Object-Oriented Quibbles and the Carpentry of Discourse

Welcome, all, to my n part series on Object-Oriented Quibbles (OOQ). For a little more detail on this project and its exigencies, I refer you to the prelude to Part I. But if you’re not that interested here’s the TL;DR version: I love Object-Oriented Ontologies (OOO) and new materialisms. However, I also think the unbridled acceptance of all things OOO (among many) warrants a more careful approach to some of the ideas. For those fragments of thought I don’t quite feel like publishing, I put them here.

So without further ado, today’s episode of OOQ addresses the Carpentry of Discourse. Those familiar with the work of Ian Bogost will almost immediately recognize the reference and the conflict. For Bogost, carpentry and discourse are antonymous. However, those of you who are very familiar with Bogost or at least with his Alien Phenomenology will know that he provides a scathing preemptive counter-attack to just the kind of work I’m doing with this series on OOQ. It is with that preemptive assault I must begin.

To begin, I quote Alien Phenomenology (form the chapter on carpentry) page 91, almost in its entirety:

Among the consequences of the semiotics obsession is an overabundant fixation on argumentation, such that pedantry replaces curiosity. Richard Rorty adeptly explains this phenomenon in his 1996 American Philosophical Association Response to Marjorie Greene’s Philosophical Testament.

“For [many philosophers] “doing philosophy” is primarily a matter of spotting weaknesses in arguments, as opposed to hoping that the next book you read will contain an imaginative, illuminating description of how things hang together. Many of our colleagues think that one counts as doing philosophy if one finds a flaw in an argument put forward in a philosophical book or article, and that one is a good philosopher if one is quick to find such flaws and skillful at exhibiting them. “

There’s a fictional character in The Simpsons known as Comic Book Guy. Offering sarcastic quips about his favorite comics and television shows, he epitomizes the nerd-pedant who splits every last hair in his pop cultural fare. Besides serving as a send-up of the quintessential comic book/ Dungeons and Dragons geek, Comic Book Guy also lampoons the nitpickery of the Internet, where everyone critiques every detail of everything all the time. But beyond those obvious references, Comic Book Guy also serves as condemnation-by-proxy of most academics. We are insufferable pettifogs who listen or read first to find fault and only later to seek insight, if ever. “Discourse” is not a term for conversation but the brand-name for a device used to manufacture petty snipes—about the etymology of a word, or the truth value of a proposition, or the unexpected exclusion of a favorite theorist. It is perhaps no accident that among the general public, one finds behavior most similar to academic punctiliousness on the Internet, where all ideas, interchanges, and actions are strained through sieve of language. (Bogost p. 91)

Well shit. Even I’m forced to admit that this is a pretty apt description of OOQ. Hell, I’ve even put on a little weight and grown a pony tail in the last year, making me all the more Comic Book Guy-esque. Nevertheless, even though it’s perhaps not his preferred mode of engagement with the philosophical (more on that later), Bogost has entered into philosophical discourse. As such, I’m a bit uncomfortable with the idea of him preemptively excluding himself from criticism. (I actually doubt that’s the primary goal here. This passage works to set up his argument of carpentry more than to insulate him from pedantic criticism.) Here’s what I’ll say: this OOQ series is admittedly and unabashedly nitpickery. I think there’s benefit in careful criticism. I think it hones greater creativity. See for example Danny Boyle’s recent rejection of his possible assumption of the James Bond Franchise Directorship. Boyle prefers to work within a more limited budget. He says that constraints foster creativity, and I agree. If the entire academic community just confined themselves to attempted creativity and offered no nitpickery, I’m not sure the creativity would continue. We write in anticipation of critique. That anticipation forces better work. I think most of us have read a book or seen a movie by an artist whose first popular effort was wonderful. But when final cut or complete editorial authority were granted based on prior success, subsequent endeavors failed to satisfy quite so much as the original. That said, I’ve obviously chosen to relegate my OOQs primarily to that bastion of all things sarcastic—the interwebs. My decision to pursue them in this “lesser” venue suggests that on some level, I agree with Bogost. It’s a complex issue. Regardless, I’m going to go on with my quibbles.

Alien Phenomenology is a pithy and engaging contribution to OOO. Picking up on the work of Graham Harman and Levi Bryant, Bogost pushes beyond an OOO of household objects (coffee cups) and animals for a more serious reengagement with the materiality of human-made machines. Given Bogost’s history as a video game theorist, this means computers, software, and gaming software in particular often receive the most sustained analysis. Nevertheless, Alien Phenomenology is a whirlwind tour de force of pop culture materiality. The shift in emphasis from the more inert rocks and coffee mugs of Harman/Bryant’s OOO provides an ontological foundation with a more active materiality. Yet despite that potential for greater activity, Bogost’s ontology is smaller and more stripped down. He offers the notion of “tiny ontology” as an addition to “flat ontology.” Tiny ontology is minimalist. We might even call it Ockham’s razor ontology. It’s just enough to get the job done. Ultimately, I think tiny ontology is a fantastic contribution and I’m going to write further about it in more formal settings. What concerns me here is Bogost’s suggestion for how to pursue tiny-flat ontology/ alien phenomenology—viz., carpentry.

Following up on his diatribe of Comic Book Guy, Bogost suggests, “There is another way. If a physician is someone who practices medicine, perhaps a metaphysician ought to be someone who practices ontology. Just as one would likely not trust a doctor who had only read and written journal articles about medicine to explain the particular curiosity of one’s body, so one ought not trust a metaphysician who had only read and written books about the nature of the universe.” (pp. 91-3).

