Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Ian Bogost's Alien Phenomenology: The Baggage of Vivacity

“Christ almighty. Cancel the order.”
“Cancel the cremation!”
“Stop yelling. Hope said it was okay, we have it in
writing!” And I ran to get the note from Mr. Plotsky, but
the visual of Mr. Plotsky’s helter-skelter craziness made
things worse.
“Frances, what have you involved us in?”
“She said we have a biological imperative! She said
we have to clear the decks!”
“What’s coming in for a landing? A UFO?”

--From Chap. 4 of Cooperative Village, “A Dunking A Day Keeps the Torturer Away”

In my novel Cooperative Village, I created a fictional character to represent the part of me who lags behind, who gleefully dances for perverts, who openly weeps at beauty and loss; the slowest bubble to the surface, I called her “the lovely retarded woman.” In one of my favorite scenes (one that anticipates the configuration aspect of Bogost's Tiny Ontology concept) the protagonist, Frances, rewards the lovely retarded woman for her help with a tedious project creating vocabulary flashcards for her husband's elementary school students. She presents her with an expansive gift removed from a curio cabinet of treasures—a kaleidoscope.

I showed her how to aim it a light source, look through the hole and manipulate the wheels, both in the same direction, in opposite directions, fast, slow, and spinning with abandon.

“Beautiful,” she said. “Beautiful. BEAUTIFUL. For me?”

“For you.”

She put her arms up in a “v” for victory.

The lovely retarded woman leaves her encounter with Frances refreshed, enriched, with victory in hand. (You'll have to read the book to see the curious effect their session together has on Frances.)

I don't have a kaleidoscope for philosopher, game designer, professor of Digital Media at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and author of Alien Phenomenology, Ian Bogost; anyway, it would be too rudimentary a tool for the operation at hand. There are certain things I sensed in reading and rereading this newest addition to OOO theory that his own book wishes to tell him, certain contradictions currently withdrawn from his perception that it wishes him to resolve in favor of freedom and greater ontological dignity. In the book's epigraph, Bogost posed a series of questions to his book.

Particle man, particle man
Doing the things a particle can
What's he like? It's not important
Particle man

Is he a dot, or is he a speck?
When he's underwater does he get wet?
Or does the water get him instead?
Nobody knows, Particle man

--They Might Be Giants, Particle Man

His book has answered him, but I don't think he's listening. The book didn't know he was being merely clever, and his book wants his attention. So as improbable as this all seems, it called out to me here in St. Francois County over Memorial Day weekend. For days now I've been worrying how to intervene, how to help? (Lives are at stake.) What medium would best deliver his book's message, most impress him with his book's urgent warnings? 

So even though it was painstaking and time consuming (and way more than he would ever do for me if the tables were turned) I made him an ontograph, or the beginnings of one (I ran out of Time and didn't get to finish in the “dense meanwhile,” so it's a WIP; besides it's better if he finishes it himself). I mean it to be an amalgam of a Latour litany and a Shore picture. As Bogost writes, “The Latour litany gathers disparate things together like a strong gravitational field. But the Shore ontograph takes things already gathered and explodes then into their tiny, separate, but contiguous universes.”

My ontograph is in the form of an index, a creative supplement (some new categories, some new entries to existing ones) to the one already created for Alien Phenomenology, offered with two hopes: 1) that it fulfills itself definitionally, index as that which “leads an observer to surmise a particular fact or draw a particular conclusion.” (From Webster's Third New International Dictionary); and 2) that as John Barth told us in Chimera: “The key to the treasure is the treasure.” Tittle and all!

Here are the index categories:

New Unit! addiction: alcohol-caused liver disease, 20; when I don't tweet, I might lose face, 76;

New Unit! Christianity: wounds of the mountain-Christ, 3; rapturous disappearance of humanity, 8; a great cathedral, 21; Carpentry, 85-111; Wonder, 113-134.

New Unit! Empire (hyperobject): U.S. Armed Forces, 1; Trinity Site, 1: 1862 Battle of Glorieta Pass, 1; Roswell Army Air Field, 1; Very Large Array antenna, 2; African elephant, 9; Harry Potter, keynote speeches, single malt-scotch, 12; volcano's network, 21; the palace of being, 21; Winnie the Pooh, 22; Slurpee, 23; who does the counting?, 27; pragmatic speculative realism, 29; the Voyager, 32; Offra of Mercia, 35; the Prussian empire, the Zionists, 39; the relationship of accumulation, 40; Coke Is It!, 44; Disney Concert Hall, 46; the latest gadgets, 48; subjects are subordinate, 48; Hostess Twinkie, 62; USSR, 66;

games: Being human the players can try to outwit one another in order to fool the interlocutor through deception, 14; the cancer that beats others at its own game, 39;

perception: of things, 27; ordering like an imperative, 27; bracketing our natural assumptions about, 32; arrested before, 50; as clear subject for phenomenological inquiry, 61; as ideative categorical intuition, 80; subjective universe of one object's, 83;

New Unit! prison: of your own devising, 3; dank halls of the mind's, 5; tragically blind to the distinction between doing and saying, 15; making things tidy, 15; of representation, 40; of human experience, 65; the pace of Twitter, 76;

I thought it might be further illuminating and fun to practice a little mereology. First, consider each these six categories individually, then as a whole, and then insert each entry into its proper place in the preexisting index and consider the larger whole. For instance, addiction would be inserted between Adams, Ansel and Adventure; Christianity between children: career goals for and Coke Is It (slogan); Empire (hyperobject) between Eames, Charles and Ray: Powers of Ten and entities, alliances among; and prison would nestle between preservation of units and process philosophy.

Then just sit back with a kick-ass cocktail and let the index perform the philosophical work. It's powerful! 

I think if Ian Bogost will do this and spend more time listening to his book (and maybe literally reading it aloud will help him), one of the things he will discern (and by no means is it the most important contradiction, but it's the one that jumped out at me, and showed itself as a symptom of a broader tendency) is a fundamental contradiction between calling literature out, as he does on page farty, for having "a preference for traditional narrative" [of precisely the sort insisted upon by James Wood] because it "acts as a correlationist amplifier,” and reifying Wood's self-serving status as arbiter of the "good" and "aesthetically successful." Even the lovely retarded woman wasn't that self-defeating.

Meanwhile, although we haven't used the term "correlationist amplifier," to describe James Wood, or Adam Kirsch, or Lev Grossman, or Laura Miller, or any of the other middlebrow gatekeepers, we in the litblogosphere, and most especially Edmond Caldwell at Contra James Wood and The Chagall Position and in his phenomenal new novel Human Wishes/Enemy Combatant, have been saying exactly that for years.

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