Summary: Vibrant Matter by Jane Bennett

vibrantmatter

This is a summary of Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, along with some of my own arguments about the political implications of her work

Ok, disclaimer: this isn’t really a summary.  A friend read this post and noted that Jane Bennett doesn’t even really cover some of the stuff I’m talking about below.  So this is more of a riff on Bennett’s book, rather than a close reading or a summary of ideas.  BUT, I’d say that’s consistent with Bennett’s own project, since she is prone to ask “what can a body do?” (or “what can a book do?”) rather than asking what it is.  This means experimenting with what’s possible, rather than trying to focus on stable qualities or properties.  Because when we focus on what something is, we separate it from what it could be.  So this is about what Bennett’s work could be; or what it makes possible.  There.  That’s what I’m doing.

What are the political implications of recognizing that everything—including rocks, garbage dumps, and spools of thread—is alive?  Bennett puts a radical conception of materialism and matter, with implications for politics, ecology, and the everyday ways we think of ourselves, others, and our world.  She draws on a longstanding tradition of philosophy stretching from Baruch Spinoza through to Gilles Deleuze and their contemporary progeny like Manuel DeLanda, Brian Massumi, and Bennett herself.  The basic argument is that everything is alive, interconnected, and in process: not only plants and humans, but rocks and air.

Here’s a lecture by Bennett, where she explains some of the central arguments in her book, and looks at what ‘hoarders’ say about the things they collect, as a way to emphasize the way that things ‘draw us near to them’ or ‘call’ us:

All matter is pulsing with life.  What does she mean by ‘life’?  Things aren’t simply alive in a mechanistic way (i.e. composed of electrons and atoms in motion), or imbued with a non-material or transcendent spirit: they are alive in their complex interrelationships, entanglements, and propensities for open-ended change.  Most of the time, we think of objects as passive and stable things, and we humans are the active subjects in the world.  Bennett wants to dissolve this binary between subject and object, showing how worms, a dead rat, or a gunshot residue sample can all be ‘actants:’ they have the capacity to “animate, to act, to produce effects dramatic and subtle” (6).  So objects are alive because of their capacities to make difference in the world, to have effects, to shape the web of interrelationships of which they are a part.  From the other direction, humans aren’t sovereign or autonomous subjects; we are ourselves composed by a complex web of active bodies and materials:

My ‘own’ body is material, and yet this vital materiality is not fully or exclusively human.  My flesh is populated and constituted by different swarms of foreigners… the bacteria in the human microbiome collectively possess at least 100 times as many genes as the mere 20,000 or so in the human genome… we are, rather, an array of bodies, many different kinds of them in a nested set of microbiomes.  (112-13)

In fact, there’s no such thing as ‘objects’ or ‘subjects’ from a certain perspective: they (and we) are never entirely passive or stable; they’re crystallizations of processes, and everything is in process, constantly undergoing transformation, constantly undergoing modification.  So all matter is alive and in process: a complex, interwoven web of materials, all affecting each other, competing, forming alliances, initiating new processes and dissipating others.  Humans are inextricably enmeshed in these webs that Bennett calls assemblages.  So what?  What difference does it make to think about the world this way?  From my perspective, the great thing about this book, in comparison to other books on new materialism (which offer many of the same insights about reality-as-process) is that Bennett is actually trying to figure out why all this matters, and what they implications might be for politics, ecology, and everyday life.

There are three, interconnected implications of this process-oriented materialism:

  1. Agency and causality gets complicated
  2. Politics gets reconceived as open-ended problems and experimentation
  3. There is no such thing as ‘environment’ or ‘context’

We tend to think about the world in terms of agents and actors: they are usually people, and often the most important actors are thought to be the important people (presidents, leaders, etc).  It’s often assumed that humans are in charge, and objects and materials are simply used, transformed, or set in motion by us.  By emphasizing our dense interconnections and interdependencies, Bennett troubles this idea of a human-centered action in the world.  Of course humans act in the world and make a difference, but we never act alone, and it’s impossible to say exactly who or what ‘causes’ an event to take place.

Bennett introduces the concept of distributive agency, which “does not posit a subject as the root cause of an effect” (31).  This is distinguished from traditions that define agency as a moral capacity linked to “an advance plan or an intention” (31).  “there are instead always a swarm of vitalities at play.  The task becomes to identify the contours of the swarm, and the kind of relations that obtain between its bits… this understanding of agency does not deny the existence of that thrust called intentionality, but it does see it as less definitive of outcomes.  It loosens the connections between efficacy and the moral subject, bringing efficacy closer to the idea of the power to make a difference that calls for a response” (32).

If we take seriously the idea that we’re part of massive, complex, interconnected webs of processes, then we can never isolate any subject or actor as the ultimate cause of an event.  What ‘caused’ the Arab Spring, for example?  The man who set himself on fire in Tunisia?  Increasing dissatisfaction with economic exploitation and repression?  Twitter and the social interconnectedness made possible by social media?  Longstanding traditions of resistance and social movements?  Tahrir Square and the bodies that gathered there?  Though the political pundits certainly tried to find or name the source, any attempt to locate a single cause immediately fails, and all of these elements are better conceived not as solitary ‘actors’ or ‘causes’ but actants:

while the smallest or simplest body or bit may indeed express a vital impetus, conatus, or clinamen, an actant never really acts alone.  Its efficacy or agency always depends on the collaboration, cooperation, or interactive interference of many bodies and forces (21).

Human and nonhuman elements are always capable of affecting the swarm of processes of which they’re a part, and they are also immersed in that swarm and affected by it.  Nothing acts alone: “any action is always a trans-action, and any act is really but an initiative that gives birth to a cascade of legitimate and bastard progeny” (101).

This has important implications for politics, and the way we think about changing the world, or ourselves, or our communities.  First, because ‘communities’ for Bennett are always more-than-human ‘problems’:

if human culture is inextricably enmeshed with vibrant, nonhuman agencies, and if human intentionality can be agentic only if accompanied by a vast entourage of nonhumans, then it seems that the appropriate unit of analysis for democratic theory is neither the individual human nor an exclusively human collective but the (ontologically heterogeneous) ‘public’ coalescing around a problem” (108).

