Category Archives: Reading Summaries

Summaries and reflections on books and articles I’m reading.

Summary of ‘Urbanizing Frontiers’ by Penelope Edmonds

Penelope Edmonds: Urbanizing Frontiers: Indigenous Peoples and Settlers in 19th Century Pacific Rim Cities

urbanizingfrontierspicThis is a summary of a new book by Penelope Edmonds, comparing two settler colonial cities—Victoria in Canada and Melbourne in Australia—to reveal the operations of British settler colonialism in the 19th century, and its implications for settler colonialism today. She focuses on the ways that both cities increasingly regulated bodies and spaces in attempts to create civilized, British subjects, and to dispossess and discipline indigenous people and control and police indigenous bodies.  I drew heavily on Edmonds’ work in a recent piece I wrote about the acknowledgement of territories by Victoria’s newly-elected mayor, Lisa Helps, her refusal to swear allegiance to the Queen, and the racist backlash that followed.  Edmonds wrote an article called “Unpacking Settler Colonialism’s Urban Strategies,” which unpacks a lot of the book, especially as it pertains to Victoria, specifically.  It’s available here.

Victoria vs. Melbourne

I live in Victoria, so in this summary I focus in particular on Edmonds’ work on this city, with less of a focus on Melbourne. Compared to Melbourne, the dispossession and violence perpetrated in Victoria against indigenous peoples was more subtle and less overt. In Melbourne, pastoralism meant that indigenous people were quickly targeted for removal and elimination, whereas in Victoria, the mercantilist economy of resource extraction (especially the fur trade) meant that indigenous people were necessary, and they were much more a part of the emerging colonial city:

During the fur trade, there was great violence, but land was largely under the control of Frist Nations, because mercantilism left Aboriginal peoples on their land. Settler colonialism, by contrast, sought to remove Indigenous peoples from their land and denied or extinguished Native title. In the Australian pastoral frontier, land, not labour, was the primary object. It was an object that was pursued with rapidity and violence. (33)

Colonial Frontiers

Edmonds suggests that the ‘colonial frontier’ has been conceptualized as “a distinctly non-urban geographical space that sits somewhere out in the country or borderlands” (5). She shows how frontiers exist within urban spaces (through the segregation and contestations around spaces) and in intimate/bodily relations (through attempts to maintain the racial purity of whiteness and concomitant attempts to police indigenous bodies). These frontiers are “mercurial, transactional, and, importantly, intimate and gendered” (6). This is a counterhistory of Empire, which challenges the amnesia of settler colonialism, which makes its own processes seem natural and normal (to settlers, at least). This historical amnesia is political, writing out the dispossession of indigenous people, and the political processes and struggles that attempted to make Victoria into a white, propertied, bourgeois space. In this context, Edmonds explains that she seeks to “indigenize historical understanding of the settler-colonial city by focusing on human stories and individual lives transformed in the context of British colonizing structures and urbanization in the Pacific Rim” (9).


Edmonds notes how dominant histories create a top-down view of power, privileging narratives of individual white males and military engagements in a supposedly linear process of colonialism (6). These condition the idea of Victoria as it’s marketed to tourists, as ‘more English than the English’ which erases the way that space in Victoria was transactional, heterogeneous, and contested. Furthermore, Edmonds argues that geography and urban planning has tended to understand colonialism in functionalistic ways, focusing on the circulation of products and goods, omitting “the important human and cultural aspects of empire’s urbanizing landscapes: the displacements and transformations of peoples and ideas” (50).

Crucial to this counter-history is a conception of space and race as a processes, and an attempt to reveal the lived realities of these cities. Whereas race and urban space tend to be understood as natural or given, Edmonds draws on Henri Lefebvre’s work to show how space “is a process of uneven power inscription that reproduces itself and creates oppressive spatial categories” (10). In this sense, spaces are always contested: “the unequal distribution of power in social space becomes naturalized and its operations forgotten. That is, spaces obscure the conditions of their own production” (10). To write counterhistory and reveal the production of spaces, then, requires tracking the “generative processes” that make spaces work in the ways they do (11). In the case of both settler-colonial cities, these crucial processes included the “regulation, partition, and sequestration of Aboriginal peoples and attempts to control so-called mixed-race relatiosnhips” (12). Indigenous peoples were systematically constructed as nuisances and prostitutes, and indigenous spaces in the city were represented as bedlam, chaos, disease and filth. Edmonds argues that these categories are key to understanding the production of space in Victoria, and to understanding the process of settler colonialism more broadly.

