IN his 2012 book Alien Phenomenology, Ian Bogost attempts to comprehend the inner lives of things – an attempt gamely undertaken despite his recognition of its futility. Throughout this contribution to object-oriented ontology, Bogost studies what he variously refers to as objects, stuff, things, and units, asking questions such as “Does the engine have a moral imperative to explode distilled hydrocarbons? Does it do violence on them? Does it instead express ardor, the loving heat of friendship or passion?” (Bogost 2012, 75). In his opinion, “such questions must be asked quite separately from any ethical inquiry into the processes of sourcing and extracting crude oil to produce fuels and other products,” because such inquiries are mired in primarily human concerns. For Bogost, nothing is to be prioritised above anything else, for “any one being exists no less than any other” (Bogost 2012, 21). It is therefore imperative that (in keeping with the tenets of OOO) we retain a critical attentiveness to that which is of little direct concern to us. As he puts it, “The philosophical subject must cease to be limited to humans and things that influence humans. Instead it must become everything, full stop” (Bogost 2012, 10).
Interestingly, the author attributes something of his interest in the metaphysics of things to his role as a videogame designer, because, he says, the “stuff” of computers is particularly distanced from what we might refer to, after Braidotti, as zoe – the “non-human, vital force of Life” (Braidotti 2013, 60). As he puts it, “unlike redwoods and lichen and salamanders, computers don’t carry the baggage of vivacity. They are plastic and metal corpses with voodoo powers” (9). His interest in computational media is thus posited as giving rise to an interest in object-oriented ontology because the range of units and operations that he encounters therein is maximally inhuman – neither animal nor living. More than this, for Bogost, they quite conspicuously withdraw from human understanding and from the understanding of other objects: “for the computer to operate at all for us first requires a wealth of interactions to take place for itself. As operators or engineers, we may be able to describe how such objects and assemblages work. But what do they experience?” (Bogost 2012, 10).
This essay, you may be relieved to hear, is not a review of Alien Phenomenology, and nor is it an attempt to probe the inconsistencies of the object oriented philosophical framework that text presents; indeed, as Dominic Fox notes, when one gets down to brass tacks on the issue of object-oriented ontology, its conceptual infrastructure can feel frustratingly allusive (Fox 2014, online). In this sense, OOO may itself – in a particularly provoking way – exemplify an “object that withdraws”. I am turning to Bogost here because his work asks a question that I find quite compelling: “what is it like to be a thing?”
In the space provided to me, I will be using a recent example of feminist practice – namely, Linda Stupart’s 2016 experimental theory-fiction Virus – to help me articulate something like an answer. So, what is it like to be a thing? Ask a woman, a trans* person, a sexual dissident, a gender non-conforming subject, a person of colour. Such an answer is partial in every sense, and more than a little unfair, by implication, to Bogost (whose approach “refuses distinction and welcomes all into the temple of being” (Bogost 2012,19)). Of course, ideas about objects must not be confused with differently-inflected ideas about objectification, and “thing” in this context should not be viewed as overburdened with negative associations. Hence, whiteness, masculinity, and affluence are admitted to the realm of “things,” alongside all other phenomena.
However, I am deliberately treating Bogost’s question as a kind of stimulus or incitement here, and as a way in to a wider set of issues surrounding OOO. Bogost’s vision of phenomenology is in many ways at odds with Stupart’s posthumanist, intersectional feminist approach, and the frameworks their texts provide may indeed appear irreconcilable at times. As such, it is a fairly perverse exercise to discuss the two of them together – at least as perverse as attempting to ventriloquise non-human objects! However, as we shall discover, there are in fact several curious points of resonance between these two projects (even if they never really manage to find common ground), and one of these is an interest in bringing highly various phenomena into critical conversation. Both Virus and Alien Phenomenology pull an assortment of (sometimes very different) things together, and make this a key part of their theoretical projects. As such, I don’t feel quite so conflicted about tethering the one to the other here.
