Notes for Ian Bogost Alien Phenomenology: or What It's Like to Be a Thing

Key concepts: alien phenomenology, carpentry, correlationism, flat ontology, Latour litany, metaphorism, object-oriented philosophy, ontography, phenomenal act, platform studies, speculation, system operations, tiny ontology, unit operations, vicarious causation.

Related theorists: Alain Badiou, Levi Bryant, Manuel DeLanda, Michael Fried, Ben Fry, Graham Harman, Edmund Husserl, Michael Mateas, Thomas Nagel, Zachary Pousman, Mario Romero, Steven Shore.


(3) When we welcome these things into scholarship, poetry, science, and business, it is only to ask how they relate to human productivity, culture, and politics. We've been living in a tiny prison of our own devising, one in which all the concerns us are the fleshy beings that are our kindred and the stuffs with which we stuff ourselves.

Speculative realists must reject correlationism and abandon belief that ontology is mediated by human experience.

(5) This is just a starting point, an ante: to proceed as a philosopher today demands the rejection of correlationism. To be a speculative realist, one must abandon the belief that human access sits at the center of being, organizing and regulating it like an ontological watchmaker.

Harman uses Heidegger tool analysis to construct object-oriented philosophy, putting things at center of their metaphysics while deprivileging human perception.

Alien phenomenology implies deprivileging of human perception as that which defines objects, accepting that all objects recede interminably into themselves.

(5) With Heidegger's tool analysis as his raw material, Harman constructs what he calls an object-oriented philosophy.
(9) If we take seriously the idea that all objects recede interminably into themselves, then human perception becomes just one among many ways that objects might relate. To put things at the center of a new metaphysics also requires us to admit that they do not exist just for us.


Voodoo powers of computers exemplify Harman vicarious causation, except they were never alive to be corpses.

(9) Unlike redwoods and lichen and salamanders, computers don't carry the baggage of vivacity. They are plastic and metal corpses with voodoo powers.
(11) Harman's answer is “
vicarious causation.” Things never really interact with one another, but fuse or connect in a conceptual fashion unrelated to consciousness.


Flat ontology acknowledges unequal ways all things exist; will give examples of how flat ontology answers what is ET the arcade cartridge.

(11) In short, all things equally exist, yet they do not exist equally.
(12) Levi
Bryant calls it flat ontology. He borrows the term from Manuel DeLanda, who uses it to claim that existence is composed entirely of individuals (rather than species and genera, for example).
(12) In my previous work I've given the name
system operations to the top-down organizing principles symbolized by ideas like “the world” in Bryant's sense.
(13) In our current age, two such operations are dominant: scientific naturalism and social relativism. . . . Kuhnian paradigm shifts notwithstanding, scientific naturalism assumes the ever-progressing if incremental discovery of reality through scientific persistence.
(13) The social relativist argues that all things exist through conceptualization; they are really just structures within the temple of human cultural production.
(14) To wit: both perspectives embody the correlationist conceit.
(17) Bryant has suggested that flat ontology can unite the two worlds, synthesizing the human and the nonhuman into a common collective.

(17) Instead, a flat ontology of computation (or anything else) must be specific and open-ended, so as to make it less likely to fall into the trap of system operational overdetermination.


Tiny ontology compresses flat ontology to infinite density of a dot, unit.

(21-22) If any one being exists no less than any other, then instead of scattering such beings all across the two-dimensional surface of flat ontology, we might also collapse them into the infinite density of a dot. Instead of the plane of flat ontology, I suggest the point of tiny ontology. It's a dense mass of everything contained entirely – even as it's spread about haphazardly like a mess or organized logically like a network.

