Month: May 2010

Adrian Ivakhiv on Vibrant Matter

Here is most of his post over at Immanence on the parts of the text under discussion:

[Her] task is the articulation of a post-constructivist understanding of the world, one that sees the world to be made up of complex relational processes that, at one and the same time, take material forms (things we can see, measure, predict, and so on) and contain or express affective-semiotic dynamics (“internal” dynamics associated with perception, responsiveness, subjectivity, and affectivity or feeling). Such a “process-relational” view attempts to overcome the divides between object and subject, matter and mind/spirit, realism and constructivism, structure and agency — divides that have shaped and encumbered western thinking for centuries — by resituating them within dynamic processes of world-making and becoming.

1. Thing-power

Bennett’s main starting point in this book is the ‘force of things,’ ‘Thing-power,’ the ‘ontology of things.’ I take this, like her reference to ‘strategic anthropomorphism’, to be a strategic move, by which I mean that it’s a move that’s self-consciously addressing a specific theoretical situation, at a time in which matter — bodies, ecologies, and the rise of biopolitical stakes all around — has dramatically returned to the sociopolitical agenda, and yet, at which it still needs to be much more adequately theorized. Much has happened in the last quarter-century that’s helped to shape this situation: my list of important theoretical developments would include the feminist and ecofeminist “essentialism” debates of the 1980s; the late Foucauldian turn to the biopolitical; the epistemological chicken debates in science studies of the early 1990s (between actor-network theorists Latour and Callon and their SSK rivals Collins and Yearley); the “science wars” of the mid-1990s and, just a little later, the “nature wars” among environmental historians and activists; the emergence of more robust versions of environmental anthropology and sociology, political ecology, and socio-natural theorizing in geography; and now, with the speculative realists, the beginnings of a movement toward post-humanist ontologies in philosophy.

That’s the theoretical side. On the political and practical side, there have been all of theimbroglios, as Latour calls them, of the social, discursive, technical, and material, from the ozone hole and the AIDS virus to global warming, Hurricane Katrina, and the BP Gulf oil spill. All of these demand our attention more and more as a society (ours) in which socio-natural ‘hybridity’ is running rampant (this is one of Latour’s points) continues to push at the boundaries of traditional concepts of society and of nature. The need to make sense of all of this is at a premium, and Bennett is very adept at bringing many of the most important theoretical currents to bear on the task, and at doing this in a way that is readable and engaging.

Within this “thing-power,” I like the way Bennett plays off different movements, different vibrations, against each other. For instance, I like the tension between the kind of relational ontology of abundance and affirmation that’s represented by Spinoza and Deleuze and, on the other hand, the ontology of negation, nonidentity, and “lack” as represented by Derrida and Adorno here (and Lacan elsewhere). I like the give-and-take between the two because I think that each side captures something the other is sometimes a little too eager to miss. (I’ve posted about this before.) At the same time, I find myself wanting to address this difference a little more directly. Are things falling in space, as Lucretius suggests, with only a little “swerve” to push them from their predestined path, “an element of chanciness” residing at their heart? Or are they really not just slightly askew things but events, feelingful encounters opening onto depths bursting full of capacity? (I want her to go Whiteheadian on me…) Is “thing-power”enough power? Or is there something about things that always remains a little residual, as if the objects — the glove, pollen, dead rat, bottle cap, and stick she finds in the storm drain — are left over from some series of events and processes which only haunt them now and which we can only speculate about, filling in the gaps with our own (human) interpretive sign-making leaps? Is it the vibrant things that are and should be at the center of a richer ontology, or the processes by and through which they are made?
2. A flat ontology?

Bennett refers to this notion only in passing, but since it’s become something of a taken-for-granted in certain circles of posthumanist, post-constructivist, and speculative realist theorists, I’d like to spend a little time unpacking it. On page 9, she writes:

“There are of course differences between the knife that impales and the man impaled, between the technician who dabs the sampler and the sampler, between the array of items in the gutter of Cold Spring Lane and me, the narrator of their vitality. But I agree with John Frow that these differences need ‘to be flattened, read horizontally as a juxtaposition rather than vertically as a hierarchy of being. It’s a feature of our world that we can and do distinguish . . . things from persons. But the sort of world we live in makes it constantly possible for these two sets of kinds to exchange properties.’ And to note this fact explicitly, which is also to begin to experience the relationship between persons and other materialities more horizontally, is to take a step toward a more ecological sensibility.”

