alien phenomenology, rhetoric, and pedagogy

I read Ian Bogost's Alien Phenomenology, or What It's Like to Be a Thing yesterday. This is not a "review" of the book, though I will simply say that it is thoughtful and provocative and well-written. It's a book that you can read in a day and be the better for it. That said, I am not done with it either; I am sure I will be returning to it in the coming weeks for reasons I will explain. So while this is not a review, it is something more like an extrapolation, a consideration of this work for object-oriented rhetoric and pedagogy.

Though the word "rhetoric" appears only once I believe in the text, Ian has written about rhetoric extensively in the past (i.e. procedural rhetoric), and though I know this may be a motivated reading, I see this book as focusing a great deal on concerns that are shared with rhetoric as I think I can demonstrate with a brief summary of the text.

  • Chapter One is an introduction to speculative realism and object-oriented ontology where Ian makes connections to his concepts of unit operations and alien phenomenology.
  • Chapter Two is about ontography (the description of things or objects) and focuses on Latourian litanies and related stylistic approaches to describing the world.
  • Chapter Three treats the concept of metaphor, which is also a key term for Harman (e.g., in Guerrilla Metaphysics). Understandably metaphor (or metaphorism as Bogost terms it) is a development on description that addresses the relations between the perceiver and the perceived.
  • Chapter Four titled "Carpentry" is about writing and writing processes. Bogost looks to revise and extend academic scholarly writing practices through this concept of carpentry.
  • Chapter Five asks us to rediscover the wonder in treating objects as real. As he writes near the end, "the return to realism in metaphysics is also a return to wonder, wonder unburdened by pretense or deception. Let's leave rigor to the dead. Let's trade furrows for gasps. Let's rub our temples at one another no longer. Let's go outside and dig in the dirt" (133). 

I don't mean to suggest that the book is solely in the province of rhetoric, but only that it's discussion is of interest to folks in my field.

Bogost's version of OOO is quite close to Harman's and he presents alien phenomenology as an applied OOO: i.e., as engineering is to physics, alien phenomenology is to OOO. In this respect it is also analogous to rhetoric as an intellectual practice that is not simply abstract/conceptual but also interested in building things (see "carpentry"). Bogost calls "tiny ontology" the effect of the withdrawn nature of beings, where objects never has access to one another. The inside of that tiny ontological space however is expansive. Our whole universe is in there. As a result, our perceptions of other objects is always in terms of ourselves, which we know from the correlationist position. For humans this results in anthropocentrism, but other objects have analogous centrisms.

Or do they?

This is one of the things I'm curious about. Whether it is anthropocentrism or couch-centrism, I am curious about what is being centered upon. After all, objects not only withdraw from one another, they withdraw from themselves as well. How can I view the world on my terms when I don't know what "my terms" are? Obviously this does nothing to change the fact that perception is limited nor the ontological withdrawal of objects. Instead, it simply asks whether "-centric" is the right metaphor. And it would be a metaphor, right? Centers reference circles, and circles are a kind of abstract, geometrical entity. The indeterminacy of Pi points to the indeterminacy of any possible real circle. Instead of circles and centers we might instead discuss singularities (and Bogost does discuss tiny ontologies as being akin to black holes). Like a center, a singularity is a point but, rather than being defined by an imaginary shape, it is identified by the force it exerts upon other objects (like the black hole). 

The important, non-semantic, relevance of this shift from center to singularity is that singularities are not abstract, un-perturable (probably not a word) entities. Instead they are products of force relations. I do understand why OOO chooses "center" over "singularity" in its effort to eschew the process orientation of assemblage- and actor-network theory, and I am not trying to argue here for process over object. Instead, since OOO already understands objects as being comprised of other objects (though not undermined by those objects), I think it may be possible to say that as a human being it is not that I am "anthropocentric" but that I exert singular forces and capacities which do not necessarily reflect some imaginary (and in any case withdrawn and unknowable) center.

In doing so, we might open another avenue for investigating the expressive power of objects, which Harman terms allure. Taking up the work of Thomas Nagel, Bogost writes "even if the experience of the Twinkie can be understood as a neurochemical unit operation, such an explanation does not describe the experience of sweetness" (62). And this is something I understand in terms of assemblage theory. The neurochemical unit operation would be an exchange of material forces: chemical interactions stimulating electrical signals, etc. "Sweetness" would be an incorporeal transformation enacted through a collective assemblage of enunciation. However, I don't wish to assert a strictly Deleuzian reading here. If we understand sweetness as an experience, then it is not a characteristic of an object. Sweetness is a capacity, a relation, an incorporeal transformation within the human eating the Twinkie. We might imagine other animals could also experience sweetness but that brings us back to the -centric problem. In fact, we could even say that we don't know how other humans experience sweetness. Indeed, even our own experience of sweetness withdraws from us… because it isn't us; it's a capacity, a relation. 

In any case, as I've written here about object-oriented rhetoric in the past, I am interested in this concept of expressivity as a capacity of object-relations, as auto-objective and autonomous as Deleuze and Guattari put it. From the perspective of alien phenomenology as a kind of philosophical engineering or carpentry, the question of rhetoric becomes how does one employ symbolic behavior to speculate. And here we are not talking simply about writing. Bogost discusses motorcycle repair (which, of course, invokes Pirsig and rhetoric for me) as well as his own work with the "Latour Litanizer" and his various video game interventions. Bogost writes

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 article ("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. Whether or not the real radical philosophers march or protest or run for office in addition to writing inscrutable tomes–this is a question we can, perhaps, leave aside. Real radicals, we might conclude, make things. Examples aren't hard to find, and some even come from scholars who might be willing to call themselves philosophers. (110)

I believe these notions of making things and carpentry resontate well for rhetoricians, in particular those of us in computers and writing. Carpentry is not exclusively about rhetoric and is certainly not exclusively about writing. But it is about engendering interest, as Bogost suggests. My interest is less about turning Bogost's book toward rhetoric than it is in turning rhetoric toward alien phenomenology and carpentry. What happens when we understand rhetorical practice as not limited to our conventional understanding of symbolic behavior (i.e. text) but expand it toward building other objects? What happens when we expand rhetorial investigation into a speculative realm where it considers the expressive capacities of objects in relation to one another as a minimal condition for what we now term symbolic action?

From the perspective of my own work, one fruitful way to consider carpentry is pedagogy. Bogost briefly mentions this as well in his reference to his colleague Hugh Crawford's class where students built a wooden cabin as part of their study of Walden. Too often we mistake pedagogy for abstract, symbolic action: lectures, online discussions, course readings, student essays. But pedagogy is constructed from objects. A curriculum is something that we make. It is perhaps the place where we can enact the biggest and most lasting change as academics. What would a speculative pedagogy look like? What would we build in response to that speculation? These are questions worth considering, and Bogost's book offers us a good start.


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