Reading Merleau-Ponty’s The Structure of Behavior alongside Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology can generate a kind of cognitive whiplash. MMP takes on the physicists and physiologists for adhering too tightly to causal separation in the delineation of experimental protocols and results. “Might the cleavage between the subjective and the objective have been badly made,” the philosopher wonders (10). A few pages later he provides his own answer: “the classical theory of nerve functioning is led by the force of things to burden itself with auxiliary hypotheses which are almost in contradiction with it, just as the Ptolemaic system revealed its inadequacy by the large number of ad hoc suppositions which became necessary in order to make it accord with the facts” (16).
These scientists, MMP seems to be saying, are so strongly committed to the independence of body and world, of things stimulating and things reacting, that they form elaborate explanations for very simple events, like Ptolemy adding epicycle after epicycle to make an earth-centered cosmos be the answer to the data. The “force of things” forces the classical scientific method either into absurdity or into a world-oriented understanding of actions and reactions. “The world,” MMP writes, “is an ensemble of objective relations borne by consciousness” (3).
For the OOO guys, however, the world does not exist and things need to be much more separate from humans.
The idea of the world exists for Bogost as much as a jalapeño pepper, islands of plastic trash in the ocean, or a distant galaxy, but to assert the existence of the world concedes too much to anthropocentrism and intersubjectivity. (Why a galaxy can exist but not the world seems a pedantic insistence on the totalizing semantics of “world,” but there you have it.) Humans need a flat or tiny ontology, Bogost claims; an ontology that positions us as one thing among others, does not approach or study things as always in relation to us, and that respects the internal “withdrawing” of things away from us and our needs. We need an ontology, he says, that refuses the imbricating and perspectival correlationism of the 20th century.
In light of dire environmental crisis, the need to think in systems larger than humans is urgent. But I disagree that science examines earth and space only for human profit. I am confused how metaphorism is not a kind of correlationism. And I am still waiting for a clearer explanation of how things can be utterly radically separate and yet always in networks or messes or imbroglios of relation.
Scientific research is often only the truly curious engagement with the otherness of things there is (scientists at CERN do not accelerate particles for human benefit; NASA does not send space probes out to the edges of our galaxy for human benefit). Language itself is correlationist and metaphorical, as Bogost’s own delightful prose indicates. And, ultimately, ethically, our approach to things must engage humanity because humanity is the hyperobject screwing up this planet.
“It is a constellation, an order, a whole, which gives its momentary meaning to each of the local excitations,” MMP writes in a completely different context. But in the whiplash from juxtaposition, the philosopher seems to be chiding this new generation of ontologists. The trajectory from posthuman is not the afterhuman (no matter how much wonder is involved) but the human-with. We need an ethics and engagement of stewardship, even if it is stewardship of a damaged and deteriorating world.