(23) In the past, I have suggested the term
unit as a synonym for and alternative to object or thing. Part of my rationale was purely pragmatic: I write about computation, and in computer science the terms object and object-oriented bear a specific meaning, one related to a particular paradigm of computer programming. When Harman suggests the term object-oriented philosophy to name a set of positions that refuse to privilege the human-world relationship as the only one, he borrows this phrase from the computational world and gives it new life in philosophy.
(24) On the one hand,
thing offers a helpful way to shroud the object, reminding us of its withdrawal from others. But on the other hand, the subject of that withdrawal has so frequently been us that a reliance on thing carries considerable baggage.
(25) It's not just things that are objects but abstractions of and relations between them as well.
(26) The ontological equivalent of the Big Bang rests within every object. Being expands
(26) In my original theory of unit operations, I describe this expansion philosophically by means of Alain
Badiou's set theoretical ontology.
(26) Badiou names this process of concocting a new multiplicity the
count-as-one (compte-pour-un). And he gives the name situations to the output of this gesture, “a set configured in a particular way.”
(27) There's a problem with Badiou's ontology, however, which prevents me from adopting it wholesale: who does the counting?

Units operate resolves problem of Badiou count-as-one ontology by answering what does the counting.

(27) Instead, consider this simple declaration: units operate.
(28) This is the heart of the unit operation: it names a phenomenon of accounting for an object. It is a process, a logic, an algorithm if you want, by which a unit attempts to make sense of another.

(29) Perhaps the theory I seek is a
pragmatic speculative realism, not in the Jamesian sense but more softly: an applied speculative realism, an object-oriented engineering to ontology's physics. Such a method would embolden the actual philosophical treatment of actual material objects and their relations.

Phenomenal (and phenomenological) limits of human embodiment should not define ontological boundaries.

(30) When we ask what it means to be something, we pose a question that exceeds our own grasp of the being of the world.
(32) The speculation required to consider the unit operations that entangle beings requires something similar to Husserl's phenomenal act. Speculation is akin to epoche. It produces transcendence in the Husserlian sense: a concrete and individual notion, one that grips the fiery-hot, infinitely dense molten core of an object and projects it outside, where it becomes its own unit, a new and creative unit operation for a particular set of interactions.


Undestanding objects via Harman black noise similar to Zizekian curvative of space analogy.

(32) Harman uses the name “black noise” to describe the background noise of peripheral objects.
(33) Just as the astronomer understand stars through the radiant energy that surrounds them, so the philosopher understands objects by tracing their impacts on the surrounding ether.

Alien phenomenology the practice of speculative realism examining black noise surrounding objects.
(34) Speculative realism really does
require speculation: benighted meandering in an exotic world of utterly incomprehensible objects. As philosophers, our job is to amplify the black noise of objects to make the resonant frequencies of the stuffs inside them hum in credibly satisfying ways. Our job is to write the speculative fictions of their processes, of their unit operations.
(34) I call this practice
alien phenomenology.

Revealing the Rich Variety of Being

Transfer of ontography from mytheme to philosopheme, beginning with homonym on Lewis.

(35) But like his countryman C. S. Lewis, James is rarely remembered for his medieval scholarship. Instead, we know him best as M. R. James, author of classic collections of ghost stories, including Ghost Stories of an Antiquary.
(36) But for our purposes, the interesting bit is not the apparition but the professor's unusual field of expertise,
(36) Ontography, Harman reasoned, “would deal with a limited number of dynamics that can occur between all different sorts of objects,” an initial take on what he would later develop into a full-fledged part of his philosophy. My adoption of “ontography” offers a different interpretation of this received invention than that of Harman.
(37) Another, more recent application of the concept comes from Tobias Kuhn, a Swiss informaticist who has developed a method of ontography for depicting controlled natural languages (CNLs) – grammatically and semantically simplified languages for use in situations where reduced ambiguity is desirable, such as in technical documentation. . . . Kitchener's, Davis's, and Kuhn's approaches have something in common: an interest in diversity and specificity.

Ontography, based on Tobias Kuhn method for depicting controlled natural languages, as general inscriptive strategy for uncovering object relationship; later he gives the example of his Latour litany and image toy programs that produce lists via broad rules of inclusion yet of specific things (data objects); compare and contrast controlled natural languages to programming languages.

