During my trip last weekend back to Perth for an old school friend’s wedding, I woke up at about 3am in the midst of a jet lag and impending lecture writing anxiety, and couldn’t get back to sleep. I thought this was an appropriate time to read the ‘Carpentry’ chapter of Ian Bogost’s recent book Alien Phenomenology. The forthcoming ‘Nonhuman Turn’ conference is streaming its plenaries, and Bogost is delivering a talk about “The Aesthetics of Philosophical Carpentry”, so I am looking forward to seeing how Bogost develops his thinking about ‘carpentry’ into the aesthetic realm.
Bogost had tweeted that he’d received a 1-star negative review on Amazon.com so I had a look and noticed another reviewer (5-stars) suggested that the book was worth reading just for the Carpentry chapter. The OOOer’s world is full of (post)grad student fanbois who dis/like certain OOOing so I’d take any user-generated review, be it positive or negative, with a healthy dose of skepticism. Unless, of course, it is backed up with a thorough analysis that at least demonstrates that the reviewer has read the book. I was intrigued that this reviewer singled out a chapter as worth the ‘price of admission’ so I decided to return to Bogost’s book.
Yes, ‘return’. I read the first chapter and filed the Kindle ebook away under ‘when I have more time’. The first chapter largely rehearses the OOO ‘origin story’ without any substantial development (something Goldsmiths, something Meillassoux, etc.). I like the rhetorical move of announcing that ‘speculative realism’ is an event and discussing it as such; it is an example of the sort of thing I would do (what I would call ‘event mechanics’, OOO-as-event presents a very straight-forward analysis). Bogost does a bit of discourse analysis, historical analysis, media archaeology and so on.
For example, ‘correlationism’ could happily be defined is a Foucaultian style ‘statement’ configuring the field of OOO discourse. Yeah? Organising compositions of power relations and so on. How? Enter Bogost: “to proceed as a philosopher today demands the rejection of correlationism”. The scholarly field becomes happily organised for OOOers into those who reject ‘correlationism’ and therefore can be regarded as ‘doing philosophy’, versus those who do not, for whatever reason, perhaps because they think the ‘problem’ of correlationism isn’t one. Bogost references Alain Badiou’s ‘decisionist’ conception of the event. (‘Decisionist’ moniker comes from Badiou’s reading of Spinoza, see that Pli essay on it.) I’d argue it is far closer to what Foucault called a ‘discourse event’, a kind of ‘order of objects’. Philosophy itself is transformed through the articulation/enunciation (or denunciation) of ‘correlationism’. What does this incorporeal transformation of philosophy herald? Bogost is clear, “it names a moment when the epistemological tide ebbed, revealing the iridescent shells of realism they had so long occluded.”
Anyway, it is a pity that no one (at least that I am aware of, even from the regular OOO blogs) has carried out an OOO analysis of the OOO ‘origin story’. I would find this fascinating. Mainly because it would force the OOOer fanbois to forego the cult of personality surrounding key OOO figures… unless these figures are ‘objects’ but that would be a waste of an analysis surely, why detour through ‘objects’ at all? Or maybe we’d end up with a kind of analysis of OOO following Alliez’s Signature of the World (following Deleuze and Guattari) where the concept of the ‘object’ has its own autonomy? Or maybe Bogost wasn’t doing philosophy yet, so early into the book. This would be a curious response, in the sense that an OOO analysis of OOO should be possible, considering that OOO is meant to celebrate “stuffs [as enjoying] equal being no matter their size, scale, or order” (Bogost). Maybe OOO needs a non-OOO introduction so as to be sensible to first timers? (A bit like the birth of Monkey born from an egg on a mountain top.) Hmmm. I don’t think my ‘off hand’ point regarding the non-OOO presentation of OOO is inconsequential, however. (As opposed to the ‘ready-to-hand’ critique of ‘correlationism’ bandied about by those who don’t seem to follow or even have read Meillassoux’s argument.) Does irony exist for objects? (Less ‘molar’, Deleuzian: What is machinic irony?) Regardless, this is clearly a case of ‘theory’ irony.