Alien Phenomenology finds juxtaposition to be highly revealing of the discreteness of objects – it foregrounds the separation and disaggregation of units, rendering them newly and helpfully strange. This is reflected in the author’s heavy use of listing in the text (a trait he shares with several other writers associated with his approach – Morton, Harman, Latour, etc.). According to Bogost, the “inherent partition between things is a premise of OOO, and lists help underscore those separations, turning the flowing legato of a literary account into the jarring staccato of real being” (Bogost 2012, 40). Virus, meanwhile, brings things together in order not to separate but to merge. Stupart’s approach is closer to Donna Haraway’s cyborg ontology, in which combinatory states are pushed to the fore as part of an emancipatory feminist agenda:
we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs. The cyborg is our ontology; it gives us our politics. The cyborg is a condensed image of both imagination and material reality, the two joined centres structuring any possibility of historical transformation. (Haraway 1991, 150)
Crucially, the cyborg both is and is willed to be here; it is a politically-mobilising cultural fantasy for strategic exploitation as much as it is revelatory of any existing state of being.
Compare this to Bogost’s insistence that we move away from the privileging of parochial human concerns. Remember that he stresses the importance of putting the experiences, motivations and inner lives of hydrocarbons on the same level of significance as human responsibility for environmental devastation, on the basis of the fact that both of these things exist, and that he urges us to keep these things (and others) disentangled from one another within our intellectual approaches, in order to better enable us to speculate upon their unique thingyness. For both Stupart and Haraway, on the other hand, it is not the specificity of a unit in and for itself that is a driving concern, but the confusion of the boundaries between things. This co-implication, entanglement, and mutual constitution is both philosophically compelling and politically necessary, against the “border war” of “racist, male-dominated capitalism” (Haraway 1991, 150).
If the driving metaphor for Bogost’s phenomenology is the alien (in the sense of quotidian forms of estrangement as much as extraterrestrial beings – though Roswell and ET both make an appearance), and if Haraway’s animating figure is the cyborg, then Stupart’s totemic thing is the virus – the infective agent that gives their text its name. Indeed, the figure of the virus is a particularly rich one in this context, given its boundary-disturbing qualities. As the vintage “found material” at the beginning of the book attests,
until the discovery of the virus, scientists felt that even if life was difficult to define they could at least distinguish between animate and inanimate matter. But the virus cannot accurately be described as either. … The virus has no means of locomotion, it possesses no source of power and it cannot grow. On the other hand, a virus contains vital DNA or RNA; like living matter, it can reproduce, but not until it has commandeered a cell. (Stupart 2016, 6)
It is, in short, “neither fish nor fowl,” and the same might be said of Stupart’s text itself. The book is an extraordinary combination of illustrations, collages, and artistic reproductions accompanied by a generically hybridised (and gleefully plagiarised) sci-fi novella about the creative destruction of the world as we know it.
In the future, a virus that has been incubated within communications technologies – “especially those in the service of the canon, the knowledge industries” (Stupart 2016, 23) – is unleashed, killing the phenomenologist Alphonso Lingus and reducing him to a “crumpled object” (Stupart 2016, 16). This virus then begins to circulate amongst the wider population, travelling via gender-biased citational practices, and particularly targeting those subjects who have founded their identities on a sense of bounded individualism, impermeability, and resistance to hybridisation. As the narrator informs us, “Bodies quickly learned the way to survive the virus was to be violable, to be porous, to be lacking in boundary integrity, to be an old object, full of holes and able to die over and over again … Those who were already used to it, already objectified, already abject, already broken; took this pretty easily. Not so the others” (Stupart 2016, 25). The characters that cannot re-orientate themselves towards this new ethos of permeability find themselves permeated involuntarily – Lingus is swiftly followed by the white male artists Joseph Kosuth and Renzo Martens, and the narrative concludes with the slaying of its primary antagonist, Carl Andre.
