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Aliens to Armoires: Philosophical Carpentry

[Earlier this evening I accidentally and prematurely published a draft of this post, which consisted solely of my notes. Oops. Here’s the final version!]

I’ve been carrying Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to be a Thing around with me for nearly two months now — and finally last week, after having closed the lid on the Spring 2012 semester, I sat down to read. It took only about three hours to glide through his 136 pages; it’s so enjoyably and accessibly written (the latter is true in large part, perhaps, because I’m already somewhat familiar with the basic premises of object-oriented ontology).

I was most excited to reach Bogost’s chapter on “carpentry,” a concept he has addressed briefly on his blog a few times in the past. “Carpentry” is his name for “making things that do philosophy.” I’m drawn to the concept for a number of reasons: First, because my dad’s a cabinetmaker; he built the two houses I grew up in, and he’s made nearly all the furniture in my apartment. Second, I’ve been interested for quite a while in (for lack of a better term) “multimodal scholarship,” which involves thinking through various modes of production; making intellectual things in which the form embodies the content or “enacts” the argument. This interest plays heavily into my current work as co-chair of a committee that’s exploring options for a praxis-based PhD program at The New School.

Bogost adapts the term “carpentry” from Graham Harman’s Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things, and Harman, in turn, borrows the term from his mentor Alphonso Lingis. Harman uses “carpentry” to refer to the “metaphysical way in which objects are joined or pieced together, as well as the internal composition of their individual parts” (2). He offers a litany of concrete manifestations of carpentry (although, given that the objects these “joints” join together aren’t always concrete, these terms could also be interpreted more metaphorically): it’s “the joints and glue, the tenons, pipes, tunnels, and crawl spaces, the copper cable, luminous fibers, and smoke signals that link withdrawn objects to one another despite their permanent seclusion in private vacuum-sealed cells” (76).

Both Harman and Lingis, Bogost says, “use [the] phrase [carpentry of things] to refer to how things fashion one another and the world at large. Blending these two notions, carpentry entails making things that explain how things make their world” (93). The things of philosophy rarely explain how philosophy happens; philosophical objects — typically written texts — aren’t meant to embody the practice or process of philosophy (although there are lots of examples of creatively designed scholarly books, novels, poetry collections, etc., whose form manifests an aesthetic or argument reflected in the text’s content). As Bogost puts it, “philosophical works generally do not perpetrate their philosophical positions through their form as books” (93). (He’s raising questions that are central to the Digital Humanities — and to media archaeology, as Jussi Parikka describes it in his new book, as a method and a critical-creative practice.)

Bogost asks, “[M]ust scholarly productivity take written form?” It shouldn’t always, for a number of reasons:

First, academics aren’t even good writers…. Second, writing is dangerous for philosophy — and for serious scholarly practice in general…because writing is only one form of being…. [And] when we spend all of our time reading and writing words — or plotting to do so — we miss opportunities to visit the great outdoors” (89-90).

We miss a lot of that “great outdoors” because of our “semiotic obsession” — one consequence of which is “an oberabundant fixation on argumentation, such that pendantry replaces curiosity” (90-1). Furthermore, we needn’t always approach the world outdoors (and indoors, for that matter) as if it’s comprised of signs and symbols that require interpretation; Bogost refers to Levi Bryant, who “suggests that our work need not exclude signs, narrative and discourse, but that we ought also to approach the nonsemiotic world ‘on its own terms as best we can'” (90).

Carpentry provides another set of “terms” for doing philosophy (or, I would add, scholarship in general). Doing is key: philosophy (or theory, or any form of intellectual work) could be reconceived as something practiced in a variety of forms rather than necessarily written. Bogost advocates that we “represent practice as theory. It’s not that writing cannot be interesting. Rather, we might consider that writing is not the only method of engendering interest” — or performing intellectual work (111). I must say that this is one of the foundational ideas of the graduate program in which I teach — but it’s not always an easy one to convey to students. They can easily see how theory and practice might inform one another, and they can readily wrap their minds around the value of “theorizing practice”; it’s harder for them to see that one can practice theory — that practice can itself be a form of theorizing or philosophizing.

