Vibrant Matters: An Interview with Jane Bennett

[cross posted from my realism course blog: the interview follows from my introductory overview—but skip me if you want and go straight to Bennett!]


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 machina of 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.


1. What I should note straight off is that your book has gained a following among people in Continental philosophy working on what’s called “speculative realism,” and Graham Harman himself has said he wishes he had written this book. One of my students, I think, hit on this by saying last week that reading you brought together all of the themes we were covering this semester on speculative realism, and I think that’s right, since you also helped me to bridge to later work in the seminar on the ecological import of these discussions. Of course, you are writing out of a different set of philosophers, or at least not directly responding to these recent works. What do you make of this historical moment where we have this (seemingly) wide return to the things themselves that your book marks?

There is definitely something afoot, something about everyday (euro-american) life that is warning us to pay more attention to what we’re doing.  There is the call from our garbage: our private and public spaces — houses, apartments, streets, landfills, waterways — are filling up with junk, with vast quantities of disposables, plastic artifacts, old tv’s and devices, clothes, bags, papers, bottles, bottles, bottles.  The American television shows “Clean House” and “Hoarders” expose the more extreme versions of this mounting mountain of matter, but it’s everywhere you look, including in the middle of the oceans: “SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – Researchers [have discovered] … a swirl of confetti-like plastic debris stretching over a remote expanse of the Atlantic Ocean. The floating garbage [is]… similar to the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a phenomenon discovered a decade ago between Hawaii and California…” (Mike Melia, “A 2nd garbage patch, plastic soup seen in Atlantic,” Associated Press, April 15, 2010).

A second kind of call is coming from the weather, from volcanos that stop flight traffic across Northern Europe and from hurricanes like Katrina that take down neighborhoods and maybe even George W. Bush.   And 24 hour weather reporting and its disaster porn intensifies this call of the wild.  (Timothy Morton’s The Ecological Thought and his discussion of “hyperobjects” at are relevant here.)

For those of us who are philosophically-inclined, the response to such calls has been a renewed focus on objects, on an object-oriented ontology, or a renewed interest in materialisms — there have been in the last decade materialist turns in literary studies, anthropology, political theory, history.   Part of this may be a pendulum swing in scholarship: a reaction to the good but overstated insights of social constructivist approaches.

2. What my students and I liked best about your work is its sustained critique of “mechanism,” which treats the things of the world as inert and determined. There’s a danger to writing about this, since apparently it’s okay to have a rather antiquated view of nature (circa Newton, or even before) but it’s not okay to risk trying to describe the unruly world in all its messiness. Your book calls for a “strategic anthropomorphism” as means for thinking a non-determined materiality in and around human beings.  Could you say more about the limits of this strategy and what it risks?

A perhaps unnecessary caveat: while I think it’s a mistake to allow “mechanism” to serve as a generalizable or all-purpose model for natural systems (a model that continues to linger in popular and social scientific imaginations), it would be foolish to deny that many assemblages function with a degree of regularity and repetition characteristic of machines.  So, while Bergson and other philosophers of Becoming are right to draw attention to the creative element in evolution or to the capacity of physical systems to self-arrange in ways that defy prediction, I don’t want to overstate the freedom, mobility, or fragility of the working groups that form in nature and culture.

One of the projects I’m working on now is to explore theorizations of the strange kind of structuration at work in what Michel Serres has described (in The Birth of Physics and Genesis) as “turbulent” systems.  Here Graham Harman’s critique (in Prince of Networks) of “lump ontology” (which he, perhaps too hastily, associates with Deleuze) highlights for me the relatively undertheorized quality of the question of formativity within philosophies of immanence, including the version at work in my Vibrant Matter book.  Harman makes me want to focus more carefully on the question of how it is that actants form and hold themselves together, both as individuals and as members of an assemblage.  I want to get better at discerning the topography of Becoming, better at theorizing the “structural” quality of agentic assemblages.   For the question of “structure” — or maybe that is the wrong word, and the phrase you suggest below is better, i.e., “linkages” between and within “open relations” —  does seem to fall in the shadow of the alluring image of an ever-free becoming — the seductive appeal of Nietzsche’s world of energetic flows, of Deleuze and Guattari’s vibratory cosmos, of Bergson’s creative evolution, of Michel Serres’s “pandemonium of the gray sea.”  Inside a process of unending change, bodies and forces with duration are somehow emitted or excreted.  But how?   How, Serres asks, “is Venus born from the sea, how is time born from the noisy heavens?” (Genesis 26)  What is this strange systematicity proper to a world of Becoming?  What, for example, initiates this congealing that will undo itself?  Is it possible to identify phases within this formativity, plateaus of differentiation?  If so, do the phases/plateaus follow a temporal sequence?  Or, does the process of formation inside Becoming require us to theorize a non-chronological kind of time?  I think that your student’s question: “How can we account for something like iterable structures in an assemblage theory?” is exactly the right question.  I’m working on it!