Victoria was constructed as a white (initially Anglo-Saxon) space. Edmonds suggests that whiteness needs to be understood not simply as a skin colour but “as a strategy of power or a set of political relations” which is associated with property and the segregation of bodies (17). She explains that “shoring up a white settler population became a priority in both sites, especially after the 1860s” (45). This involved engineered immigration schemes to encourage Anglo-Saxon migration and discourage Chinese immigration.


The supremacy of settler society and the backwardness of indigenous peoples was legitimated by stadial theory, in which four various modes of production (hunting, pastoralism, agriculture, and commerce) conceptualized as hierarchical and successive forms of human progress. Specific to stadial theory was not simply the concept of different modes of production, or their hierarchy, but the linear telos: “pastoralists were not merely superior to nomads; they were so because they had once been nomads but were no longer” (58). This meant that indigenous lands were conceptualized as ‘wastes’, waiting to be improved by European agriculture and industry, and “the precondition for the highest stage of progress and commerce was the absence of Indigenous peoples in the city” (61).

The Douglas treaties were modeled on the idea that Indigenoups people had “the right of occupancy but not property”—their claims “extended only to their cultivated fields and building sites or villages” (42). These cultivated fields had to be enclosed to be considered cultivated, so this did not extend to camas fields. Legally, indigenous people could ‘pre-empt’ land within the terms of colonial law, by clearing it, fencing it, and building a house. Edmonds doesn’t say this explicitly, but it’s striking that owning land requires clearing, fencing, and dwelling like settlers.

Edmonds only briefly discusses the cultivation of camas in and around Victoria (90-97) and notes that colonizers immediately saw camas meadows as future sites for agriculture (94). Edmonds traces early settler imaginings of land to show how they followed stadial accounts of “two modes of subsistence—the uncultivated inviting land and the land transformed by European agriculture” (96). The land that Douglas described as a ‘perfect Eden’ was most likely Meegan, or “Beacon Hill Park.” Settlers systematically appropriated these camas fields: wherever Europeans sought to settle on the islands of the Puget Sound, they looked for these open meadows… these fields that in fact had been cultivated by Coast Salish peoples” (96).

Edmonds suggests that the enclosure of these fields were closely linked to broader processes of dispossession and dominance:

the balance soon tipped in favour of the newcomers as the gradual encroachment of fields for cultivation, the grazing of livestock, and the allotment of lands pushed Lekwammen people off their lands and threatened the camas bulb fields on which they subsisted. A growing cadaster of European-style fields began to overcode Aboriginal land (98).

This encroachment was resisted by indigenous people, who “retaliated against the invasion by harvesting the settlers’ cattle” (98). When these tensions escalated, Lekwungen people threatened to attack the fort, and the HBC fired a cannon into the chief’s house (which was empty) as a demonstration of military strength. As Edmonds explains, this display of “sheer firepower” and outright violence “would be used repeatedly in Victoria and the surrounding area to elicit co-operation from local peoples” (98).

Settler-colonial cities

Edmonds points out that transnational colonialism made metropolitanism possible: the grand metropoles of Europe were produced through the exploitation of Europe’s colonies. The city was the epitome and consummation of colonialism as a complex assemblage, involving “specific styles of architectures, certain kinds of transport and communications, hygiene and the regulation of bodies” (61). This corresponded to the ideal subject of colonialism and universal history, Civis Britannicus: “Defined by and made through his global entitleemtns, civis Britannicus could make tranglobal journeys between British settler colonies, where he (not Indigenous peoples) would be configured as native” (64).