Indeed, Andre’s death is one of the key set pieces of the text, and helps to establish it as being part, to some extent, of a tradition of feminist revenge narratives. Virus starts with a fictionalised account of the events surrounding the death of Ana Mendieta, the artist who, newly wed to Carl Andre, fell “269 feet from the window of the 34th floor apartment on Mercer” after the couple were heard arguing (Stupart 2016, 10). Stupart’s perspective on Mendieta’s death, and her refusal to accept the official verdict that Andre was not guilty of her murder, is made obvious at various moments in the book (perhaps most pointedly when she includes a set of instructions entitled “A SPELL TO BIND MALE ARTISTS FROM MURDERING YOU” (Stupart 2016, 121) – one of several “spells you can use at home” included in the text). This becomes the focal point for a more general anger and disgust at male violence, both symbolic and physical, which propels the text to its conclusion, during which – via acts of art and witchcraft, performed by a coven of queer witches made stronger by mutations brought on by the virus – the ashes of Ana Mendieta’s cremated body are reconstituted, and returned to the state of a charred corpse.
Unable at first to bring this body back to consciousness, the coven abduct Andre from the gallery and – as an act of revenge – tether him to his dead wife’s body. I’d like to quote this climatic passage at some length:
A living Carl Andre was tied to the newly rotting corpse of Ana Mendieta with royal blue twine, face to face, mouth to mouth, limb to limb, with an obsessive exactitude in which each piece of the body corresponded with its matching putrefying counterpart. Shackled to this rotting double, the artist was left to decay. To avoid the starvation of Carl Andre – which would have been too much in keeping with his Minimalist refusal of excess – and to ensure the rotting bonds between living and dead artist were established, we continued to feed Carl Andre appropriately. Only once the superficial corporeal difference between the corpse and the living body started to rot away through the agency of maggots, which bridged the two bodies, establishing a differential continuity between them, did we stop feeding Carl Andre. Once the living man and the dead woman had turned black through putrefaction, we unshackled the bodies, now combined together through the digestion of worms, merged into black slime. (Stupart 2016, 117–118)
This is the climactic act of boundary crossing within the text. Bodily integrity is compromised to the extent that living melts into dead, subject into object, masculine into feminine, human into non-human (as reflected by the bodies’ transformation into a site of abundant zoe). In keeping with the earlier account of the virus, we find that only those with an aptitude for and an affinity with hybridisation – that is, those who can affirm it as something other than an act of violence – are able survive such a complete disintegration of the subject. The virus works upon their bodies, causing Carl Andre to die, whilst bringing Ana Mendieta triumphantly back to life. Again, we see that those who survive and thrive after the virus arrives are drawn largely from the ranks of the categorically abject – in Mendieta’s case, the reanimated survivor is an exiled Cuban woman whose “brownness and skin were her practice” (Stupart 2016, 10). They are those who were granted only partial access to the “universal” category of the human even before the virus mutated their bodies, and who now find themselves part of a ruptured future in which the immense privileges of that category have been revoked – indeed, they have become liabilities. As Braidotti put it in her 2015 talk “Posthuman, All Too Human? A Cultural Political Cartography,” “Since when was “human” an all-inclusive category? … I’d rather run with the bacteria”; or in this case perhaps, run with the virus.
To revisit the language with which we began here, the survivors of the virus have long been positioned as objects and excluded from the position of subject. It is telling that Stupart’s infective agent is described as a unexpected byproduct of “men’s ability to make objects of the world” (Stupart 2016, 23), and as proliferating “every time a white man is quoted by a white man quoting a white man quoting a OR an Other is abjected/ objected/ thinged by a white man quoting a…” (Stupart 2016, 24). That is to say, the author has already framed a partial answer to Bogost’s question, “What is it like to be a thing?,” with the response that “Some of us already know what it is like to be considered a non-human thing.” Indeed, this gesture is made explicit in some of Stupart’s critical work. In their essay “Rematerialising Feminism: Things Like Us and Them,” they attempt to “reconsider the object, as opposed to the subject, as a potentially emancipatory position and site of resistance to neoliberal models of subjectivity” – that is, they enact a reverse discourse in which thingyness is claimed as the space from which (dis)identity politics can be enacted (Stupart 2015, online). The position of object thereby becomes a node of gender-political resistance.
