There’s a brief passage in Anne Rice’s The Vampire Lestat where Gabrielle– formerly his mother –implores Lestat to flee Paris, to run to the forests where they might spend their days contemplating the mysteries of how leaves fall through the autumn air, lichens, rocks, and trees. Lestat is endlessly fascinated with the drama of humans, while Gabrielle wants to be done with humans, to flee into the wilds, to contemplate all of those nonhuman things that populate the universe. Elsewhere, in Bill Condon’s Kinsey, we learn that Kinsey’s early research– resulting in a number of published books –consisted in tracing generations of ants. It’s not clear what importance either of these pursuits might have for human existence– beyond “mere” curiosity and wonder –yet this is what these two figures wished to devote themselves to.
It could be said that Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology is animated by the strange, inhuman, and alien spirits of Gabrielle and Kinsey. While not using these precise words, in a move that is more phenomenological than the phenomenologists themselves, Bogost calls for us to get over ourselves and return to the things themselves. But this return to the things themselves is not a return for things as they are for us, it is not an analysis of how things (Bogost uses the term “units”) give themselves to us. No, Bogost asks “what is it like to be a thing?” Bogost wants to open up a form of analysis– what he calls “alien phenomenology” and what I much less poetically call “second-order observation” –that investigates how units or things experience the world. What is it like to be a computer? What is it like to be a mantis shrimp? What is it like to be a corporation or a capitalistic market? What is it like to be a human? Such is the strange and inviting question that Bogost introduces in his book.
One of Bogost’s central gripes with correlationism is it’s inerasable anthropocentrism. In both the sciences and the humanities we endlessly find a desire to discuss entities in terms of what they are for us, ignoring any inquiry of what they might be for themselves. As Bogost writes,
…both perspectives embody the correlationist conceit. The scientist believes in reality apart from human life, but it is a reality excavated for human exploitation. The scientific process cares less for reality itself than it does for the discoverability of reality through human ingenuity. Likewise, the humanist doesn’t believe in the world except as a structured erected in the interest of human culture. Like a mirror image of the scientist, the humanist mostly seeks to mine particular forms of culture, often by suggesting aspects of it that must be overcome through abstract notions of resistance or revolution. (14)
At the core of Bogost’s critique of correlationism– and he has many other critiques besides –is a deep suspicion of the manner in which correlationist thought endlessly revolves around human teleologies: how we might exploit other things and how we might bring about political transformation or change. To this Bogost cries, “try for a moment to get over yourself and your own narcissism, try to bracket your own goals, try for a moment just to tarry with the things themselves and see what they might be for themselves!” And “try” here is the operative word, for we must remember that objects are withdrawn, that we can never fully know what it is like to be them, but we can try to adopt the things point of view to see what it might be like to be that being. And indeed, as he shows over the course of his book, he develops techniques that show how we can learn a great deal about what it might be like to be these others. No doubt, it is this desire to return to the things themselves that leads wonder to be such a persistent theme throughout the book, for wonder is a way of relating to others that does not seek to change them, that does not seek to exploit them, but that, in a manner akin to love, simply strives to know something of them.
I confess that I find this call to be the greatest challenge that Bogost’s work issues to me. I do not mean this as a critique of Ian’s book. Rather, I encounter this challenge as a gift that pulls me out of myself and my own obsessions. I find the universes of Gabrielle and Kinsey difficult to comprehend, for all of my work ultimately revolves around concerns about politics and ethics. My ontology is not grounded in these concerns, but it is motivated by them. The idea of speculating about things for their own sake is incredibly difficult for me to wrap my head around. Yet as I travel across the pages of the machine that Bogost has made, I find myself wondering what we miss by so quickly jumping to the need to have a grand political rationale for our work. Might we not develop a far better politics and ethics if we were, for the moment, to suspend our political aims and simply tarry with things, seeking to let them “speak” for themselves and thinking them as what they are for themselves rather than what they are within the framework of our own political aims? Might it be that politics is like Lacan’s objet a, where it can only be reached awry and where it is always doomed to be missed when we attempt to approach it directly?