How to Be an Alien: Ian Bogost’s “Alien Phenomenology, or, What It's Like to Be a Thing”

A punchy, provocative take on the “nonhuman turn.”

By Kate MarshallNovember 19, 2013

    Alien Phenomenology, or, What It’s Like To Be a Thing by Ian Bogost. University of Minnesota Press. 168 pages.

    THERE’S A MOMENT in J. M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, in the famous set piece “The Lives of Animals,” when Coetzee’s eponymous protagonist pauses to think through the problem of sympathetic understanding between beings who are not alike. To do this, she turns to the philosopher Thomas Nagel’s “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” — a 1974 essay she summarizes as a “denial that we can know what it is to be anything but one of ourselves.” To Nagel, she says, “a bat is a fundamentally alien creature, not perhaps as alien as Martian but certainly more alien than any fellow human being (particularly, I would guess, were that human being a fellow academic philosopher).” Part of Costello’s concern about the essay, whose desire to approach the likeness of being she otherwise appreciates, is its hierarchization of alienness, a gesture that she argues makes acts of sympathy more about the object than the subject. For Costello, this act of knowing what it’s like to be an alien, regardless of what might constitute that alien, is without limit.

    Coetzee’s text provides one fictionalized example of a profound decentering of the human that has taken place in cultural and intellectual life. This decentering has as its goal the broader repositioning of the human within systems that are environmental, social, or material. What has emerged is an uneven but rich dialogue surrounding the category of the nonhuman, of which the animals of interest to Costello constitute one part. Amid the philosophical, literary, and critical turn to the nonhuman by writers and scholars interested in environments, animals, media, and systems are those loosely organized by the category of speculative realism: philosophers dedicated to the project of describing the world without connecting that ability to describe to the ultimate anthropocentric resource, the human mind (and for more on speculative realist thought, see Brian Kim Stefans’s reviews of Graham Harman’s Weird Realism and Quentin Meillassoux’s The Number and the Siren.)

    It’s squarely within this matrix that we find Ian Bogost’s punchy, provocative Alien Phenomenology, or, What It’s Like To Be a Thing. Positioned as an extension of the nonhuman turn and a critique of its limitations, Alien Phenomenology diagnoses an anthropocentrism lurking underneath familiar arguments against it: environmental discourse focuses either too much on human survival or on life as a reference point, animal studies on human intersubjectivity. The discourse of something like posthumanism, Bogost suggests, “is not posthuman enough.” The nonhuman alternative he proposes lies in the creative attempt to apprehend the experiential world of objects, inclusive of but not restricted to our interactions with them.

    But what does it mean to claim that objects have experience, and moreover, how can our meagerly human descriptive resources possibly capture it? Why would we want to? It’s not like things haven’t been having their say in recent years. Responding in part to the “Thing Theory” both described and enacted by Bill Brown, W. J. T. Mitchell begins his discussion of objects in his 2005 What Do Pictures Want? by invoking a broad cultural, aesthetic, and critical obsession with the most trivial of stuff, and asking why it is that “things” have suddenly become so interesting, and to so many. But while the disciplines to which Mitchell refers have provided an impressive attention to what might be broadly described as material culture, Bogost outlines two key problems with this general move. First, things in these accounts of culture imply too much materiality, and second, it does not describe philosophy’s state of affairs, which Bogost claims remains in “an era in which ‘things’ means ideas so often and stuff so seldom.” In material culture, objects are too material, and for philosophy, they’re not material enough: for Bogost, the philosophical legacy of Kant results in a restrictive understanding of objects, which exist for only the humans who encounter or perceive them. Bogost advocates throughout Alien Phenomenology for alternatives to idealism afforded by speculative realist and object-oriented approaches to philosophical thinking. One of the book’s narrative motivations involves Bogost’s role in the ascendancy of speculative thinking in the academy and more specifically the nuances between his approach to such thinking and philosopher Graham Harman’s.

    Though qualified with terminological objections and alternatives, things and objects remain the largely interchangeable protagonists, and possess remarkable capaciousness in Bogost’s book. One of the book’s favorite stylistic moves is to list them in what Bogost winningly calls “Latour litanies,” and then to delight in the relations simultaneously implied and obscured by the sparse grammar of the list form. A list reveals many things about the objects within it. Take the following, arriving early in Alien Phenomenology:

    Quarks, Harry Potter, keynote speeches, single-malt scotch, Land Rovers, lychee fruit, love affairs, dereferenced pointers, Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino, bozons, horticulturalists, Mozambique, Super Mario Bros.