Here Stupart is playing upon Hito Steyerl’s essay “A Thing Like You and Me” – a piece in which the feminist struggle to be seen as a subject is cast aside in favour of viewing humans “as things mutually acting upon one another” (Steyerl 2010, online). Steyerl’s language (and indeed the idea being expressed) here hints at further points of crossover between object oriented-ontologists and feminist theorists of matter. For contemporary feminists, as Steyerl puts it, the struggle for access to the universal has become “mired in its own contradictions,” prompting a possible change of tack: “how about siding with the object for a change? Why not affirm it? Why not be a thing? An object without a subject? A thing among other things?” (Steyerl 2010, online). Just as Braidotti, belonging to a social group (that of “women”) that has been long excluded from understandings of what constitutes full humanity, is more willing to assert affinity with the bacterial than with the human, so, having also been pushed to the margins of subjecthood, Steyerl claims her place amongst the things.
And, indeed, “A Thing Like You and Me” gives some indication of why this newly appropriated subject position – or rather, object position – might be appealing. Steyerl touches in passing, for example, upon “forensics and the fetish,” and the role of physical artefacts in legal discourses of truth generation: “objects increasingly take on the role of witnesses in court cases concerned with human rights violations. The bruises of things are deciphered, and then subjected to interpretation. Things are made to speak … just as when humans are interrogated” (Steyerl 2010, online). For me, such comments unlock a whole swathe of broader questions about evidencing and disciplinary, public, or institutional belief. What bodies or things can testify in which circumstances and, more importantly, who can expect to be believed? Is it people or things that make the best witnesses? Which people? Which things? Within such discussions, of course, we must retain a sensitivity to the relational and context-dependent nature of much objecthood and subjecthood – that is, the fluidity of the various positions of observer and observed, interrogator and respondent, human and inhuman, agential and inert, socially recognised being and socially invisible being.
Steyerl remarks, too, upon social perceptions of the hidden lives of things – not in and for themselves, as Bogost attempts, but as repositories of human relations. A thing “is never just an object, but a fossil in which a constellation of forces are petrified. Things are never just inert objects, passive items, or lifeless shucks, but consist of tensions, forces, hidden powers, all being constantly exchanged” (Steyerl 2010, online). As she herself remarks, such an analysis trenches upon a “classic materialist take” – namely, that of those theories of reification in which some of the qualities of object and subject come to be, under capitalism, exchanged. It is not just that labour processes and relations of production come to be obscured by the product of alienated labour, but that the object is, to some extent, made subject. It possesses all those qualities of vivacity, charm, autonomy, and personality that the person-as-labourer is divested of, as “a definite social relation between men (sic)” comes to assume “the fantastic form of a relation between things” (Marx, 1976, 165). At the same time as the commodity is taking on subject-like qualities, the labourer is being rendered increasingly object-like through their experience of the division of labour, fragmented production processes or a wider estrangement from their work and what it does.
As Lukacs puts it in “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proleteriat,”
[in consequence of the] rationalisation of the work-process the human qualities and idiosyncrasies of the worker appear increasingly as mere sources of error … Neither objectively nor in his (sic) relation to his work does man appear as the authentic master of the process; on the contrary, he is a mechanical part incorporated into a mechanical system. (Lukacs 1971, 89)
Partly, of course, this understanding of the working subject as a commoditised object stems from the experiences associated with proleterianisation; not being owner of the means of production, the worker has no choice but to
present himself as the “owner” of his labour-power, as if it were a commodity. His specific situation is defined by the fact that his labour-power is his only possession. His fate is typical of society as a whole in that this self-objectification, this transformation of a human function into a commodity reveals in all its starkness the dehumanised and dehumanising function of the commodity relation. (Lukacs 1971, 92)
We can see that the experience of thingyness is a widespread, if differentially distributed, phenomenon within a capitalist culture in which workers take on some of the traits of commodities so that the products of their labour can come alive.