There are unquestionable virtues to a “more horizontal” understanding of our relations with things, and Bennett’s careful and qualified expression here (which is a fairly constant feature of her writing) is one that’s difficult to disagree with. And yet…

The problem is not that they (the knife and the man) are perceived to be different, but that a genuine understanding of their differences is all too commonly pre-empted by the categorical assumption that one is human and therefore X (a subject, an agent, an animal, an organism, res cogitans, etc.) while the other is an object and therefore Y(thing, mere matter, res extensa). The “flattening” is a way of saying, first, “Wait, it’s more complicated than that,” and second, “What’s interesting is not the object, it’s what it does and the relations it enters into.”

The term “flat ontology”, to my mind, has been defended most strongly by Manuel DeLanda (and in a different sense, more recently, by Levi Bryant), but in DeLanda’s case I think the term itself is not the most well chosen one. (I think of it as similar to the object-oriented ontologists’ use of the word “object”: once you read them you realize they don’t mean to flatten things at all, as the term would normally imply, but to make them richer and deeper.) When DeLanda is at his best (as in A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History and Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy), his descriptions of things result in a view of the world as richly heterogeneous, made up of morphogenetic (form-generating) processes, with different kinds of networks and assemblages unfolding at multiple, nested scales. One could say (as he suggests) that these things are ontologically “flat” because they are the same kinds of things, following the same kinds of morphogenetic processes. But a world in which novel things emerge and become habits — an irreversible world in which newness becomes generative of even more newness, with emergent processes occurring at “higher levels” of encompassment/range/territorialization than others (for instance, with human beings emerging at an ontologically higher level of complexity than that that of the cells making up their bodies, even though the higher forms remain at risk of being disrupted from within by the lower, say, if one of the latter becomes cancerous) — that, to me, is a world that is ontologically less and less flat and more and more lumpy, scaled and nested, vertically and horizontally complex, rich, and deep. (See also Steven Shaviro’sWhiteheadian critique of Delanda.)

There’s a certain allergy theorists on the left have toward the very idea of ‘hierarchy,’ but that allergy ignores the difference between functional hierarchies (things interacting with things at different structural levels) and moral or valuative hierarchies (some things being more highly valued than other things). What DeLanda actually does is flattencertain differences while expanding, augmenting, or opening up others. Anything that aims to be a perfectly flat ontology eradicates the possibility of accounting for such structural levels and scales. So I would argue that the obeisance (that’s become a bit too common) to the idea of ontological ‘flatness’ has made its point and might ultimately be expendable. Another way of putting this is that the ‘horizontalities’ and ‘verticalities’ (to use Frow’s terms, cited by Bennett in the passage quoted above) might not be properties of the world, but just properties of our perspective on things. The world is more hybrid, plural, and multidimensional than that, and we are better off pluralizing its verticals than flattening them.
3. Systematicity, persistence, form

In her interview with Peter Gratton, Bennett states that

“[Graham] 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? […] What is this strange systematicity proper to a world of Becoming? […] Is it possible to identify phases within this formativity, plateaus of differentiation? If so, do the phases/plateaus follow a temporal sequence? […] 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!”

I agree that, for relational ontologies, this is where the rubber hits the road. It’s all too easy to say, as John Muir did, that “When we try to pick out anything by itself,” John Muir wrote, “we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” As a revelatory moment within one’s own experience of things – a poetic or mystical insight – this is plenty. But for the project of generating useful knowledge about the imbroglios that befuddle us, one needs more. This is why some of the most exciting work I’ve read in recent years has been by theorists who take these process-relational insights and work them into detailed analyses of specific interactive processes, networks, assemblages, and the like, and derive useful generalizations from them. (I’m thinking of DeLanda,Protevi, et al.) And it’s where I see the greatest potentials for transdisciplinary work on the matters of concern that one can hope will bring social and natural scientists and philosophers together more and more.

Bennett admits that she needs to do more work in this direction. (Don’t we all?) The question, for me, will be what theoretical tools and insights she brings to the efforts already ongoing (in fields ranging from enactive/distributed cognition to complexity theory to actor-network theory to the various attempts at theorizing affects, and so on). Her previous writings have shown her to be a very good synthesist of ideas, and it’s this synthetic capacity of this book that I’ll be following with great interest.
4. Distributive agency

There’s clearly an ethico-political intent in Bennett’s writing, which seems to be captured by the term “distributive agency.” (“The ethical aim becomes to distribute value more generously, to bodies as such.” (p. 13)) I’ve elsewhere referred, in a discussion of Latour and allied theorists, to an ethic of circulating agency, by which I meant not only that we should understand agency as distributed or circulating, but also that we should aim to promote and increase its circulation — so that those with whom/which we network can engage more fully, more intensively, in these networking processes AND so that (simultaneously) those not included in the networks can express their own agency, whether it be through resistance, recalcitrance, or through their selective self-inclusion within them. I think this kind of idea comes through in Bennett’s writing as well, but I’m not sure that it gets articulated in a clear way here (just yet). So that’s another piece I’ll be watching to see how it unfolds in the remainder of the book.

