While things, or objects, are physically tangible, they can also be an abstract gateway to looking at the world from a fresh perspective and liberating the mind from selfishness. Dr. Ian Bogost, award-winning author of Alien Phenomenology, delivered a lecture to the Hamilton community about the pressing importance of discovering substantive meaning in everyday objects to enrich our daily lives.
Bogost is a designer and media philosopher whose work focuses on videogames and computational media. He is the Ivan Allen College Distinguished Chair in Media Studies and professor of interactive computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and founding partner at Persuasive Games LLC. His lecture was sponsored by the Tolles Lecture Series and the Comparative Literature Department.
Bogost opened the lecture by speaking about his father, who was left nearly blind after a car accident in his youth. This injury impacted Bogost profoundly in his childhood, and his parents’ unique interactions and perspective on life helped him open his eyes to the details of objects around him; things such as a colors, shapes and sizes of even minute objects because significant to him. In a sense, his father’s lack of eyesight helped open Bogost’s eyes to the world around him, and this experience continues to influence Bogost’s work.
As part of his research into engaging with the world through the things that mankind has created, Bogost visited a Wal-Mart Supercenter and took photographs of what he found. Rather than searching for any particular items he needed, Bogost opened his eyes to the huge variety and sheer quantity of wares at the store and chronicled his adventures with photography. The slideshow of mundane yet bizarre objects that he showed his audience was unusual because most people have already seen such things, but never given them much thought.
In a similar vein, Bogost projected slides of photographer Stephen Shore’s series “Unusual Places.” At first glance, the images depict anything but unusual places, with scenes such as a diners, street corners and parking garages dominating the collection. However, Bogost points out that the unusual aspect of this photography is the striking detail in which the places were captured, allowing the onlooker to notice details that usually don’t seem worth noticing.
To help describe his view of the dominating contemporary outlook on life, Bogost relied on a recent New York Times article by Christy Wompole, in which she writes, “irony functions as a kind of credit card you never have to pay back.” The piece is about irony in hipster culture, but Bogost shows that irony, or the plague of “ironoia” affects our culture as a whole. Through irony, we can temporarily escape making a choice between earnestness and contempt in expressing our ideas. Bogost claims that this phenomenon leads to a distrust of things.
The result can be quite harmful in shaping a worldview in which we see the planet “more as a wilderness and less as a petting zoo.” In other words, in order to stop taking advantage of the world and all the objects that we have created, individuals must learn to respect objects, no matter how unimportant they may appear at first glance.
Womple argues that people should learn to say what they mean and mean what they say. Bogost, on the other hand, believes that this view is too human-centric in that it implies that we give things meaning, and they cannot give meaning to us. Rather, he aims to help people understand that there is meaning to be found in looking at oneself as a piece of something much greater.
In order to see things as part of our existence and truly engage with them, Bogost again draws on his father’s experience. He explains that we must become blind metaphorically in order to see things afresh and begin to live with the world in a whole new way.