Abjection of indigenous spaces and bodies

A central focus of Edmonds work is the representations of indigenous peoples by colonial newspapers, authorities, and settler subjects. They were part of settler fears and anxieties about indigenous peoples. Crucially, they were connected to property values: indigenous peoples were represented as “nuisances” and their existence “render[s] property in their quarter useless” (191). The Native camps were inscribed with European medical ideas about racial hygiene, and posed “as the antithesis of the ordered, rational civil space of the gridded city” (197). This was part of a new set of regulations around contagious diseases in colonies, which “identified female prostitutes as the main source of contagion” (220). Indigenous womenThe medicalization and pathologization of indigenous people helped to erase the complicity of settlers in the theft of land and the policing of indigenous people, positioning settlers as virtuous, moral, and law-abiding (200). This went hand in hand with ongoing attempts to control space and increasing encroachments on the Lekwungen reserve, along with efforts to get control of it and remove indigenous people. Settlers fought about different strategies: missionaries and assimilation, expropriation, purchase, or ‘waiting until they became extinct’ were some of the options discussed. This finally happened in 1911, when a select number of families were paid ten thousand dollars each and forced to relocate (205).

The bridge between the reserve in Esquimalt and the fort in Victoria was a particularly prominent frontier, constructed as “a liminal space, a border between civilization and savagery” (202). Colonial authorities used surveillance and curfews in an attempt to enforce this partition, in an effort to keep indigenous peoples on the other side of the bridge: “they decreed that an Aboriginal person found on the wrong side of the bridge after 10pm could, at the discretion of the police, be searched and detained” (202). The reserve thus increasingly “became a space of confinement within the cityscape” (202). Edmonds also shows how vagrancy was largely a charge reserved for settlers who entered indigenous spaces: the partition was enforced on both sides, though settlers were always punished less severely (213).

This was part of a broad regime of surveillance and control in Victoria. Edmonds reveals the way that Douglas deployed the “civilizing power of the grid. The grid plan, with the help of police surveillance on every corner, he hoped, would both organize and discipline First Nations subjects and reshape their subjectivities (209). This was part of the shift to increasingly modern, disciplinary forms of power in settler colonial cities, relying less on overt and explicit violence, and more on policing and surveillance, including a formal pass system. At the same time, she notes that this disciplinary power was “backed by the exceptional violence of sovereign power” (209). If indigenous people didn’t conform to the grid and the regulated spaces of the city, there was always the possibility of execution, lashings, and other forms of violence.

In addition to its racialization, this violence was also gendered. Edmonds explains that “violence by European men against Aboriginal women was frequent and stunningly brutal” (215). In fact, her evidence is drawn primarily from police reports, which means she is documenting a high level of reported gendered violence, let alone that which was not reported, or ignored by police.

Edmonds sums up her argument about bodies and spaces:

As has been shown, in the early streeets of Victoria an dMelbourne, Indigenous peoples were routinely described as ‘inconvenient,’ ‘immoral,’ ‘nuisances,’ ‘vagrants,’ or ‘prostitutes,’ but to varying degrees. These categories, I propose, take us to the heart of the socio-spatial relations that are distinctive to settler colonialism and reveal how law and property served to racialize the streetscape. Racializations were not only amplified in these colonial contexts, they were also particular to the urbanizing settler landscape. In Malbourne and Victoria, Aboriginal peoples’s amps were not natural entities but spaces produced through colonial relations; likewise, colonized Indigenous bodies or subjects were materially produced as abject, unnautrual, and inconvenient entities. These productions, I argue, were directly related to the settlement phase, when the taking of First Nations land became a key objective (217).

Contact zones and resistance

Part of Edmonds’ counter-history entails revealing not just the dominant constructions of space, but also the ways that early settler colonial reality looked very different from the idealized, white, ordered spaces of the colonial imaginary. Edmonds seeks to “counter scholarship that posits colonialism as a unilnear projection from the metropole by denying the interactivity and subversions of the urbanizing frontier” (15). Settler colonial cities were (and are) “contact zones” which were contested and transactional. She also argues that indigenous women’s bodies were contact zones, and that “paying attention to indigenous womens’ bodies as particular sites of anxiety in the streetscape can tellus much about imagined colonial orders that were both imposed and defied” (16).

