In this accessible, perceptive short essay from Igniting a Revolution, amory starr criticizes what she calls “grumpywarriorcool:” ways of being in activist spaces that are unkind, unfeeling, and exclusive. She unpacks the way that whiteness and patriarchy has been “smuggled in” to radical organizing spaces, despite solidarity work and explicit opposition to these forms of oppression. This is a summary of her article, and because I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, some of my own experiences and reflections are in here too. This relates closely to Jamie Heckert’s argument in “Anarchy without Opposition,” which I summarized last week here.
starr is arguing that grumpywarriorcool is a symptom of whiteness and patriarchy in spaces that are often explicitly anti-oppressive. She discusses subtle forms of conduct at meetings and other organizing spaces that ‘smuggle in’ practices and behaviours that appear neutral or even liberatory, but may actually reflect and reproduce patriarchy, whiteness and classism, alienating communities of colour in particular.
In this sense, she explains, “it’s not what we work on that makes our politics racist, it’s how we do it that matters… What I have finally begun to realize is that the how is deep and subtle” (377).
She identifies and unpacks a few behaviours, assumptions, and practices in particular, which come together to create grumpywarriorcool:
1) Blanket ‘diversity’ or ‘equality’ can mask internalized oppression or exclusivity: starr argues that invoking ‘culture’ to defend individualistic behaviour “claims a socio-moral status beyond reprove and a horizontality which obviates critique. It is this framework of cultural diversity which makes it difficult to identify and address internalized oppression within radical and revolutionary countercultures” (378). starr gives a polemical/sarcastic example: “i’m going to stink, i’m going in there even though i’m contagious, i’m going to bring my barking dog, i have the right to do whatever the fuck i want and people just have to deal with it and i’m going to call this ‘cultural diversity’… meanwhile other folks around are feeling like another white guy is doing whatever the fuck he wants” (379). This also connects to the idea of ‘taking up too much space’ at meetings. A familiar concept to radicals, the idea of sharing space says that we should all pay attention to how much space each of us is taking up, and we should make sure there’s space for everyone to speak and share ideas. It has emerged in response to real problems: white dudes like me are often louder, and they talk forever, silencing others. starr quotes her friend Jane here, who argues that the resulting ethic of ‘not taking up too much space’ can be part of the problem: “Get over it. You better figure out how to be democratic and still be full of life” (384). How can we figure out how to avoid dominating spaces while also bringing our passion and excitement? Are there ways of being that actually open up or create space? starr isn’t pretending there’s a perfect solution here: “while no culture can be universally welcoming landing pad, that doesn’t mean that organizers are absolved of any responsibility for culture” (378).
2) Norms of fearlessness, self-sacrifice, and bravery: starr argues that these norms can obfuscate the value of fear, hesitations, doubts, and silences. “Those voices of intimate reflection are an enormous archive of knowledge, but remain hidden behind behind profound doubt and fear” (378). Norms of fearlessness make it difficult to share (and work through) fears, anxieties, and doubts.
3) Individualism and the dream of shedding the past to find community in the future: “a hallmark of white countercultures is the vision of individualistic self-creation in which oppressive childhood values and institutions are cast off, and political compassion embraces what might best be theorized as ‘imagined community‘” (380). This describes my process of radicalization to a tee: i came to see my middle-class, white, suburban upbringing as the thing I had to unlearn, and (parts of) anarchist subculture became the community i belonged to. This isn’t a problem in itself (well, there were lots of problems with this anarchist community, but that’s different). The problem is that this experience gets universalized, and “many find it hard to imagine parents participating in radical political action” (380) because my reality (and the one I impose on everyone else) is that people have an ‘awakening’ sometime in their 20s, and they organize in ways that work for other, twenty-somethings. In contrast, starr argues, many activists of colour “envision social movements in intimate terms; fighting racism is protecting their mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, children. Struggle and survival are principles learned at home, from family and elders, at church” (380). Indeed, I’m just starting to recognize in concrete terms that it tends to be white, middle-class people (NOT all people) who lack community. I’m just starting to learn about and prioritize care, vulnerability, trust, and generosity, while recognizing that these values and practices are second-nature to folks with different backgrounds than my own.
4) This individualism has important implications beyond misunderstandings and false universalisms. It means that intellectual and formal aspects of politics are often privileged over everyday life and the nitty-gritty face-to-face interactions that happen in organizing. This one hit a chord with me: “when activists focus energy on clever communications and/or disruptions which even the mainstream media will cover, they imagine that the cleverness and surprising courage of these actions will excite people to participate in various capacities” (380). This is the classic anarchist fantasy of ‘propaganda by the deed’. Disruption leads to inspiration leads to politicization and recruitment leads to creating a community of resistance: “joining a movement is understood as an individual intellectual act, not a social one” (381). To admit that this is a fantasy connected to whiteness and masculinity doesn’t mean that it’s totally ineffective, but it’s likely to attract more people like me: people who’ve felt alone, and get attracted to politics for intellectual reasons, or because it seems exciting and daring.
