Alien Phenomenology PoBC discussion: chapter 1

by Darius Kazemi on July 1, 2012

in Alien Phenomenology,philosophy

Earlier this year I started a book club with a few videogame/philosophy folks I know. Called Prince of Book Clubs or PoBC for short, its original purpose was a group reading of Graham Harman’s Prince of Networks, but we’ve since broadened the topic to object-oriented ontology in general. (If you’d like to join, sign up here and let me know why you’re interested.) For the last couple of months we read Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology, a book that I’ve written about here several times.

Every chapter gets its own discussion thread, and I thought it would be useful to make these discussions available to the public. Since the threads tend to veer off topic and include a lot of references that don’t make sense out of context, I thought I’d excerpt the “best of” from each chapter thread and post it here. I’ve started with quotes from the thread and broken them up into distinct sub-topics, curating discussion for better narrative flow.


Alien Phenomenology (26-27):

Badiou’s mathematical jargon notwithstanding, configuration can help us understand tiny ontology. If everything exists all at once and equally, with no differentiation whatsoever, then the processes by which units perceive, relate, consider, respond, retract, and otherwise engage with one another—the method by which the unit operation takes place—is a configurative one. In that respect, the Badiouian count-as-one offers a helpful analogy for how the black hole density on the one side of being expands into infinite arrangements on the other side. The stuff of being constantly shuffles and rearranges itself, reorienting physically and metaphysically as it jostles up against material, relations, and concepts.

Michel McBride-Charpentier:

I’m having trouble understanding how the infinite is relevant. I can buy that “everything equally exists” but “everything” is not the same as infinity. You can say “1 exists, 2 exists, 3 exists, forever, and call that infinity, but there’s the problem of “who is counting?” There are an unknowable number of relations between units, but it still must be a finite number. I once heard infinity explained as a kind of safety net for certain problems. It’s there mostly so you can keep working with unfathomably large numbers without having to worry about hitting a hard limit. Why the fear of hitting a finite number of things when exploding a unit?

Darius Kazemi:

Nah, see, that last bit is just not true.

Infinite regress is an issue that Harman has with Latour’s metaphysics. If all interactions require a mediator, then you need a mediator with that mediator, and with that one, and then that one, etc etc. Harman thinks this is metaphysically untenable. I think that Harman needs to understand infinity a little better.

The problem as Harman states it is isomorphic to Zeno’s paradox: how can an object move from point A to point B if it needs to traverse half the distance to B’, but also half the distance to B”, and half the blah blah blah. The thing is, in a post-Cantorian world, Zeno’s paradox is no longer a mindblowing paradox. There’s a good article here that sums it up. Quote:

“Zeno’s thesis that Achilles must occupy as many positions as the tortoise is and remains unassailable. Equally true is that he must travel a greater distance than the animal. And if the greater distance contains more real points than the smaller one then it is impossible for him to catch up. This would be the case, indeed, if the ultimate reality of our space-time continuum could be ‘adequately described in terms of denumerable [countable] numbers.’”

But space is not made of denumerable space-quants! It’s made of literally uncountable units that it probably doesn’t make sense to call quants because, well, you can’t have an uncountable quantity. Another quote:

“Translated into ontological terms it says no more and no less than that the number of real points of the shortest line segment is numerically equivalent to the number of all real points in an infinite three-dimensional universe.”

The issue is that you have countable infinities and uncountable infinities (infinite and transfinite), and as long as you’re dealing with countable infinities, convergence still occurs and we can still move from point A to point B even if we have to ‘travel half the distance’ each time.

Things that don’t exist

Michel McBride-Charpentier:

I also started thinking about “non-things” after reading “everything exists, even stuff that doesn’t”, or whatever the exact quote is. I think he was talking about physical existence, but there are obviously things which do not exist, either because they used to, haven’t yet, or never will. My son does not exist. I might never have a son. I just imagined the idea of one but thats not equivalent to a unit we identify as a living person. We can kind of trace these non-things out with our imagination. Now if the objects of OOO are a subset of something that includes the infinity of stuff that doesn’t exist, it might be easier for me to recognize things as also being infinite. Maybe. Let me know how many points I’m completely missing here.

Daniel Joseph:

A lot of the stuff you are talking about is pretty central Michel.

This issue is addressed in a number of different ways by different writers, but Bogost here is mostly relying on Bryant and Badiou’s work to come to this conclusion.

