In Alien Phenomenology, Bogost proposes that we replace the words “object” and “thing” with the word “unit”. The problem with the term “object” is that it immediately leads us to think of a “subject”. Our tendency is to think of objects as a pole always opposed to a subject. The problem with the word “thing” is that it too readily leads us to think of entities like rocks, tables, and beer steins, ignoring entities like cities, mantis shrimps, corporations, nations, and galaxies. While “unit” is far from perfect, it at least has the virtue of breaking certain habits of thought borne from our accustomed ways of using language. As Bogost puts it, “[i]t is an ambivalent term, indifferent to the nature of what it names. It is also isolated, unitary, and specific, not simply the part of a whole or ontologically basic and indivisible like an atom” (25).
Bogost’s units have a number of interesting features. As he remarks,
Counter-intuitively, 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. (ibid.)
In short, units are individuals that have an internal structure or organization and that can also be enlisted in other units as elements in their own composition. Take the example of a person. A person is both an individual in her own right and something that can be enlisted by another system. For example, that person can be enlisted by a corporation as an employee or customer. Within an object-oriented framework, the being of the person is not exhausted by being formed into an element in a corporation, but rather retains a degree of irreducible independence and individuality (thus Althusser is wrong in his theory of interpellation).
Accompanying the concept of units is the concept of operations. As Bogost writes:
These systems of units [which are themselves units] are held together tenuously by accidents. I have adapted the word operation to describe how units behave and interact. In systems theory, an operation is ‘a basic process that takes one or more inputs and performs a transformation on it.” Any sort of function can be understood as an operation: brewing tea, shedding skin, photosynthesizing sugar, igniting compressed fuel. (25)
It seems to me that there are three very general types of operations we are interested in: First, there are those operations that produce units. Units do not come from nowhere, fallen from the sky ready-made, but rather have to be produced in some way or another. All sorts of operations go into both producing a unit, such as the operations by which a panther is produced. There is thus a dimension of alien phenomenology that would be both a theory of production and a concrete investigation of production. Second, once units have come into being they aren’t simply there, but rather they must maintain themselves to continue to exist. All sorts of operations must continue within a unit for the unit to maintain its existence. The corporation isn’t a fixed entity, but must perpetually engage in operations that insure that workers remain workers, CEO’s remain CEO’s, such and such target groups remain buyers, etc. Likewise, my body is not something that is just here, but rather I must breath, continuously produce food, digest, circulate blood, etc. These are all operations.
Finally, the manner in which a unit relates to other units in the world is a series of operations. Seeing is an operation and this operation differs depending on whether we’re talking about how humans see, how cats see, or how mantis shrimps see (check out the link here, mantis shrimps have very cool vision). Likewise, the manner in which a rock relates to the ground upon which it sits or a corporation relates to other corporations, broader society, the planet, etc. are sets of operations.
It seems to me that this third type of operation is where the real meat of Bogost’s alien phenomenology lies. Bogost asks not what things are like for us or how they are given to us as in the case of traditional phenomenology. Rather, Bogost asks us to investigate what the world is like for this unit. How does the mantis shrimp encounter the world, not how do I experience the mantis shrimp.
Initially, of course, this project sounds absurd and impossible. How could I possibly experience the world of the mantis shrimp? Isn’t it impossible to experience the world of another thing? There are, however, a few points worth making here. First, understanding a thing does not mean that thing is somehow reproduced in our own minds. In understanding how the sun works I do not somehow produce the sun in my mind. Why would I expect my understanding of how the Atari game ET experiences stimuli, electric pulses, etc.– not how we experience this crappy game –to somehow produce this experience in my experience? Second, seeking to understand how a golden retriever experiences the world is no more or less daunting than trying to understand how another person experiences the world. I will never completely understand how Ian experiences the world, but I can learn a great deal about how he experiences the world by listening to him, observing his behavior in various contexts, and, were I made scientist, dissecting him and investigating his physiology. I might, for example, discover that his brain is structured in a particular way and thereby come to understand why he was particularly responsive to certain things and non-responsive to others.
Finally third, we do in fact come to understand a great deal about how alien beings experience the world. Jakob von Uexkull, the great German ethologist, shows the way here. By examining the behavior of other animals and their physiology, we can learn a great deal about how other animals experience the world. Thus, for example, by studying the eyes of bees we discover that they can discern patterns in the infrared spectrum of light. Using technology we are able to discern these patterns in the infrared spectrum for ourselves. We discover that there is an entire world of patterns in flowers not in the spectrum of light we have access to. With this in mind, we now observe the behavior of bees with respect to these flowers. We might even vary the settings in which the bees behave to see what they do. Gradually we infer a great deal about what the bees prefer, what they don’t prefer, and what they’re not aware of at all. Increasingly we build up a profile– always incomplete and subject to falsification –of how the bee experiences the world. Such would be an alien phenomenology of the bee.