5) Similarly, starr points to ‘smart radicalism’ as a fundamental premise of white organizing: a commitment to radical principles and theories, a ‘correct’ interpretation of these principles and theories, and the assumption that this correct radicalism will avoid fetishism or mistakes (382-3). I’ve participated in this one, too: being part of spaces where people are hungry to correct each other and ‘get it right.’ starr suggests that this is often connected to an attack on ‘reformism’ within radical groups, where the militancy of members is judged by their willingness to engage in high-risk direct action. She contrasts this to the priorities of anti-rarcism: “while ideological and tactical radicalism exist in antiracist organizing, they are not the standard by which organizations and organizers relate with participants. Instead, friendliness, comfort, safety, generosity, and reliable personal connection are the necessary elements of ‘good’ political work (383).
6) Direct democracy can end up substituting formal equality for genuine relationships and exchange. In direct democracy, leadership often exists in the form of ‘facilitation’ and tends to be temporary, rotating, and random “affirming that all participants have equal (and equally limited) authority (381). starr isn’t dismissing this tradition, explaining that they’re “similar to anti-racist practices in that they are local (unlike mass actions and international campaigns), building community, and empower marginalized people” (381). But, she says, these meetings themselves aren’t often comfortable or empowering, and this isn’t a priority because “white organizing assumes that activists arrive at meetings having decided already to be committed and to do inconvenient, uncomfortable things in the service of their commitments” (382). This was another place where starr’s diagnosis hit home for me. I’ve been to lots of meetings where people aren’t welcomed, ideas aren’t affirmed, and people aren’t friendly to each other. When people are hesitant to commit to things, or complain that meetings suck, or stop showing up, I’ve often told myself it’s because they lack commitment.
7) This is one of the problems starr is pointing to: an everyday activist culture emerges lacking kindness, trust, generosity and vulnerability. She calls this cool: “the reification of self-indulgent insecurity” (384). It’s a problem because “it gets us into a place where we then feel undignified and vulnerable smiling, approaching someone, talking to strangers, or being unilaterally friendly” (384). I don’t think this means making everything fun or easy; this mixes up ease with openness. Nor is it about telling oppressed people to be more cheerful in their struggle: starr’s criticism is aimed clearly at privileged folks like me. This really resonates: recognizing the reality of structural oppression and my privileged place within it not only made me feel guilty, it made me terrified of messing up. And the best way to avoid humiliation is to humiliate others: never let your guard down, be relentlessly critical, and display your anti-oppression for the world to see. As I cultivated this way of being, I found others who shared similar tendencies. The result was an activist culture that was terrifying for newcomers and often cold even to insiders.
It’s not just that we have to be ‘critical’ of culture; we have to be open and able to having a range of conversations about subtle cultural behaviours and norms, in different ways. The trap is to assume spaces or actions are culturally neutral and therefore inclusive, which starr argues amounts to “an act of indifference or disregard for other people” (which is often reflective of white and male privilege) (379). starr frames this analysis as a way to “discuss together the kinds of power we believe in, how power manifests, and then what is the face, the gesture, the relationship with strangers, and the greeting?”
All of these elements intersect and reinforce each other to create what starr is calling grumpywarriorcool.
Grumpywarrior cool is the intersection of blanket ‘diversity’ that masks whiteness and patriarchy, norms of fearlessness and self-sacrifice, individualism and struggle-against-our-upbringing narratives, the fetishization of disruptive direct action and publicity, intellectual radicalism and correctness, and cool unwelcoming judgmental activist spaces.
So what are the implications of this critique? These aren’t just failures of analysis, but deeply ingrained ways of being: just because I read this article and find it convincing doesn’t mean I’m going to start being vulnerable, open, and kind. If starr’s analysis is correct, then grumpywarriorcool is something white activists are steeped in, and it will take a lots of work, dedication, and experimentation to create different ways of being. These are the limits of critique: it’s one thing to unsettle and critique ways of being that have come to be natural or normal. It’s another thing to displace them with an alternative; that’s a much bigger challenge. And if part of the problem is relentless critique that fetishes the ‘correct’ analysis, then this criticism of white activist culture is always in danger of participating in this dynamic. The critique of grumpywarriorcool and end up being just another trump card to display radical/intellectual superiority. As starr laments, it’s a strange challenge to talk to people about subtle behaviours, assumptions, and the looks on their faces–is this about telling people how to behave?