I ended quoting much of his post (I kept reading for something to leave out, and didn’t find points I didn’t want to accent), but it’s worth reading in its entirety.

Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Reading Group

Here are the links thus far (please disseminate across other blogs):

The schedule:

May 23-29
Host blog: Philosophy in a Time of Error (Peter Gratton)
Under discussion: Preface & Chapter 1, “The Force of Things” (and overview/interview).

May 30-June 5
Host blog: Critical Animal (James Stanescu)
Under discussion: Chapters 2 and 3, “The Agency of Assemblages” and “Edible Matter.”

June 6-12
Host blog: Naught Thought (Ben Woodard)
Under discussion: Chapters 4 and 5, “A Life of Matter” and “Neither Vitalism nor Mechanism.”

June 13-19
Host blog: An und für sich (Anthony Paul Smith)
Under discussion: Chapters 6 and 7, “Stem Cells and the Culture of Life” and “Political Ecologies”

June 20-26
Host blog: Immanence (Adrian Ivakhiv)
Under discussion: Chapter 8, “Vitality and Self-interest,” and the book as a whole (final overview).

Bennett, Vibrant Matter, Chapter 1, Last Section


She begins by noting that too often the “out-side” (think of Meillassoux’s “the Great Outdoors” from After Finitude) is brought back to “human agency as its ultimate source” (p. 17). But getting to this “out-side” is “indirec[t]” and “aporetic.”

This part of the chapter is basically a short manifesto: “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” (p. 17). We thus arrive back at the beginning of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, where thaumazein or wonder causes us to consider being-qua-being, or about the things themselves, but not by using a method abstracting back for sense perception (as in Aristotle) but by seeing ourselves in terms of this dissemination of things. She calls this “fascination” a “naiveté,” which as her work spreads, may give off the kind of snarky comments once used for Vattimo’s “weak thought.” But Bennett is merely (or audaciously) repeating the trick of Aristotle, Husserl, Heidegger, and so many others: to turn to our wonder at things and “avo[w] the force of questions” (she’s quoting from Bill Brown’s “Thing Theory”).

Thus, turning the usual issue of the fetish around, she argues, by giving into this certain naiveté (she cites Deleuze as a fellow traveler, who also uses the term), we are not, she thinks, without ambition, and merely fetishizing objects. We are, she argues, taking on the fetish for the “subject, the image, the word.” These are just some of the vital matters in this book.

Bennett, Vibrant Matter, Chapter 1, Sections II-V

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).

Bennett, Vibrant Matter, Chapter 1, Section 1: Thing Power, or the Out-Side


Jane Bennett begins by noting the previous work on the embodiment (Foucaultian, feminist, etc.) in order to set out the difference of her own contribution. The point is that these bodies are “cultural productions” (p. 1).

In this post, I’ll summarize her first section, where her strategy is going to be looking at …

Thing-Power, or the Out-side

As she does with her epigrams, Bennett begins here with Thoreau and Spinoza, picking up particularly on the conatus or “active impulsion … present in every body” (p. 2).

(There’s a great opening here to read what Bennett does here against Levinas’s later use of Spinoza’s conatus.)

She then joins Jean-Luc Nancy (not cited, though I think he is the reference for Hent de Vries, who is) in trying to think the “ab” (from or off)-“solute” (from solver, to loosen) as that which “refuses to dissolve completely in into the milieu of human knowledge” (p. 3).

This marks here crucial philosophical move (one seen in the speculative realists, but also, of course, in figures such as Heidegger and Deleuze) from the “language of epistemology to that of ontology” (p. 3). In doing so, she seeks—and for me, this remains the central argument of her work, or at least a salient point that must be repeated again and again against the new Newtonians among us—to “absolv[e] matter from its long history of attachment to automatism or mechanism.”

In a footnote to the last sentence, she cites de Vries from his Political Theologies on the creative emergence of the new, which he thinks can only be accounted for through the “quasi-spiritual” (p. 125, FN 11).