Problems, for Bennett, are impersonal events.  The Arab Spring was a massive, open-ended problem, experienced and responded to differently by a swarm of actants, both human and non-human.  No one was in charge, no single actor could decide what happened, and no one could predict the outcome in advance.  Of course, some actants are more important than others, and the task of analysis is to tease out these problems, the actants involved, and gesture at some of the responses that are already underway.

Thinking about politics as an ecology of ‘problems’ helps displace or unsettle some of the common ways we think about politics: as a set of activities pursued by certain ‘political’ people and passively experienced by the rest of us, or a contest between rational actors with predetermined goals and motives in mind, or the struggle over a certain decision.  All of these are going on as political problems emerge, but they’re all going on at once, with no one in charge:

The field of politics is an ecology: No one body owns its supposedly own contemporaneous endeavors, each with its own duration and intensity, with endeavors that are losing or gaining momentum, rippling into and recombining with others… conjoint actions generate multitudinous consequences, and each of these consequences crosses the others to generate its own problems, and thus its own publics or group of persons especially affected” (101)

Problems are constantly being generated, being intensified or dissipated, and interacting in complex ways.  Recent events like the Arab Spring, Idle No More, and Occupy are often seen as simplistic ‘things’ that you could be ‘for’ or ‘against,’ but in reality, these events invite us to explore the ways that we are already implicated in the problems they raise.  They also invite us to think about the ways we act to affirm, intensify, dissipate, or ignore the problems raised by these movements.  None of us gets to determine the course of these complex events, but we can certainly participate in the collective.  Our agency isn’t as sovereign, separate bodies though, but as actants immersed in a complex assemblage.

This immersive, complex, open-ended conception of reality suggests, I think, that politics is always experimental, whether we like it or not.  As participants, we can never be sure of the consequences of our actions; they often provoke unintended effects.  This can be understood as an invitation to embrace experimentation, at least some of the time: try out new tactics, practices, and ways of relating without roping them to a goal or outcome.  Embrace uncertainty, vulnerability, and openness to the unexpected.  Don’t worry (or worry less, or differently) about failure, because even failures will provoke unintended effects.  Know that you’re a participant in a complex swarm of jostling, entangled bodies, and not a lone political actor.

Of course, this doesn’t mean we can (or should) give up on goals entirely.  But experimentation is often neglected in radical politics.  When we’re too focused on goals or outcomes, we miss the here-and-now.  When we try to create systematic knowledge of politics or social change, we miss unexpected surprises, detours, and opportunities.

Another strategic implication of Bennett’s ontological reworking is the way we begin to think about the ‘environment’ or ‘context’ in which politics is thought to occur.  These terms suggest that humans are still the active ones, and the non-human elements form a passive background or structure that may constrain or subtly influence our actions.  On the contrary, Bennett wants to do away with this dichotomy, which I think can help reveal how spaces, atmospheres, moods, and non-human materials have an agency and vitality themselves, with some important implications.

Bennett insists that objects have ‘thing-power:’ “the curious ability of inanimate things to animate, to act, to produce effects dramatic and subtle” (6).  We can only glimpse thing-power; we can never know it systematically, because it’s those unsettling experiences that show us how our ‘environment’ is active and ‘we’ aren’t sovereign subjects.  Bennett tells a story of one of her glimpses, where a glove, some pollen, dead rat, a bottle cap and a stick provoked affects in her, and strike her with the awareness of their singularity “I caught a glimpse of an energetic vitality inside each of these things, things that I generally conceived as inert.  In this assemblage, objects appeared as things, that is as vivid entities not entirely reducible to the contexts in which (human) subjects et them, never entirely exhausted by their semiotics” (5).

So what?  Bennett stared at some garbage and then tripped out a little?  Who cares?  What’s the point of recognizing this ‘thing-power’ and does it do anything other than make us a feel a little weird for a while?  Bennett suggests that taking seriously the idea that everything is alive would mean recognizing that a vital materiality can never really be thrown ‘away,’ for it continues its activities even as a discarded or unwanted commodity” (5).  Alive doesn’t mean ‘good:’ garbage dumps are alive, and their toxins are always seeping into the earth and bubbling into the air.  Bennett thinks that if we paid attention to the aliveness of matter, we wouldn’t be so careless with our stuff.  In this sense, capitalist materialism is actually an anti-matieralism: “the sheer volume of commodities, and the hyperconsumptive necessity of junking them to make room for new ones, conceals the vitality of matter” (5).

We’re always caught up in, and entangled with, complex assemblages, but we often parse these into (human, active) subjects and (passive, inert) objects in the background.  But it’s well-known that the ‘background’ has important effects on us, often more important than the other humans: casinos keep the air a little cold to keep people awake, temples provoke awe and serenity in their architecture, music can provoke all kinds of feelings and happenings.  Bennett would say that these non-human forces have their own agency, and not just because of their ‘cultural significance.’  Their agency is really material, and it folds into our bodies and affects us.  Bennett discusses the Chinese concept of shi as the “mood or style of an open whole in which both the membership changes over time and the members themselves undergo internal alteration… The shi of a milieu can be obvious or subtle, it can operate at the very threshold of human perception or more violently  a coffee house or a school house is a mobile configuration of people, insects, odors, ink, electrical flows, air currents, caffeine, tables, chairs, fluids, and sounds.  Their shi might at one time consist in the mild and ephemeral effluence of good vibes, and at another in a more dramatic force capable of engendering a philosophical or political movement” (35).  Shi can be joyful or sad, revolutionary or banal, and it’s a question of being open to it, and finding ways to shift the elements so that things change—even subtle shifts might make a difference, like being silly or vulnerable, or rearranging objects in a room, or moving outside.

I’ve already slipped up here, from Bennett’s point of view, because I’m suggesting that we can attune ourselves to shi and make interventions to modify it, and the ‘we’ is privileging a human agency.  To be consistent, it would be necessary to insist that the non-human aspects of shi have an agency all their own, whether or not humans are aware of it.  But Bennett admits that it’s probably impossible to horizontalize the world completely; we will probably end up refocusing on human action because it helps us think strategically about our own efforts, even if we recognize we’re caught up in more-than-human assemblages (104).  She suggests that this is a pragmatic approach to politics: “all kinds of bodies may be able to join forces, but a pragmatist would be quick to note that only some bodies can make this association into a task force” (102).  The human capacity for reflection, strategy, and conscious action shouldn’t be used to set us apart from the world, but this capacity (whether or not it is shared by humans) seems necessary for thinking through how we are in the world.