    This list/litany demonstrates the wide view of thingness underwriting its every evocation. (The objects can be material, abstract, intentional, and fictional, or, as Bogost says, “anything is thing enough to party.”) It also suggests but does not reveal how any one thing relates to another thing. It’s not just that a quark, Mozambique, or scotch experience the world in this account in a way that’s fundamentally alien to the human, but that their experiences of and appearances to each other are incomprehensible to us. Aliens in Alien Phenomenology both are and are not to be found in places like Roswell or Mars — E.T. is as likely a candidate for analysis as anything else. Trapped as we are in our humanity, the urgent demand is nevertheless to get as close as possible to understanding what will remain stubbornly incomprehensible to us, or to engage explicitly in the “practice” of alien phenomenology. Given how frustrating that sounds, it’s lucky that the majority of the book presents a how-to guide.


    Bogost is a professor of interactive computing and holds a chair in media studies at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and his work as a videogame designer requires him to be something of an expert in the difficult genre of practical instruction, one he engagingly exploits in his aptly named 2011 book How to Do Things with Videogames.  One of the most remarkable aspects of Alien Phenomenology is the clarity with which it outlines practical steps for thinking like or with the everyday alienness surrounding us. To understand in greater detail what might be at stake in doing so, it helps to turn to two of the book’s sources of inspiration, both from 1974: the Nagel essay cited above, which was published that year, and a photograph from Stephen Shore’s Uncommon Places series, “Room 28 Holiday Inn, Medicine Hat, Alberta, 1974.”

    Nagel’s weird little essay has been receiving renewed attention from philosophers and cultural theorists in this time of the nonhuman because of the way it combines a distrust of human explanations of nonhuman forms of experience with the clear hope and tentative confidence that alternative methods, concepts, and modes of description may yet be possible. These methods, Nagel suggests, would not exhaustively capture the experience of the nonhuman, but could begin to. When he asks what it’s like to be a bat, Nagel insists on a fundamental difference between the way I might go about trying to understand what it’s like for me to be a bat and how I could instead think about what it’s like for the bat to be a bat. Because the bat’s phenomenological experience of the world is so alien to mine, he says, employing the resources of analogy or even thinking in terms of something like “point of view” are completely inadequate. When Bogost adapts Nagel’s question to examine instead what it’s like to be a thing, he’s doing more than insisting on expanding the reach of the alien from alien forms of life to the wider range of objects his invocation of “thing” implies. Rather, Bogost’s intervention is more subtle and significant. The key difference lies not in the substitution of thing for bat, but in the use of the word “like.” Nagel relegates to a footnote a crucial distinction guiding his essay, for which the specificity of rhetorical form remains central, if often unacknowledged. He says that “the analogical form of the English expression ‘what it is like’ is misleading. It does not mean ‘what (in our experience) it resembles,’ but rather ‘how it is for the subject himself.’” Alien Phenomenology certainly takes up the sense of “like” activated here, with all of its ontological resonance, looking throughout for ways to describe what it’s like for the thing to be a thing. But precisely because the beingness of things involves their perceptions and experiences of themselves and their relations with other things, what it’s like to be a thing, we learn, ought rather to be explored through the analogies Nagel deplores. And more than that: likeness here can be a simile, the stranger the better. If Nagel calls for an “objective phenomenology” that avoids the anthropomorphizing and mediating tendencies of figurative language, the alien phenomenology Bogost describes deliriously embraces it. “In a literal sense,” says Bogost, “the only way to perform alien phenomenology is by analogy.” Likeness and other forms of representing the inner lives of things via degrees of distortion or mis-representation are the best chance we have of understanding or being able to communicate something about those inner lives. As Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello puts it, “If I can think my way into the existence of a being who has never existed, then I can think my way into the existence of a bat or a chimpanzee or an oyster.” There’s something about fiction, about analogy, about metaphor, that allows for a kind of thinking that might not otherwise be available.