What’s the alternative? starr suggests an ethic of discovery: “not only getting to know each other, but also interrogating the structural contents of political concepts and space we take for granted which, as it turns out, have a huge impact on the shape of our political work” (379). I am just starting to see grumpywarriorcool as a problem in my own community, and I’ve been lucky enough to stumble on alternatives that are more convivial, kind, and vulnerable. In some ways, they’ve always been there, and I’ve dismissed them as wishy-washy, too hippy-ish, or they just freaked me out because I had to be vulnerable to share in those spaces. In general, the spaces I’ve encountered are no less radical or militant, but there’s space for people to be silly, kind, joyful, sad, scared, supportive, vulnerable and angry. It’s messier and more dangerous: when we open up to each other, there really is more danger of humiliation, getting hurt, and hurting others. But this isn’t about yet another duty that tells white men like me that we need to do this or that: it’s about being really present and feeling alive. For me, this has always been scarier than sneaky direct action. starr ends the article with an updated exhortation from Black Panthers to white allies: “Let us see as central to our politics the replacement of indifference with discovery” (385).
How might being “against” systems oppression and domination actually support those systems? How might “being radical” end up distancing radicals from the people they want to be engaging? This is a summary and analysis of “Anarchy without Opposition,” by Jamie Heckert, a chapter in Queering Anarchism. Heckert unpacks the ways that anarchists often set themselves in opposition to systems of oppression, and he claims that this opposition can actually be a kind of counterproductive attachment. By defining themselves against what they’re not (oppression, capitalism, the State, and so on), anarchists can end up reinforcing those very structures. As an alternative, Heckert suggests a queering of anarchism, which would make it more open-ended, relational, dynamic and compassionate. He draws together strands of queer theory, anarchism, permaculture, non-violent communication, and buddhism, creating a narrative that is both theoretical (highlighting ideology and opposition as bordering practices) and personal (sharing stories of his own attempts to navigate spaces with openness and compassion). He writes:
My aim in this essay is to queer that notion of anarchism in a number of ways. To queer is to make strange, unfamiliar, weird; it comes from an old German word meaning to cross. What new possibilities arise when we learn to cross, to blur, to undermine, to overflow the hierarchical and binary oppositions we have been taught to believe in? (64).
In the simplest terms, I think, Heckert’s problem is the way in which (LGBT and anarchist) identities and ideologies can end up preserving rigid borders and oppositions, which close off possibilities for more openness, compassion, and newness. At stake in this problem is the capacity to embody anarchy: ways of being and relating that are fluid, loving, kind, creative, and open to difference. He asks:
what kinds of politics might become possible if we all learn to be less concerned with conforming to certain labels and more capable of listening to the complexity of our desires?(66)
Heckert differentiates State-oriented LGBT politics from anarchist queer politics, suggesting that the State-oriented version seeks to sustain and legitimize identity, whereas queer politics “might ask how the identities themselves might already be Statelike with their borders and policing” (66). He makes a similar point about anarchism, asking about the way its borders are policed:
How much energy that could go into creating other-than-State-like ways of living gets lost to efforts to appear anarchist enough? I know I’m not the only one who suffers from anarcho-perfectionism! Likewise, I’ve seen loads of energy to into arguments about whether so and so is really anarchist or not, or such and such is really anarchism (66).
The general problem he’s getting at is the ways in which identity and ideology function as bordering practices that close off possibilities: “when I again get caught up in my own thoughts, my own desires, my own stories about who I am, and who you are, what should have happened, how the world should be… then I see so little outside the dramas of my own mind. Everything I see, everyone I meet, I reinterpret through the lens of those fictions. I take myself and my beliefs very, very seriously. Just like the State” (74).
In this sense, Heckert is arguing that ideological and identitarian boundaries are part of seeing and thinking like the State (or more radically, that those are the State, insofar as the State is a way of seeing and organizing the world):
“Here’s a queer proposal: the State is always a State of mind. It’s putting life in boxes and then judging it in terms of those boxes, those borders, as if they were what really mattered. It’s trying to get other people to do what you want them to do without so much regard for their needs, their desires. It’s self-consciousness, self-policing, self-promotion, self-obsession. It’s anxiety and depression. It’s hyperactivity stemming from the fantasy that being seen to be doing something is better than doing nothing, even if what you’re doing might cause more harm than good. It’s resetnment at self and others for not doing it right, for not being good enough. It’s the belief that security comes from control. And it’s a source of temendous suffering in the world. It’s also something I do…” (73).