In general, the discussion about positing that there is no microobject/superobject like atoms or the universe is to stop us from engaging in what Harman calls overmining or undermining. Both of them result in reduction, and all of these writers operate on the principle of irreduction: nothing is reducible to anything else. If we posit a whole universe, one complete set, we end up with the same reduction when scientists reduce us all to atoms. “we are all just a part of this big universe of things the care not for your troubles!” is about the same as “We are all atoms that care not for your troubles!”.

As for detailed explanations and proofs about the world not existing, I would suggest reading Bryant’s chapter in The Democracy of Objects on Virtual Proper Being. This chapter also talks at length about the importance of what you were talking about with the “infinity of things that doesn’t exist”. A big thing with these philosophers is that infinity is really central. Hence the name of Quentin Mellassoux’s book Beyond Finitude. It’s all about contingency, and to borrow a term from Deleuze, the possibilities of the virtual. The virtual, to me anyways, exists as a kind of unarticulated space where qualities exist separated from the object’s manifestation. This is what Bryant calls “Virtual Proper Being”.

So to think about the unicorn: the unicorn’s manifestation, as an object, in the material world, right now is entirely fictitious, but, still, the unicorn is real, ontologically. Fictions exist, even if they are factually incorrect. So the unicorn, right now, manifests itself as a fiction, and thus its qualities actualize themselves out of the virtual into the actual as a fantastic animal in stories and books and whatnot. But, say, one day, through a wormhole created by the Large Hadron Collider, or maybe somebody invents an Infinite Improbability Drive, and *POOF* we have a unicorn fully fleshed out just like we imagine and its magic and is very nice and pretty. Suddenly the qualities of the object “unicorn” emerged out of the virtual, the unarticulated infinite, into the actual. Ha! Actual unicorn is actual!

The thing about qualities, and I think Bryant does the work to show this, is that they remain in the realm of the infinite while also being highly constrained by phase spaces and topology. The qualities of objects are much more likely to manifest in certain ways depending on the relationship that the object has to other objects. The likelihood of a unicorn manifesting itself materially is highly improbable, in large part because it is a fantastical creature created by humans a long time ago in a story, which means it has very few allies to help it move towards the quality of walking, eating unicorn – but there is always the possibility.

I say all of this premised with a huge “I could be completely wrong about this”, but so far this is my understanding. I’m always three words away from showing my ignorance.

Nick Lalone:

Because my favorite book is The Last Unicorn, I wonder about something. If I were to graft a bone onto the skull of a Horse and parade it around in a Zoo as a unicorn and people believed it, would this make the object suddenly not fictitious?

Daniel Joseph:

It would be a kind of fake unicorn, but not the magical one. A real fake unicorn.

Explaining OOO to scientists

Alien Phenomenology (12):

“Bryant offers a curious and counterintuitive phrase to get to the bottom of flat ontology: “The world,” he says, “does not exist.” Of course, if everything exists as I have just claimed, then statements of nonexistence demand special attention. What does Bryant mean? That there is no ur-thing, no container, no vessel, no concept that sits above being such that it can include all aspects of it holistically and incontrovertibly: “there is no ‘super-object’ . . . that would gather all objects together in a harmonious unity.””

Ben Abraham:

The main one for me (and the one that I think finally got me thinking like a Latourian/OOO-er/etc. was that bit by Bryant about “there is no world”. The more I think on this particular insight, the more sense it makes, and the more world-shattering (see what I did there?) it becomes.

I had an argument about this sort of thing with a scientist last week (we were both dunk, naturally). She was arguing that “all there is” is electrons, neutrons, quarks, strings, etc, etc – typical scientific reductionist stuff, yeah? But I really, truly struggled to articulate why that’s such a devastating position – and I think perhaps the “there is no world” thing might have helped, if I’d remembered it.

And I don’t think I need to tell you guys how annoying it can be to argue against scientific reductionism (particularly with a scientist who believes it with the lovely and naive fervour of a religious zealot). But I can’t be too hard on them, I’ve argued for exactly the same position countless times in the past, and I really regret a couple of instances in particular. I know that I was only arguing it, really, to beat someone into submission with the blunt force trauma of the powerful scientific reduction.

In my conversation I tried to stress that it’s possible to not be a reductive materialist and also be anti-science, but it’s hard because the only real contact most of them have is with magical thinkers like the ultra-religious, or the anti-vax’ers.