Let me break out this point, since it’s a crucial point, joining a traditional set of problems dating, well, at least to Spinoza. If you have read Adrian Johnston’s Political Transformations (2009), which I discuss at length in an upcoming (I sent it in months ago, and I think it’s due to be posted soon) issue of International Journal for Zizek Studies, then you understand the political import: how do we account for the new? This is a common question not just to contemporary physics, but also to Malabou, Zizek, Badiou, Derrida…etc. Of course, philosophers have always wanted to account for the new. Now, what one finds in the latter three figures is an account of the “act” or the “event,” with Malabou trying to discuss an inner plasticity to an immanence of being on the model of neuro-biology. One might think, then, that this is a particular problem for those positing immanent structures (and their displacement). But, of course, it’s not. But then, how to describe the seeming “excess” (de Vries’s word) beyond the rearrangements of material being?

Bennett answers with her own question: “But what if materiality itself harbors creative vitality?” (p. 125). That is, what if it, too, has the “lack” (note Spinoza’s conatus and its Lacanian uses) of subjectivity, a quasi-agency?

Things, too, are vital players in the world, and she ends this section pointing to the need to understand this for “wiser interventions into … ecology” (p.4).

Vibrant Matter: The Preface

Let the reading group begin. I’ll try not to repeat what I’ve mentioned already in my overview. For the sake of clarity, I’ll move in order through the book, since my overview is already synoptic.


The book begins by putting us on notice that this is both a “philosophical” and “political” work.

1. the philosophical: the think matter as something other than “raw, brute, or inert” (as opposed, I guess, to life as “nasty, brutish, and short.”)

For this project, she quickly asserts her allies: Spinoza, Nietzsche, Thoreau, Darwin, Adorno, Deleuze, Bergson, and Driesch (viii). Thus (a) she clearly aligns herself to the “vitalist” tradition (we can hash out how much), and (b) is not going to be doing an exegetical study. We are along for a ride along with some vibrant thinkers. The test, thus, is whether these thinkers can be moved in an out with much facility, especially as Latour will be brought in shortly.

2. The political project: “to articulate a vibrant materiality that runs alongside and inside human to see how analyses of political events might change if we gave the force of things more due” (viii).

Here she specifically mentions Latour and his theory of actants. These joins him to find a way to describe a “distributive agency” and to “bracket” the human and its subjectivity (ix). (She deals with an analogue of the problem of realism: is it not a human defending this vibrant materiality? Her answer, in not so many words, is “so what?”)

What, then, is this work countering politically? Let’s hazard some guesses:

  1. liberal theories of the isolated subject.
  2. Communitarian theories of the embedded, cultural subject.
  3. Teleogical/progressive approaches to history: this materialism is not going to be one about class structures, though with the rest of these, it is not refuting their use.
  4. Structuralist theories that account for subjectivity in terms of discourse, allegiances to cultural taboos, and linguistic systems.
  5. Post-structuralist approaches that point out the open-ness of any such system (that is, its historicity and not simply its synchronicity).
  6. Badiouian set-theoretical approaches that posit the event as a substractive mechanism of given knowledge sets.

Obviously, this is just a short list. But her project is aligned, in some way, with the fifth, in that she calls for “dissipat[ing] the onto-theological binaries of life/matter, human/animal, will/determination, and organic/inorganic” (x). In other words, this is a critique of ontotheology not from the pivot of the openness of linguistic systems, but from the vital, exorbidant matter around us.

Is she positing a new vitalism? She’s clear from this opening preface that while she’ll use the language of vitalism, and she is not positing any extra-material force that would provide an end, goal, or telos for such material. (One way to think this, perhaps, is through Latour’s actualism: we are not looking for mysterious, hidden potentiality, but for the interplay available in the things themselves.)

The question arises—one that she addresses in my interview with her—is if one can use this language and escape the traps it sets out. (Here I recall Derrida’s critique of Jean-Luc Nancy’s use of the term “fraternity.” Derrida was right to point out that this wasn’t a simple “I don’t like that word” aesthetic reaction, but that, if one is “evacuating” a previous dominant term of its biological and, yes, “phallocentric” provenance, then why use the word except inasmuch it allows one the resources of a rhetoric that one then denies, but cannot on that account refuse.)


There is not an “argument” in this section for a particular method, but simply a note that what follows is an essay (my term) in the French sense: it performs an attunement to vibrant matter, following the “scent of a nonhuman, thingly power, the material agency of natural bodies and technological artifacts” as more than simply about “human power” and “social hegemonies” (xiii). In fact, the force of this book is to argue that, as yet, there is no method for giving such “hegemony” to the things of the world.