So what’s the alternative? “What might an anarchy refusing to be contained by the borders by its opposites look like?” (67). For the skeptics, he explains that he’s not saying anarchism should include everything; he’s saying that “interesting things are likely to happen if folk inspired by anarchism make connections with folk who see things differently, who do things differently” (67). This isn’t recruiting, either: “To do so is not simply to try to convince others that anarchism is right, but perhaps even to let go of such judgments” (67).
At some points, Heckert calls for an anarchism with “no borders, no purity, no opposites,” which seems a bit unrealistic in practice, since our lives are full of all kinds of borders and boundaries, some of which are desirable, and others that we can’t simply get rid of (refusing to “see” the borders of private property will probably land you in jail). But I think his main point is that we don’t have to take these borders for granted; they can be queered, unsettled, and shifted. In this sense, this isn’t a call to get rid of all borders or divisions or oppositions, but to pay attention to what happens to them; to attend to them, to loosen them up, rather than assuming that they’re necessary or good or right. Heckert admits that identity and other borderings can be useful:
Taxonomies of species or sexualities, categories of race or citizenship, borders between nations or classes or types of politics–these are fictions. To be sure, fictions have their uses. Perhaps in using them, we may learn to hold them lightly so that we, in turn, are not held by them (64).
Furthermore, the really important and interesting stuff happens at the borders, not inside them. Heckert draws on permaculture’s insight that edges are the most productive and fertile parts of ecosystems, suggesting that anarchism would benefit from attending to the social edges, where people and communities permeate and connect: “The more that anarchism, a many branched river in our social ecosystem, mixes and mingles with swamp and stone, soil and soul, the more diverse forms of life will benefit” (69).
An important problem with all this (and I wished he spent more time on this) is the fact that these ways of being aren’t just beliefs that we can change by thinking critically or declaring ourselves otherwise. As Heckert puts it: “declaring a politics to be nonhierarchical, anarchist, feminist, safe, or queer does not magically make this happen. It takes a different kind of magic: practice” (70). Both the positive and negative ways of being are held in our bodies; they’re accumulated habits of relating to ourselves and to each other, and they’re often-unconscious attachments and investments. And working at being otherwise means working that through our bodies, and shifting our unconscious desires. How? I think Heckert’s suggestion is that we practice radical acceptance: of ourselves, of others, of the world, and of its hierarchies and borders (even if we want to tear them down): “there is no such thing as evil; there is nothing to oppose. Instead, we might learn to both empathize with the desires of others, and to express our own” (71). This is a politics “that starts off accepting everything just as it is. From the basis of acceptance, we might then ask, what service can be offered? How can anarchy be nurtured, rather than demanded, forced?” (71). His final questions in this paragraph are particularly important, I think:
What ways of living and relating can we practice that are even more effective at meeting the needs of everyone for life, love, and freedom? And in what ways might we learn to accept the pain we feel when that doesn’t happen, instead of distracting ourselves with resentment or chocolate? And in what ways might we learn to be gentle with ourselves when we realize we’ve been drawn to strategies of distraction or even domination? (71).
So is he saying that we should just accept the status quo, try to love everyone, and be nice? I don’t think it’s that simple. I think that acceptance is the alternative to moral judgement, for Heckert. It’s about escaping the normative fictions that encourage us to think about how things are wrong and bad and should be different. This closes off our capacity to work with what’s actually here, because the here-and-now is too imperfect and messy for rigid borders of identity and ideology. In contrast, acceptance entails finding ways out of the borders that constrict our perceptions and affections, we can see and feel more, be open to more, and create new relationships that have been closed off by the borders we’re transgressing. Radical acceptance entails a recognition that domination and exploitation are happening, with or without our acceptance. When domination becomes something that’s not monstrous, totally unacceptable, and something outside us that we can oppose, then we can also begin to work with ourselves more gently, because we’re prone to dominate and mess things up too:
to hold tightly–to shame, resentment, or any emotion or any story of how the world really is–is to be held tightly. This is not freedom. To hold gently is to be held gently. This, to me, is freedom. No opposition, no tension, between intimacy and spaciousness (72).