That doesn’t mean we should be strategic all the time.  Part of Bennett’s aim is to increase our receptivity to the uncanny, the unexpected, and the wonder/horror/intensity of unfolding events and processes.  This receptivity is often kept in check by our habits of thought that tell us we’re separate, sovereign, autonomous actors intervening in a world of passive matter or mechanical nature.  By busting the binaries of subject/object, and complicating the ways we think through politics, causality, and action, Bennett’s Vibrant Matter can help us attune ourselves to the messy, complex world that we’re enmeshed in.  I’m suggesting that it can also be used to think through politics and social movements in more complex ways, too, so that we’re more open to their possibilities, more humble, more present, and more able to navigate and modulate stuff while remembering that we’re not in charge and we don’t know what will happen next.

Notes from Vibrant Matter

Below are a bunch of excerpts from Bennett, organized along some themes for future writing/thinking/rereading.

Vitality: “the capacity of things—edibles, commodities, storms, metals—not only to impede or block the will and designs of humans, but also to act as quasi agents or forces with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own.  My aspiration is to articulae a vibrant materiality that runs alongside and inside humans to see how analyses of political events might change if we gave the force of things more due” (viii)

–       vitality is the beyond-objects of objects themselves, when they become ‘things’ with ‘thing-power:’ “the curious ability of inanimate things to animate, to act, to produce effects dramatic and subtle” (6).

Three tasks of the book:

1)   to paint a positive ontology of vibrant matter, which stretches concepts of agency, action, and freedom sometimes to the breaking point

2)   to dissipate the onto-theological binaries of life/matter, human/animal, will/determination, and organic/inorganic, husing arguments and other rhetorical means to induce in human bodies an aesthetic-affective openness to material vitality

3)   to sketch a style of political analysis that can better account for the contributions of nonhuman actants (x)

Political implications: “to encourage more intelligent and sustainable engagements with vibrant matter and lively things.  A guiding question: How would political responses to public problems change were we to take seriously the vitality of (nonhuman) bodies?” “how, for example, would patterns of consumption change if we faced not litter, rubbish, trash, or “the recycling,” but an accumulating pile of lively and potentially dangerous matter?” (viii).

–       micropolitics, sensibility, and habits are important: “the bodily disciplines through which ethical sensibilities and social relations are formed and reformed are themselves political and constitute a whole (underexplored) field of micropolitics… there will be no greening of the economy, no redistribution of wealth, no enforcement or extension of rights without human dispositions, moods, and cultural ensembles hospitable to these effects” (xii).

Politics defined: “politics as a political ecology and a notion of publics as human-nonhuman collectives that are provoked into existence by a shared experience of harm” (xix)

Publics and problems: Bennett draws on Dewey to suggest that “a public does not preexist its particular problem but emerges in response to it:” “when diverse bodies suddenly draw near and form a public, they have been provoked to do so by a problem, that is, by the ‘indirect, serious, and enduring’ consequences of ‘conjoint aciton’” (100).  These publics and their provocations aren’t under the control over any rational plan, deliberate intention, or efficient cause: “any action is always a trans-action, and any act is really but an initiative that gives birth to a cascade of legitimate and bastard progeny” (101).

–       The field of politics is an ecology: No one body owns its supposedly own contemporaneous endeavors, each with its own duration and intensity, with endeavors that are losing or gaining momentum, rippling into and recombining with others… conjoint actions generate ‘multitudinous consequences, ‘ and each of these consequences ‘crosses the others’ to generate its own problems, and thus its own publics or ‘group of persons especially affected” (101)

  • This means that a public is conceptualized “as a set of bodies affected by a common problem generated by a pulsing swarm of activities” (101).  Members of publics don’t voluntarily join; they are inducted into it: “each body finds itself thrown together with other harmed and squirming bodies” (101).
  • The members of a public are defined by their affective capacity: “problems give rise to publics, publics are groups of bodies with the capacity to affect and be affected; problems are signals that would-be or protomembers of a public had already encountered the indirect effects of other endeavoring bodies, effects that have decreased the capacity for action of the protomembers.  A public is a cluster of bodies harmed by the actions of others or even by actions born from their own actions as these trans-act; harmed bodies draw near each other and seek to engage in new acts that will restore their power, protect against future harm, or comptensate for damage done—in that consists their political action, which, fortunately or unfortunately, will also become conjoint action with a chain of indirect, unpredictable consequences” (101)
  • The public as the appropriate unit of analysis: “if human culture is inextricably enmeshed with vibrant, nonhuman agencies, and if human intentionality can be agentic only if accompanied by a vast entourage of nonhumans, then it seems that the appropriate unit of analysis for democratic theory is neither the individual human nor an exclusively human collective but the (ontologically heterogeneous) ‘public’ coalescing around a problem” (108).

–       Political pragmatism, then, is less about intentions and more about effects, making ‘responsibility’ “more a matter of responding to harms than of identifying objects of blame” (102).

  • In naming a problem, rather than an act of will, as the driving force behind the formation of a public, Dewey (almost) acknowledges that a political action need not originate in human bodies at all.  For is it not the case that some of the intiatives that conjoin and cause harm started (or later became conjoined with) the vibrant bodies of animals, plants, metals, or machines?” (102)
  • So where is human action and perception in all this?  “A pragmatic approach to politics, which emphasizes problem solving, may call forth… action-oriented perception.  For are not human bodies the ones best equipped to analyze a problem and devise strategies for its solution?  All kinds of bodies may be able to join forces, but a pragmatist would be quick to note that only some bodies can make this association into a task force” (102).

–       Bennett’s notion of ‘problems’ is promising but too limited; she sees problems as something to be ‘solved’ because all that they produce (or what’s most significant) is the ‘harm’ they cause to members of a public.  But why is harm and its solution the only way that problems come into existence and elicit responses?  What about when people formulate different kinds of problems, especially ones with no clear solution?  Then it would be a question of producing publics and responding to problems, without any hope, horizon, or telos of a solution.  In fact, responses to problems might intensify them, rather than getting rid of them, and this intensification of problems is crucial for thinking through politics.

