Screaming Monsters and Sordid Gays: Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology
I was really looking forward to reading Ian Bogost’s philosophy book, Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing. Two girls who I absolutely admire — one who writes criticism about Thoreau, one who writes plays about Louis Braille — placed praise upon the book, and I was prepared to do similarly.
Ian’s book is bound to object-oriented ontology, a philosophy that posits that “nothing has special status, but that everything exists equally — plumbers, cotton, bonobos, DVDs.” For Ian, the world is composed of units, where “something is always something else.” Humans, the stars of so many philosophies, can neither be separated nor elevated above other things because those things are a part of them and they are a part of those things. While Kant (a bland German boy), Heidegger (a curious Nazi boy), and others put people on a peerless pedestal, Ian puts them in messy dot where millions of encounters occur at once. As Ian explains:
On August 10, 1973, at a boathouse in Southwest Houston, the shovel of a police forensics investigator struck the femur of one of the seventeen corpses excavated that week, victims of serial killer Dean Corll.
The boathouse, the shovel, the police boy, the serial killer — each is a unit, and each unit leads to other units. The serial killer boy probably possessed a mommy and daddy, and his mommy and daddy are units who are entwined with more units. Object-oriented ontology suggests the unceasing character of the Nazis, who were invariably inserting themselves into more land, lives, and histories. Units are all over, and, during World War Two, so were the Nazis.
But not all of object-oriented ontology can be compared to screaming monsters who slaughtered six million you-know-whos and five million ummms. Some of Ian’s philosophy aligns with utterly unpleasant people, like Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg. Each of these canonized homosexuals has a penchant for lists. Whitman enumerates his electrified body parts while Ginsberg tells of the objects that have transfixed his tushy. For Ian, “Lists remind us that no matter how fluidly a system may operate, its members nevertheless remain utterly isolated, mutual aliens.” Whitman-Ginsberg types show this shared separateness in a most sordid way. Queer theorist Tim Dean details how homosexuals disclose the inevitable objectification of s-e-x. Disputing Andrea Dworkin’s belief that porn “dehumanizes those whom it fetishizes,” Dean says that all s-e-x, not just the porn kind, “fragments and particularizes.” Such fragmentation is disgustingly displayed in the gay community, whose members, according to Dean, BJ boys through holes in the wall, then spit the c-u-m into a container, which is then funneled into other boys’ tushies.
For Ian, lists dump “narrative coherence in favor of worldly detail.” Without needing to worry about building characters, a setting, and a sensational lovey-dovey affair, lists are free to list as many things as they please. Since any kind of blueprint is banished, a lister can add an item irrespective of anything. There are no rules. Like gay people, lists are unchoosey, indiscriminate, and inclusive. A homosexual allows any boy into his tushy, and a list allows any item onto its enumeration. The openness and the obliteration of pickyness is very displeasing to me. All divinely terrifying things possess structure and rules: Christianity, Nazism, the Glory Boys. Meanwhile, all the dumb dastardly things are absent of structure and rules: the gay community, the straight community, the bisexual community.
As for me, I surely don’t want a zillion boys’ c-u-m. I want a one-true-love boyfriend: someone who laughs when a rival rapper goes bye-bye, someone who points pistols at the popo, and someone who says, “Fat ass / All right bitch, though.” I want a boyfriend with such a specific narrative that he’s going to make a biopic.
“Carpentry” is another of Ian’s silly sentiments. According to Ian, academics need to cease fussing about minute arguments and publishing and start producing things that are neither articles nor books. An example of Ian’s idea is former University of Chicago boy Matthew B. Crawford. With a PhD in political philosophy, Matthew put aside a job at an esteemed Washington think tank in order to repair motorcycles. “For Crawford,” says Ian, “knowledge and labor are not opposites but two sides of the same coin.” Ian’s admiration for academics who relinquish academia or academic-like jobs is annoying. I think academics (philosophers, poets, theorists, and so on) should make other things as well. But these things shouldn’t be capitalist, like a symbol of supposed American freedom, they should be anti-capitalist, like thoughtful wars, thoughtful persecution, and more books. “Perhaps in the future,” Ian speculates, “radical philosophers will raise not their fists but their hammers.” But these aren’t “radial philosophers”: these are capitalists who are generating corporeal products to be corporeally consumed. One can’t watch the Little Mermaid while riding a motorcycle. But that’s what Ian’s carpentry theory has wrought: a continuing engagement with the physical world and a dismissal of the make believe one. Ian’s emphasis on producing things deemed valuable to the general public (i.e, not thinking academia), doesn’t smash the status quo, it supports it.
So, in summation, when Alien Phenomenology tells of things that tie into screaming monsters, it’s good. But when it tells of things that tie into gay people, capitalism, and other average Americanlike attributes, it’s bad.