Ian Bogost: The Interview

(Those who were kind enough to cross post the Bennett interview are modestly asked to do so again. Cross-posted with realism course blog, realismcourse.wordpress.com)


This is a continuing series of interviews around course readings for a realism class this semester at the University of San Diego. The students have been suggesting questions on various authors, but more importantly, have gotten a tremendous amount out of reading these philosophers, especially their works very much in progress, as have readers following up on these readings via the internet.

Ian Bogost is associate professor in the School of Literature, Communication, and Culture at The Georgia Institute of Technology, where he’s better known as a video game designer and interpreter, pushing the limits of game design in socially constructive ways. A sought-after speaker and writer, Bogost not only designs games meant to ameliorate social disorders, but also works to draw attention to the ways in which video games have an “expressive power” that demands our full due in an era when most American households have video game devices; the way that we play them makes them not just games anymore (if ever they were).

He is the author of Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame CriticismPersuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames, and co-author of Racing the Beam: the Atari Video Computer System. Among three books he is now working on, Bogost is writing a philosophical text, Alien Phenomenology, that extends his work in Unit Operations to think non-systemic conceptions of objects and their relations. The “flat ontology” he introduces in this new work, forthcoming later this year, offers an exciting approach to the movement of speculative realism. In Unit Operations (for those at the University of San Diego, this book is available for download through the USD library and is well worth your time), Bogost makes a startling argument against the dominance of the idea of video game “systems.” Where much discussion about video game programming discusses the structures of play that they set up, Bogost focuses on the way in which different objects behave in singular ways, and he uses the notion of “unit operation” to move beyond video game criticism to all manner of, well, matter, such as cellular replication and other entities about which we previously had focused on systemic change over particular objects and their singularity.

In philosophical terms, Bogost is confronting structuralist accounts of systems to argue for less global conceptions of meaning (that meaning is part of the rules of a given structure, in the same way that monopoly money is only of value within that game). This is, to be precise, a “unit operation.” What he offers is an attunement to discrete operations of meaning in poetry, games, movies, and more. The point is to show the promise of aspects of computational theory for other humanistic endeavors, while also showing that the human-centered conceptions of such unit operations have run their course.

This brings us to his work in progress, where Bogost calls for an “alien phenomenology” that recognize the strangeness of the reality around us, a reality found not just in computational systems, but also in the world around and in us. In the interview below, Bogost lays out the stakes of his work here, and it becomes clear the importance it will have for those thinking the road to be traveled over the next few years in philosophy.


1. You write in your upcoming book, “As critics, our job is to amplify the black noise of objects to make the resonant frequencies of the systems of objects inside hum in credibly satisfying ways?” I guess I’ll begin by asking, why this satisfaction? In other words, what lead you to this project?

I’d been interested in Graham Harman’s object-oriented philosophy since I first found out about it, which was perhaps half a year before the publication of Tool-Being. I’d followed this work with interest (it gets a citation in-passing in my first book Unit Operations), as did I his subsequent books and then the work of the “speculative realists.” I’d always had a hankering to do something further with this interest, as well as to return to my philosophical roots and to the concept of the unit operation. In particular, I had questions about how Harman’s thinking could help me understand particular objects, not just the nature of objects in general.

Then in 2007–2008, Nick Montfort and I were writing Racing the Beam, our book on the Atari Video Computer System. The book discusses the ways the hardware design of that machine directly influenced the games that were produced for it, and indirectly influenced conventions and genres of games even after different hardware affordances were common. We looked at the technical aspects of the machine in some detail, including its controllers and casing, its stock microprocessor and I/O bus, and its custom-designed graphics and sound chip. And by doing so, I think we were able to offer useful and surprising insights into the nature of the apparently simple videogames made for that system.

I’m proud of what Nick and I accomplished in Racing the Beam. But something bothered me: our treatment of the Atari focused only on the way the hardware influenced human creativity. An interesting topic to be sure, yet, one that didn’t give full credit to the strange experience of the system’s components.

