Alien Phenomenology

by johnmccreery

Cross-posted from the Open Anthropology Cooperative.
Those of us who enjoyed the OAC seminar on Martin Holbraad’s “Can the Thing Speak?” or have been intrigued by recent discussions of ontology or Latour will also be interested in this Design Observer interview with Ian Bogost, the author of Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to be a Thing. This interview will also be of interest to those concerned about how to popularize anthropological ideas — both for what it has to say about the art of writing about complex and esoteric ideas for a popular audience and as a poignant warning that what we may take to be “anthropological” ideas to which our discipline can claim some sort of ownership are already out there, being written about by people who have no stake in self-identifying as anthropologists. Lots of stuff worth thinking and talking about here.


10 Comments to “Alien Phenomenology”

  1. Happy to see Dead Voles promoting Object-Oriented Ontology at last. I knew you guys would come round.

  2. Not promoting, at least in my case. Just observing. The problem for anthropologists who get excited about ontology is that, too often, “ontology” becomes a euphemism for the old mosaic view of cultures as occupying incommensurable worlds. It’s not a bad idea to take an interest in what the people you are studying take to be the fundamental entities that make up their world—a crap idea to be diverted from the world we all inhabit by obsession with difference that overlooks obvious similarities.

  3. Yup, just another of our helpful DV attempts to get the OOO project wiggled around to where it’s not so idiontic.

  4. What struck me as interesting (mind you, I am not familiar with the earlier debate) is the notion of taking as seriously relations among things as well as relations between things and ourselves. Our interest may remain a selfish one as, for example, is my interest in plate tectonics, living as I do in earthquake prone Japan. But if nothing else, the way the question is put gets us out of the Cartesian trap of being forever stuck in our heads, so that even navel gazing is philosophically problematic. It is also a useful corrective to those who make predictions based on simplistic rational-choice models that assume that the only critical factors affecting what is going on are the values that human actors carry around with them.

  5. Now that I have read a bit more of the book, I would add that Ian Bogost is not only a wicked good writer; he has a lot of experience to draw on as both a technogeek and an artist, a builder as well as contemplator of video games and someone who clearly spends a lot of time looking at things and imagining all sorts of different ways in which they might relate to one another. The book might, I say, be taken as a successful example of the kind of effort we were talking about in “Deacon, McGinn, and the problem of Cross-Disciplinary Communication Disorder.” There is something delightful and appealing about an author who can liken constructing an ontographic description to carpentering or wryly observe that most academic writing is written _to be written and not _to be read_. It is the writing and publishing that count, not what is said.

    Anyway, he inspires my muse

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  7. “most academic writing is written _to be written and not _to be read_. It is the writing and publishing that count, not what is said.”

    Far be it from me to disagree with a thing I’ve often said myself, but I do disagree. Although this is indeed much of the latent function of academic writing, its manifest function to say what is said can’t simply be ignored. I long since came to the conclusion that there was indeed an audience for my academic writing. It consists of about 30-40 people worldwide, most of whom are big weirdos. Within this high-context little discourse community prose that is ridiculously impenetrable to all other readers makes perfect sense. The allusions, gestures and jargons that make it so function exquisitely to minimize uptake lag and get right to points that have taken years of collective elaboration to set up. That they offput the newbs is either a tolerable cost or a welcome relief. And of course this is how communities work.

    Awhile back Jacob did a post about this very issue in online discussion. As I recall, a FAQ was suggested; but a basic takeaway might be that although there is some value in thinking about whether and how to uplift the newbs, most of the work should come from them and mostly they should shut up until they’re up to speed, or at least not kvetch about how hard it is.

  8. Let us agree that academic writing commonly asserts that what is written cannot be ignored. No trope is more common. One is tempted to say that if wishes were horses beggars would ride.

    Let us agree, too, that specialized vocabulary and allusion can speed communication and generate a feeling of solidarity among the small coterie for whom some academic topic has become an insatiable passion. In an era when we rely on taxpayers to fund our hobbies, is it, however, good PR?

  9. I think in actual fact the academic world is and has always been stratified into various pseudo-castes at various levels of insular and public output, with place and status organized around one’s relationship to basic research and teaching/outreach. There are whole hordes of us whose essential function is to translate the bizarre arcana of the hyperspecialized into the whole spectrum of accessibilities. Some of us can do a big swath of the spectrum ourselves, but that’s inefficient and humanly unlikely. So to pick on one moment of the process or privilege another is to miss something important and ordinary about the system’s arrangement and dynamics, I think.

    As for taxpayers and hobbies, quite so. I’ve really struggled to find any value in the research side of my academic persona, which is why I’m firmly slotted in with the translator corps.

  10. Here’s a Bogost post on how money affects ideas and their communication. Bogost’s core complaint:

    “Ideas are created not to be right or even interesting, but just to fit into the greatest number of possible “inspirational” keynotes meant to produce a dull hum tinged with just enough tingle.”

    In that vein Bogost mocks up a possible TED keynote address that he thinks might have mid-5 figure value. Here’s a sample:

    “Imagine an idea. Where does it live? Not in your head, but in my pocket. In my bank account. My bank account likes ideas. It’s a sponge for ideas, much like the human brain. A bank account is really just a human brain. In other words, banks are a kind of cognition, and banking is a kind of neuroscience.”

    I’ve read his Alien Phenomenology book now, but I don’t know if it intrigues me sufficiently to write a post about it.

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