  • This kind of disruptive politics is thinkable through her treatment of Ranciere, where she notes “a potentially disruptive human force that exists within (though is not recognized by) the public” (105).  The ultimate democratic act is the exposure of “the arbitrariness of the dominant partition of the sensible,” the partition which “had been rendering some people visible as political actors while pushing others below the threshold of note” (105).  Politics “is the name of a singular disruption of this order of distribution of bodies” (105).
    • Politics gets defined by the effects generated: “a political act not only disrupts, it disrupts in such a way as to change radically what people can ‘see’: it repartitions the sensible; it overthrows the regime of the perceptible” (107).  These disruptive elements can be nonhuman things as well: “we see how an animal, plant, mineral, or artifact can sometimes catalyze a public, and we might then see how to devise more  effective (experimental) tactics for enhancing or weakening that public” (107).

Subject/object and beyond: a concept used to short-circuit the subject/object binary is the actant: “a source of action that can be either human or nonhuman; it is that which has efficacy, can do things, has sufficient coherence to make a difference, produce effects, alter the course of events.”  It’s “competence is deduced from its performance rather than posited in advance of the action” (viii)

–       this project entails bracketing the question of the subject (or at least the centering of the subject) and “elide the rich and diverse literature on subjectivity and its genesis, its conditions of possibility, and its boundaries (ix).

–       Instead Bennett focuses on what’s normally “cast in the shadow: the material agency or effectivity of nonhuman or not-quite-human things

–       Why? “My hunch is that the image of deador thoroughly instrumentalized matter feeds human hubris and our earth-destroying fantasies of conquest and consumption” (ix).

–       We are prevented “from detecting (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling) a fuller range of the nonhuman powers circulating around and within human bodies” and these “material powers, which can aid or destroy, enrich or disable, ennoble or degrade us, in any case call for our attentiveness, or even ‘respect’” (ix).

–       Reading difference ‘horizontally’ doesn’t mean erasing all difference: the point is to dissipate the naturalized hierarchies of difference, and see their complex entanglements in making things happen and making each other possible

  • “To put it bluntly, my conatus will not let me ‘horizontalize’ the world completely.  I also identify with members of my species, insofar as they are bodies most similar to mine.  I so identify even as I seek to extend awareness of our interinvolvements and interdependencies.  The political goal of a vital matieralism is not the perfect equality of actants, but a polity with more channels of communication between members… How can humans learn to hear or enhance our receptivity for ‘propositions’ not expressed in words?” (104).

–       Even human power is a kind of thing-power: “the case for matter as active needs also to readjust the status of human actants: not by denying humanity’s awesome, awful powers, but by representing these powers as evidence of our own constitution as vital materiality… at one level this claim is uncontroversial: it is easy to acknowledge that humans are composed of various material parts (the minerality of our bones, or the metal of our blood, or the electricity of our neurons).  But it is more challenging to conceive of these materials as lively and self-organizing, rather than as passive or mechanical means under the direction of something non-material, that is, an active soul or mind (10)

  • My ‘own’ body is material, and yet this vital materiality is not fully or exclusively human.  My fliesh is populated and constituted by different swarms of foreigners… the bacteria in the human microbiome collectively possess at least 100 times as many genese as the mere 20,000 or so in the human genome… we are, rather, an array of bodies, many different kinds of them in a nested set of microbiomes.  If more people marked this fact more of the time, if we were more attentive to the indispensable foreignness that we are, would we continue to produce and consume in the same violently reckless ways?” (112-13)

–       Anthropomorphism might be dangerous, but it’s also helpful in moving beyond the subject/object binary: “a touch of anthropomorphism, then, can catalyze a sensibility that finds a world filled not with ontologically distinct categories of beings (subjects and objects) but with variously composed materialities that form confederations.  In revealing similarities across categorical divides and lighting up structural parallels between material forms in “nature” and those in “culture,” anthropomorphism can reveal isomorphisms” (99).

–       It’s not that humans are no different from the rest of the world, but rather “there is no necessity to describe these differences in a way that places humans at the ontological center or hierarchical apex” (11)

–       Vs. moral panic: Bennett acknowledges the worry that the erasure of these hierarchies worries people, because it seems to “authorize the treatment of people as mere things; in other words, that a strong distinction between subjects and objects is needed to prevent the instrumentalization of humans” (12).  These critics worry about losing the human-centric ontology because they want to preserve a moral ground for privileging human over germ, or for condemning human-to-human instrumentalization (12).

  • Bennett’s responses: [1] acknowledge subject/object distinction has sometimes worked to prevent human suffering; [2] note that this implies human instrumentalization of non-human life is alright; [3] note that “the Kantian imperative to treat humanity always as an end-in-itself and never merely as a means does not have a stellar record of success in preventing human suffering or promoting human well-being (12)
  • Instead: “open up space for forms of ethical practice that do not rely upon the image of an intrinsically hierarchical order of things.  Here the materialist speaks of promoting healthy and enabling instrumentalizations, rather than of treating people as ends in themselves, because to face up to the compound nature of the human self is to find it difficult even to make sense of the notion of a single end-in-itself.  What instead appears is a swarm of competing ends being pursued simultaneously in each individual, some of which are healthy to the whole, some of which are not” (12).
    • “All bodies become more than mere objects, as the thing-powers of resistance and protean agency are brought into sharper relief.  Vital materialism would thus set up a kind of safety net for those humans who are now, in a world where Kantian morality is the standard, routinely made to suffer because they do not conform to a particular (Euro-American, bourgeois, theocentric, or other) model of personhood.  The ethical aim becomes to distribute value more generously, to bodies as such.  Such a newfound attentiveness to matter and its powers will not solve the problem of human exploitation or oppression, but it can inspire a greater sense of the extent to which all bodies are kin in the sense of inextricably enmeshed in a dense network of relations.” (13)

–       The ethical task: “For the vital materialist, the starting point of ethics is… the recognition of human participation in a shared, vital materialist.  We are vital materialist and we are surrounded by it, though we don’t always see it that way.  The ethical task at hand here is to cultivate the ability to discern nonhuman vitality, to become perceptually open to it (14)

  • “The self-criticism of conceptualization, a sensory attentiveness to the qualitative singularities of the object, the exercise of an unrealistic imagination, and the courage of a clown: by means of such practices one might replace the “rage” against nonidentity with a respect for it, a respect that chastens our will to mastery” (15)

Vitality: “the capacity of things—edibles, commodities, storms, metals—not only to impede or block the will and designs of humans, but also to act as quasi agents or forces with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own.  My aspiration is to articulae a vibrant materiality that runs alongside and inside humans to see how analyses of political events might change if we gave the force of things more due” (viii)

–       vitality is the beyond-objects of objects themselves, when they become ‘things’ with ‘thing-power:’ “the curious ability of inanimate things to animate, to act, to produce effects dramatic and subtle” (6).

