Notes on Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology

by Darius Kazemi on April 9, 2012

in books,philosophy

About an hour ago, I finished Alien Phenomenology, Ian Bogost’s new book. What follows are my unfiltered (AKA barely fleshed out) responses. The second section is not going to make sense to you if you haven’t read the book.


When it comes to the style of written philosophy, I am in complete agreement with Graham Harman:

Against the program for philosophy written in ‘good plain English’, I hold that it should be written in good vivid English. Plain speech contains clear statements that are forgotten as soon as their spokesman closes his mouth, since they have already said all that they are capable of saying. But vivid speech forges new concepts that take on a life their own, like good fictional characters.
(Harman, Prince of Networks, p. 140)

Alien Phenomenology is a joy to read. The language never veers into that intentionally obscure academic style, yet retains intellectual value (shocking, I know). But beyond mere accessibility, the prose is beautiful. Opening the book at random and skimming a page, I’m treated to a passage about philosophical speculation as a concrete, pragmatic activity, concluding: “The result is something particular whose branches bristle into the canopy of the conceptual.” (30)


Of the concepts covered in the book, the most personally interesting to me what Bogost terms “carpentry.” Carpentry is the act of building objects that do philosophical work. It’s a brilliant concept. The gist of the argument is that while writing is certainly a good way to express some philosophical ideas, it’s limiting and potentially far too anthropocentric to allow us to plumb the depths of the truly alien.

Bogost’s argument for carpentry spends a lot of time setting it up in relation to academic publishing, where writing often happens for the sake of publishing rather than being read and understood by one’s peers. This portion of his argument is a powerful one, but is (happily) pretty much irrelevant to me: I’m not an academic, but I do practice philosophy, and carpentry just makes good sense to me. I don’t have centuries-old institutions dictating how I should practice philosophy, because I don’t rely on those institutions to put food on the table.

I remember trying to describe carpentry to my friend Darren Torpey a few months ago. His response was, “It sounds like art.” It’s a pretty good response: certainly a lot of art manages to do what carpentry attempts, speculating on the way the world hangs together, and providing metaphors that allow humans to understand that speculation. So how is carpentry different from art? Bogost touches briefly on the question: “unlike tools and art, philosophical carpentry is built with philosophy in mind. [...] Carpentry is philosophical lab equipment.” (100)

That’s an unsatisfying distinction. I find intent-based arguments wearisome, and it’s somewhat ironic to hear an intent-based argument come from an object-oriented philosopher. If I create an object with intent in mind, even if I could somehow imbue that intent into the core of the object, there is no way for others to plumb the depths of that object and somehow retrieve its intent. Further, there is no way for the object to plumb its own depths!

Bogost’s metaphor of “philosophical lab equipment” doesn’t help, either. I’ve worked in labs, and we used plenty of tools that were not built with lab work in mind. Ready-to-hand objects like Scotch tape, paperclips, and scissors are lab equipment, each contributing to the overall work as much as oscilloscopes, spectrum analyzers, centrifuges, and Kimtech Kimwipes.

In fact, at least one example of carpentry in the book was not built with philosophy in mind. While Ben Fry’s brilliant Deconstructulator certainly does philosophical work, it declares its intent outright: to help people develop “insight for how software and hardware work”. I suppose you could unpack “insight” to mean “deep, platform-studies-level analysis of the software and hardware,” but I’m reasonably sure Fry was interested in teaching basic computer science concepts in this case.

My confusion may come down to the fact that the word “carpentry” can mean both “the act of building” and “objects built by a carpenter” (for example: “look at all the carpentry on display in this furniture warehouse”). Philosophical carpentry is the act of building objects that do philosophical work. Yet philosophical carpentry also refers to a body of objects that do philosophy. Carpentry both is lab equipment and the act of building that lab equipment. Does this minor grammatical nitpick matter? I think it does — having a single word refer to both the act of creation and the object created makes it difficult to resolve questions like “is art carpentry?” in a satisfying way.

Note: here’s a response from Bogost (3/21/13).

Practicing ontology

If a physician is someone who practices medicine, perhaps a metaphysician ought be someone who practices ontology. Just as one would likely not trust a doctor who had only read and written journal articles about medicine to explain the particular curiosities of one’s body, so one ought not trust a metaphysician who had only read and written books about the nature of the universe. (Bogost, Alien Phenomenology, 91)

The idea of practicing ontology ties into something I’ve been thinking about at length recently. If ontology is the study of the nature of being, how do you practice ontology? How do we perform applied ontology without being a god? One answer is to settle for being a demiurge. The practice of building a videogame engine is one way to perform applied ontology.

When we architect a game engine, we ask questions like: what is an object? Are objects described by essential classes, or are they simply how they present themselves at this moment? What is an event? Do objects interact in the context of events? When objects interact with one another, what do they have access to? What is time, and how do events and objects resolve themselves within the span of an instant? What is an instant? Etc., etc. Granted, we usually pose these questions in far more technical language, talking about things like class-based inheritance, public and private methods, deltas and whether we have access to the state of variables from previous instants. But they’re the same questions being asked by game engine architect and object-oriented ontologist alike!

While architecting a game engine is obviously not the same as architecting the universe (not only is the former is bound by certain limits, but we know what these limits are), I believe they are similar practices. I claim that architecting a game engine can be good training for doing metaphysics. As I’ve put to several of my game developer friends: just as we talk about building a physics engine for our game, we could just as easily speak of fundamental game engine architecture as building a metaphysics engine for our game.


Nick LaLone April 9, 2012 at 12:44 pm

“How do we perform applied ontology without being a god? One answer is to settle for being a demiurge. The practice of building a videogame engine is one way to perform applied ontology.”

I really liked this bit but I wonder about the amount of people involved to get such a thing to market. I mean, construction of the engine alone is millions of people and so many years deep not to mention how much an engine and knowledge of a programmer limits the possible actions that can be taken within it.

It would seem to me that the practicer of ontology would be the general population and it is the job of the social science to examine the glimpses of metaphysical reasoning that create ontology…only that too is limited and almost for the exact same reason.


Darius Kazemi April 9, 2012 at 12:48 pm

Not sure what you mean by “construction of the engine alone is millions of people and so many years deep” — you can build a small game engine from scratch for, say, a simple web browser game and still encounter all the ontological issues that you would building the Unreal engine.

Kunzelman May 9, 2012 at 5:32 pm

I had the same feelings about carpentry. I’m pretty sure that everything, even basic writing, is “doing” philosophy in that it acts in the world, shows new ways of being and seeing, etc. Also, what about activism–constructing the self in such a way as to make the living body an object that does philosophy.

Darius Kazemi May 9, 2012 at 5:35 pm

I specifically have some notes on activism. From some notes for a lecture I gave:

For example, someone’s years of veganism are a form of what Latour calls “composition” — in this case, the gradual composition of an ethos over time. Social activism in general is a form of carpentry or perhaps also composition. If you build what Hakim Bey calls a Temporary Autonomous Zone, you’re engaging in a form of “hyperbolic thinking” as opposed to “critical thinking” — let’s create a society in this local area that already accepts certain tenets of a philosophy to be utterly true.

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