Indigenous people also resisted police authority. Among other incidents, in 1860, the newspaper reported that when police accused an indigenous man of stealing a watch and attempted to take him prisoner at an indigenous encampment, the police were “set upon by about one hundred men and women armed with pistols, knives, and clubs who demanded his release” (207).

Vikki Law: Resisting Gender Violence without Cops or Prisons

In her article “Against Carceral Feminism,” Vikki Law criticizes currents of feminism that call for more policing and harsher sentences for domestic violence.  She shows how this ‘carceral feminism’ (advocated primarily by white, middle-class feminists) justifies the expansion of the prison industrial complex, obscures the violence of policing and incarceration, and fails to address the connections between gender-based violence and economic inequality, lack of affordable housing, racism, and the structural violence perpetuated against communities of colour.

Carceral feminism abets the growth of the state’s worst functions, while obscuring the shrinking of its best. At the same time, it conveniently ignores the anti-violence efforts and organizing by those who have always known that criminalized responses pose further threats rather than promises of safety.

Law points to a number of alternatives to carceral feminism, developed primarily by people of colour who have never been able to rely on policing and prisons for safety, including INCITE!, Critical Resistance, Creative Interventions, and The Revolution Starts at Home. In the video below, Law unpacks the roots of gender-based violence, and the ways that policing not only fails to stop gender-based violence, but often makes things worse for women (especially black and brown women of colour).  She talks about organizations and communities that are creating grassroots alternatives to cops and policing, which effectively curb gender-based violence without relying on prisons, policing, and the state.

Kwetlal Against Colonialism: A Summary

This is Corey Snelgrove’s summary of his MA Thesis, drawing connections between environmentalism, colonization, and what he calls “settler stewardship”–settlers’ ways of knowing and relating to the land perpetuate and reify settler colonialism. All of this is grounded on Lekwungen Territory, in “Victoria” where he did his MA, and he also gestures towards productive alternatives where settlers are taking leadership from indigenous peoples and supporting indigenous relationships to land, worked through his participation in the Community Toolshed here:
“This orientation marks a difference between the Tool Shed and settler stewardship, and this difference is shared by many of those participating in the Tool Shed. For example, discussions with Community Tool Shed participants reveals a recognition of the entanglement between colonization and the environment. Participants also recognize the different role for non-Lekwungen peoples than Lekwungen peoples in engagements with the land, such as removal of invasive species versus the harvesting of camas. Additionally, participants do not seek to absolve themselves from colonization. Rather, they often trace their involvement to their implication in colonization.”

Summary: amory starr – Grumpywarriorcool

ignitingarevIn 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).

Summary: Anarchy without Opposition by Jamie Heckert

queeringanarchismHow 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.


Summary: Vibrant Matter by Jane Bennett


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes from Vibrant Matter

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

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

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

Three tasks of the book:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


–       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

Layla AbdelRahim – Wild Children, Domesticated Dreams: Civilization and the Birth of Education

abdelrahimThis book is a primitivist critique of education and domestication which, AbdelRahim argues, is at the heart of civilization.  Whereas empathy is at the heart of wilderness (and the capacity to live well in it), civilization is characterized by alienation, hatred, destruction and violence.  All of these values, she argues, are instilled by education, which works through routine and coercion, destroying kids’ capacities for curiosity and instilling obedience and apathy.  At the center of the whole problem, AbdelRahim argues, is domestication: the ways in which other living beings are violently diverted from their own purposes, and made to serve the purposes of human masters.  Animals, plants, and other humans are all domesticated, and often internalize their own domestication: they become civilized themselves, and all of this becomes naturalized.  AbdelRahim shows how these values of civilization are internalized: not just mentally, but folded into bodies through discipline, routine, and the naturalization of domestic life.  She draws on Bourdieu and his conception of habitus to emphasize the ways in which education—and other institutions of civilization—reproduce themselves, and continue to work regardless of the intentions of those participating in them.