Craft offers a useful metaphor for Bogost, as it does for me. He challenges object-oriented ontology “to become craftsmanship” (111), and for inspiration he cites philosopher-mechanic Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft, one of many craft-y publications that came out in the mid- to late aughts (and which I’ve incorporated into some of my methods classes).

For Crawford, knowledge and labor are not opposites but two sides of the same coin…. He invites us to see that philosophy is a practice as much as a theory. Like mechanics, philosophers ought to get their hands dirty…. I give the name carpentry to this practice of constructing artifacts as philosophical practice (92).

Bogost then offers myriad examples of such carpentered artifacts. Because “[c]omputer software is one of the things [he makes,] it stands to reason that [his] examples will come from that arena” (94). He references the following (I’m sure I’m not doing justice to these case studies, so read the book!) :

  • His Latour Litanizer, an artifact whose existence as a digital gadget expresses a distinctive digital logic; it is “impossible to reproduce in print” (96);
  • The website he designed for the second OOO symposium at Georgia Tech, and for which he created an algorithm to select images from Flickr — an algorithm that displayed a (potentially incendiary) politics by framing particular figures, like people, as “objects”;
  • His and Nick Montfort’s work on platform studies, which he applies in assessing how the Atari VCS “sees” graphics (103);
  • His I am TIA program, which renders the television interface adapter’s view of its own screen, and thereby “underscores the part of the chip’s experience that would never be graspable through human interface with the Atari” (104);
  • Ben Fry’s Deconstructulator, which “offers an operational, exploded view of the entire [Nintendo Entertainment System’s] memory architecture, particularly its sprite and palette systems. From a carpenter’s perspective, the result opens the hidden file drawers of the NES cartridge, depicting its contents and revealing how the machine manipulates the game’s contents within the limitations of its memory constraints” (105);
  • Firebug as an example of how “source code itself often offers inroads in alien phenomenology — particularly when carpentered to reveal the internal experiences of withdrawn units” (105);
  • Mario Romero, Zachary Pousman, and Michael Mateas’s Tableau Machine, which “attempts to represent the perceptual apparatus of [an entire smart house] by harnessing [the house’s] array of cameras, divided into regions, and interpreting the changing images with computer vision algorithms that measure” (106)
  • Alex Galloway’s computer version of Debord’s Le Jeu de la Guerre

As plentiful and illuminating as these objects are, I kind of wish Bogost had explored areas outside of computer software, and offered some examples that are more of a stretch. Although my software-carpentering skills are pitifully limited, it still isn’t terribly difficult for me — or, I imagine, for many other self-selecting readers of Alien Phenomenology — to conceive of software as a thing that “does philosophy.” Software and the computers that run it are often thought of as sentient, as having a logic. And while I’d imagine that if most folks were asked to conceive of a software “philosophy,” they’d conjure up something positivist, I’ll bet that for most of those people it’s not hard to think, if only metaphorically, about software “enacting knowledge” or “thinking.” In one of my classes, I have my students practice “thinking like a database”; it takes a little work to get them to translate their traditional research questions into a data model, but they all get the fact that databases and programs imply certain models of knowledge. What about other artifacts a little father removed from the world of seeming-sentience? Really (ostensibly) dumb artifacts? Can they count as “carpentry,” too?

In an earlier chapter Bogost describes a few board games that can function as what he calls ontographs; they “describe the many processes of accounting for the various units that strew themselves throughout the universe”; they “uncover the repleteness of units and their interobjectivity” (50, 38). Maybe rather than looking at these board games as merely a graph, a mapping out, of an existing ontological complexity, we could think about making board games — or puzzles or toys — as an act of carpentry.

A few of my bookshelves

Bogost also offers one analog — and literal — example of carpentry at the end of his “Carpentry” chapter: a Georgia Tech class taught by his colleague Hugh Crawford in which the students construct a wooden hut as part of their study of Thoreau’s Walden. Yet I wonder if that wooden hut “explain[s] how things” — like huts, wooden beams, and hammers and nails — “make their world,” as carpentered objects are supposed to do, or if the exercise is meant rather to offer insight into Thoreau‘s life and mind, and into the semiotic universe of Walden. Do we better understand the philosophy of Thoreau, or the philosophy of the wood, by making the hut?