Another strength of Heckert’s piece is his clear, personal, and humble writing style. It can be really challenging to speak to the importance of compassion, love, and openness without sounding naive, and I think Heckert pulls it off. It’s even more challenging to point to the ways that anarchism can be hypercritical, ideological, holier-than-thou, and so on, without lapsing into this tendency oneself, by claiming a new critical insight that reveals yet another thing that people are doing wrong. In short, critique of being hypercritical is still critique. Heckert moves on and beyond this paradox by gesturing towards alternatives, foregrounding compassion, empathy, openness, and discussion. There’s a danger here, too, which I think he avoids pretty effectively. The danger consists in turning this alternative into a new imperative, a new ideology, or a new prescription for behaviour. I think part of the strength of this essay is that Heckert admits that these open ways of being aren’t a static destination, and that he lapses into ideological certainty often; he doesn’t have it all figured out. After proclaiming that his anarchism “has no straight lines, no borders, no purity, no opposites,” he readily admits:
Okay, I’ll be honest. My anarchism can grow rigid, bordered, oppositional. I know the satisfaction of imagining myself more radical than others. The thing is, this comes with the risk of being not-radical-enough, or even not really anarchist. It also gets in the way of betting along with people, of working together, of even meeting (68).
I can relate to this. As someone who became politicized through learning about oppression and exploitation through university and anarchist activism, I was (and still am, sometimes) attached to a politics fuelled by resentment: of myself, my friends and family, and my guilt about my own privilege and complicity in systems of oppression. I think Heckert is talking about this kind of resentment, and it’s different than anger: this kind of resentment makes me afraid of not being radical enough, it makes me want to hit people over the head with the Truth rather than having a conversation, and it keeps me from being able to meet people where they’re at and be open to difference and new insights. Being more open, for me, has meant cultivating some of the qualities that Heckert is talking about: accepting and loving myself, being curious and open to learning, and understanding the ways that I’ve reproduced rigid borders in the ways that I relate to people when I’m trying to be pure or self-righteous, or when I’m feeling insecure. I used to think “love” and “openness” was a bunch of hippy shit. Now I find myself agreeing with Heckert: I want love, intimacy, and openness to be at the core of my politics, not as a new moral imperative or strategic insight, but because these are things that make me feel more alive, connected, and capable of transformation.
Really thought-provoking and nuanced perspective on decolonizing bioregionalism: “For every thread in the fabric of colonialism, there is a story of resistance to be told. For every lie told by the civilizers, there is a truth to be told. For every place that has been decimated through industry and agriculture, there is still possible a good way to live there; and this way is kept alive in the stories of that particular place, the Indigenous Knowledge so viciously and systematically attacked by the colonizers. And each of us as an individual is a living story, connected to place(s) and ancestors, whose stories formed the world we live in today. Our identities are not static. Our stories evolve and our cultures evolve, as Cascadia herself rises in fire and falls into the sea. All of our stories need to be told, and in a way that empowers us in our responsibilities, not as a set of evasions or “settler moves to innocence5.” Telling our stories as our identities moves us beyond the dualism of guilt or innocence, denying neither, while illuminating our responsibilities as individuals and as Peoples in this life. (I reject the guilt-ridden associations of the word “responsibility” and embrace response-ability as the antidote to resignation and disempowerment)”
The lands and waters of the Northeast Pacific Rim are a colony. This was not always so. Colonization began in the late 18th century and has continued unabated to the present day, as the centralization of power continues to be concentrated into a disembodied abstraction called Capital. Prior to colonization, power was balanced throughout the many Nations here, each with their own decentralized network of autonomous clans, bands, villages, and families. At that time, the epistemological separation between the Land and the People was contradictory to the cultures here, and it was exactly this division that the colonizers came here to enact in order to replace laws of relationship and reciprocity with resource extraction to feed the growth of Capital. This process has turned living communities into dead commodities through the imposition of a culture of occupation1, and despite the many successful acts of defense and restoration…
Cindy Milstein’s words on kindness, generosity, care and love in the context of the struggle for radical change: “It’s not that random not-so-random acts of kindness constitute revolution, or that if we accumulate enough of them, those acts will tip the imbalance of power, bringing all those structures of social domination, exploitation, and oppression to their knees. Yet they are part of (re)schooling ourselves in how to practice, routinely, the lost arts of caring, neighborly, and empathetic face-to-face social relations. And as many of us have personally experienced during uprisings like Occupy, the lack of such rigorous yet tender practices on a daily basis makes us woefully unprepared to be the people we want to be during our own experiments with egalitarian and directly democratic forms of social organization.”
It’s night 5 of Hanukkah in my Brooklyn home. Colorful little candles are casting a warm glow against the tarnished-golden metal of the menorah — bringing light into the world, even if only temporarily.
Nights 2 through 4 were missed, and instead replaced with a two-hour trip north by train to the hilly, rural, calming landscape of the Hudson Valley for warmth, pauses, and remembrances of other kinds — calling forth illumination, too, but in different ways: woodstoves, sunsets near the end of hikes, star-studded skies, and most especially, friends old and new.