(38) Let's adopt ontography as a name for a general inscriptive strategy, one that uncovers the repleteness of units and their interobjectivity. From the perspective of metaphysics, ontography involves the revelation of object relationships without necessarily offering clarification or description of any kind. . . . The simplest approach to such recording is the list, a group of items loosely joined not by the logic or power or use but by the gentle knot of the comma.
(40) The inherent partition between things is a premise of OOO, and lists help underscore those separations, turning the flowing legato of a literary account into the jarring staccato of real being.
(40) Perhaps the problem is not with lists but with literature, whose preference for traditional narrative acts as a correlationist amplifier.
(41-42) Ontographical cataloging hones a virtue: the abandonment of anthropocentric narrative coherence in favor of worldy detail.

Another escape from studying other forms of experience such as auditory (Brazilian bossa nova).

(42-43) A truly deliberate – not to mention lucid and beautiful – specimen of inventory ontography can be found in the Brazilian bossa nova, a form of soft jazz that evolved from samba in the mid-twentieth century.
(44) “Waters of March” does real ontological work. By setting the objects of “it” to a wide variety of different things, it gives sonorous voice to flat ontology.
Compare to flaneur.

(45) Lists of objects without explication can do the philosophical work of drawing our attention toward them with greater attentiveness.


(49) These images register the world. As Michael Fried explains, the images are remarkable because [Steven] Shore's relation to the subject is unironic. . . . They posit objects, even the objects of human activity, in a world of mysterious relation with one another.
(49) The Latour litany gathers disparate things together like a strong gravitational field. But the Shore ontograph takes things already gathered and explodes them into their tiny, separate, but contiguous universes.
(50) The landscape or the still life shows the corporeal arrangements of things, arrested before human perception. But Shore's work rejects the singularity of the now in favor of the infinity of the meanwhile.

Meanwhile is a powerful ontographical tool. The unit is both a system and a set.

Exploded view diagram suitable for ontography; example of Shore Scribblenauts photographs.

(51) We can analogize the spirit of ontography with a technique in graphic and information design, the exploded view diagram.
(51) But in common practice, an exploded-view drawing offers just as much intrigue as it does use value.
(52) An anonymous, unseen situation of things is presented in an way that effectively draws our attention to its configurative nature.
(52) Not every photograph is an ontograph, but Shore's work tends in this direction partly because he refuses to treat any object as primary, as a subject.

(52) Photographic ontography is effective as art and as metaphysics. But photographs are static; they
imply but do not depict unit operations. For the latter, we must look to artifacts that themselves operate.
(53) If the fictional skin and the mechanical depth are tightly coupled, then the resulting game can offer a compelling account of an ontological domain.
(54) Despite its incredibly bare-bones simulation of individual and interobject behaviors,
Scribblenauts still motivates players to explore a multitude of unit operations by sheer force of charm.
(55) Shore's photographs catalog the way things
exist in a given situation. Scribblenauts catalogs the way things work in one. Both approaches explode the density of being, giving viewer and player a view of a tiny sliver of the infinity of being, through reconfiguration.

(56) We can understand
signs themselves to have experiences of one another that remain comprehensible only by tracing their own relations to our engagement with them as signifiers.
(57) Homographs are helpful lenses for tiny ontology, which maintains that being multiplies and expands.
(57) Moves far more interesting than “Turkey in a Purse” are possible in the game [
In a Pickle], thanks to the mereological possibility space afforded by homography.

Latour litany as word ontograph, In a Pickle game producing ontographs about words.