AbdelRahim weaves in her experiences of parenting and learning from her daughter, Ljuba, which helps reveal the powerful creative and free-thinking capacities of children, and the reactionary and domineering tendencies of education and civilized parenting.  It helps to show how folks can live and relate to one another differently—in this case, in terms of parenting and unschooling—as a way to create alternatives within and against civilization.  I wish the author had discussed her own experience more, and talked about her own strategies and practices around parenting, given her radical critique of civilized child-rearing.  The use of narrative personalizes the text, so that the author appears as a parent figuring out how to raise a kid in a radical, compassionate way, rather than just an author that writes about it.  Knowing that someone is trying to live the thing they’re talking about always makes me a more compassionate reader, too.

She also introduces the concept of dominanta: the force that drives humans to learn and grow.  People thrive when the dominanta is allowed to flourish through curiosity, investigation, and creative experimentation.  It requires willful effort, and so it’s quashed by the coercive and regimented patterns of schooling: children are lumped together into regimented instruction sessions and their own curiosity and capacity for self-directed learning is stifled.  “Rearing and caring for the dominanta, says Arshavsky, is the ultimate expression of love” (98).  It creates conscientious and compassionate people, whereas education creates obedient, violent, and oppressive people.

AbdelRahim raises a number of really important and interesting questions about civilization.  The complexity of the problems is often obscured by her polemical approach (see below) but she also opens them up in interesting ways.  I think some of her definitions and solutions to these problems are inadequate, but the inadequacy is thought-provoking in itself:

What is domestication?  AbdelRahim argues that “distinctions between husbandry and domestication are of little relevance here,” lumping them together as practices that “stem from interference in the reproductive strategies of others for the purpose of consumption or the benefit of the one who interferes” (2).  Civilization is then the “sum outcome of the products of domestication” (3).  The domesticated victim’s resistance is rendered illegitimate in this process, and “it needs schedules, curbs imagination and eliminates playfulness and improvisation” (3).  I had a conversation with a friend about this book before I read it, and we ended up discussing this definition.  I asked whether the Lekwungen peoples whose land we’re on would be considered “domesticated,” because (among other practices of cultivation) they use controlled burns to cultivate camas bulbs.  They clearly interfered with the reproductive cycles of numerous plants, in order to decrease competition and allow the camas bulbs to grow larger than they would without human intervention.  Indigenous peoples across Turtle Island cultivate plants (and did before colonization), the most famous example being the “three sisters” guild of squash, corn and beans.  Undoubtedly these crops were “domesticated” in the sense that they were progressively selected for taste, yield, disease resistance, hardiness, and other traits–this would seem to be a form of domestication for AbdelRahim.  At the same time, these practices are much less regimented than European agriculture, and they exist in a symbiotic relationship with ecosystems.  They don’t seem to be ‘wild’ but they also don’t have the destructive effects that AbdelRahim ascribes to ‘domestication.’  I think there’s a wide array of practices in this in-between space, and it’s not clear how to think about them.  At other times she locates the problem in the conception of “resources;” as soon as this category comes into existence, humans “invented the concept of the right to consume the labour, life and/or flesh of that resource” (12).  Is there are a hard-and-fast distinction between recognizing something that sustains me—like the beans in my garden—and conceiving it as a resource?  For sure, there are distinctions here: of course monoculture really is different from biodiverse wild food sources; however, for most people, the lived realities of these food sources will be totally impure: a tangled hybrid of domestic and wild.  Foragers might drive their cars to harvest wild berries, and farmers might have more intimate and compassionate relationships to non-humans than the staunchest urbanized animal liberationists.  So how can the concepts of ‘domestic’ and ‘wild’ be made useful in terms of thinking about our own (impure) practices in everyday life?  If the radical critique of civilization is really compelling, what concepts, values, relationships, and lifeways might help us live differently?  If, as AbdelRahim seems to suggest, almost everything and everyone is under the grip of civilization, how do we begin from this impure, at-least-partly-domesticated space?  AbdelRahim does have some tidbits here:

  • Seeing life as a gift “impels people to honour the earth and safeguard its diversity” (13)
  •  “societies that see prosperity in terms of secured access to food, fresh air, water and health for all, understand safety as community with their surroundings” (18)
  • “Symbiotic relationships stem from wild intelligence where each individual is part of a diverse yet interdependent group and thus knows how to attune to the real, unrepresented and unmediated experiences of others always and necessarily in a new way” (30)
  • “Spaces of wilderness are places of introspection, of privacy, of trust, of relationships and of respect.  Because these spaces exist for their own purpose and are in constant dialogue with the unpredictable yet viable chaos that is life, humans must learn to trust wilderness, including their own and that of their children” (78).
  • “When we spend time and effort making our own things, we make only what is necessary, mostly of recycled matter, and do not need to exploit the natural and human “resources” in order to buy superfluous things” (84).
  • “Our healing depends on community.  It depends on diversity in that community and that extends across species, across the binding dimensions of time and space, even across the borders that delimit our notions of life” (111).

One of the most interesting examples here is her discussion of a sports complex in their house, with rings, ladders, ropes, a swinging bar and a slide.  AbdelRahim explains how she doesn’t interfere with suggestions or help when her daughter Ljuba is playing, allowing her to learn for herself and become capable.  After discussing the example, they admit that the complex is “only an artificial substitute for the endless possibilities offered by forests, riverbank slopes, country house roofs, and so forth,” and that these are inaccessible because of “the underdeveloped public transportation infrastructure [it should be developed more?], hefty fees, private property laws and the destruction of natural habitat” (79).  AbdelRahim argues that it’s less about the object itself, and more about “our approach to the object, to the meanings attached to this object and to the limitations or the liberties that we ascribe to our child” (79).  Without dismissing the connections to civilization here, AbdelRahim develops an analysis of the ways in which what she calls ‘wildness’ can be cultivated in cities, with objects that are products of domestication or civilization: it’s more about the ways they’re approached and used, and the relationships they sustain.  Is this a clue for thinking constructively about creating alternatives within a civilized, domesticated context?

The text is extremely polemical, seeking to establish certainties about the immorality of civilization and its insidious effects on us.  I think this approach creates a number of weaknesses:

It leads AbdelRahim to emphasize civilization and wilderness as a binary, as if they are mutually exclusive or opposed ‘wholes,’ rather than exploring the complicated relationships between civilization and wilderness (there are “cultures of domestication” and “cultures of wildness” (2); the “wild person knows the self in relationship to a world that iexists for its own purpose, while the civilized knows the self as master of a world to be conquered, modified, tamed, educatied and possessed” (29); “love and reproduction” versus “personal gratification and “the desire to possess” (96)).  At times, she suggests that there is resistance everywhere, and there’s a constant possibility that bits and pieces of civilization will ‘go feral.’  But at other times, wilderness seems like a romantic and lost past, hopelessly buried by literacy, education, agriculture, and the other interlinked institutions and processes of civilization and domestication.  In this tendency, ‘the wild’ appears as an Eden that is both perfect and impossible.

The polemical style prevents AbdelRahim from exploring some of the more ambivalent and ambiguous aspects of domestication and civilization. Sometimes she presents civilization in a fairly linear and deterministic way: “Ultimately, the type of life and system of subsistence we envisage for ourselves leads to the type of socio-ecological relationships which, in turn, leads to the question of whether children are seen as capable of learning how to live in this world on their own or whether they need to be taught” (4).  Or elsewhere: “literacy has become the DNA of oppressive and concurrently oppressed brains, which by means of apathy and abstraction brought about a significant shift in the nature of intelligence causing serious deterioration in understanding, knowledge, and relationships (96).  Does civilization have any ‘root’ (Literacy? Domestication? Agriculture? War?)  Or is it more about the ways in which all these practices become linked together over time as part of a networked apparatus?  AbdelRahim seems to want to locate the root, and this sometimes prevents her from foregrounding and analyzing the complicated networks of these institutions and practices.  It also prevents her from acknowledging what these practices make possible: literacy and education are subjected to a radical critique (and rejection?) in this text, but this text is also a product of education and literacy.  What does it mean to make use of civilized tools and practices in this way?  Are there ways of using them that can help destabilize or create alternatives to civilization?

