Identifying the Alien in our Humanity

Look around you. At any given moment, “beings” encircle us from all sides. I’m using a computer on a table, while sitting on chair. Nearby, some window blinds murmur a restless patter and s kettle hisses and whines. Outside, the stirring, purring, scratching, sniffing scuttle of nature persists indefinitely. Indeed, we are not alone.

On the one hand, this is pretty obvious. Humans have always had “tools” or “technology,” and we’ve always been in the environment. But at a deeper level, this intimacy with other beings implies a kinship. Particularly in contemporary culture, people constantly interact with and through technology, like cell phones, buses, radios, computers, or televisions. Doing so, we express our humanity in and through technology, and this technology has an important role in how that occurs.

In other words, humans do not express what we often call “humanity” in a vacuum. To compose the great texts of history, Shakespeare, Beethoven, Sappho, and Sun Tzu needed technology. They needed ink or stylus, paper or tablet. And these texts always grew out of a place. The tablets of Mesopotamia needed the clay of the Fertile Crescent. The cave sketches of Lascaux needed the water and pigment–along with the cave wall.

This is what the scholar Thomas Rickert is getting at, to some extent, with the notion of “ambiance”: we grow out of stuff, express with stuff, “are” through stuff and space. As Carl Sagan said, “We’re made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” Humans may like to center the world around our own being, but we are intimately part of the nonhuman, “spoken” in a sense by our environment and the objects and nonhuman beings that compose it.

In Alien Phenomonology: What it’s Like to Be a Thing, Ian Bogost takes up these sorts of issues. It’s one book in a small but vocal chorus often categorized under the label of “object-oriented ontology.” While some do not like this label, it reflects what the outlook covers: de-centering “ontology” away from human subjectivity.

Let’s unpack that. “Ontology” is the study of being, how something or someone “is” or how things and people “are.” Humans have traditionally been central, since we have consciousness and can think and write about our world.

But for object-oriented ontology, or “OOO,” that’s just one way of looking at being. Many things “are” and exert a ripple on reality or on the existence of other beings without having an accessible consciousness. A rock may not be able to think, as far as we know, but it can still force us to swerve a car. Rain may not be “sentient,” but we still pitch our roofs to keep it off. A computer may not spontaneously compose a novel, but it can make many things with the right algorithms.

Returning to my original thoughts, however, I want to ask what this de-centered or “post-human” outlook does mean for humanity. In other words, what happens when we recognize the “alien” in our humanity?

It restructures my attitude toward the world. If I may quote the American poet Charles Olson, “I come back to the geography of it.” I come back to the combination of things that make up who I am and who we are as people. I come back to the soil and the sky, to the houses and school spaces where I grew up, to my family and friends, to my language, to my computer, and to my piano. Keeping this “alien” element in mind, consider my connections and to act more kindly with these connections. I wouldn’t hurt myself, so why should I hurt my landscape? Or the people who mutually construct that landscape?

One of the critiques leveled against OOO is that it empties notions of “resistance” or “oppression.” By leveling people down to relationships and networks, we lose something human, something vital. That may be true. For the marginalized, this perspective may take more than give. But, especially for the privileged, this perspective is humbling and, ironically enough, humanizing.

It forces one to consider how we’re all intimately connected to the same spaces, the same resources, the same tools, the same planet, and the same people. But as a counterpoint, it also forces us to consider how all this “sameness” and mutual ambiance diversifies. A jungle landscape cultivates a staggering catalog of life, and our own planet has done the same with people, with all of us acting as co-creators. This, I think, is a powerful perspective.

3 thoughts on “Identifying the Alien in our Humanity

  1. Brett, your post about OOO reminded me of the Wallace Stevens’ poem, ‘Anecdote of a Jar’:

    I placed a jar in Tennessee,
    And round it was, upon a hill.
    It made the slovenly wilderness
    Surround that hill.

    The wilderness rose up to it,
    And sprawled around, no longer wild.
    The jar was round upon the ground
    And tall and of a port in air.

    It took dominion everywhere.
    The jar was gray and bare.
    It did not give of bird or bush,
    Like nothing else in Tennessee.

  2. Pingback: Some thoughts about Objects and Expression | Backyard Philosophy

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