Posted by: Johan Normark | August 17, 2012

What is it like to be a cave from a speleocentric perspective?

During the early part of my vacation I read Ian Bogost’s (2012) book Alien Phenomenology, or what it’s Like to be a Thing. Bogost is one of the four best known object-oriented philosophers (the others being Harman, Bryant and Morton). Like the others he is fighting a battle against correlationism and he does it primarily by using examples from his expertise in video games. If we wish to understand objects themselves we must set humans as subjects to the side since objects do not just exist for our amusement. Objects exist in their own right.

Bogost proposes a tiny ontology because being is simple. Instead of Bryant’s two-dimensional plane of a flat ontology, Bogost suggests that we can have a spaceless ontology, which is one-dimensional. He states that “if any one being exists no less than any other, then instead of scattering such beings all across the two-dimensional surface of flat ontology, we might also collapse them into the infinite density of a dot. Instead of the plane of flat ontology, I suggest the point of tiny ontology” (P 21, emphasis original). It contains everything entirely even though it spread and expand like a mess. A cave contains everything it needs, it is not lacking anything for its own existence.

Instead of the term object, Bogost uses unit which is anything “made up of a set of other units (again human or nonhuman), irrespective of scale” (P 19). Unit is an ambivalent term since it is indifferent to the being it names. It is isolated, unitary and specific. Unit operation is used to describe how units behave and interact. In systems theory an operation is what transform an input. Caves machinate within themselves and mesh with other objects, such as ceramic vessels, bats, guano, rain, archaeologists, spelunkers, spiders, etc. Caves act and react to properties but still keep secrets. A unit is always a set of other units and any unit operation is fractal. The unit operation is a process by which a unit attempts to make sense of another unit. It is a prehensive capability in Whitehead’s sense. So how does a cave make sense of water dripping inside it? It is not enough to simply observe this from our own human perspective. The traditional characterization of an experience through objective and external mechanisms leads us farther from understanding how and entity may experience. Understanding how something operates is not the same as understanding how that thing understands that operation.

Bogost’s alien phenomenology does not specifically refer to extraterrestrials but to the unknown found everywhere. The prehensive capabilities of a cave are as alien to us as E.T. and a Space Jockey. However, the “only way to perform alien phenomenology is by analogy” (P 64). Hence, the risk of falling into anthropocentrism is unavoidable but the same is true for any unit. If we remove the subject-object correlate and only correlates object with other objects we still need to resort to centricity that is not anthropocentric. Caves are speleocentric and water is hydrocentric. When we study these objects we can never reach the way them themselves prehend other objects. We have to allude to a thing, i.e. to talk about it without talking about it.  This is simply done through metaphors. We “never understand the alien experience, we only ever reach for it metaphorically” (P 66). Harman suggests that relation takes place as a metaphor. Bogost proposes that metaphor itself should be used to understand alien objects’ perceptions of one another. However, metaphorism is anthropomorphic (slightly better than being anthropocentric). Bogost uses Husserl’s concept of intuition to account for instincts that are not related to sense perception. Categorical intuitions can function in an “ideative” manner. Bogost applies this to speculative metaphorisms of object relations that are disconnected from the way we perceive them. Hopefully we have then reached a better understanding of how objects prehend other objects, not how humans perceive the same relation.

I wonder if we ever can reach an archaeology where the artifacts, ruins, etc. actually becomes the centers of research themselves? As long as we follow the practice of fitting artifacts into arborescent models, like “Maya culture”, “Maya cosmology”, etc. we are trapped in a narrow anthropocentric narrative. My project on water as an archaeological material/object aims to change this.

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  1. The books sure was a joy to read. Clear and well written. This is a book every archaeologist should read, not just those interested in things. Besides making me want to understand things better, it made me want to understand other people better.

    • Indeed, all OOO authors have a clear writing. Nothing like Deleuze, Derrida, etc. Come to think of it, of the main 20th century French philosophers only Bergson wrote that clear, but then he also received a Nobel Prize for his work.

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