From an Object’s Point of View: Prefaratory Remarks on Alien Phenomenology
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.