    In a somewhat rare move for a work of philosophy, Alien Phenomenology contains a rich color insert that includes several photographs by Stephen Shore from the 1970s. Shore’s images are known for what Michael Fried calls “the labor of construal” they require their viewers to undertake in order to understand the relationships between the objects contained within them. I’m pausing on the book’s specific use of “Room 28 Holiday Inn, Medicine Hat, Alberta, 1974” primarily because of its mostly superficial simultaneity with Nagel’s 1974 essay — there may not be much more immediately relevant about that simultaneity, and yet it operates what Bogost evokes as “the dense meanwhile of being,” a meanwhile he sees appearing forcefully within Shore’s photographs themselves. “Room 28” (see image) depicts a set of mundane objects — a lamp, a television, a chair, and ashtray, brocade curtains — yet their everydayness, Bogost suggests, is not what matters. Instead, the image’s composition “underscores unseen things and relations” between the objects, or “register[s] the world.” Instead of the list of objects I just provided, here’s how the photograph looks to Bogost the alien phenomenologist: “In Alberta, a textured, rust-colored lamp with shade sits near the edge of a table, while an ashtray holds down a motel survey. Nearby, a window lever emerges from behind curtains.” These are objects that “tousle” one another, that have “secret lives.”


    Shore’s photographs operate here as examples of one strategy — importantly, an aesthetic and inscriptive strategy — for actively practicing alien phenomenology. They appear as examples of what Bogost calls ontography, one among three techniques or methods he proposes for those committed to speculation that would “amplify” rather than contain “the black noise of objects.” The three methods he describes — ontography, metaphorism, and carpentry — all work to reveal aspects of the object world. Ontography is largely a method for exploring the relations between objects, metaphorism a strategy for understanding their perceptions, and carpentry a kind of making that produces objects that in turn say something about how objects are themselves engaged in a process of making their world.

    Ontography, the first of Alien Phenomenology’s three methods, provides an alternative inscriptive strategy to narrative. In a counterintuitive move for a scholar with a background in comparative literature, Bogost opposes ontography to what he sees as the “flowing legato” of the literary, a domain he finds too attached to the aspiration to identification and resonance rather than the “jarring staccato of real being.” It’s a reductive account of literariness, but a knowing one. What he offers instead is “aesthetic set theory” or an inscription strategy that gathers objects without ascribing too much of a human concept to the nature of their relations. Examples of ontography include the gathering work done by Shore’s photographs and the rhetorical form of the list, a “group of items loosely joined not by logic or power or use but by the gentle knot of the comma.” Catalogues in language or image are presented as useful, even virtuous methods for gesturing to the relations between objects, but such lists, artworks, and diagrams can also be reflexively exploded — their ontographic qualities made operational within the artifacts themselves. Bogost is most interested in what he calls “ontographic machines” such as games and puzzles that depict, simulate, or perform the relations between objects.

    From ontography, the description and enacting of interobject relations, the book moves to metaphorism, or techniques of creative distortion for revealing how objects perceive and experience the relations captured by ontography. For a text so determined to avoid anthropomorphic modes of thinking, the turn to metaphor may seem surprising, but here is Bogost at his best. He outlines metaphorism as a truly speculative practice — a way of characterizing alien experience that is not identical to that experience. This strikes me as a more broadly powerful and urgent move at a time when so many forms of critical practice reach ever more insistently for objective forms of description. Instead, Bogost offers what he calls “the clarity of distortion,” active use of the sidelong glance or the forms of likeness rejected by Nagel’s objective phenomenology. Much like ontography, metaphorism becomes most interesting when it turns in on and refers to itself, and after a labored (but necessary) discussion of the impossibility of conducting an ethics of objects using these methods, Bogost moves to the pinnacle of distortion, or metametaphorism.

    “Metaphorism of this sort,” he says, “involves phenomenal daisy chains, built of speculations on speculations as we seep farther and farther into the weird relations between objects.” He sees these kinds of chains governing the structure, for example, of Ben Marcus’s The Age of Wire and String, in which metaphors compete with and jostle each other to the point where a clear, comprehensible mapping of their relations remains elusive. Metaphor here is an acknowledged anthropomorphism, necessary for humans who use language to communicate to objects like themselves. But it’s also a vertiginous one, describing a world not simply resting on an infinitely receding metaphoric chain of turtles, but constituted by it: metaphors all the way down.

