do you write instead of doing something else, like filmmaking or macramé or sumi-e or welding or papercraft or gardening? Certainly particular materials afford and constrain different kinds of expression, but why should it be obvious that the choice of writing over another way of inscribing and disseminating ideas is a standard, or even desirable, one?

For humanists, including philosophers and critics of all stripes, writing is literally the only way to scholarly productivity. One’s career is measured in books and articles: publications counted on curricula vitae, citations of those publications in other written matter measured, and on and on.

In the humanities in particular (unlike the sciences), the academic conference is often understood as an opportunity to test out ideas in front of an audience. Those ideas will, inevitably, become professionally valid only if written down. And when published, they are printed and bound not to be read but merely to have been written.

writing is dangerous for philosophy—and for serious scholarly practice in general. It’s not because writing breaks from its origins as Plato would have it, but because writing is only one form of being. The long-standing assumption that we relate to the world only through language is a particularly fetid, if still bafflingly popular, opinion. But so long as we pay attention only to language, we underwrite our ignorance of everything else.

If a physician is someone who practices medicine, perhaps a metaphysician ought be someone who practices ontology. Just as one would likely not trust a doctor who had only read and written journal articles about medicine to explain the particular curiosities of one’s body, so one ought not trust a metaphysician who had only read and written books about the nature of the universe.

Some people become writers, others jewelers, others motorcycle mechanics. Similarly, philosophical creativity can take many forms, and each philosopher’s approach to carpentry will differ. In addition to increasing the variety, playfulness, and earnestness of discourse, carpentry has the added benefit of inviting thinkers to exercise and develop their natural talents in a manner akin to Heideggerian dwelling. In doing so, as Iain Thomson suggests, “we come to understand and experience entities as being richer in meaning than we are capable of doing justice to conceptually.”

In the context of alien phenomenology, “carpentry” borrows from two sources. First, it extends the ordinary sense of woodcraft to any material whatsoever—to do carpentry is to make anything, but to make it in earnest, with one’s own hands, like a cabinetmaker. Second, it folds into this act of construction Graham Harman’s philosophical sense of “the carpentry of things,” an idea Harman bor-rowed in turn from Alphonso Lingis. Both Lingis and Harman use that ph rase to refer to how things fashion one another and the world at large.[14] Blending these two notions, carpentry entails making things that explain how things make their world. Like scientific experiments and engineering prototypes, the stuffs produced by carpentry are not mere accidents, waypoints on the way to something else. Instead, they are themselves earnest entries into philosophical discourse.

philosophical software carpentry

Enter the Latour Litanizer, a machine I constructed to produce ontographs in the form of Latour litanies. It’s a simple device, but an effective one.


random article

The Latour Litanizer executes queries against this API and assembles the results into a list with linked object names, one not dissimilar to the sort found in Latour’s writings. Each time it’s run, the Latour Litanizer returns a fresh, new litany.

Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum, Lealt Valley Diatomite Railway, Railway Protection Force Academy, Ereğli, Konya Saint-Vincent-de-Salers, Food Lion, Dragovići, Battle of Cien-fuegos, Precipitation, Sitka Pioneer Home, Alma—Marceau (Paris Métro), Thomas Mor Timotheos

In these lists we find people, places, organizations, ideas, fictions, groups, media, durations, and even other lists. By divorcing the author and reader from the selection process, the litanizer amplifies both the variety of types of units that exist and the variety of alliances between them.

Philosophical Lab Equipment

Carpentry is philosophical lab equipment.[20]

Carpentry can serve a general philosophical purpose, but it presents a particularly fertile opportunity to pursue alien phenomenology. The experiences of things can be characterized only by tracing the exhaust of their effects on the surrounding world and speculating about the coupling between that black noise and the experiences internal to an object.

The phenomenologist who performs carpentry creates a machine that tries to replicate the unit operation of another’s experience. Like a space probe sent out to record, process, and report information, the alien phenomenologist’s carpentry seeks to capture and characterize an experience it can never fully understand, offering a rendering satisfactory enough to allow the artifact’s operator to gain some insight into an alien thing’s experience.