Becoming thing-woman, then, can operate as a productive part of feminist polemic and provocation, given the long history of the privileging of inanimate things. It is a diagnostic tool, speaking to the current position of abjected social subjects and venerated, fetishised objects, and it’s a stance that, within certain contexts, I feel able to subscribe to – I myself declared, in a recent article, that “I’d rather be an iPhone than a woman” (Hester 2016, online). However, the act of claiming objecthood is not, to my mind, a substantial basis for an emancipatory gender-political project. It has strategic value, but only within a very narrow range of circumstances, and even then we must recognise the ways in which its usefulness may be limited. After all, as Nina Power has remarked, many of us have already been prompted to consider ourselves as objects, not in a radical gesture of reverse discourse, but as a result of contemporary cultures of work and erotic capital. In a chapter of 2009’s One Dimensional Woman – entitled “You’re like an advert for yourself” – Power notes that “From the boardroom to the strip-club, one must capitalise on one’s assets at every moment, demonstrating that one is indeed a good worker, a motivated employee, and that nothing prevents your full immersion in the glorious world of work” (Power 2009, 24).
In her words, “All autonomous, organic agency of a moral, rational or egoic nature is dissolved into auto-objectivization” (Power 2009, 24–5) – an extension, in many ways, of the dynamic by which the worker comes to view their capacity to labour as a kind of possession. This, for Power, simultaneously characterises the way in which many young cis women in high-income societies have come to view their sexualised bodies (particularly their breasts) as disconnected things for which they act as chaperones, wranglers, or hosts, and that are “referred to, with alarming regularity, as completely autonomous objects, much as one would refer to suitcases or doughnuts” (Power 2009, 25). On the one hand, Power argues, this development renders a traditional feminist critique of sexual objectification somewhat redundant: “the language of objectification may not be useful any longer, as there is no (or virtually no) subjective dimension left to be colonised” (Power 2009, 25). On the other, it gives one very little ground from which to reclaim the concept. Becoming an object to and for oneself is already an established mode of adapting to gendered socio-political conditions.
My wider problems with identifying as an object, as far as it can be considered an encompassing feminist goal, return me to my discussion of Alien Phenomenology. Part of my gut frustration with Bogost’s text (the activation of my “critical reflexes,” if you will) is that the careful attentiveness he proposes extending to all units – the key element in his approach to rejecting a “mind = world” correlationism and its concomitant anthropocentricism – has yet to be extended even to all categories of human thing, especially within philosophy in general and phenomenology in particular. One assumes that this is a position with which Stupart might agree, given that the narrator of Virus provides a rather telling account of walking through a decimated library:
Of course, we had saved some of the language and the stories and the signs in our infinite data membranes … but the virus had already eaten through the paper of books pulsing in the skins of maggots who swallowed all those texts written by white men citing only white men producing more white men, and then abjected them into shit. Amongst the blushing squirming maggot piles and upturned shelves and shifting moss, we saw the word COLLAPSE (Stupart 2016, 115).
This, I believe, is a reference to the speculative philosophy journal published by Urbanomic, which includes several texts by Bogost’s speculative realist influences, including Graham Harman and Quentin Meillassoux. (Indeed, some readers may have recognised that the description of the torture inflicted upon Carl Andre in Virus – the passage I quoted at length – is actually lifted from the pages of Collapse. It appears in Reza Negarestani’s essay “The Corpse Bride” from Collapse IV).
When Bogost asks, with tender curiosity and a genuine will to understand, what it is that a microprocessor or a ribbon cable experiences, it is hard not to instinctively bristle on behalf of all the abjected human things who are not subject to the same curiosity – whose inner lives most philosophical and artistic discourses have no time to ponder. The project of object-oriented ontology insists that that “Nothing is overlooked, … nothing given priority” (Bogost 2012, 50). As such, it might be best encapsulated by the slogan “All Things Matter.” As that slogan implies, it actually demands a fair amount of social immunity or entitlement to prioritise nothing at all over anything else, as well as a certain lack of concern with the treatment, affairs, and survival of animate beings, including other humans. Perhaps we could even argue that “All Things Matter” is primarily available as a position to those who – despite their best efforts – are furthest away from being seen as an object; that is, those whose culturally recognised subjecthood prevents them from experiencing at least one register of cultural thingyness.