Nick Lalone:

This is the same argument a black person, or any minority has with most people in American society, “There ain’t no racism, shut up, you got affirmative action you idiot.” Scientists hold all the power, prestige, allies, whatever you want to call it. It isn’t in their best interest or even scientific interest to give a flying fuck about the “reality” we want to give them. I love talking to the mathematicians who are housed next door to my department about social truths instead of mathematical proofs…ah man, so fun….then they get multi-million dollar grants to calibrate statistics programs to be more accurate and we [sociologists] use their work to prove them wrong…

Darius Kazemi:

“We can love and respect the sciences without accepting that philosophy is their handmaid. Science does think, but this does not mean it deserves the monopoly on thinking that the various intellectual Chamberlains have given it.” (Harman, Prince of Networks p. 109)

Non-boring philosophy, and de-centering the human

Alien Phenomenology (11):

In short, all things equally exist, yet they do not exist equally. The funeral pyre is not the same as the aardvark; the porceletta shell is not equivalent to the rugby ball. Not only is neither pair reducible to human encounter, but also neither is reducible to the other.

This maxim may seem like a tautology—or just a gag. It’s certainly not the sort of qualified, reasoned, hand-wrung ontological position that’s customary in philosophy. But such an extreme take is required for the curious garden of things to flower.

Darius Kazemi:

Speculative realism keeps bringing me back to Borges’ Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius. It’s a great short story that you should read. The passage I always remember is:

“The metaphysicians of Tlön do not seek for the truth or even for verisimilitude, but rather for the astounding. They judge that metaphysics is a branch of fantastic literature.”

Sounds like Harman and Bogost! However, I’d completely forgotten the next line:

“They know that a system is nothing more than the subordination of all aspects of the universe to any one such aspect.”

Object oriented philosophers are EVEN WEIRDER than the metaphysicians of Tlön! For OOO states that the system is flat: no aspect is subordinate to anything else. Basically if I can be accused of anything it’s that I’m attracted to philosophies that are exciting, rather than philosophies that are boring. Fantastic literature indeed.

Daniel Joseph:

Speaking to your interest in non-boring philosophy Darius:

“Now, many philosophers claim to be realists despite upholding the Kantian duopoly of human and world. They think that to posit some unarticulated reality beyond experience is enough to escape idealism. Perhaps they are right; perhaps they do deserve the name of realists. But if that is the case, then there is little reason to be excited about realism. Against such claims, we should always observe the following litmus test: no philosophy does justice to the world unless it treats all relations as equally relations, which means as equally translations or distortions.” -Harman, The Quadruple Object p. 46

As to the discussion about what this philosophy means for us doing whatever it is we do, Alien Phenomenology is a… very radical (in the sense of it is definitely on the periphery) book that I’m trying to come to terms with.

The thing that Ian is doing here is positing that philosophy can be practiced for the pure joy of things, as a way into the thing for it the thing itself. It is the application of the theory of OOO to OOO. Bryant, Bennett, Morton, Latour etc, they all are interested in OOO at least in some instrumental way. The ontology is that things are for themselves, but beyond the ontology, practice and epistemology comes back to how this philosophy can add to human understanding of Important Issues like ecology, the environment, political economy etc. Bogost is basically like “nuts to that! Yay things!!!!” which is both admirable AND scary!

Brendan Keogh:

I have to agree this is both admirable and scary. I think my main issue with it is that, well, I am struggling to see the point of doing it. As the book goes on, the later chapters sell me less and less on Bogost’s arguments. To me, it feels like he is saying “We need to understand things for things sake! But we can never actually understand things because we are stuck as humans!”. Which, just seems kind of futile to me. But that said, I am more than willing to accept that my one reading of the book (but not quite finished yet) is off and I’m happy to have my mind changed.

As someone quite sold on much of Latour’s theories (admittedly largely because I am yet to read enough critiques of Latour), I found the first chapter most interesting when it was setting itself apart from Latour and ANT. Such as when he says that in ANT “entities are de- emphasized in favor of their couplings and decouplings” (7) or that ANT tells us nothing of the “inner world” of objects (10).

I think his criticisms of what ANT doesn’t do are more than fair. Certainly, ANT/Latour are still ‘human-centric’ insofar as they are trying to understand the relations between objects primarily to better understand the human (I think) and how it is contextualised in a world of objects that mediate it as much as they are mediated by it. Talking about mediators and nonhuman agency and whatnot is useful especially because it contextualises human intentionality, not because it tells us anything special about the “inner worlds” of the objects that mediate human existence.

So perhaps my main skepticism with Alien Phenomenology at this point is (and I can’t believe I’m saying this) that it seems to de-privilege the human and privilege the object *too much*. Perhaps these criticisms are best held off until the Metamorphisms section where I first started to form my disagreements with it, but yeah. From the start it almost feels to me like Bogost is setting up a futile project. If we can never understand the inner worlds of objects away from our inevitable anthropomorphisms, then what is the point of trying? Shouldn’t we be trying to understand objects in relation to the human simply because we can never understand/relate to objects away from the human?