At this dark time, light becomes crucial to sustain our spirits, our humanity. Perhaps, to be generous, the tacky-kitschy-comic displays of electrified outdoor Christmas (and increasingly Hanukkah) lights starting to reappear could be…
Anarchism is often dismissed as incoherent, naïve, and ineffective. This is Nancy Fraser’s position in a recent essay called “Against Anarchism.” It’s an excerpt of a longer essay, part of a book entitled Transnationalizing the Public Sphere: Nancy Fraser to Debates Critics (coming out in 2014). For those who don’t know, Nancy Fraser is a famous political theorist (for academics, at least). Imagine being famous enough that you need a whole new book to respond to people who disagree with you!
Fraser’s criticisms are worth engaging not because they’re particularly perceptive or unique, but because they’re exceedingly common: these are some of the reasons that people dismiss anarchism all the time.I’m not out to mount a systematic defense of anarchism here (or ‘neo-anarchism,’ as Fraser calls it), in part because there’s no coherent, singular political tradition to defend. Anarchism means many things to many people (which makes it pretty silly to proclaim you’re against ‘it’). What is it about anarchism that’s so threatening to people like Nancy Fraser? I think Fraser (and many others) are actually threatened by what I’ll call ‘autonomous politics,’ which is both narrower and broader than anarchism, encompassing currents of marxism, indigenism, queer politics, feminism, and anarchism. Autonomous politics is also too complex to be a coherent whole, which is part of what makes it so threatening. My suspicion is that Fraser hates autonomous politics not because it’s ineffective, but because it undermines her whole worldview and political project. Autonomous politics threatens to destabilize liberalism and the tired old tricks of conventional politics, revealing their irrelevance for changing things here and now.
Fraser’s broad argument is that democratic politics works on ‘two tracks.’ On the first track, “publics in civil society generate public opinion,” and on the second track “political institutions make authorized and binding decisions to carry them out.” Chief among these formal institutions is the State, and she explains that anarchists reject this second track, because they think “the administrative logics of the political system are bound to colonize the independent energies of society.” Anarchism, she says, rejects this second track in favour of “a single-track understanding of democratic politics.” This is the spectre of autonomous politics: practices that short-circuit the relationship between institutions and the publics they are supposed to represent. Fraser’s charge is that this single track politics is fundamentally undemocratic: anarchist politics becomes isolated, unaccountable, and vanguardist.
So, anarchists, are you accountable (like a good liberal) or are you unaccountable (and therefore undemocratic)? Will you be a good citizen, or a bad outsider? This is liberal thought-magic: the strange spell that funnels everything back into ‘State’ and ‘public,’ making it difficult to imagine any other kind of politics.
I think the current of anarchism that’s particularly threatening to Fraser is the one that dissipates the spell of liberal thought-magic. Some currents of anarchism (and other radical political traditions) aren’t simply anti-State or anti-institutional: they point to the ways that institutions always pull us back into relation to these organizations, like black holes. Autonomous politics short-circuits the relationship between formal institutions and publics, enabling new, open-ended relationships and practices to emerge that don’t fit into the liberal framework. In the anarchist tradition, this autonomist current can be traced to folks like Gustav Landauer, who insisted that the State can’t be attacked or destroyed. The state and other formal institutions are social relationships:
The state is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of behavior; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently toward one another.
For practitioners of liberal thought-magic, the prospect of ‘behaving differently toward one another’ is naive, if not dangerous. There are always two tracks: formal institutions and publics who contest and transform them. This is crux of liberal democratic thought-magic: two tracks of politics locked in communication and change. There is no escape, no alternative.
This makes autonomous politics—practices and actions that don’t aim at reforming institutions or mobilizing publics—frustrating, confusing, and menacing to liberal thought-magicians. Autonomous isn’t just ‘outside’ Fraser’s two tracks; it threatens to undermine the whole edifice and break the spell. How?
First, the persistence of autonomous politics is a reminder that the modern conceptions of ‘State’ and ‘civil society’ are only a few centuries old. Part of the thought-magic is to insist that life beyond the State is nasty, brutish and short, and it will continue to be, without the rigidities of the two liberal tracks. Of course, there was incredible hierarchy, violence, and patriarchy before the rise of the modern State (in some places—particularly in Europe). The State has transformed these brutal relationships, institutionalizing and industrializing some of them while subjugating others. But before and beyond and after the State, there was (and is) an incredible diversity of ways that people organize themselves, resolve conflicts, engage with neighbours and more distant ties, and relate to land and their home places. This infinite complexity is politics, and it will always be more complex than liberal thought-magic wants it to be.
