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

CHAPTER 1: THE FORCE OF THINGS

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).

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6 comments

  1. “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?”

    This, for me, is a key issue, though I would rephrase it to make more clear the generative productivity that’s harbored by the term “lack”… I’ve posted some thoughts on this and related moments in the text at Immanence (mainly because I wanted to get them out before having to leave the online world for several hours). I’ll join the discussion with some of those thoughts, as they evelve, soon enough…

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