–       We can only glimpse this, and Bennett tells a story of one of her glimpses, where a glove, some pollen, dead rat, a bottle cap and a stick provoked affects in her, and strike her with the awareness of their singularity “I caught a glimpse of an energetic vitality inside each of these things, things that I generally conceived as inert.  In this assemblage, objects appeared as things, that is as vidvid entities not entirely reducible to the contexts in which (human) subjects et them, never entirely exhausted by their semiotics” (5)

–       This helps reveal that capitalist materialism is actually an anti-matieralism: “the sheer vlolume of commodiites, and the hyperconsumptive necessity of junking them to make room for new ones, conceals the vitality of matter” (5).  In contrast, “a vital materiality can never really be thrown ‘away,’ for it continues its activities even as a discarded or unwanted commodity

–       Vibrant matter is alive, but not in the way we typically conceive of aliveness: The worms that Darwin studied are “neither an expression of divine purpose” (they don’t have a teleological purpose) but nor are they “reducible to an unvarying mechanical instinct” (their actions vary as they affect and are affected—embedded in different assemblages) (98)

–       “are there more everyday tactics for cultivating an ability to discern the vitality of matter?  One might be to allow oneself, as did Charles Darwin, to anthropomorophize, to relax into resemblances discerned across ontological divides: you (mis)take the wind outside at night for your father’s wheezy breathing in the next room; you get up too fast and see starts; a planstic topographical map reminds you of the veins on the back of your hand… Maybe it is worth running the risks associated with anthropomorphizing (superstition, the divinization of nature, romanticism) because it, oddly enough, works against anthropocentrism: a chord is struck between person and thing, and I am no longer above or outside a nonhuman ‘environment’ (120).

Non-organic life is alive: “even the humblest forms of matter and energy have the potential for self-organization… there are, for instance, those coherent waves called solitons which form in many different types of materials, ranging from ocean waters (where they are called tsunamis) to lasers.  Then there are… stable states (or attractors), which can sustain coherent cyclic activity… finally, and unlike the previous examples of nonlinear self-organization where true innovation cannot occur, therare are the different combination into which entities derived from the previous processes (crystals, coherent pulses, cyclic patterns) may enter.  When put together, these forms of spontaneous structural generation suggest that inorganic matter is much more variable and creative than we ever imagined (7)

–       Delanda: “soft tissue (gels and aerosols, muscle and nerve) reigned supreme until 5000 million years ago.  At that point, some of the conglomerations of fleshy matter-energy that made up life underwent a sudden mineralization, and a new material for constructing living creatures emerged: bone.  It is almost as if the mineral world that had served as a substratum for the emergence of biological creatures was reasserting itself.  Mineralization names the creative agency by which bone was produced, and bones then made new forms of movement control possible for animals, freeing them from amany constraints and literally setting them into motion to conquer every available niche in the air, in water, and on land… in the long and slow time of evolution, then, mineral appears as the mover and shaker, the active power, and human beings, with their much-lauded capacity for self-directed action, appear as its product” (11).

–       Bennett argues that the “life-matter binary” is “the dominant organizational principle of adult experience” (20).

Rethinking agency and causality: Bennett tells the story of a court proceeding where gunshot residue analysis is used to prove that the defendant’s hand had either fired a gun or been within three feet of a gun firing.  The Gunpowder Residue Sampler is conceived as an ‘object/witness:’ this composite of glass, skin cells, glue, words, laws, metals, and human emotions had become an actant.  Actant, recall, is Bruno Latour’s term of a source of action; an actant can be human or not, or mostly likely, a combination of both.  Latour defines it as “something that acts or to which activity is granted by others” (9).  In Deleuze’s terms, it’s “quasi-causal operator” – “An operator is that which, by virtue of its being in the right place at the right time, becomes the decisive force catalyzing an event (9).  Actant and operator are substitute words for what in a more subject centered vocabulary are called agents.  Agentic capacity is now seen as differentially distributed across a wider range of ontological types” (9).

–       “while the smallest or simplest body or bit may indeed express a vital impetus, conatus, or clinamen, an actant never really acts alone.  Its efficacy or agency always depends on the collaboration, cooperation, or interactive interference of many bodies and forces” (21)

–       in social sciences, these problems arise in the ‘structure/agency debate,’ – structures are often attributed a powerful entities that constrain or work against human purposes, but, she argues, “The category of ‘structur’e is ultimately unable to give force of things its due: a structure can only act negatively, as a constraint on human agency, or passively, as enabling background context for it.  Active action or agency belongs to humans alone… There is no agency proper to assemblages, only the effervescence of the agency of individuals acting alone or in concert with each other.  Structures, surroundings, and contexts make a difference to outcomes, but they are not quite vibrant matter” (29).

–       Bennett is in favour of a concept of distributive agency, which “does not posit a subject as the root cause of an effect” (31).  This is distinguished from traditions that define agency as a moral capacity linked to “an advance plan or an intention” (31).  “there are instead always a swarm of vitalities at play.  The task becomes to identify the contours of the swarm, and the kind of relations that obtain between its bits… this understanding of agency does not deny the existence of that trhust called itnetionality, but it does see it as less definitive of outcomes.  It loosens the connections between efficacy and the moral subject, bringing efficacy closer to the idea of the power to make a difference that calls for a response” (32).