Oh, and the Carpentry chapter. Bogost launches into a critique of writing, in particular scholarly writing, and then develops what he names “carpentry” as the “practice of constructing artifacts as a philosophical practice” which “entails making things that explain how things make their world”. I am currently researching ‘know-how’ as an experience-based form of practical knowledge and in particular the ‘how to’ article as a key text in discourses of ‘know-how’, so Bogost’s invocation of carpentry was at least interesting.
Of course, my PhD was on enthusiasm, the creative industries and modified-car culure, plus having come out of an ‘aspirational’ working class context I actually built a few cars in my late teens and early twenties. That and I worked on a mine site to pay for the cars. I’ve always approached philosophy as a kind of ‘mechanics’, not in the classical physics sense, but an in-the-garage-under-the-hood sort of way. Hence, the title of this blog. I spend a week in my first year foundation unit discussing what these ‘tacit knowledges’ are required for the practice of research. I’ve discussed this a number of times on this blog drawing primarily on Michael Polanyi and then go from there. To be clear, I don’t think Bogost is advocating this kind of ‘tacit knowledge’ approach, even though this is the approach of Matthew B. Crawford in his book Shop Class as Soulcraft, who Bogost cites. Well, I didn’t think Bogost was advocating this kind of approach until I got to the concluding section of this chapter (see below). On the other hand, Crawford is clearly arguing this, i.e. “real knowledge arises through confrontation with real things”. For more on Crawford’s book, see my review from a number of years ago. My position is very similar except I’m interested in a more sophisticated appreciation of experience, and a better understanding of how ‘know-how’ is circulated through media, etc.
It is unclear exactly what Bogost is arguing. Bogost: “The carpenter [...] must contend with the material resistance of his or her chosen form, making the object itself become the philosophy.” Ok, kind of Polanyi-Crawford-ish here. And then when he introduces his first two examples of “philosophical software carpentry” he describes them as “ontographical tools meant to characterize the diversity of being”. When discussing the unintended (‘sexist’) consequences of one of these tools, he suggests changing it would lead to it losing its “ontographical power”. What is its philosophical accomplishment? Bogost:
[It's] philosphical accomplishment comes from the question it poses about the challenge flat ontology and feminism pose to one another. On the one hand, being is unconcerned with issues of gender, performance, and its associated human politics; indeed, tiny ontology invites all beings to partake of the same ontological status, precisely the same fundamental position as many theorists would take ob matters of identity politics. But on the other hand, the baggage of wordly stuff still exerts a political challenge on human experience that cannot be satisfactorily dismissed with the simple mantra of tiny ontology. The [accidently sexist ontographic tool] hardly attempts to answer these questions, but it does pose them in a unique way thanks to carpentry.
Hmmm. The univocity of being is indeed irrelevant for most real world situations. I can’t help but feel Bogost is ignoring the bits of Crawford that don’t fit within the anti-correlationist party line. Take Crawford’s axiomatic statement that “real knowledge arises through confrontation with real things”. Ok, what are the ‘real things’ in the accidently sexist ontagraphic tool example? An image of a Playboy bunny randomly selected from Flickr? The OOO event website with sexist image as viewed by two female scholars? The code of the website? All of them? What is the ‘real knowledge’ produced then? Does a flat ontology privilege the reality of some things over others? No, of course not! That would be entirely against the point of the concept. Yet, there is a clear contradiction here. Crawford’s “real things” are only ‘real’ because of their relationality and implication in the production of “real knowledge” as part of the experience of being a mechanic/carpenter/whatever. This is precisely the kind of position disavowed by OOO as ‘correlationist’.
The experiences of things can be characterized only by tracing the exhaust of their effects on the surrounding world and speculating about the coupling between that black noise and the experiences internal to an object. [...]
The phenomenologist who performs carpentry creates a machine that tries to replicate the unit operation of another’s experience. Like a space probe sent out to record, process, and report information, the alien phenomenologist’s carpentry seeks to capture and characterize an experience it can never fully understand, offering a rendering satisfactory enough to allow the artifact’s operator to gain some insight into an alien thing’s experience.