    Alien Phenomenology maintains a gleeful fidelity to metaphor throughout its pages, making metaphor a practice it elaborates and relentlessly enacts. Consider just a few:

    Fleeing from the dank halls of the mind’s prison toward the grassy meadows of the material world

    For too long, philosophers have spun waste like a goldfish’s sphincter, rather than spinning yarn like a charka

    An imbroglio is an intellectual kind of predicament, a muddle to be sure, but a muddle wearing a monocle

    The tradition of human access that seeps from the rot of Kant

    These uses of figuration get at a paradox that underscores the book’s discussion of carpentry, or the practice of making things rather than simply talking about them: the fact of its status as a book, or its engagement with the (in this view, limited) practice of writing instead of other forms of making. The philosophical practice of carpentry, for Bogost, is craft, construction, or assemblage. His examples of carpentry move from the construction of buildings to the writing of software, including software that creates games, digital installations of abstract art, or a program that operationalizes the Latour litanies described earlier. It’s worth noting here, too, that Alien Phenomenology reaches out to the forms of carpentry with which Bogost most happily engages — it invites readers to use the “Latour litanizer” he created to produce lists of objects (“people, places, organizations, ideas, fictions, groups, media, durations, and even other lists”) taken from Wikipedia, and to engage more fully with the public debates he participates in with his contemporaries on blogs and social media platforms like Twitter, in dialogue with more traditional academic publications such as this one. And while I worry about how easily calls for work “unburdened by theoretical affectation” can be mobilized by more malign anti-intellectualisms, the calls expressed here for an “applied” form of philosophical speculation are compelling and convincingly enacted in Bogost’s wider range of work.


    In a recent essay in The Atlantic  (“The New Aesthetic Needs to Get Weirder”), Bogost offers a brief précis of the kind of aliens running amok throughout Alien Phenomenology. It’s a mistake to consider the alien in political or cosmological terms, he suggests, because aliens from other countries or planets imply too much intersubjectivity. Bogost’s aliens are equal opportunity (“everything is alien to everything”), and he helpfully calls the process of speculating about their inner experiences a combination of “evidence” and “poetics.” A poetics of the alien could very easily describe what Alien Phenomenology, at times despite itself, is up to. The book concludes, however, with something a little different: a final chapter on “wonder” that outlines not the techniques for practicing alien phenomenology, but rather the attitude to have while doing so.

    While the moves of alien phenomenology have until this point been dynamic, full of distortions, manipulations, and making, the attitude of wonder appears startlingly passive. “One does not ask the alien, ‘Do you come in peace?’” we are told, “but rather, ‘What am I to you?’” Bogost describes wonder as a “posture” taken before the alien, one that embodies a “respect” for things. As a rebuttal to what he sees as an unproductive self-seriousness plaguing philosophical practice, he amusingly demands: “Let’s leave rigor to the dead. Let’s trade furrows for gasps.” This raises what seems to be a growing affective split between approaches to the nonhuman, especially the speculative and object-oriented approaches with which Bogost is in most direct conversation. On the one hand we have wonder, allure, democracy, and vibrancy attached to alien objects, and on the other what Eugene Thacker has elsewhere called “the horror of philosophy.” It’s not like demands for wonder and respect can’t be seen in the negative, but the world described here remains a decidedly sunny one. The question left is whether it’s necessary to choose between them.

    What is it like to be a thing? We can only speculate, and this book makes a compelling case for why we probably should. And it certainly sounds like fun: deploy metaphor with abandon, disrupt traditional narratives, play games, make things. Use these techniques to become, or rather become for a moment, a little more like the aliens surrounding us. If that likeness remains metaphorical, then all the better.


    Kate Marshall is Thomas J. and Robert T. Rolfs Assistant Professor of English at the University of Notre Dame. She is the author of Corridor: Media Architectures in American Fiction (2013), and is at work on a new book, Novels by Aliens.

    LARB Contributor

    Kate Marshall is associate professor of English at the University of Notre Dame, where she is also faculty in the History and Philosophy of Science. She is the author of the award-winning Corridor: Media Architectures in American Fiction (2013) and her second book, A Poetics of the Outside: Mediation, Exteriority, and Twenty-First Century Narrative, is under contract with the University of Chicago Press. She writes for scholarly and public-facing venues on topics including technology, environmental media, contemporary fiction, and genre. She was the 2016–’17 Founders’ Fellow at the National Humanities Center, and was named the 2019 Frank and Eleanor Griffiths Chair at the Bread Loaf School of English, where she teaches in the summer. She serves on the steering committee of the Post45 Collective, and edits the Post45 book series for Stanford University Press.


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