–       Agency is also bound up with idea of directionality, Bennett says: “a trajectory, a directionality or movement away from somewhere even if the toward-which it moves is obscure or even absent” (32).  Bennett points to Derrida’s formulation of messianicity: “the open-ended promissory quality of a claim, image, or entity… things in the world appear to us at all only because they tantalize and hold us in suspense, aluding to a fullness that is elsewhere, to a future that, apparently, is on its way (32).

–       Towards an impersonal account of events and distributed agencies: “There are events.  I never act; I am always slightly surprised by what I do.  That which acts through me is also surprised by what I do, by the chance to mutate, to change, and to bifurcate” (103).

–       It’s also impossible to posit efficient causality: “if agency sis distributive or confederate, then instances of efficient causality, with its chain of simple bodies acting as the sole impetus fro the next effect, will be impossibly rare… here causality is more emergent then efficient, more fractal than linear.  Instead of an effect obedient to a determinant, one finds circuits in which effect and cause alternate position and redound on each other” (33).  There’s no such thing as efficient causality: “elements by themselves probably never cause anything.  They become origins of events if and when they crystallize into fixed and definite forms.  Then, and only then, can we trace their history backwards.  The event illuminates its own past, but it an never be deduced from it” (34).  For this reasons, sources can only be revealed retroactively; causes are back-projections, and “what makes the event happen is precisely the contingent coming together of a set of elements” (34).

  • “In a world of lively matter, we see that biochemical and biochemical-social systems can sometimes unexpectedly bifurcate or choose developmental paths that could not have been foreseen, for they are governed by an emergent rather than a linear or deterministic causality.  And once we see this, we will need an alternative both to the idea of nature as a purposive, harmonious process and to the idea of nature as a blind mechanism.  A vital materialism interrupts both the teleological organicism of some ecologists and the machine image of nature governing many of their opponents” (112)

–       This kind of distributed agency calls for a new model of political responsibility, because responsibility is always-already attributable to a human-nonhuman assemblage (not an autonomous subject): “On lose-enough inspection, the productive power that has engendered an effect will turn out to be a confederacy, and the human actants within it will themselves turn out to be confederations of tools, microbes, minerals, sounds, and other ‘foreign’ materialities.  Human intentionality can emerge only by way of such a distribution.  The agency of assemblages is not the strong, autonomous kind of agency to which Augustine or Kant (or an omnipotent God) aspired; this is because the relationship between tendencies and outcomes or between trajectories and effects is imagined as more porous, tenuous, and thus indirect (36).

  • Autonomy and strong responsibility seem to me to be empirically false, and thus their invocation seems tinged with injustice. 
  • So what then?  “The notion of a confederate agency does attenuate the blame game, but it does not thereby abandon the sources of harmful effects.  To the contrary, such a notion broadens the range of places to look for sources
  • Perhaps the ethical responsibility of an indivudal human now resides in one’s response to the assemblages in which one finds oneself participating: Do I attempt to extricate myself from my assemblages whose trajectory is likely to do harm?  Do I enter into proximity of assemblages whose conglomerate effecitvity tends toward the enactment of nobler ends?” (37-8)
  • This doesn’t preclude outrage, either: “outrage will not and should not disappear, but a politics devoted too exclusively to moral condenation and not enough to a cultivated discernment of the web of agentic capacities can do little good… an understanding of agncy as distributve and confederate thus reinvokes the need to detach ethics from moralism and to produce guides to action appropriate to a world of vital, cross-cutting forces” (38)

Assemblages: help understand agency “as a confederation of human and nonhuman elements” – they are “ad hoc groupings of diverse elements, of vibrant materials of all sorts (23).

–       Assemblages are living, throbbing confederations that are able to function despite the persistent presence of energies that confound them from within (24)

–       “The effects generated by an assemblage are, rather, emergent properties, emergent in that their ability to make something happen (a newly inflected materialism, a blackout, a hurricane, a war on terror) is distinct from the sum of the vital force of each materiality considered alone” (24)

–       An assemblage “not only has a distinctive history of formation but a finite life span” (24)

–       Bennett’s example of an assemblage is the power grid, and the blackout that occurred through a complex conflagration of circumstances and events.  This helps show how there’s no single agent or cause in the blackout; the grid has a life (composed of many lives) of its own: “I have been suggesting that there is not so uch a doer (an agent) behind the deed (the blackout) as a doing and an effecting by a human-nonhuman assemblage.  This federation of actants is a creature that the concept of moral responsibility fit only loosely and to which the charge of blame will not quite stick” (28)

–       How assemblages change: “When a member-actant, in the midst of a process of self-alteration, becomes out of sync with its (previous) self, when, if you like, it is in a reactive-power state, it can form new sets of relations in the assemblage and be drawn toward a different set of allies” (35)

–       It’s not a structure: It is because of the creative activity within actants that the agency of assemblages is not best described in terms of social structures, a locution that designates a stolid whole whose fficacy resides only in its conditioning recalcitrance or capacity to obstruct” (35).

–       Ecological assemblages: The worms studied by Darwin were part of an assemblage, and “this assemblage is an interconnected series of parts, but it is not a fixed order of parts, for the order is always being reworked in accordance with a certain “freedom of choice” exercised by its actants (97).