Ultimately, I think, we give up too much in becoming an object for good and all, as tempting as it might be to reject a category that only ever accepts us begrudgingly (if at all) in order throw our lot in with the other stuff. Indeed, being a subject is the price of entry for many of what I consider our most necessary – if conventional – feminist political tools. The demand for reproductive justice, for example, or human rights, or equality of opportunity, or bodily autonomy, or recognition of our reproductive labour, or the raced, gendered, and classed redistribution of resources – what would any of these demands mean without the underpinning of an assumed humanity or subjecthood? To my mind, accepting and celebrating our precarious and marginal relationship to one pole of the subject/object coupling – that is, venerating our exclusion from full subjecthood – is insufficient, and any revaluation of the category of the subject must be combined with its extension or expansion. Subjecthood must be contested for as well as challenged, and we must negotiate the tensions and affinities between these feminist tactics as best we can. Indeed, such an effort is arguably fictionalised within Stupart’s novella itself; in the end, the survivors of the virus find that – in willingly ceding to relationality and the permeability of the embodied self – they are in fact capable of “preserving the other’s difference from oneself” (Stupart 2016, 118). Carl Andre is annihilated, and Ana Mendieta is returned to life as a new form of autonomous being, in a world which no longer requires feminist demands – a beautiful form of feminist wish fulfillment in which the historical damage of having been made an object is sweetly (yet sorrowfully) repaired.
Bogost, Ian. 2012. Alien Phenomenology, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Braidotti, Rosi. 2013. The Posthuman, Cambridge: Polity.
Fox, Dominic. 2014. “Guerrillas In The Mist” – a review of Peter Wolfendale’s book Object-Oriented Philosophy: The Noumenon’s New Clothes. Online: http://review31.co.uk/article/view/292/guerrillas-in-the-mist
Haraway, Donna. 1991. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century” in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, 1991. New York: Routledge (149–182)
Hester, Helen. 2016. “Technically Female: Women, Machines, and Hyperemployment” in Salvage, online: http://salvage.zone/in-print/technically-female-women-machines-and-hyperemployment/
Lukacs, Georg. 1971. History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, trans. Rodney Livingstone. Cambridge MA: MIT Press (83–222).
Marx, Karl 1976. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy Volume 1, trans. Ben Fowkes, London: Penguin.
Negarestani, Reza. 2012. “The Corpse Bride” in Collapse IV, Urbanomic. Online: https://archive.org/details/CollapseVol.IvConceptHorror
Power, Nina. 2009. One Dimensional Woman, Ropley: Zero Books
Steyerl, Hito. 2010. “ A Thing Like You and Me” in e-flux Journal #15, April 2010. Online: http://www.e-flux.com/journal/15/61298/a-thing-like-you-and-me/
Stupart, Linda. 2015. “Rematerialising Feminism:
Things Like Us and Them” in …ment Journal 06: Displacement. Online: http://journalment.org/article/rematerialising-feminism-things-us-and-them
Stupart, Linda. 2016. Virus, London: Arcadia Missa
Helen Hester is Associate Professor of Media and Communications at the University of West London. Her research interests include technofeminism, sexuality studies, theories of social reproduction, and post-work politics, and she is a member of the international feminist working group Laboria Cuboniks. She is the author of Beyond Explicit: Pornography and the Displacement of Sex (SUNY Press, 2014), the co-editor of the collections Fat Sex: New Directions in Theory and Activism (Routledge, 2015) and Dea ex Machina (Merve, 2015), and series editor for Routledge’s “Sexualities in Society” book series. She has two books forthcoming: After Work: What’s Left and Who Cares? (with Nick Srnicek, Verso, 2017) and Xenofeminism (Polity, 2017).