[Update, 3/29: Crawford kindly wrote me to say that he and his students “learned to know wood and craft, not in order to understand Thoreau, but in order to understand materiality and tools (in an amateur way).” He says that in the Thoreau class and others, they’ve “made playhouses, forged harpoons, built whale skeletons from plywood — you name it.”]

I must admit: given the ubiquity of sawdust in my childhood home, the fact that I’m surrounded by hand-made (and sentimentally charged) wooden objects, and my desire to hone my own woodworking skills, I was (selfishly) hoping for more “real” carpentry in the “Carpentry” chapter. For it’s not at all a stretch for me to think about making furniture as a form of “intellectual craftsmanship” — as a practice requiring one to think constantly about how wood “makes its world,” and how it interacts with other objects in that world.

A carpenter-philosopher might wonder:

From what global ecology — comprised of geography, industry, transit, regulation, etc. — does each piece of lumber emerge? (My dad’s day-job is owning a hardware store with his brothers, so he’s always thinking about wood at both the micro scale [e.g., the grain] and the macro [e.g., the global lumber industry].) How does a tree’s interaction with rain, sun, and soil affect the qualities of its wood? How do insects burrow inside a branch, producing traits that are variously desirable (some folks like the character of “wormy” wood) or not? How will a table saw blade interact with a dense mass of crotch wood or a burl? Can we anticipate how a board will expand and contract across its length and width in different climatic conditions, and position the grain and use appropriate joints to avoid buckling? If we know how a board is likely to splinter, in which direction should we plane to avoid damage? How is the choice of furniture style embedded in particular cultural and philosophical traditions? What aesthetic considerations inform our choice among various various oils, waxes, varnishes, shellacs, and lacquers, and how do these treatments work on woods with different degrees of porosity?

These might seem like mere pragmatic concerns — but couldn’t they also be philosophical? Many skilled woodworkers have a pretty good sense of the “repleteness of [woodworking’s] units and their interobjectivity,” and they think critically about those ideas. They engage in philosophical matter battles. They recognize profound aesthetic and ethical and political dimensions to their work. Not always (the work can be mindless and menial) — but it’s not hard (for me, at least) to see how making a chair could be a deeply philosophical practice.

my dining room table -- no nails or screws; all wood joints

As he offers up his myriad examples of carpentered software, Bogost proposes another way of thinking about carpentry: as “philosophical lab equipment.”

Let’s draw a distinction: unlike tools and art, philosophical carpentry is built with philosophy in mind: it may serve myriad other productive and aesthetic purposes, breaking with its origins and entering into dissemination like anything else, but it’s first constructed as a theory, or an experiment, or a question — one that can be operated. Carpentry is like philosophical lab equipment” (100).

Many of my dad’s and his woodworker friends’ projects are mechanical and theoretical experiments: rarely do they set out simply to, say, make a bookcase; perhaps more important, they also want to see what happens when they put one unit (a board, a joint, a tool) into a new relation with another, or how the creation of a new wooden artifact (a table, a fence, a planter) might change the way people interact in its presence, or the way plants grow around it, or the way it baffles light? They also often create objects that exhibit their constructedness, that “embody the practice of process of [philosophical carpentry].”

my dresser

Yet I would think that the making and choice of tools — each of which embodies a particular form and ideology of labor, and structures relations between objects, and between objects and subjects, in particular ways (yet which Bogost sets in opposition to philosophical carpentry) — can also be a component of philosophical practice. And why bracket art? Particularly with the rise of art- and design-led research (and vice versa), why not acknowledge that art and design can be “built with philosophy in mind,” too?

Not all practice is philosophy, of course, but I prefer to think that virtually any making practice can be philosophical practice. Any designed book-object, painting, film, or chair can be “constructed as a theory,” built with “philosophy in mind.” Such an encompassing view would make “carpentry” a tremendously useful pedagogical concept, and would offer us more tools to “approach the nonsemiotic world ‘on its own terms as best we can.'”