(That is a serious and earnest question, not a dismissal of the book!)

Ben Abraham:

At the risk of sounding flip, let me put a funny twist on your objections:

In 1958 we had never been to the moon, and Ieuan Bogart writes a book “Lunar Phenomenology” and suggests we go to the moon.

“But going to the moon is impossible!” protest the ‘realist’ critics, “and besides, even if we could go we’d never know what it was like there!”

Bogart replies to his critics: “Perhaps we would know what it was like if we went there.”


If that half-baked analogy doesn’t make any sense – the point is we haven’t done this before. Why would we presume a de-human-centered perspective doesn’t have an eventual use for humans-in-relations? Like all good interstellar explorers, we get to bring things back from wherever we go.

Nick Lalone:

I don’t know if you can really make this argument. We haven’t done this before specifically but we have done this before in different ways. I mean, we know we’re travelling to a place, we know we have a destination, we know we have to make a vehicle to go there. The vehicle must be able to make that difference in space and we do this through understanding existing ideas. So, in a sense we have done it all before.

Brendan Keogh:

Ben, on the risk of being even more flip, I can’t help but shake the feeling it is more as though Ieuan Bogart said “let’s send Balkhash (city), Nordland Township, Second Battle of Tamao (1522), and Droop speed control* to the moon to see what it would be like for them to be there, but we can’t actually know what it is like for them to be there. So who wants to lend me their rocket ship?”

I just feel it wants to remove the human too much, to the extent that the human isn’t even around to understand the objects. I don’t think this is Bogost’s actual intention, but it’s just how it seems to me.

Daniel Joseph:

[In response to Brendan’s earlier statement that AP “seems to de-privilege the human and privilege the object *too much*”] Well I wouldn’t say that. I would say it’s de-centering right? The big issue that Harman hammers home really well is that humans are always engaged in translations and distortions. We can’t ever hope to touch the *real* core of objects, rather all we have access to is the sensuous qualities of them, and as it happens, objects withdraw just as much from each other as they withdraw from us. We translate, they translate. So basically, we all have the same problem with access, which puts us on equal footing. We can’t ever touch the real. It is locked away from us. In fact, we withdraw from ourselves. We have no transcendental knowledge of the self, much less other things.

Bogost is totally on board with this, even if he doesn’t subscribe to the fourfold object and the idea that there is a *real* core that is privileged over the sensuous qualities of things. We are all equally real, and as such we move forward without humans at the centre. Cool, and in OOO, not that new of a concept.

The new thing to me is that Bogost wants us to do what we can to investigate things as things, with the knowledge of that withdrawal. It’s a strategy to learn as much as we can and get outside ourselves, forget our own worries, and try to be the unit. It’s hard to imagine, and harder because we still get caught in correlationist circles.

“But I’m STILL me, I’m locked into my subjectivity, and besides, I can’t truly KNOW the unit anyway, so why bother.”

But the call to do so is very Bogostian, in that he wants us to shut up about our own bullshit and get outside. We have to forget about thinking instrumentally. Knowing all of the psychoanalysis that I do, I worry about this call, because the very concept of “getting outside ourselves” is an ideological, historical and material process. Blah!

Here’s Levi Bryant’s thoughts on the issue.


Mark N. July 1, 2012 at 9:10 am

Two sort of disjointed comments on the scientific reductionism angle:

1) While a lot of scientists are sort of reductionist by default, my impression is that among scientists who spend much time thinking about the question (e.g. theoretical physicists), positions that even verge on anti-realism are actually pretty widespread, especially varieties of instrumentalist and “it’s just statistics that works so far” phenomenological interpretations. Which then presents a sort of different problem for OOO than reductionism does.

2) I think some of the default reductionism is not only in reaction to religious-type anti-science views (though that’s probably most of it), but also some of the less nuanced science-studies and social-constructionist views. There seems to be a strong, almost visceral dislike in some corners of Theory against scientific reduction as a method, not only as an overarching theory or metaphysics, but as something to do at all. The idea that you can understand something, even in part, by taking it apart, running experiments, measuring things, constructing models, etc., and actually learn anything thereby about the object of study (rather than only about the power structures of the scientific lab, etc.), is just deeply anathema to some corners of 20th-century Theory. But to many scientists it seems pretty clear that you do learn something by even something as simple as going into your backyard, building balsa wood bridges, trying out different designs, observing when they break, etc. And that what you learn has some “reductive” component, in that you can understand something about a bridge’s operation by understanding something about its components, the components’ materials, and how everything is assembled. So the strong anti-reduction view seems to argue so much that seems clearly wrong that it’s easy to be tempted into concluding, “these people are insane, let’s just go back to doing science”. One of the good things by contrast about OOO imo, and Latour as well, is that there seems to actually be some interest in looking inside objects, even to their parts.