With regard to the liabilities of the strategy of anthropomorphizing or allowing yourself to relax into resemblances between your-body-and-its-operations and the bodies-of-things-outside, I can think of at least three: it is easy to get carried away and 1) forget that analogies are slippery and often misleading because they can highlight (what turn out to be) insignificant or non-salient-to-the-task-at-hand resemblances, 2) forget that your body-and-its-operations is not an ideal or pinnacle of evolution, but just the body you have; 3) forget that the human body is itself a composite of many different it-bodies, including bacteria, viruses, metals, etc. and that when we recognize a resemblance between a human form and a nonhuman one, sometimes the connecting link is a shared inorganicism.  I think that anthropomorphizing can be a valuable technique for building an ecological sensibility in oneself, but of course it is insufficient to the task.

3. One could see a fear that by returning to the matter in and around us, even in a “new materialism,” this could return us to pinning down human being in some sort of nature to be found through some form of analysis. This is a view that has been critiqued for a long time now in the works of feminists and in critical race theory, and rightly so. How do you respond to those that may worry, after fighting so long for how certain human are not simply their materiality, that this is what is ecologically necessary to think?

I think that we are in fact constrained by some sort of nature, that we are free to operate but within iterated structures.  Though of course a lot turns on how one understands the constraint and the freedom: are we “pinned down” once and for all in the same spot?  This is highly unlikely, given a (Nietzschean) view of nature as flux or a (Serresean) view of nature as a viscous, clotting flow.  It is important to specify the ontological imagery one endorses:  nature or materiality constrains human (and nonhuman) activities but because nature or materiality is not a perfect machine, it and we are never fully analyzable.  There is always something that escapes — some dimension of objects, bodies, events, and processes that withdraws (Harman); there are always lines of flight (Deleuze and Guattari).  It doesn’t make sense to me to say we are “simply” our materiality — there is nothing simple about materiality, and neither are material forces and flows best figured as determinate and deterministic.  The need to be kind and respectful to other bodies will remain, regardless of whether one understands human individuals and groups as embodied minds/souls or as complex materialities.

4. This an elegant book and it really gives itself over to descriptions of how matter moves us as much as anything else. Your description of democracy, I think, gives us up to thinking of the “masses” or dêmos in an innovative way, since how the masses act, seemingly out of the blue (e.g., storming the Bastille), has thrown thinkers of individual free will and so on into fits for centuries. Could you talk about more the way this thinking could inform a look not just at the politics of matter (the way in which objects relate to one another) but also what we normally take politics to be?

You ask another important and difficult question.  Let me begin by saying something “Machiavellian,” i.e., that political effectiveness requires choosing the right action and the right style of action at the right time, and to do this one must be alert to the role of impersonal (fortuna) as well as personal (human intentional) forces at work in “real time.”   The political strategy I pursue in order to enhance the prospects for “greener” modes of consumption and production is an indirect one:  the story of vibrant matter I tell seeks to induce a greater attentiveness to the active power of things — a power that can impede, collaborate with, or compete with our desire to live better, healthier, even happier lives.  Perhaps this new attentiveness will translate into more thoughtful and sustainable public policies.  I am not sure that it will, but it is, I think, a possibility worth pursuing for a while.   My political strategy is indirect because its target is not the macro-level politics of laws, policy, institutional change but the micro-politics of sensibility-formation.

In the book, I also suggest that a heightened sensitivity to the agency of assemblages could translate into a national politics that was not so focused around a juridical model of moral responsibility, blame, and punishment.  The hope is that the desire for scapegoats would be lessened as public recognition of the distributed nature of agency increased, and that politics would take on a less moralistic and a more pragmatic (in Dewey’s sense of problem-solving) cast.



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