(58) A Latour litany is an ontograph made of words. By contrast, In a Pickle is a machine for producing ontographs about words. . . . “In a word” can refer to the interior of a semantic unit, the molten core of a name, where its various homographs and referents swim like ribosomes grazing on peptide chains.
(58) Instead of removing elements to achieve the elegance of simplicity, ontography adds (or simply leaves) elements to accomplish the realism of multitude.
(59) For the ontographer, Aristotle was wrong: nature does not operate in the shortest way possible but in a multitude of locally streamlined yet globally inefficient ways. . . . Instead of worshiping simplicity, OOO embraces messiness.

Speculating about the Unknowable Inner Lives of Units

(62) For [Thomas]
Nagel, the very idea of experience requires this “being-likeness,” a feature that eludes observation even if its edges can be traced by examining physical properties. Because of this elusiveness (which OOO calls withdrawal), physical reductionism can never explain the experience of a being.

(64) In a literal sense,
the only way to perform alien phenomenology is by analogy; the bat, for example, operates like a submarine. The redness hues like fire.
(67) If we take seriously Harman's suggestion that relation takes place not just
like metaphor but as metaphor, then an opportunity suggests itself: what if we deployed metaphor itself as a way to grasp alien objects' perceptions of one another.

Metaphorism goes beyond Husserlian bracketing human empirical intuition such that perception itself is metaphorical; great distinction for thinking about inner life of devices.

(67) This is a mind-bender: the Husserlian epoche brackets human empirical intuition, but in metaphorism we recognize that our relationship to objects is not first person; we are always once removed. It is not the objects' perceptions that we characterize metaphoristically but the perception itself, which recedes just as nay other object does.

(72) The combination of sensor, optics, and other factors makes a particular camera “see” in a particular way. Maurer's metaphor reminds us that the camera doesn't see like a human eye. Just as the bat's experience of perception differs from our understanding of the bay's experience of perception, so the camera's experience of seeing differs from our understanding of its experience.

(72) Once object relations become metaphorized, we must take care to avoid taking the constructed metaphor for the reality of the unit operation it traces.
(75) But we don't worry much about the ethics of the spark plug, the piston, the fuel injector, or the gasoline. Does the engine have a moral imperative to explode distilled hydrocarbons? Does it do violence on them? Does it instead express ardor, the loving heat of friendship or passion? . . . “Preservation” turns out to be an object-relative concept. If a unit is a system, then objects appear, generate, collapse, and hide both within and without it with great regularity.
(76) Latour would describe the relations among engine parts or memes as forces between actors in a network – quasi-objects, he sometimes calls them, which are neither human nor nonhuman.
(77-78) An object enters an ethical relation when it attempts to reconcile the sensual qualities of another object vis-a-vis the former's withdrawn reality.
(78) It is not the relationship between piston and fuel that we frame by ethics but
our relationship to the relationship between piston and fuel.
(79) Morton offers an alternative: a
hyperobject, one massively distributed in space-time. The moment we try to arrest a thing, we turn it into a world with edges and boundaries.
(79) But when there is no “away,” no unit outside to which we can outsource virtue or wrongdoing, ethics itself is revealed to be a hyperobject: a massive, tangled chain of objects lampooning one another through weird relation, mistaking their own essences for that of the alien objects they encounter, exploding the very idea of ethics to infinity.

(83) The metaphysician might read the book
[The Age of Wire and String] as a prototype for the practice of metaphoristic daisy chaining instead of as a novel.

Constructing Artifacts That Do Philosophy

(88) For humanists, including philosophers and critics of all stripes, writing is literally the only way to scholarly productivity.
(88) In the humanities in particular (unlike the sciences), the academic conference is often understood as an opportunity to test out ideas in front of an audience. Those ideas will, inevitably, become professionally valid only if written down. And when published, they are printed and bound not
to be read but merely to have been written.
(88) But the privilege of writing isn't limited to the liberal arts. Even in science and engineering, writing casts a pallid shadow over experimentation and construction.
(90) But so long as we pay attention only to language, we underwrite our ignorance of everything else.
(91) If a physician is someone who
practices medicine, perhaps a metaphysician ought to be someone who practices ontology.

