Alien Phenomenology, or What It's Like to Be a Thing
University of Minnesota Press 2012
“Particle Man”, Charles Bukowski, Heidegger’s tool-analysis, Atari, Ace of Cakes, aliens, tiny ontology, Bruno Latour, ontography, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, the Bossa-Nova, Scribblenauts, Ben Marcus, “What is it like to be a bat?”, carpentry, cyborg homes, sugar granules, and The Wire.
What you’ve just read (assuming that you’ve gotten here via the list above) is a very particular form of knowledge-making. It is a list, a catalogue, a community of things. It is also a kind of travelogue, a “Latour litany” that maps some of the objects populating Ian Bogost‘s beautifully written and wonderfully stimulating new book, Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing (University of Minnesota Press, 2012). Opening with a piece of a They Might Be Giants song and ending with a part of a poem by Charles Bukowski, Bogost’s book introduces readers to the field of object-oriented ontology by asking us to consider a fundamental question: why do we ignore “stuff” in scholarship, poetry, science, or business as anything more than a way to continue talking about humans? Is there a way to think and live with stuff in the world that doesn’t reduce it to that which concerns people, but instead considers and lives with it on its own terms? Alien Phenomenology helps us explore this question and understand the stakes of the problem in five chapters that each introduce a key concept informing a discussion of the being of objects in our world: “tiny ontology” as a model for thinking with things, ontography as a means of mapping them as parts and wholes, metaphorism as a way of getting at the experiences of nonhumans, carpentry as a philosophical practice, and wonder. Though it will be of special interest to readers with an interest in literature, philosophy, and the humanities, the book itself speaks beyond any single disciplinary frame. From the perspective of science studies or STS, it offers a way of moving with and beyond the language of Actor-Network Theory and “agency” of the non-human world, potentially helping us to reframe our questions about objects and the narratives of science, medicine, technology, and modernity in innovative ways. (At the very least, it has been transformative for this historian of science.) Not only is it thoughtfully argued and elegantly (at times, gorgeously) written, but it’s also a lot of fun.