However appealing and familiar the usual means of doing philosophy might be, another possible method involves a more hands-on approach, manipulating or vivisecting the objects to be analyzed, mad scientist–like, in the hopes of discovering their secrets.

I am TIA is meant to characterize the experience of the television interface adapter, metaphorizing it for human grasp. When the program runs, it interprets screens of the videogame Combat, rendering only the modulated color the TIA calculates and sends to the RF adapter at a given time. Instead of seeing an entire television picture worth of image, the human operator of I am TIA sees only the single hue currently processed by the TIA, based on its position on the screen

Consider Ben Fry’s Deconstructulator.

Tableau Machine, a nonhuman social actor created by Mario Romero, Zachary Pousman, and Michael Mateas.

As Romero and colleagues put it, research in ubiquitous computing and ambient intelligence “remains rooted in an informati on access and task-support where the goal is long term active reflection on everyday activity, enjoyment and pleasure.”[25] In response to this limitation, Romero, Pousman, and Mateas propose an “alien presence,” a computational agent that senses and interprets the state of an environment (in this case a home) and reports its experience in the form of abstract art. An alien presence, they argue, “does not try to mimic human perception and interpretation, but rather to open a non-human, alien perspective onto everyday activity.”

Tableau Machine attempts to represent the perceptual apparatus of the entire house by harnessing the Aware Home’s array of cameras, divided into regions, and interpreting the changing images with computer vision algorithms that measure motion in those regions. Instead of predicting or encouraging particular behaviors on the part of individual human actors in the home, as other ubiquitous computing efforts have attempted, Tableau Machine’s system interpolates the accumulation and release of motion, which its creators characterize as social energy, social density, and social flow.

Tableau Machine renders the home’s perception as an occasionally changing work of abstract art shown on a plasma display mounted in the home (as if it were a painting or television).

Latour Litanizer, I am TIA, Deconstructulator, Firebug, and Tableau Machine are artifacts of alien phenomenology. Rudimentary perhaps, but concrete, unburdened by theoretical affectation.

volcanoes, hookahs, muskets, gearshifts, gypsum, and soups that have arisen.

Carpentry’s implications for weird realism in general might be even more surprising: the philosopher-programmer is joined by the philosopher-geologist, the philosopher-chef, the philosopher-astronomer, the philosopher-mechanic. The “carpentry of things,” one of Harman’s synonyms for object-oriented philosophy, might be a job description, not just a metaphor.

In a discussion of Whitehead’s take on creativity, Steven Meyer reminds us that the former’s writing shares a quality with poetry: “In inventing creativity, Whitehead was doing what poets are best known for doing: naming things that do not already have names, or—what comes to the same thing—giving a new name to something and thereby transforming it.”[33] Meyer also reminds us of one of Whitehead’s famous aphorisms, the kind that makes him the most quoted and the least cited of philosophers: “In the real world it is more important that a proposition be interesting than that it be true.”

Latour offers his own version of this injunction: “Standing by what is written on a sheet of paper alone is a risky trade. However this trade is no more miraculous than that of the painter, the seaman, the tightrope walker, or the banker.”[35] Knowledge, he concludes, “does not exist. . . . Despite all claims to the contrary, crafts hold the key to knowledge.”

Yet once we are done nodding earnestly at Whitehead and Latour, what do we do?

For too long, being “radical” in philosophy has meant writing and talking incessantly, theorizing ideas so big that they can never be concretized but only marked with threatening definite articles (“the political,” “the other,” “the neighbor,” “the animal”). For too long, philosophers have spun waste like a goldfish’s sphincter, rather than spinning yarn like a charka.

Real radicals, we might conclude, make things.

Alex Galloway implements a computer version of Guy Debord’s Le Jeu de la Guerre, revealing in the process that Debord and his partner Alice Becker Ho misapplied their own rules in their book about the game.

It ’s not that writing cannot be interesting. Rather, we might consider that writing is not the only method of engendering interest.

Good Eats proves that flat existence entails equal levels of potential worth. The relationship between fat crystal and sugar, leavener and batter is just as fundamental as that between cake and mouth.

