Alien Phenomenology

As part of a course called "Composition, Rhetoric, and the Nonhuman," students read Ian Bogost's Alien Phenomenology and created objects that attended to the nonhuman. In the book, Bogost describes the methods of ontography and carpentry, which provide us with ways to account for nonhuman relations. Students in this course were tasked with creating either an ontograph or a work of carpentry. These projects were the launching point for a semester-long "making" project in which students were tasked with creating an object and reflecting on the various nonhumans that were a part of that project.

Bogost describes ontography as a strategy for revealing nonhuman relations without necessarily explaining them:

"Let’s adopt ontography as a name for a general inscriptive strategy, one that uncovers the repleteness of units and their interobjectivity. From the perspective of metaphysics, ontography involves the revelation of object relationships without necessarily offering clarification or description of any kind."

An ontograph can take many forms, from a list of objects to the photography of Stephen Shore to exploded view diagrams. The key here is that an ontograph reveals relationships without explaining or narrativizing.

Carpentry offers a slightly different approach; it is the creation of a machine that attempts to simulate the experience of an object. Bogost's notion of carpentry describes how making things is a way of doing philosophy. Such work involves "making things that explain how things make their world," and it means that we create "a machine that tries to replicate the unit operation of another’s experience." This approach insists that engaging objects in various ways (beyond writing about or observing them) is a crucial part of understanding how objects relate and interact.

This approach is advocated by others as well. In The Democracy of Objects, Levi Bryant suggests that accounting for nonhuman objects is probably not best approached by gazing upon objects: "Where acting on objects tends to produce qualitative differences in the objects, gazing at objects tends to reveal fixed properties" (93). For Bryant, the best way to attempt to understand the "weird" realities of nonhumans is to "vary the environments of objects or their [relations] to discover the powers hidden within objects" (170).

In the interest of varying environments and engaging objects in multiple ways, students in "Composition, Rhetoric, and the Nonhuman" crafted things and then wrote reflections about their process and product. These semester-long projects ranged from the brewing of mead to bookmaking to knitting. Students used such projects as an opportunity to consider what Graham Harman calls the "withdrawn" reality of things.