May 25, 2010 by Peter Gratton
I’m reposting the overview of Vibrant Matter that I provided last month (an extended version will be printed this summer in Philosophy in Review):
Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things has itself been a vibrant matter of attention since its publication earlier this year. Bennett is professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University, and her work in Vibrant Matter builds (though Vibrant Matter is a stand=alone work and one need not have read these previous works) on her earlier books, The Enchantment of Modernity: Crossings, Energetics, and Ethics (2001) and Thoreau’s Nature: Ethics, Politics, and The Wild Modernity and Political Thought (1994), tying together well recent work in ecology and new forms of materialism.
Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter is an important work, linking critical movements in recent Continental philosophy, namely a vitalist tradition that runs from Bergson to Deleuze and even, on Bennett’s reading, Bruno Latour, with a “political ecology of things” that should speak to anyone conscious enough to be aware of the devastating changes underway in the world around us. There is good reason why Bennett’s book has, in short order, gained a wide following in disparate areas of political theory and philosophy. For those who have yet to read it, the interview below should offer reason enough to begin doing so.
The book is divided up into eight chapters, moving from descriptions of her philosophical approach in chapter one, “The Force of Things,” through to descriptive encounters with more-than-human assemblages that question human sovereignty over the world, such as chapter 3, “Edible Matter,” to concluding chapters on the “vitality and self-interest” of a new political ecology. Bennett’s conception of the “force of things” encompasses neither previous vitalisms nor naturalistic mechanisms, and Bennett’s book gains its vitality from her descriptions of the life of metal, the agency of food, and even the wrong way to read vitalism as she approaches recent debates over stem cell research.
What Bennett offers is a “vital materialism” that negotiates the difficult —some would say impossible —task of presenting a vitalism that comes unhinged from Spinozist teleologies of nature. She thus describes vibrant networks of change operating beyond and within human beings without providing a purposiveness to the separable matter of nature, either coming from human beings (anthropocentrism) or some divinity (ontotheology). Her aspiration, she writes, “is to articulate 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). Borrowing Bruno Latour’s term “actants,” Bennett hence sets out to describe the quasi-agency of non-human materials, which in turn are nothing but the stuff of what matters to humans.
The philosophical problem that Bennett confronts is a post-Cartesian description of nature in modernity as mechanistic and lifeless. The subject of modernity lives off the materials of the world and, in contradistinction to the inorganic materials around it, has a freedom and agency that transcends its natural environment. Once we question this opposition between subjects and things, a number of traditional “ontotheological binaries,” such as organic/inorganic, human/animal, will/determination, etc., begin to “dissipate” (x). In this way, Bennett is not just questioning subjective idealisms, but also supposed materialisms, such as one finds in variants of naturalism, that are mechanisms better belonging to the era of Newton than the enchanting, post-Freudian and post-Einsteinian universe to which we accede.
It is just this agency that is at work, Bennett claims, in our airfields, in the wild, in the rush of a blackout, and all around and within us (our bodies are nothing but organic and inorganic assemblages). What is crucial is that Bennett takes the deus ex machinaof our typical explanations of the world, namely the quasi-divine human being standing over mechanistic nature, and kills this last of the gods. As she argues well, human agency “remains something of a mystery” in the “face of every analysis” (34), and this mastery is a presupposition that grants us sovereignty over nature even as our material bodies tell us otherwise. To ascribe such agency, she notes, risks a “touch of anthropocentrism” (99) but she is strategically right that without this risk of exporting what was previously considered human to a supposedly mechanized nature, we can never pull off descriptions that render animals and things not merely as “behaving” but as acting (108).
This would seem to leave us bereft of any politics worthy of the name and the reader may worry Bennett has brought us either to the edge of some pan-psychic New Age philosophy, or worse, a nihilism that renders meaningless all human actions and common praxis. With each decentering of the human being, either in terms of structures or the play of language in the philosophies of the last century, there has been less a philosophical answer to these vital questions than a seeming normative disgust that human beings have been cast from their throne. That may well be, but merely decrying this result does nothing to question, for example, Bennett’s new materialism, with its focus on more-than-human assemblages. Such a reader is invited to follow Bennett’s discussions of political praxis, the molding and unmolding of more-than-human assemblages, and see how her much needed analyses bear fruit for rethinking crucial concepts of democracy and political change. Merely decrying the human loss of its supposed mastery is not enough.
Bennett suggests we cannot turn a philosophical blind eye to these assemblages, and certainly Bennett is right that in her narratives many such non-human agencies “chasten my fantasies of human mastery” (122). There is much work to be done in light of Bennett’s work: to find means for rethinking agency and the considerations of what counts as living without reenacting various forms of biopolitics. Wherever we go with this assemblage of questions, it’s vital that none of this take us away from the very matter at hand.