Binders Full of Ideas: An interview with Ian Bogost

Event: Nov 25, 2012

Bogost's toast.
Bogost's toast.

By Christopher Schaberg and Timothy Welsh

Ian Bogost is among a group of contemporary posthumanist philosophers working in the realm of “object-oriented ontology” (OOO), which seeks to remove humans from the center of philosophical thought and value interactions between all objects—humans, as objects, included—equally. His recent book, Alien Phenomenology, Or What It’s Like to Be a Thing, explores this strain of thought, using disciplines as varied as photography, carpentry, and computer programming—one of Bogost’s specialties—to illustrate his concepts.

Bogost is the Ivan Allen College Distinguished Chair in Media Studies and Professor of Interactive Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and Founding Partner at Persuasive Games LLC. He will present his work and ideas and sign books at 5 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 29, in the Whitney Presentation Room of Thomas Hall on the main campus of Loyola University New Orleans (6363 St. Charles Ave.).

Room 220: Your recent work explores a cutting-edge field of philosophy called object-oriented ontology.  In object-oriented ontology there is a recurrent emphasis placed on what is “weird.”  Could you elaborate on and maybe defend this term as a useful concept for philosophical inquiry and creative work?

Ian Bogost: Graham Harman first used the term “weird realism” in relation to object-oriented ontology, borrowing it from HP Lovecraft. In his recent book on Lovecraft (which is titled Weird Realism), Harman clarifies the connection a bit: Lovecraft doesn’t write representational realism, he doesn’t describe things with literal descriptions. Instead, he alludes to them—like the physical form of the famous Cthulhu, who is never really adequately described in the story that bears that creature’s name.

Weirdness is another name for indirectness, for something that doesn’t quite fit or can’t be fully explained. Because things resist direct understanding. They keep something from us. Weird sometimes means “unearthly,” or foreign, and in its verbal sense it means “to alienate” (to “weird someone out”). Weirdness is a property of alien things. And given that I think that all things are alien to one another, the fundamentals of relation between things is weird. It’s counterintuitive, because we think of weirdness as abnormal. But for OOO, it’s just the opposite. Weirdness isn’t weird, even though it is.

Rm220: Do you have a lingering idea for a book you’ll never write, or a game you’ll never make?

IB: I’m sure I’ll never make or write most of the lingering ideas I have. I keep files of them. Of ideas. Years ago I was going to write a book on game adaptation, but I never did that. Not yet anyway. There’s the book on sports games I’ve outlined and even written a proposal for. Three separate books this year alone on technology culture, one of which I may actually write. So many more undone ideas than done ones. I’m swimming in them.

Rm220: You make the convincing argument that if philosophers want to understand objects, they have to be making objects. In your research, this has often meant creating software. Are there certain objects you wish you could make, because doing so would be extraordinarily illuminating?

IB: So many. I wish I could do woodworking competently. Furnituremaking. I wish I could (re)build cars or motorcycles. I wish I could design aircraft or sail boats. I wish I could cook competently (I used to be quasi-competent, now I’m useless). I wish I could knit. I can draw and paint within reason, but I can’t pick up a sketchbook and render the world as I see it. I love photography and I have many expensive tools for it but I usually can’t see like a good photographer. I wish I could make music competently. I can’t sing or play the guitar or other instruments, although I played saxophone and trumpet as a kid. I wish I could do animation and metallurgy. I wish I had better electronics and electrical engineering skills.

Having gotten to the point that I’m marginally competent at writing books and making software, I mostly realize how many other things I can’t do, and how much better I could be at the things I can. Which brings up the old question, should one be deep and narrow or broad and shallow in one’s abilities? Perhaps we can be deep and narrow and broad and shallow too.

Rm220: You’ve worked in professional environments both inside and outside the academy.  Your projects often muddy the divide between academia and the so called ‘real world’.  You seem to encourage people to see the unique textures of wherever they are, and to work with the materials at hand rather than erect false paradises out of things (like achieved Kickstarter campaigns).  I’m stumbling toward a question that has to do with how your work involves a really compelling blend of skepticism and exuberance—how do you put this curious pair to work in the classroom?  Relatedly, how can students cultivate wary critical minds while also maintaining childlike excitement for imagination and creativity?

IB: Skepticism and exuberance. That’s an insightful way to put it and I hope it’s a characterization I really deserve. It’s very easy to get this across in the classroom: I just use candor. If we’re really working honestly with a subject or problem, we usually have no idea what we’re doing. We know why we came to the problem, maybe, and where it came from, and those are good places to start. But a true problem is one we don’t know the answer to, and therefore have to work on together. So most of my classes are extended conversations in which we work on some problem. I try to be pretty clear that I’m not sure what to do with it, even if I already have my own ideas or biases. And having a sense of curiosity cut with skepticism is a good way to culture a “critical mind” that’s really critical and not just negative, or that doesn’t just repeat some hand-me-down politics. In these contexts it’s much easier to know real excitement when it arises, because it’s really real, and not just a ruse put on for appearances sake.

Rm220: Let’s get technical and theoretical: What’s your methodology for web browsing?

IB: I was just thinking about this recently. See, I started using the web when it was new. I remember visiting Yahoo when it was still hosted on Jerry Yang’s Stanford workstation (akebono.stanford.edu, named after a sumo wrestler). The web was small and you really had to search to find something worth seeing. Then you’d make a web page of your own and link to the things you found worthwhile on the web.

Then ten years later we got blogs and RSS, and we sort of tracked a list of people or organizations. Remember blogrolls? Yeah. And today of course we have these so-called social discovery vehicles, like Twitter and Facebook, and I think it’s difficult to find things to look at any other way.

So I guess what I’m saying here is that I’m just as subject to the information discovery and organization platforms that have developed around as as anyone. I just don’t take them to be good or better or natural or revolutionary or evolutionary or whatever, which is the Silicon Valley mantra. And increasingly, the mantra of culture writ large.

Rm220: You were recently charged with developing a new Center for Media Studies at Georgia Tech. Do you see this as an opportunity to put some of your recent arguments about the direction of the academy in practice?  In other words, how might carpentry and ontography factor into the building of this academic object?

IB: In short, yes. I’m interpreting “media” in the sense that [Marshall] McLuhan does—as anything whatsoever that extends our senses, not just communication media like television and newspapers. But I’m also extending media to refer to the extensions of all things, not just the human sensorium. I’ve got some increasingly concrete plans for rolling out this idea in the Center, more as an invitation than as a dogma.

Rm220: If you could write a short book on one object, what would it be?

IB: Toast.

Christopher Schaberg and Timothy Welsh are assistant professors of English at Loyola University New Orleans.

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