May 26, 2010 by Peter Gratton
CHAPTER 1, Sections II-V
These sections on various kinds of “things power” (debris, nonorganic life, legal actants, walking-talking minerals…). I’ll just treat these sections together, if that’s ok, since I think they’re relatively straightforward and I think it’s better to treat particular points in the comments or inter-blog discussion.
She begins these sections (p. 4) with a narrative of her own encounters with the hard-to-ignore things around her. (Points to the person who looks up when the last June 4th was a Tuesday, and you’ll get the year of this encounter.) In animal studies, object oriented ontology, and, of course, in phenomenology you see a return to this kind of first person narrative form that one only saw in glimmers in Continental philosophy for a while. (If there was an “I,” it was always the impersonal “I.”) We can raise the whole question of the narrative form and its use here (and elsewhere). To use Ian Bogost’s term, what kinds of “ontography” are available? She will provide a number of her own as well as quoted example in this book. (She is, it should be noted, a clear and vivid writer on precisely these vibrant matters.)
A note on terms: she separates “objects” and “things,” the latter of which is “never entirely exhausted by their semiotics” or as the obverse of some subjectivity (p.5).
But there’s also a move between “vitality” and “vibrant,” and I don’t think that’s simply a play. She uses the terms interchangeably, it would seem, but certainly the latter has less of a “vitalistic” conception, and I think certain lends itself to a non-mechanistic materialism. (When I wrote my review of this book and taught it in my course, I kept switching the title between “Vital Matter” and “Vibrant Matter.”) She ends the first section under discussion here with a call to the buzzwords of earlier protest movements (before, I think, her and our own time): “Not Flower Power, or Black Power, or Girl Power, but Thing-Power: the curious ability of inanimate things to animate, to act, to produce effects dramatic and subtle” (p. 6).
We need to take seriously, given Zizek, Badiou, and Johnston’s (among others) work on the “act” and the use of the word here.
But more importantly, this is a place to recall that the work of these various protest movements have been precisely to de-objectify minorities and women, to remove them from nature; her use of these terms for things would, I’m sure, strike some as reactionary (not because she’s against Girl Power or some such, but because the replacement is from flower, to Black, to Girl, to Thing….) In other words, if various modes of Marxism, structuralism, and post-structuralism, among other theoretical enterprises, have been critiqued for not simply the “death of the Subject,” but also the death of the agency of those very groups who now, perhaps for the first time, could have just such an agency, then as we think this politics, I think we need to think more about this move. In other words, feminist readings of the history of philosophy demonstrate time and again how women have been aligned with the natural, the mechanistic, etc. I imagine a sardonic look at this thinking, great, now we have pushed ahead and made these critiques, and now we get to hear about how we are just matter in some base sense anyway. This would not be my argument, but in the background, there’s a both-and strategy going on: to keep the best of these previous critiques while not giving in, on her account, to thinking matter and bodies as wholly semiotic or the result of patriarchal structures.
More autobiography: on pg 8-9, she recounts her time serving on a jury deciding the fate of a man on trial for attempted murder. She discusses the “actant” on hand, namely the evidence of gunpower that, no doubt, was now a power actor in the lives of all involved. To think this, she writes, is to begin to “experience the relationship between persons and other materialities [note the “other materialities,” such that the human is not set off to one side] more horizontally, … to take a step toward a more ecological sensibility” (p. 10).
Part of this sensibility, she argues, is to see the human as a materiality, as minerals and such that we ourselves are vital matter, an assemblage that is “itself a kind of thing-power.” (Perhaps one place, among many others to go, would be exactly to those quixotic [and derided] sections of Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle, where he discusses contemporaneous biology in similar terms.)
For those ready to launch an anti-Bennett critique of the type noted above, her defense is to note that what is feared most in the objectification of women, of minorities, etc., is instrumentalization, and she is clear that she prefers a model that “favors physiological over moral descriptors” (p. 13). In other words, if she calls into question the “ontological divide” between “persons and things,” but is not making “moral claims” about persons and protozoa. Here is Bennett at her best: she takes the attack one could sense coming at her work and turns it on its head:
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 [really?], routinely made to suffer because they do not conform to a particular … model of personhood. (p. 13)
In other words, it’s not about saying protozoa have rights, but rather is a set of claims she argues is ultimately in our “self-interest” (p. 13). This section is more suggestive than argumentative, not least because the “physiological” has its own rather turgid history (e.g., biopower), and at this point in the book, it’s unclear the leap for why the self-interest of this assemblage would trump other considerations. But, her claim, is more empirical in the soft sense: this is about “getting it right,” describing the scene as it is—wishing humans were so special doesn’t make it so (even if “wishing” seems to be a particularly human trait).
We then move to a longer section on Adorno where, in fact, Bennett turns to Adorno’s notion of ethics and thus implicitly turns to normative concerns. She uses Adorno to set up her materialist critique of “identity,” and then in the end says that Adorno too falls to what Meillassoux would simply call “correlationism,” seeing the things of the world as inevitably tied up with human subjectivity (p. 16). Nevertheless, she shares with Adorno as “careful attentiveness to the out-side” (p. 17).