Ben Abraham July 2, 2012 at 7:46 am

Interesting comments, Mark.

I guess I wanted to try and justify (a little bit) the “strong-ish” (if not the strong – I’m not a SCOT fan) anti-reduction stance. While your bridge analogy stands up for what it is, as soon as we get into weirder territory (for instance, the brain and neuroscience; basically any extreme of large or small) where our day-to-day intuitions and expectations confound more than they prove correct, I think it actually is vitally important not to be reductionist. Why? Because they way that science has often progressed tells us that there is a very good chance that the bit we reduce often ends up becoming… almost the most important part, later on. I can’t think of a very good example off the top of my head, but epigenetics and so called “junk DNA” is a reasonable example.

That’s not to retroactively suggest that the human genome project was a worthless product of scientific reductionism, just because it didn’t map any epigenetic DNA (I’m assuming). As you say there’s use to be had from reduction, but the point is that reduction is never the ‘whole picture’ that it is so often presented as. Just take a look at some of the statements some pop-science loves to come out with – you’d be forgiven for thinking you were at a TED conference there’s so much certainty in some of these things. The contingency gets lost so often when qualified, reductive results end up being interpreted by (for instance) journalists and laypeople.

That’s the concern I’m trying to express in my comment, anyway. Bryant’s “There is no world” has echoes of The Matrix’s “There is no spoon” too, which adds a kind of pop-cultural resonance that I think is kind of neat (and persuasive!).

Mark N. July 2, 2012 at 7:40 pm

That I agree with; I’m not really any bigger fan of the Strong Interpretation of science than of some varieties of constructionism in the other direction. Particularly the Strong Pop Interpretation, which isn’t even really consistent with modern physics, and instead imagines some pre-quantum-mechanics world more like early-modern science’s atoms and clockwork universe. But even the non-Pop folks are often not great.

The bridge example comes because I really did have a baffling conversation in the early 2000s on that subject with what you might call more of a “party-line continentalist”, who had some good points but would just utterly refuse to admit that anything other than culture/ideology/power/capital/etc. was a legitimate explanandum of anything at all. I can buy that lots of those factors are involved in bridges: bridge companies may jockey for contracts with their designs, and where we put bridges may be for reasons involving developers’ gain or socioeconomic or racial disputes, etc. But at some point it seems to me that a non-human explanandum has to come in; for example, if we ask why you can cross the golden gate via the Golden Gate Bridge, but not via just walking across the water, the answer seems like it has to have something to do with the differences between water and steel, and the presence of gravity, not just culture/ideology/capital. There is no ideological critique we can undertake that will make walking across the water without having to build bridges work better, because it’s not an ideological problem preventing us from doing so!

I can even buy Quine-Duhem style confirmation-holism and agree with skepticism that “gravity” and “water” and “steel” are ultimately stable/correct categories, but nonetheless it seems clear that there is something nonhuman that makes one of these modes of transport across the golden gate better than the other one, even if our scientific analysis of it is imprecise or wrong or could be replaced with a different yet equally explanatory explanation. Similarly with how, say, there are ways of arranging material into a “computer chip” that produce a functioning computer, and other ways that produce something that seems very much like “not a functioning computer” in the sense that I can’t post this commenting using that heap of junk. And that isn’t all a question of who “counts what functions”, but of some nonhuman fact that results in some of these arrangements of junk actually doing things that other arrangements don’t!

That’s mostly the angle from which I felt a sense of relief, of “not all continentalists are totally insane”, when I ran across Latour’s response to David Bloor.

Darius Kazemi July 2, 2012 at 7:47 am

Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Mark. I’m in agreement with you. It’s interesting, I think there are some really strong places where OOO and science are aligned, but people sometimes overlook this because OOO does not accept reductionist ontology (“fundamental are the basis of reality” type thing). I like to use meteors colliding in space as an example. Obviously, science has a lot to say about meteors. A lot of people in philosophy I talk to would like to claim that we can never really know anything about meteors: we say things about the power structures that built the telescopes that let us see the meteors, that without a military-industrial complex we wouldn’t even have a concept of meteors colliding in space, yadda yadda. But at least OOO is aligned with science in saying with confidence that the meteors do really exist. That has to be worth something.

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