I began learning to program the Atari around the same time we began research for the book. It’s a very strange computer, most notably because of the way it addresses the screen: the programmer must manually change settings on the graphics chip (it’s called the Television Interface Adapter, or TIA) in tandem with the rendering of every scan line of the television picture. It’s natural (or it was for me anyway) to begin wondering: what’s it like to be a TIA? Or a MOS Technologies 6502 microprocessor? How would one characterize such a thing? Would it even be possible?

The Atari was just one moment in a larger set of these recognitions. Here’s one more example: A year before I’d spent a consulting windfall on a Leica M8 and got back into rangefinder photography. I found myself thinking about the way different optics see a subject, the results of which photographers sometimes call “rendering” or “drawing.” For example, I have a 1935 50/f2 Summar lens that produces images with a very particular atmosphere, thanks to a combination of factors inherent in its design. I can see how the lens sees when it exposes on emulsion or sensor, but how does the lens see without me?

So, you could say that this project was borne from two parents, one a desire to concretize tool-being in some way, and  the other a deep personal curiosity about the secret lives of objects.

2.  Your “alien phenomenology” attempts to offer a “pragmatic” or “applied” “speculative realism.” As part of this project, you offer three “modes” for doing speculative realism: (1) the practice of ontography: the production of works that bears witness to objects; (2) metaphorism, which is the production of works that speak to the “centered,” inner lives of objects and the ways in which they reduce other things to their existence (just as humans do when we practice anthropomorphism, so cameras make the world in their own image); (3) and carpentry, which is expansive whereas the previous may be seen as reductive: constructing things that themselves speak to the perspective of objects. You offer these, I think, in order to talk about objects that are created by human beings (with all the caveats on “creation”), such as video games and back scratchers, without defining their being in terms of what human beings wanted them to be. Would that be correct? Is your “alien phenomenology” an alternative to classical, Aristotelian conceptions of the function of made goods?

It’s true that one of the motivations that lead me to Alien Phenomenology was a concern: how can one talk about man-made objects in the same way one discusses others, natural or abstract objects for example? Even if man-made things don’t pose an ontological problem (as indeed they don’t for Harman or for Latour), how do we contend with the constructed nature of such objects, the configured parts that make them whole? Indeed, we could say the same things about aggregate objects, whether you call them networks or assemblages or just plain objects. Here science is implicated as much as sociology or philosophy.

Mostly, as you suspect, it seems that these object live lives of their own, without us, even as we are in the middle of using them for our own ends. The TIA in the Atari lives in a different universe, of sorts, from the player who pilots Pitfall Harry. It behaves by a different logic, even as it operates by the very same logic (there’s a puzzler). This is where the metaphor of the alien becomes very productive.

Clearly the for-ness of Aristotelian final causation is troubled here. Is the TIA for human entertainment? For moving videogame sprites? Is it for modulating RF signals? Is it for latching circuits? All of the above? Do previously material causes become final, or are all causes in some sense final? All objects, not just man-made ones, are subject to this puzzle. When objects of different kind encounter one another, the problem becomes that of one making sense of the other. This is what I’m really after, and I want my approach to work for humans making sense of microprocessors as much as I do for sand dunes making sense of siroccos.

3. One means for thinking non-mechanistic conceptions of things has been vitalism, which is reinvigorated in work of someone like Jane Bennett, or others who are the heirs of Deleuze. How does your thinking of “undead” objects offer a counter to this approach?

I’ve read and enjoyed Bennett’s recent book, but I have the same problem with vitalism as I do with panpsychism: they are too human-centered to work as philosophical ground. I think Bennett does a very good job justifying anthropomorphism in Vital Matter, and indeed I offer my own position on the inevitability of anthropocentrism in Alien Phenomenologyall objects are thing-centric, and all must make sense of one another through metaphors of self… here I’m borrowing directly from Harman’s idea of metaphor in Guerilla Metaphysics.

Whiteheadian panexperientialism is somewhat less objectionable, although it’s really a term from Griffin’s reading of Whitehead, and maybe these matters of naming amount just to hair-splitting. But the problem with an umbrella-term for whatever it is that all things do is that it makes that very doing too homogeneous for my taste. This is where the idea of the alien comes in again—it’s a frame for object-withdrawl that accounts for the impenetrability of inter-object understanding. It insures that whatever it is that objects experience, other objects may never even recognize it as experience.