Carpentry is metaphysician activity of practicing ontology, going beyond writing, invoking Ihde; compare to OGorman.

(92) I give the name carpentry to this practice of constructing artifacts as a philosophical practice.


Point that most philosophical positions not expressed in form as books a good incentive to philosophize by creating software systems, given the material limits of written forms oriented towards human (system or unit) rhetorical operations.

(93) While a few exceptions exist (Jacques Derrida's Glas, perhaps, or the Nietzschean aphorism, or the propositional structure of Baruch Spinoza's Ethics or Ludwig Wittgenstein's Tractatus), philosophical works generally do not perpetrate their philosophical positions through their form as books. The carpenter, by contrast, must contend with the material resistance of his or her chose form, making the object itself become the philosophy.

Latour Litanizer example of critical programming in that it instantiates ideas about metaphorism; compare journal software system that ultimately generates the tapoc dissertation.

(95) The Latour Litanizer executes queries against this API and assembles the results into a list with linked object names, one not dissimilar to the sort found in Latour's writings.
(96) Yet the principal virtue of the
Latour Litanizer is also impossible to reproduce in print: the rapidness and diversity of its results.

Philosophical questions raised by Latour Litanizer choices made in writing code such as a query that filters out (sexy OR woman OR girl): what better place/space to conduct such investigations than in source code comments and differences between revisions?

(99) The promotional and aesthetic accomplishments of the image toy are clear enough. But its philosophical accomplishment comes from the question it poses about the challenge flat ontology and feminism pose to one another. . . . The OOO symposium website's image toy hardly attempts to answer these questions, but it does pose them in a unique way thanks to carpentry.

(100) Carpentry is philosophical lab equipment.
(100) The phenomenologist who performs carpentry creates a machine that tries to replicate the unit operation of another's experience.

Platform studies focuses on hardware and software as actors, inviting new ways of doing philosophy such as my approach to studying machine embodiment through reverse engineering pinball machines, or using pmrek log files to create simulation of the pinball machine control components.

(100) In platform studies, we shift that focus more intensely toward hardware and software as actors.
(103) From a human perspective, we can render metaphorisms of the “notes” of TIA gestures. . . . But the Atari VCS
itself doesn't ever perceive an entire screen's worth of graphical data in one fell swoop. It apprehends only the syncopations of changes in registers. Its components see things still differently. . . . However appealing and familiar the usual means of doing philosophy might be, another possible method involves a more hands-on approach, manipulating or vivisecting the objects to be analyzed, mad scientist-like, in the hopes of discovering their secrets.

Explicitly connects software projects to critical code studies; platform studies that seem like critical programming studies include Bogost I am TIA, Fry Deconstructulator.

(103) I am TIA is meant to characterize the experience of the television interface adapter, metaphorizing it for human grasp.
(104-105) Other works of alien phenomenal carpentry exist, too, even if they don't explicitly frame themselves in that way. Consider Ben
Fry's Deconstructulator. . . . While I am TIA metaphorizes only one component of the Atari VCS console, Deconstructulator offers an operational, exploded view of the entire NES [Nitendo Entertainment System] memory architecture, particularly its sprite and palette systems.
(105) Even without the fancy packaging of
Deconstructulator, source code itself often offers inroads in alien phenomenology – particularly when carpented to reveal the internal experiences of withdrawn units.


Alien probes perspective of Tableau Machine home computer as deliberate computational carpentry example; contrast to Turing Test.

(106) But a much more sustained and deliberate example of computational carpentry that performs alien phenomenology can be found in Tableau Machine, a nonhuman social actor created by Mario Romero, Zachary Pousman, and Michael Mateas. . . . An alien presence, they argue, “does not try to mimic human perception and interpretation, but rather to open a non-human, alien perspective onto everyday activity.”

