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.

PREFACE:

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.)

Method

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.

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9 comments

  1. I supposed it’s ok to go ahead and post a comment?

    I read the preface and chapter 1 with great interest finding the book to offer up a really cool set of ambitious goals and ideas that avoid typical materialist thinking while reworking a lot of ecological foundational ideas.

    One thing that stood out to me immediately: Bennett’s declaration that she is interested in thinking through the vitality of things specifically because of a concern for “human survival and happiness” (p.x) while at the same time, as you note in your post, engaging the poststructuralist aim of rethinking dominant ontotheological binary kinds. It strikes me that such a declaration has the potential to create a kind of tension in the work between different theoretical modalities, especially as she also wants to resist anthropocentric paradigms that have persisted throughout philosophical history. This isn’t to say that one can do away with the human of course, let alone human survival and happiness, but it does lead me to wonder if there isn’t a better way to situate this project in terms of what Cary Wolfe has set out to define as the “posthuman.” Perhaps Bennett’s work does situate itself along these lines ultimately (“a vital materialism does not reject self-interest as a motivation for ethical behavior, though it does seek to cultivate a broader definition of self and of interest” p.13), although so far the book appears to me to be an open-ended inquiry of the kind you describe above as “investigative.” In this light the book seems a bit under-theorized in the opening chapters in some sense to me. Of course, as its set up as a broad open-ended inquiry perhaps that is the whole point. At any rate, this isn’t a critique just an observation that the “how” is a bit hard to grasp onto concretely in the book.

    I was also wondering how exactly “thing” is getting defined here and how a materialist vitality can avoid getting entangled with fetishized subjecs, words and images (to paraphrase Bill Brown’s quote glossing Arjun Appadurai’s account of a thing which ends chapter 1 of Bennett’s book). Especially as “in a knotted world of vibrant matter, to harm one section of the web may very well be to harm oneself.” This idea of the web and the “enmeshed…network of relations” sounds to me like an attempt to articulate how interrelated the world is from the human, to the animal, to the thing, to the sounds, images and words which also get enmeshed in and on and through the world. Perhaps I’m not grasping something fundamental to the book though.

    It might also be interesting to compare this idea to Timothy Morton’s idea of the “mesh.”

    Anyway, this is my first post here. Hope it’s ok I shared my initial thoughts and I look forward to seeing what others have to say.

  2. I’m not sure why the proposed binary is matter/life rather than matter/energy. Maybe it’s because Bennett is a social scientist rather than a physical scientist. An iconic hundred-year-old formula specifies the equivalence of matter and energy, superseding the older notion of vibrant forces pushing passive matter around. It’s reasonable to regard life as a kind of energy, but I’m more skeptical about treating energy as a kind of life. I don’t know if Bennett will make that move or what implications follow if she does, but the Preface has sensitized me to the issue as the reading goes forward.

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