4.  Do think there’s a reason that there is a turn to realism now? Is there simply an exhaustion with the previous philosophical approaches, or is there something else underway?

I was certainly exhausted with philosophy. By the letter of my training (all my degrees are in philosophy and comparative literature), I’m really a philosopher rather than a media theorist, even though I’m really only known as the latter. Part of that exhaustion came from disgust: a sense that philosophy and theory didn’t really care about the world at all, but only exclusive clubs of academic esoterics. In that respect, I don’t think it’s an accident that the return to realism comes at a time when the academy (and particularly the humanities) are in crisis. I’ve written a much more extensive and pointed indictment of this problem elsewhere (http://www.bogost.com/blog/the_turtlenecked_hairshirt.shtml), but for our purposes here I can boil it down to this: in order for humanism to reenter the world that it has forsaken, isn’t a strong dose of realism a requirement?

There’s something else going on too: at the same time that the humanities are struggling with their survival, the sciences appear stronger than ever. We’re even seeing some humanists adopt scientific or social-scientific approaches wholesale in the hopes that they might offer succor or even rescue (cognitive science is the commonest balm). But despite their history, the sciences are becoming ever more correlationist, focused outward rather than inward, concerned with human application and innovation more than with nature. I made this point in much more detail at the recent OOO Symposium at Georgia Tech (it will appear in the book too), but it’s possible that the sciences are even more correlationist than are the humanities. Perhaps a latent sense of dread at this possibility is also at work.

I’m not suggesting that we must reject science, but that we may finally be forced to grapple with CP Snow’s two cultures problem for real. In the arts and humanities, “interdisciplinary” usually means inbreeding: “French and German.” What happens when it must instead mean, say, media ecology and electrical engineering, or gastronomy and physics?

5.  One worry that crops up time and again about “flat” ontologies such as yours is that it’s one thing to say that we need to describe relations outside of their correlation to human beings, but it’s another to say that those other relations are equally valuable in some way. This is a question you raise obliquely in your discussion of ecological movements as still taking human beings as the primary actors, to which ecologists may reply, no, at the level of ontology, we’re fully on board with non-correlationist thought. But of course, this does not preclude the fact that ecological concerns are being raised because of the effect ecological devastation will have human beings. What do you make of this repeated type of critique against flat ontologies?

For me it’s undeniable that positions adopting an extra-human perspective are plagued with a dilemma: how can a concern about that outside the human primarily service human interest? Ecological studies, animal studies, and other fields offer worthwhile perspectives, but they nevertheless assume the privilege of human existence. I’m not saying that we should gun the engines of our SUVs to more rapidly reach our slaughterhouses, but I do think flat ontology forces us to ask more sophisticated questions about the impacts of object actions on object logics. Is it even possible for humans to act in the interest of ferns?

One major philosophical difficulty for flat ontology is the risk of nihilism: if nothing is any more important than anything else, then it might seem that it doesn’t matter if anything does or doesn’t exist. But instead, I think object-oriented ontology is an existentially replete philosophy. A promiscuous ontology, as Levi Bryant and I sometimes call it. Still, that doesn’t address the problem of the quality of existence.

Nothing about adopting flat ontology precludes one from living according to a code of values, or from adopting a politics of action, or from evangelizing in favor of such codes and actions. But if metaphysics, rather than epistemology or ethics, is first philosophy, then we also cannot shy away from difficult questions about the implications of any object’s acts. Do objects themselves have values? Does the spanish moss or the waffle have its own ethics, and how would we know if it did? Ought we to force our human code onto all things, or ought we to withdraw into a sort of universal version of Star Trek’s Prime Directive? These questions are no longer ontological ones, and I don’t necessarily claim that flat ontology should be asked to answer them, no more than tugboats should be asked to conjugate verbs.

On the one hand, I see this as a valid and worthwhile future work (Alien Ethics, perhaps). But on the other hand, perhaps its time that positions grounded in ethics ought to be asked to reconcile their positions to ontology, rather than vice versa.