In short, Bogost recommends doing and making over thinking and writing—thus, the term carpentry. As would be expected, as a researcher and teacher of rhetoric and communication, I’m a little put off by the suggestion that crafting communication does not rise to the same ontological/ intellectual/ aesthetic level of other makings. Although, Bogost’s argument is finally that writing is not enough by itself (doing must accompany writing), he regularly returns to this distinction between philosophical writing and carpentry:

  • [P]hilosophical works generally do not perpetrate their philosophical positions through their form as books. The carpenter, by contrast, must contend with the material resistance of his or her chosen form, making the object itself become philosophy. (p. 93)
  • Designers, engineers, artists, and other folks make things all the time. But philosophers don’t; they only make books like this one. (p. 99)

To this idea that making and writing are different, I offer three primary objections: 1) The distinction between writing and making replicates the two world problem OOO seeks to avoid, 2) In so doing, the distinction between carpentry and writing elides the materiality and craft of discourse, 3) Bogost’s recommended alternative (software) is ontologically identical.

1) The Two World Problem: The suggestion that writing is somehow different from other forms of material engagement seems to replicate the two world problem that OOO and alien phenomenology seek to avoid. The flatness of flat ontology presupposes a lack of distinction between the two (post-)modern worlds of nature and culture, language and reality. In separating out the practices of writing from other activities, Bogost replicates this distinction. The refrain that writing isn’t material enough is an act of ontological gerrymandering (to borrow Woolgar’s term).

2) The materiality and craft of discourse: Communication is a thoroughly material and typically embodied enterprise. Writing this post has been a thoroughly material encounter. Throughout this process I have been forced to engage (with great frustration) with the spine glue of Alien Phenomenology. Bogost’s book is a short one, clocking in at a mere 165 pages. The craft-workers at the University of Minnesota Press (or their subcontractors) have provided the book with a healthy slathering of book binding glue. Thus the rigidity of the spine and the light weight of having at most 82 pages of weight on a side mean I can’t keep the damn book flat. I’ve broken the spine several times to no avail. At the moment my desk lamp is smashing Alien Phenomenology open to the page 92-93 spread. What a beautiful lesson on the recalcitrance of matter and the articulation of objects in the pursuit of a program of action. Communications happen in situated, embodied, and material spaces—what Clay Spinuzzi calls writing ecologies. These spaces are no less complex and material that the spaces of the carpenter’s bench. I have tools: keyboards, screens, blogs, post-it notes, and the current surprise multi-tool that is the desk lamp. I have constraints: word processing software, hyperlinking, attention spans (which for internet readers I’m rapidly exhausting).  Plato’s Gorgias makes this same argument suggesting that doctoring is a techne (carpentry) and rhetoric is mere pandering (nitpickery). Here is a post hoc ethical judgment—the product of doctoring (health) is better than the product of rhetoric (dupery). Heidegger prefers das Ding (the thing) to das Geganstand (the object) because of his aesthetic sensibility which says a handmade jug is better than a coke can. Horkheimer and Adorno prefer original art to the mass produced for the same reason. Ultimately, the only difference I can see in each of these cases is a differential perspective (ethical or aesthetic) on the end product.

Secondly, I understand ontology to be the study of being or the preconditions for being. Subsequently, I’m not sure there is an activity that can be performed that doesn’t have the potential for ontological scrutiny. Living and doing is being and making. We are all already and always carpenters. I don’t think we all need to become cyberneticists making robotic turtles to be ontologists. But perhaps that’s just me.

3) Software vs Writing: Bogost’s preferred example of carpentry is making software. However when the preference for the end product is removed, I can’t see a different between making software and writing. Now straightaway, I’ll admit to knowing little about programming. Although I have some experience with scripting languages, I haven’t programmed anything since I had a TI-85. So if I’ve got the basics wrong, let me know. As I understand it, creating software involves the assemblage of signifiers (source code) that will instruct a compiler to render those instructions understandable to the computer so that it can execute the appropriate commands. Similarly writing involves the assemblage of signifiers (text) that will instruct a complier (visual cortex + Wernicke’s area) to render the source code understandable (as language) to the computer (prefrontal cortex). Good code is inscribed, tested, and revised to ensure that the appropriate instructions are performed. Good writing is inscribed, tested, and revised to help ensure that the appropriate education, persuasion or delight occurs. Certainly writing is messier. Squishy human brains don’t follow instructions quite so well as compilers and processors. Although, that might make writing an even better form of carpentry on which to base ontology.


A totally fair retort by Ian Bogost:

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  1. Posted March 19, 2013 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

    I have a piece under review at _Enculturation_ that has similar issues with _Alien Phenomenology _. Generally, I question how committed Bogost actually is to a flat ontology. The point about the book glue seems especially right on, because _AP_ seems like a book meant to privilege certain favored objects above others (my argument is about the juxtaposition between chile pepper and computer in the first chapter; going through Hatch chile season in Arizona, it’s hard to claim that a chile pepper does not manifest a whole world while a computer does). Personally, I don’t feel like there’s a whole lot that is useful to rhetoricians in Bogost, at least as compared to Bryant, Harman, or Morton. Rhetoric is already aware, as a discipline, of the ways in which computers point outside the human (cf. all of post-human composition), but I think the assertion that coffee cups have something to do with composition is suggestive.

  2. Posted April 21, 2013 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

    In fact Harman’s ontology does fall under the 2-world problem, sensual and real, or even, inhis latest book THE THIRD TABLE, the 3-world problem where the world of common sense and the world of physics are declared to be “utter shams” (but in different ways) and the world of ghostly withdrawing objects is the only real world. See my review: http://www.theoria.fr/review-of-graham-harmans-the-third-table-hatje-cantz-2012/