The text doesn’t discuss much in the way of alternatives and resistance to civilization, focusing instead on civilization, domestication, and education.  AbdelRahim weaves in examples of deschooling from her own life, but doesn’t say much about other practices.  One of the few examples is drawn from a therapist she interviews, who argues that collective therapy based in empathy can be a way of healing from the trauma of civilization.  AbdelRahim draws on her twice in the book—near the beginning and near the end—but doesn’t say much, analytically, about how this person’s therapeutic practices (or her own unschooling practices) might relate to other contexts and broader movements against civilization.  Similarly, she mentions the ELF, the ALF, Kroptkin, William King, and others who chose to “renounce their privilege to oppress and join the ranks of the oppressed,” but this falls back into the binary: they’ve chosen to “stop doing what causes others to suffer” (43).  Is this possible?  As AbdelRahim argues elsewhere: “not everyone is this utterly and hopelessly civilized, and therefore not everyone rapes literally.  Many continue to fight for wild relationships even if they do not always call them so.  Still, we are all implicated in this system and our interests are enmeshed in its hierarchical chain of predation, where each of us is concomitantly predator and prey” (58).  Yes!  So in a world where—as AbdelRahim argues convincingly—we’re immersed in civilization and complicit with it in ways far beyond our control, what does it mean to ‘renounce privilege’?  She argues that Kropotkin and others “sought to build intelligent communities based on diversity” and I was hoping to find more discussion about what that looks like.  It’s not really fair to criticize a book for what it’s not saying, but I think this relates to her approach, as well.  If civilization is everywhere, then there’s not much to say about alternatives and resistance.  But if, as AbdelRahim sometimes suggests, that resistance and wilderness are everywhere too, then one can’t talk about civilization without talking about the constant battles, struggles, and transformations taking place.  In other words: when civilization is emphasized over resistance and alternatives, doesn’t it bely a certain pessimism about what’s possible?  Is it possible that civilization has already achieved a certain kind of victory when it’s the central object of analysis and critique, rather than multiplicity of creative ways that people are subverting, resisting, and enacting alternatives to it?

Finally, like many primitivist writers, AbdelRahim uses indigenous peoples to legitimize some of her arguments against civilization, and in favour of wilderness.  Specifically, she draws primarily on anthropology to subsume (certain) indigenous peoples into the ‘wild’ side of the binary.  She draws on Sahlins and other anthropologists to argue that “noncivilized gatherer societies are the ones who had the most and the highest quality time of all” (103).  Conveniently, she leaves out any mention of hunting, because it doesn’t seem to fit with her earlier argument that humans are natural herbivores.  Many indigenous people have pointed to the importance of deep connections with the natural world as a core of living a rich life and being indigenous.  But there’s something creepy about making this point by drawing primarily on anthropology and history, in order to represent indigenous peoples as ‘feral’ or ‘wild’.  Indigenous peoples are represented as part of a romantic past, easily combined with AbdelRahim’s own romantic views of non-civilized life (“the wild purpose of life is to live for one’s own pleasure and leisure” (116)).  This dovetails with dominant (“civilized”) representations of indigenous peoples as noble savages from the past: they’re inspiring, they lived better than we do, but they’re also irrevocably lost.  It’s important to acknowledge that AbdelRahim never says this directly, but I think it’s a tendency in her narrative and in other primitivist texts.  Representing indigenous peoples as wild beings makes it difficult to think through colonialism and decolonization here-and-now, including the ways in which indigenous peoples and settlers might relate to each other, share responsibilities, and decolonize themselves and their relationships to land.  I don’t think these questions are necessarily incompatible with AbdelRahim’s critique of civilization and domestication, but they would add another layer of complexity.

I’d definitely recommend this book to anyone seeking to think through civilization, domestication, education, and their interlinkages.  Even if you totally disagree with AbdelRahim’s conclusions, the problems she raises are really thought-provoking and important to think through.