Liberal thought-magic insists that because some of these non-State relationships were and are brutal, we must dismiss autonomous politics as a scary, violent, unthinkable way of living and relating. It sneaks in the racist and Eurocentric view that indigenous peoples and other autonomous currents are primitive, naive, savage, unrealistic, or it simply erases their existence. Fraser gestures briefly at “isolated indigenous communities struggling to subsist off the grid,” lumping them in with “relatively privileged but downwardly mobile youth.” These are the main subscribers to autonomous politics, she thinks (the rest of us know better). Of course, insisting on the necessity of the State probably doesn’t sound as good to undocumented workers, prisoners, indigenous land defenders, and others being crushed, criminalized or erased by the State and other modern institutions. But it’s not just about being privileged (or not) by the State and its politics: it’s also about the effect on our political imagination; this is what makes liberal thought-magic so magical.
Second, autonomous politics threatens the role of the liberal political theorist: liberal magicians make recommendations for how things should be, in terms of the ‘proper’ relationship between formal institutions and publics.
Critical liberals like Fraser come up with ideas about how they could be much different, but not too different (the dual tracks of State and public needs to be preserved). In her article, she mentions her contemplation of “hybrid strong publics,” which aims “not at collapsing the two tracks of the public sphere model, but at softening the border that separates them, making them more porous to each other, and enhancing the flow of communication between them.” Fraser’s role is to talk about how this relationship could work better, and (as she demonstrates here) to police threats to this relationship, reasserting the necessity of the two tracks.
This liberal thought-magic is always augmented by admitting that formal institutions are not really all that democratic and responsive: that’s all the more reason to keep trying to make them better and nicer! Ignoring them is irresponsible, tantamount to giving up. A theorist’s role is to criticize this relationship, and present a normative argument for the way that things should be.
The liberal theorist tends to speak from a mystical non-place, with little reference to the people and places to which they’re connected in everyday life, or to the concrete political practices they’re engaged in. But once the spell starts to dissipate, the categories of ‘State’ and ‘public’ start to appear more and more as one kind of politics among others, and liberal political theorists start to sound shrill and particularistic, protecting a centuries-old political project that has been globalized through colonization and imperialism. Indeed, from the perspective of folks trying to change things—even people trying to influence formal institutions—the role of the liberal political theorist isn’t much use. It encourages us to see everything in terms of the two tracks: State and civil society, and encourages us to inhabit the mystical non-place where we get to fantasize about how things could or should be. To experiment with other ways of seeing and being in the world tends to be perceived as ineffective and naïve, if not outright undemocratic and dangerous.
With this in mind, I should situate myself: I’ve spent lots of time reading about liberal politics, and I was once firmly under its spell; I read about how the State should be, and how institutions could be different. I can’t say that’s all gone and I see everything clearly, but I’ve become critical of liberalism (obviously) and I’ve found other forms of thought-magic (including currents of anarchism) more useful in thinking through the ways I relate to people, and to the political projects I’m part of. I’ve developed priorities and values that don’t make sense from the perspective of the dual tracks of State and public. I don’t have a replacement for Fraser’s thought-magic because I’m trying to be open to a diversity of traditions and encounters. Can we work together politically, will we be adversaries, or will we ignore each other? For me, that’s a question I’ll try to figure out when I meet you. Even if you’re committed to liberal thought-magic, we might be able to work together, depending on how we relate. That doesn’t mean I don’t have my own commitments, baggage, and ideas; it means I’m trying to be open to the encounter, and meet you where you’re at.
Third, autonomous politics threatens to proliferate the tracks of politics. There aren’t one, or two, but many tracks, institutions, and actors. It’s not about pretending that ‘the State’ and ‘the public’ don’t exist: they’re no less (or more) real than other social categories. They’re not exactly irrelevant, either: they continue to exert a strong pull on most people (all the more reason to be critical of them and the kinds of politics they normalize). Fraser accuses anarchists of assuming a single, autonomous track (and therefore they’re unaccountable to anyone outside this track). But many of the most prominent and radical tendencies of anarchism, feminism, indigenism, and queer politics gesture at the infinity of political ‘tracks’. Not all of these tracks are ‘publics’ or ‘formal institutions;’ these categories erase the complexity of allegiances, alliances, tensions, anxieties, adversaries, and enemies that criss-cross contemporary political actions and groups.
