Ontography

Below is a significant quote from Ian Bogost’s book, Alien Phenomenology regarding the research practice of ‘Ontography’. I have been studying ontography to develop a unique and speculative view of my Honours research subject, ‘the concept album’.

“Ontography involves the revelation of object relationships without necessarily offering description or clarification of any kind”. (38)

OBJECT ORIENTED ONTOLOGY

A central research focus of this semester’s Media Objects lab has been Alien Phenomenology, a book written by video-game designer Ian Bogost. Bogost contends that we should care more about the objects that constitute our universe, and one of the key motives that gives impetus to his work is the concept of understanding the ‘alien’ – not in the extra-terrestrial/martian sense – but rather, as Bernhard Waldenfels explains, the alien as “the inaccessibility of a particular re­gion of experience and sense.” (34)

To introduce readers to this stream of thought, Bogost puts forward the notion of ‘object-oriented-ontology’. OOO considers not just the materiality and appearance of objects, but also their relations and interactions with other objects or ‘things’. Quoting Levi Bryant’s Democracy of Objects, Bogost contends that for OOO, “one object is simultaneously a part of another object and an independent object in its own right” (23) This enforces the notion of ‘flat ontology’ – in which all objects are to be considered equal:

“An ontology is flat if it makes no distinction between the types of things that exist but treats all equally” (17).

OOO is a concept derived from Graham Harman’s ‘object-oriented philosophy’, a way of thinking that rejects the narrow anthropocentric point of view that humans have of objects in favour of an object-oriented perspective, which feels unfamiliar and strange when first employed, but can allow for rich rewards via deep speculation of an object’s existence.

Bogost offers a terrific summation of object-oriented-ontology on his blog page, which i have included below:

  • Ontology is the philosophical study of existence. Object-oriented ontology (“OOO” for short) puts things at the center of this study. Its proponents contend that nothing has special status, but that everything exists equally–plumbers, cotton, bonobos, DVD players, and sandstone, for example. In contemporary thought, things are usually taken either as the aggregation of ever smaller bits (scientific naturalism) or as constructions of human behavior and society (social relativism). OOO steers a path between the two, drawing attention to things at all scales (from atoms to alpacas, bits to blinis), and pondering their nature and relations with one another as much with ourselves.

ONTOGRAPHY

In chapter two of Alien Phenomenology, Bogost introduces the research practice of ‘ontography’, which can be used to investigate the OOO of an object. Ontography contextualises the relationships between seemingly disparate objects and illuminates their ontology. As Kitchener has described, “Ontology is the theory of the nature of existence, and ontography is its de­scription” (see Bogost 36).

Ontography is a “general inscriptive strategy… that uncovers the repletedness of units and their interobjectivity” (Bogost 38), that can be expressed using a tool that Bogost refers to as an ‘ontograph’ – which aims to “catalog the diversity of being, deliberately or not”, as Bogost explains in his blog (Time, Relation, Ethics, Experience).

Ontographs loosely relate all of the objects and terms they contain, without necessarily specifying the common thread between the items. Lists can often be seen as ontographs, although ontographs can also be visual; taking the form of flowcharts, mind maps, exploded view diagrams and even pictures etc.

‘Latour Litanies’ are a form of ontographic list (coined by Bogost and derived from the work of Bruno Latour) made up of various words and phrases; “a record of things juxtaposed to demonstrate their overlap and imply interaction through collocation” (Bogost 38).

In a 2011 interview featured on Wired.com, philosopher Graham Harman discusses Latour Litanies and the significance of lists in his own writing:

  • “These lists of objects, which often appear in my writings, are not my own stylistic innovation. They can be found in any author who wants to reawaken our awareness of the particularity of individual things. Ian Bogost calls them ‘Latour Litanies’ just because Latour does them so nicely, but they are far older than Latour. In many cases I try to have the lists include one object from the sciences, one living creature, one machine, one compound entity, one human political unit and perhaps one fictional entity, just to enforce the notion of a ‘flat ontology’ in which all objects are equally objects. So here’s a sentence you might find in one of my books, though I’m inventing it right now: ‘The world is packed full with objects: neutrons, rabbits, radar dishes, the Jesuit Order, the Free City of Bremen, and Superman.'”

The above example of listing in the Harman extract ratifies Bogosts statement, “ontography involves the revelation of object relationships without necessarily offering description or clarification of any kind” (38). This quote has proven pivotal to my understanding of ontography, and has guided my use of the research practice in exploring the object-oriented-ontology of concept albums.

One of the most important aspects of ontography is the altered style of thinking it requires, one that allows the practitioner to gain a perspective of objects that would normally be impossible to observe. I can only agree with Bogost’s summation of the fruitful results obtainable from practicing ontography – as he describes, “Ontographic cataloging hones a virtue: the abandonment of anthropocentric narrative coherence in favour of worldly detail” (41-42).

CREATING ONTOGRAPHS

My research project for the Media Objects lab has involved the creation of a series of dense, all-encompassing ontographic lists that each detail a different subject related to the concept album. In my next media objects post, I will introduce my three lists (which have each been through numerous editing sessions and currently appear in many different incarnations). I will outline the functions they each serve, the interesting discoveries i have made about the object-oriented-ontology of the concept album, and explore how well the practice of ontography has been able to tie in with my broader research for the year.

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About simonwoodhonours

Simon Wood (Honours in Media and Communication) is an RMIT student whose specialist discipline is in the 'contemporary music industry'. For his honours study in 2013, Simon will be researching the ‘concept album’, and its significance within the contemporary music industry.
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