  • Bennett discusses Bruno Latour’s investigation of a forest-savanna ecotone, in which scientists are trying to figure out whether the forest is receding or advancing, and what’s making this happen: these questions presume “a kind of vegetal agency in a natural system understood not as a mechanical order of fixed laws but as the scene of not-fuly-predictable encounters between multiple kinds of actants.  Savanna vegetation, forest trees, soil, soil microorganisms, and humans native and exotic to the rainforest are all responding, in real time and without predetermined outcome, to each other and to the colletive force of the shifting configurations that form (97).
    • “It is difficult to pinpoint just who or what was the key operator or “assemblage converter” here: The worms? Their diet? The aluminum excrement? Had the human inhabtants of the rainfest done something to make the worms migrate?  These various materialities do not exercise exactly the same kind of agency, but neither is it easy to arrangem them into a hierarchy, for in some times and places, the “small agency” of the lowly worm makes more of a difference than the grand agency of humans” (98)
  • ‘Environment’ or ‘context’ assumes a passive or structuring/constraining background: “it is difficult, for example, for a public convened by environmentalism to include animals, vegetables, or minerals as bona fide members, for nonhumans are already named as a passive environment or perhaps a recalcitrant context for human action.  A more materialist public would need to include more earthlings in the swarm of actants” (111)
  • If environmentalism lea to the call for the protection and wise management of an ecosystem that surrounds us, a vital matieralism suggests that the task is to engage more strategically with a trenchant materialist that is us as it vies with us in agentic assemblages” (111)
    • “Admit that humans have crawled or secreted themselves into every corner of the environment; admit that the environment is actually inside human bodies and minds, and then proceed politically, technologically, scientifically, in everyday life, with careful forbearance, as you might with unruly relatives to whom you are inextricably bound and with whom you will engage over a l8ifetime, like it or not.  Give up the futile attempt to disentangle the human from the nonhuman.  Seek instead to engage more civilly, strategically, and subtly with the nonhumans in the assemblages in which you, too, participate” (116)
    • Bennett also uses these insights about ecological assemblages to trouble ideas about ‘treading lightly:’ “According to this maxim, I should try to minimize the impact of my actions so as to minimize the damage or destruction of other things with which I share existence” but “If I live not as a human subject who confronts natural and cultural objects but as one of many conative actants swarming and competing with each other, then frugality is too simple a maxim.  Sometimes ecohealth will require individuals and collectives to back off or ramp down their activeness, and sometimes it will call for grander, more dramatic and violent expenditures of human energy” (122).
  • Guattari on ecological assemblages: “The modern period of intense techno-scientific transofmrations has degraded both the impersonal environment and our own sociopsychic netowrks: air, water, and soil are contaminated as kinship networks tend to be reduced to a bare minimum; domestic life is being poisoned by the gangrene of mass-media consumption; family and married life are frequently ‘ossified’ by a sort of standardization of behavior; and neighbourhood relations are generally reduced to their meanest expression” (113).
    • Guattari calls this assemblage “integrated world capitalism” and it “works to manufacture the particular psychosocial self in the interest of which environmentalism is initially pursued.  It doe sso by means of various modules of subjectification,’ which include ideological as well as (Foucauldian) disciplinary components, all designed to organize bodily energies (including the ‘intensive’ forces of the unconscious) into the form of the consumer self” (114).  The political task is to create and deploy “new modules of subjectification.”  In addition to reforms, the creation of different worlds will require “new micropolitical and microsocial practices, new solidarities, a new gentleness, together with new aesthetic and analytic practices regarding the formation of the unconscious” (114)

Spinoza and affect: “I invoke his idea of conative bodies that strive to enhance their power of activity by forming alliances with other bodies, and I share his faith that everything is made of the same substance” (x).

–       I now emphasize even more how the figure of enchantment points in two directions: the first towards the humans who feel enchanted and whose agentic capacities may thereby be strengthened, and the second toward the agency of the things that produce (helpful, harmful) effects in human and other bodies.  Organic and inorganic bodies, natural and cultural objects (these distinctions are not particularly salient here) all are affective.  I am here drawing on a Spinozist notion of affect, which refers broadly to the capacity of any body for activity and responsiveness.  Deleuze and Guattari put it this way: “We know nothing about a body until we know what it can do, in other words, what its affects are, how they can or cannot enter into composition with other affects, with the affects of another body…” (xii)

–       “Affects create a field of forces that do not tend to congeal into subjectivity

–       “Spinoza’s conative bodies are also associative or (one could even say) social bodies, in the sense that each is, by its very nature as a body, continuously affecting and being affected by other bodies… the power of a body to affect other bodies includes a corresponding and inseparable capacity to be affected; there are two equally actual powers, that of acting, and that of suffering action, which vary inversely with one to the other, but whose sum is both constant and constantly effective.  Spinoza’s conative, encounter-proone body arises in the context of an ontogloigcal vision according to which all things are ‘modes’ of a common ‘substance’ (21).

  • Every mode is itself a mosaic or assemblage of many simple bodies;” all existing modes are actually composed of a great number of parts (22)
  • All bodies are conative: “conatus is expressed as a stubbornness or inertial tendency to persist; in the case of a complex body or mode, conatus refers to the effort required to maintain the specific relation of ‘movement and rest’ that obtains between its parts, a relation that defines the mode as what it is (22).
  • This maintenance “is not a process of mere repetition of the same, for it entails continual invention: because each mode suffers the actions on it by other modes, actions that disrupt the relation fo movement and rest characterizing each mode, every mode, if it is to persist, must seek new encounters to creatively compensate for the alteration or affections it suffers.  What it means to be a ‘mode’, then, is to form alliances and enter assemblages: it is to mod(e)ify and be modified by others… each mode vies with and against the (changing) affections of (a changing set of) other odes, all the while being subject o the elemnt of chance or contingency intrinsic in the encounter (22)
  • Bodies enhance their power in or as a heterogeneous assemblage.  What this suggests for the concept of agency is that the efficacy or effectivity to which that term has traditionally referred becomes distributed across an ontologically heterogeneous field, rather than being a capacity localized in a human body or in a collective produced (only) by human efforts
  • Example: this book – “The sentences of this book also emerged from the confederate agency of many striving macro- and microactants: from ‘my’ memories, intentions, contentions, intestinal bacteria, eyeglasses, and blood sugar, as well as from the plastic computer keyboard, the bird song from the open window, or the air or particulates in the room, to name only a few of the participants.  What is at work here on the page is an animal-vegetable-mineral-sonority cluster with a particular degree and duration of power (23)

Limits of critique and demystification (vs paranoid theory, towards affirmation and creation of alternatives): “For this task, demystification, that most popular of practices in critical theory, should be used with caution and sparingly, because demystification presumes that at the heart of any event or process lies a human agency that illicitly has been projected into things.  This hermeneutics of suspicion calls for theorists to be on high alert for signs of the secret truth (a human will to power) below the false appearance of nonhuman agency” (xiv)

–       “there are limits to its political efficacy, among them that exposes of illegality, greed, mendacity, oligarchy, or hypocrisy do not reliably produce moral outrage and that, if they do, this outrage may or may not spark ameliorative action” (xv)

–       “ethical political action on the part of humans eems to require not only a vigilant critique of existing institutions but also positive, even utopian alternatives”  (xv)

–       Ultimately she says we need both: “we need both critique and positive formulations of alternatives, alternatives that will themselves become the objects of later critique and reform” (xv).