How did the accidently sexist ontagraphic tool gain any insight of an alien thing’s experience? Or is ‘woman’ not sufficiently ‘alien’ for ‘man’? Or is it a case of the ‘alien’ experience of those specific women and the haecceitty of an unfortunately sexist OOO event website? Has OOO somehow managed to overcome relations of alterity? These aren’t fair questions, perhaps, as it would be ridiculous to suggest an OOO version of the differend, as this would make Bogost’s entire project untenable. But what does this ‘carpentry’ do?
Bogost’s I am TIA project sounds pretty cool. Through a metaphorical lens it characterizes (Bogost prefers ‘characterizes’, it seems, as compared to ‘represents’) the experience of a ‘television interface adaptor’ of an Atari VCS. Cool! Now what?
The Tableau Machine example illustrates how a ‘machinic’ perspective of a home “helps deliver the home’s residents out of anthropocentricism” (Bogost, citing Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter 120). Good! So what? Can we infer that Bogost (or maybe Benett) is implying that the residents are transformed akin to Felix Guattari’s introduction of ‘transversal’ practices into the psychiatric institution of La Borde and his hopes for the reconstitution of subjectivity etc?
The concluding section of Bogost’s chapter is titled “A New Radicalism”. He says that “real radicals [...] make things” and challenges OOO to “become craftsmanship, challenging us to learn a trade”. Maybe Bogost is not aware of the whole “philosophy as toolbox, concepts as tools” notion from an interview between Foucault and Deleuze, or the development of Serres’s work on the invention of physics into what Deleuze and Guattari called a ‘minor science’ in A Thousand Plateaus. The purpose of mentioning Polanyi above was that he goes to great lengths to indicate how all abstract (‘explicit’) knowledges are premised on ‘tacit knowledges’. Or even Harman has noted that Heidegger discussed the extraction of ‘theory’ as part of a scholastic disposition from experience (in one of Heidegger’s very early lectures).
Bogost then returns to Crawford (his colleague Hugh or Soulcraft’s Matthew B.? I think it is meant to be Matthew B.) in the concluding passage to this chapter:
When people or toothbrushes or siroccos make sense of encountered objects, they do so through metaphor. As Whitehead and Latour suggest, this process requires creative effort, challenging OOO to become craftsmanship, challenging us to learn a trade. We tend to think of creativity as construction, the assembly of something new out of known parts. A novel is made of words and ink and paper, a painting of pigments and canvas and medium, a philosophy of maxims and arguments and evidence, a house of studs and sheetrock and pipes. Perhaps in the future, following Crawford’s example, radical philosophers will raise not their fists but their hammers.
Now I am really confused. Bogost seems to be collapsing two kinds of experience. One that is developed in humans, following Crawford’s axiom “real knowledge arises through confrontation with real things”, and the experience that objects have of whatever (the other objects that constitute their ‘environment’ in the ecological/systems sense?). That is not the confusing thing however. Confusing is, firstly, the suggestion that any objects whatsoever “make sense of encountered objects” as Bogost has not discussed ‘sense’ at all, at least not in any way that correlates with philosophies of sense that I am familiar with (vaguely Frege or Deleuze), and secondly that this sense making is carried out through “metaphor”. Hmmm… Bogost has described how human philosophers have created artifacts that offer a metaphorical representation of machinic experience, not how those actual objects have used metaphor (or some kind of machinic equivalent…?) to “make sense”. I can understand a multiplicity of experiences (this experience is as singular as that experience), but the simple projection of anthropomorphic concepts like ‘sense’ or ‘metaphor’ from the OOO philosophical domain and using them to ‘characterise’ the existence of objects is contradictory (and that is putting it mildly) of what would seem to be the basic tenets of OOOism. What is all this gruff talk about ‘taking objects seriously’ if objects are reduced to being mere vehicles of philosophical metaphor?