From the perspectives of autonomous politics (and there are many), questions of accountability are diverse, determined not by abstract ideological arguments but often by one’s everyday lived relationships to people, communities, places, and ecosystems. These kinds of people are dangerous to the State (and to liberal thought-magic) because their loyalties and commitments can never be easily fitted into the liberal tracks of ‘public’ and ‘State.’ More worrisome still, they often insist on relating to others horizontally and across difference, refusing to accept the authority of formal institutions. Fraser would like to dismiss these currents as particularistic, vanguardist, or isolationist. There are isolationist, vanguardist tendencies of anarchism, but there’s more to autonomous politics. Autonomist politics is often perceived as isolationism by people like Fraser, who conflate isolationism with a refusal to engage with the State and other institutions on their own terms. Police, bureaucrats, politicians, and other institutional representatives have no a priori legitimacy or authority here; it’s up in the air: they might be obeyed, attacked, engaged or ignored. This is not because autonomous politics embraces an anything-goes nihilism: they often point to authorities and values that are erased by liberal thought-magic, such as family, community, indigenous nationhood, ecosystems, and non-humans. This is because autonomous politics enables new (and old) relationships, alliances, solidarities and connections.
Autonomy doesn’t just mean separation. The categories of liberal thought-magic (‘the State’ and ‘the public’ or ‘civil society’) are like powerful black holes, sucking everything in and erasing the complexity of political life. By the same token, warding off these categories and necessities enables other values and practices to emerge: it becomes possible to think and act differently. I’m sure Fraser would have no problem jamming these emergent values and solidarities back into the liberal paradigm: it’s some powerful magic. But for many people, the spell is losing its power.
Who ensures that autonomous politics is accountable? There’s no universal arbiter or judge. You will have to find out for yourself what different forms of politics are like by engaging with the people who practice them. For those who yearn for a universal arbiter of justice or accountability or democracy, it may be useful to remember that it has never existed: the universalist dream is a fantasy that has never succeeded in representing everyone, and it is one that has tried to erase and subjugate the political universe in order to live out this fantasy. Autonomist politics appears more realistic here, rather than naive: we need to relate to each other, figure things out together, and struggle together, without guarantees.
I think these are the reasons why Nancy Fraser hates anarchism and autonomous politics. At a time when liberal thought-magic works on fewer and fewer people, the magicians are getting worried. It’s increasingly obvious that States and other formal institutions are not only undemocratic; they’re increasingly designed to absorb, placate, divide, and destroy grassroots movements while defending the exploitative status quo. As Fraser points out, it’s dangerous to pretend the State and other formal institutions don’t exist (it’s one of many tracks), but it’s at least as dangerous to pretend that there are only two tracks to politics, fervently conjuring liberal thought-magic. Fraser has written a whole book ‘debating her critics,’ but many proponents of autonomous politics won’t be interested in debating her; they’ve dislodged themselves from the black hole of the State and the public, and these orbits appear strange and dangerous to liberal magicians. But I think even the liberals like Fraser know that there’s a whole political universe beyond their myopic orbits; they’re just trying really hard to ignore or condemn the political aliens.
This post, I hope, is somewhere in between engagement and departure from liberal thought-magic: I’m hoping to help ruin the spell, and try out some other forms of thought-magic. I don’t have a coherent alternative to Fraser, in part because autonomous politics refuses any singular alternative: there needs to be room for all kinds of different magic, and there are no guarantees to politics.
Corey Snelgrove’s short piece on decolonization from a settler perspective. It’s entitled “On Refusal” but is about more than opposing/destroying settler society. Or rather, he’s insisting that to destroy settler colonialism, heteropatriarchy, capitalism, and other interconnected pieces of the dominant order, we need to prefigure a collective and decolonial “we” based in vulnerability and relationality
Disrupting settler society, and avoiding fatalism, requires a two-fold recognition: of settler colonialism and Indigenous resurgence.
Destroying settler society, and allowing the rise of ethical relations, requires a two-fold active response: destroy the material and discursive foundations of settler colonialism and actively engage with Indigenous resurgence.
At times and in spaces, the destruction and active engagement are oneinthesame.
At other times and in other spaces, they are distinct.
It’s often said by lefties and radicals (especially folks of colour) that ‘reverse racism’ misunderstands racism as individual prejudice; it’s actually a historical structure, so people of colour aren’t being racist (they aren’t reinforcing the structure of white supremacy) when they mock white people. Aamer Rahman explains that there IS such as a thing as reverse racism, it just requires a time machine…
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:
Agency and causality gets complicated
Politics gets reconceived as open-ended problems and experimentation
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:  acknowledge subject/object distinction has sometimes worked to prevent human suffering;  note that this implies human instrumentalization of non-human life is alright;  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 inone’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, evenutopian 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.
– 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