Brown’s cakery embraces tiny ontology. The cake exists, to be sure. So does the Kitchen-Aid 5-Quart Stand Mixer, the preheated oven, the mixing bowl, and the awaiting gullet. But so too do the sugars, the flour granules, the butterfat crystals, the leavener, the gas bubbles. And they do not merely exist—they exist equally

But this digression about Iris and Thaumas makes sense only in Greek: the word Theaetetus uses in his admission of dizziness is θαυμζω, I wonder. The name of Thaumas the god (Ζαύμας) is also the word for wonder (θαύμα). Wonder has two senses. For one, it can suggest awe or marvel, the kind one might experience in worship or astonishment. But for another, it can mean puzzlement or logical perplexity.

A second well-known appearance of wonder comes from Francis Bacon, who extends Aristotle’s catalyzing wonder through two metaphors. Wonder, says Bacon, is both “the seed of knowledge” and also “broken knowledge.”

The eighteenth-century philosopher, diplomat, and monarchist Joseph-Marie de Maistre suggests, “without the least doubt,” that Bacon’s concept is best understood as “a science attached to nothing” or “a knowledge without knowledge.”[11] While our wonder can be transformed partly into knowledge, for Bacon the road toward knowledge of creation itself remains impassible. The embrace of this brokenness partly explains Bacon’s interest in the aphorism, which executes a performance of discontinuity, like rocks blocking Iris’s highway.

Maistre’s quip about a “science attached to nothing” is thus more than mere provocation. The act of wonder invites a detachment from ordinary logics, of which human logics are but one example. This is a necessary act in the method of alien phenomenology.

As Howard Parsons puts it, wonder “suggests a breach in the membrane of awareness, a sudden opening in a man’s system of established and expected meanings.”

Waste collection was not an appropriate goal. Mercifully, I opted for a much more sensible career as a videogame theorist.

Yet the 6502 is just as wondrous as the cake or the quark. Not for what it does but for what it is.

But what if the real obstacle to youthful interest in science arises not from a distaste for mathematics or the natural world but from a latent dissatisfaction with the way science melts the shell of wonder around ordinary objects? Science, like philosophy, has assumed that wonder is always a type of puzzlement, an itch meant to be scratched so we can get on with things. But, for the child, a computer or a robot or a cake or a definite integral is not merely a wellspring for a possible future career, or even a vessel for play, work, sustenance, or measurement. It’s an object worthy of consideration for its own sake, a thing of wonder, like Iris’s rainbow, suspended between the pique of intrigue and the utility of application.

the real object that bq5isolates, while refusing to hold that it must always connect to any other in a network of relations.

Partitioned like so many galaxies, each thing, from leavener bubble to pound cake, from mathematical operand to robotic companion, from opium poppy to criminal justice system, each demands its own broken knowledge. Weird, tiny, totalities simultaneously run their own rules and participate in the dominion of others around them. Each thing remains alien to every other, operationally as well as physically. To wonder is to respect things as things in themselves.

In one of his many defenses of the multitude of actants, Latour offers this rejoinder: “We do not suffer from the lack of a soul. We suffer, on the contrary, from too many troubled souls that have never been offered a decent burial.”[33] The bestiary of the undead will no doubt come to mind: not just Nathan Gale’s ghosts and zombies but also vampires and mummies, draugar and liches. The Roswell alien might rear its head, too, that humanoid victim left to be molested, preserved, and filed away by government agents. But we could add innumerable members to this list, this list of aliens waiting to be unfettered: quarks, Elizabeth Bennett, single-malt scotch, Ford Mustang fastbacks, lychee fruit, love affairs, dereferenced pointers, Care Bears, sirocco winds, the Tri-City Mall, tort law, the Airbus A330, the five-hundred-drachma note.

In the face of the undead, we exhibit terror. Troubled souls seek relief, silence, release. They operate by broken logics, ones recognizable as neither alive nor dead but striving for one or the other. We fear them because we have no idea what they might do next. Idealisms amount to undead ontologies, metaphysics in which nothing escapes the horrific rift from being, leaving behind a slug’s trail of identity politics.

alien_phenomenology.txt · Last modified: 2018/03/24 18:50 by