About this, she argues that ideological “demystification,” which would orient us towards the not-so-hidden hegemony that produces political subjectivies (she mentios Wendy Brown, but this is the work of Laclau, Zizek, and Badiou, though all in importantly different ways). She writes, “Demystification tends to screen from view the vitality of matter and to reduce political agency to human agency. Those are tendencies I resist” (xv). In this way, it’s not a surprise to read, in her next section, “Materialisms,” there is more to materialism than Marx and “economic structures and exchanges that provoke many other events” (xvi).

In my next post, I’ll move on to chapter 1 and “Thing Power.” Rather than formulate my own responses to Bennett’s claims, let me suggest some of my own questions that came up:

  1. It’s all well and good to walk through what is more than simply structures, etc. But, how do we begin to articulate this “both/and” of Latourian actants and economic superstructures? We’ll see how she discusses this in several crucial places in the book.
  2. Her method is “open” and what I’ll just call investigative: let’s disseminate ourselves through the things of the world and see where we come back to. It’s a dislocation that one often feels when one first comes upon economic determinism, or a book on how the way we eat is dominant in our Being-with, or how it all comes down to climate, or our childhood psycho-development. I’m not saying she’s doing any of these things, but when each of us first reads a text like this, it provides an explanatory power that is irresistible in its own way. (Think of that History of Sh*t book from the 70s—great stuff…)

But it could also be reductive: We may give Freud his due, but no one (not even Freud) reduces everything to psychodynamics. But then, what does she mean by “matter”? She seems to mean … well, the junk of the world. But what about what may be a posteriori to this movement of matter—the seemingly solidified linkages (what we used to call structures or paradigms) and/or more-than-material entities of the world? In other words, what’s material? (This is not to argue that she’s being reductive, but rather to raise the question.)

When we get to her section on democracy, we’ll see how this “political” materialism reorients radical democratic politics. What I’d like to address, at that point, along with all the fellow travelers in this reading group, is where such a politics can go.

Jane Bennett: The Interview

I’m also reposting the interview I did with Jane Bennett last month:


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 (inThe 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.

Vibrant Matter–Overview

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.

The Vibrant Matter Reading Group

I’ll kick it off later today when I post my thoughts on the intro and chapter 1.

Vibrant Matter’ reading group will take place across five blogs over five weeks, beginning today and ending June 26. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things is the latest book by Johns Hopkins University political theorist Jane Bennett. I have posted an overview of the book, along with an interview with its author. Anyone interested in participating is invited to read these, and to order your copy of the book in time for the first session. The reading schedule will be as follows:

May 23-29
Host blog: Philosophy in a Time of Error (Peter Gratton)
Under discussion: Preface & Chapter 1, “The Force of Things” (and overview/interview).

May 30-June 5
Host blog: Critical Animal (James Stanescu)
Under discussion: Under discussion: Chapters 2 and 3, “The Agency of Assemblages” and “Edible Matter.”

June 6-12
Host blog: Naught Thought (Ben Woodard)
Under discussion: Chapters 4 and 5, “A Life of Matter” and “Neither Vitalism nor Mechanism.”

June 13-19
Host blog: An und für sich (Anthony Paul Smith)
Under discussion: Chapters 6 and 7, “Stem Cells and the Culture of Life” and “Political Ecologies”

June 20-26
Host blog: Immanence (Adrian Ivakhiv)
Under discussion: Chapter 8, “Vitality and Self-interest,” and the book as a whole (final overview).

Dinesh D’Souza

I first picked up one of D’Souza’s books in high school, at the height of the conservative scares over PC’ism, and he had string of books in the 90s that were bandied about (yes, “bandied about”) all over the place—he was the go-to guy for the academy run-amock. (Remember how one person in one dorm somewhere got told not to have gays and suddenly that was a totalitarian movement afoot in U.S. universities? Good times…) Michael Bérubé has a post up that includes some of D’Souza’s greatest hits:

You might remember [Dinesh D’Souza’s The End of Racism] for such pull quotes as “The American slave was treated like property, which is to say, pretty well” and “Activists recommend federal jobs programs and recruitment into the private sector. Yet it seems unrealistic, bordering on the surreal, to imagine underclass blacks with their gold chains, limping walk, obscene language, and arsenal of weapons doing nine-to-five jobs at Procter and Gamble or the State Department.”

Don’t forget also his beautiful assessment that “Jim Crow laws were ‘designed to preserve and encourage’ black self-esteem.”