–       The capacity to detect the presence of impersonal affect requires that one is caught up in it.  One needs, at least for a while, to suspend suspicion and adopt a more open-ended comportment.  If we think we already know what is out there, we will surely miss much of it” (xv).

–       vs. constructivism: “There is a strong tendency among modern, secular, well-educated humans to refer such sighs back to a human agency conceived as its ultimate source.  This impulse toward cultural, linguistic, or historical constructivism, which interprets any expression of thing-power as an effect of culture and the play of human powers, politicizes moralistic and oppressive oappeals to nature.  And that is a good thing.  But the constructivist response to the world also tends to obscure from view whatever thing-power there may be.  There is thus something to be said for moments of methodological naivete, for the postponement of a genealogical critique of objects.  This delay might render manifest a subsistent world of nonhuman vitality.  To “render manifest” is both to receive and to participate in the shape given to that which is received.  What is manifest arrives through humans but not entirely because of them” (17)

–       “Vital materialists will thus try to linger in those moments during which they find themselves fascinated by objects, taking them as clues to the material vitality that they share with them.  This sense of a strange and incomplete commonality with the out-side may induce vital materialists to treat nonhumans—animals, plants, earth, even artifacts and commodities—more carefully, more strategically, more ecologically.  But how to develop this capacity for naivete?

–       Relation to joyful militancy: Bennett discusses the Chinese concept of shi as the “mood or style of an open whole in which both the membership changes over time and the members themselves undergo internal alteration… The shi of a milieu can be obvious or subtle, it can operate at the very threshold of human perception or more violently  a coffee house or a school house is a mobile configuration of people, insects, odors, ink, electrical flows, air currents, caffeine, tables, chairs, fluids, and sounds.  Their shi might at one time consist in the mild and ephemeral effluence of good vibes, and at another in a more dramatic force capable of engendering a philosophical or political movement” (35).  Shi can be joyful or sad, and it’s a question of being open to it, and finding ways to shift the elements so that things change—even subtle shifts might make a difference, like being silly, or vulnerable, or moving outside.

Metatheory

–       Thoreau’s notion of the Wild + Deleuze’s virtual + Foucault’s unthought: “All three thinkers are trying to acknowledge a force that, though quite real and powerful, is intrinsically resistant to representation (xvi)

–       Everything is connected and irreducible to a simple substrate, and Bennett recognizes that this “resonates with an ecological sensibility,” but “in contrast to some versions of deep ecology, my monism posits neither a smooth harmony of parts nor a diversity unified by a common spirit.  The formula here, writes Deleuze, is “ontologically one, formally diverse… a turbulent, immanent field in which various and variable materialities collide, congeal, morph, evolve, and disintegrate” (xi).

–       This is not historical materialism (Deleuze > Marx/Adorno)

  • Historical materialism follows “the trail of human power to expose social hegemonies” but Bennett argues that “there is also public value in following the scent of a nonhuman, thingly power, athe material agency of natural bodies and technological artifacts” (xiii)

–       Engagement w/ Foucault: F’s genealogical project revealed the way is in which “the human body was disciplined, normalized, sped up and slowed down, gendered, sexed, nationalized, globalized, rendered disposable, or otherwise composed”  This was materialist because these cultural practices fold into the body, and there’s a “material recalcitrance of such cultural productions” and “the point was that cultural forms are themselves powerful, material assemblages with resistant force” (1).  Bennett distinguishes her project from this Foucauldian one because she seeks “to highlight a positive, productive power” of things themselves; “instead of focusing on collectives conceived primarily as conglomerates of human designs and practices (“discourse”), I will highlight the active role of nonhuman materials in public life.  In short, I will try to give a voice to thing-power” (2)

  • In other words, she is trying to point to the ‘out-side’ and the unrepresentable: “a not-quite-human force that addled and altered human and other bodies”—this thing is at the limit of knowledge, the not-knowable, but Bennett emphasizes that this epistemological viewpoint is less important than the ontological one: not knowing objects and forces, but focusing on what they can do (3)
  • This required “a certain anticipatory readiness” to perceive this thing-power; “a perceptual style open to the appearance of thing-power” (5)

–       Vs phenomenology; it’s human-centric: Merleau Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception was designed to avoid placing too much weight on human will, intentionality, or reason.  It focused instead on the embodied character of human action, through its concept of motor intentionality, and on the agentic contributions made by an intersubjective field” (30).  Bennett takes on Coole’s reworking of Merleau-Ponty, which attempts to push beyond any single intentionality or subject, but Bennett says “though Coole’s spectrum gives no special privilege to the human individual, it recognizes only human powers: human biological and neurological processes, human personalities, human social practices and institutions.  Coole limits the spectrum in this way because she is interested in a specifically political kind of agency, and for her politics is an exclusively human affair (30)

Criticisms: there’s almost no mention of resistance or contention: the “us” and the “we” of Bennett is implicitly a homogenous humanity, and the ways that people and communities (and the assemblages they’re a part of) is stripped of notions of contention, conflict, and social movements that have shaped us and brought us to the unsustainable status quo (and the conflictual assemblages that threaten it and already point and move in other directions).

–       The “we” is often figured as a homogenous “human hubris and our earth-destroying fantasies of conquest and consumption” (ix).

–       what about relations of power?  Does this get shunted into ‘historical materialism’ in the preface (xiii)

–       Liberal bourgeois horizon of social change: greening of the economy, redistribution of wealth, enforcement or extension of rights (xii).

Others to look at: Romand Coles, Val Plumwood, Wade Sikorski, Freya Mathews, Wendell Berry, Angus Fletcher, Barry Lopez, and Barbara Kingslover

Materialist ecology ppl: Freya Mathews, Bruno Latour, Donna Haraway, Gay Hawkins, Tim Ingold, N. Katherine Hayles, Karen Barad, Sarah Whatmore, Nick Bingham, Felix Guattari, Don Ihde, and WJT Mitchell have been making the call for more sustainable, less noxious modes of production and consumption in the name of a vigorous materiality rather than in the name of the environment

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