(107) Its creators surmise that the home can perceive, but they add an additional presumption: a home's perception is unfathomable by its human occupants.
(107) Despite its technical tenor, computing is just as correlationist a field as everything else, obsessed with human goals and experiences.
(108) To be sure, this and other impressions of
Tableau Machine clearly reveal attempts at anthropomorphism on the part of the family. But as Jane Bennett predicts, such an attitude helps deliver the home's residents out of anthropocentrism.


New radicalism for philosophers: pick up soldering irons, how one philosophizes with computers, calling for cybersage.

(110) For too long, philosophers have spun waste like a goldfish's sphincter, rather than spinning yarn like a charka.
(111) As Whitehead and Latour suggest, this process requires creative effort, challenging OOO to become craftsmanship, challenging us to learn a trade. . . . Perhaps in the future, following Crawford's example, radical philosophers will raise not their fists but their hammers.



(123) But, simultaneously, the Platonic, Aristotelian, and Baconian concepts of wonder also underscore the irreconcilable separations between all objects, chasms we have no desire or hope of bridging – not by way of philosophy, not through theism, not thanks to science.
(124) The act of wonder invites a detachment from ordinary logics, of which human logics are but one example. This is a necessary act in the method of alien phenomenology.
(124) Yet wonder has been all but eviscerated in modern thought, left behind as a naïve delusion.


Emphasis on awe and wonder of STEAM against competition for STEM goals echoes Kay appealing to children of all ages rather than adults of all ages.

(126) Still, even the more “acceptable” professional goals like astronaut or chef speak less to a child's latent interest in astrophysics or chemistry and more to a state of natural wonder at the alien mystery of objects. But alas, common wisdom in STEM goals suggests that these moments of childhood opportunity must be captured and exploited. . . . Despite its claims for universalism, science also has embraced correlationism, always focused on human concerns.
(126) Consider an example. As I've already revealed, I sometimes enjoy the luxury of teaching about the Atari.

See also his article on learning to program using simple, obsolete systems: connect wonder and awe to using original print manuals for such exercises rather than deploying state of the art platforms. Bogost also appeals to the patently ridiculous in obsolete systems as preparing for recurring experience of the absurd in other technological systems.

(127-128) While a budding programmer is unlikely to experience another hardware architecture limited to two 8-bit movable objects per scan line, he or she is quite likely to encounter equally absurd and seemingly arbitrary constraints on modern computers, such as embedded systems. Through logics like these, the Atari shifts its status from garbage truck to humanoid robot.
(128-129) In his
Forbes meditation on life a decade hence, Maeda suggested that STEM ought to be expanded to “STEAM.” The “A” would stand for Art. . . . As in the popular reading of Plato and Aristotle, wonder becomes an intentional curiosity, the equivalent of Martin Heidegger's care (Sorge).

Exactly what UCF just did with its STEAM exhibit.

(129) Science, like philosophy, has assumed that wonder is always a type of puzzlement, an itch meant to be scratched so we can get on with things. But, for the child, a computer or a robot or a cake or a definite integral is not merely a wellspring for a possible future career, or even a vessel for play, work, sustenance, or measurement. It's an object worthy of consideration for its own sake, a thing of wonder.

Another plug for linking print manuals with learning programming, to respect things as things in themselves as he says below.

(129) Perhaps the new shoots of a solution can be found in Maistre's interpretation of Bacon's “broken knowledge,” the “science attached to nothing.” . . . The science attached to nothing is the logic of the real object.
(131) Partitioned like so many galaxies, each thing, from leavener bubble to pound cake, from mathematical operand to robotic companion, from opium poppy to criminal justice system, each demands its own broken knowledge. . . . To wonder is to respect things as things in themselves.
(132) As Bryant puts it, OOO “allows for the possibility of a new sort of humanism,” in which, as Harman adds, “humans will be liberated from the crushing correlational system.”
(133) The posture one takes before the alien is that of curiosity, of wonder.

Bogost, Ian. Alien Phenomenology: or What It's Like to Be a Thing. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012. Print