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).

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7 comments

  1. Some quick thoughts:

    1) “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.”

    I agree. As I recently wrote in my own blog, commenting on that very line, I do not think that Bennett is here implying that the emphasis on Thing Power replaces the previous critical rehabilitations of marginalized areas (ecology, subaltern studies, feminism), but that it very consistently completes the program of opening up philosophical thought/political consciousness to the full richness of reality. This implies –I would add– that the next step, after the consistent structuring of a thought concerned with non-human things (object-oriented, I guess), is to organically integrate it with previous movements of opening.

    But on second thought the difference now is that vibrant materiality is not only a characteristic of ‘things’, but of humans too. So that its philosophical rehabilitation is not merely to proclaim the dignity of nonhumans but to flatten our ontology on a vitalist common ground. This kind of philosophical/political project is not a ‘Can the nonhuman speak?’ for the nonhuman is already speaking forcefully (and in fact shares with us the same vibrancy). It implies a materialistic egalitarianism which lowers –and generalizes– the ethical bar by raising ‘the status of the materiality of which we are composed’ from mindless bricks to vibrant elements.

    So that’s why her project does not deny the ‘awesome, awful powers’ of humans, since those powers run into our DNA (quite litterally!) because of our material constitution (as opposed to our ‘soul’ puppeteering a inert material shell).

    2) Now I wonder, what account of generative difference can vibrant materiality offer? If in the beginning there was vibrant matter, and the thing-power it provides material objects with ‘has no messianic promise’, what drives new forms of matter to achieve different forms? I guess that I am asking how the blind push/conatus of vibrant matter can achieve any structuring without a principle of difference. [I guess that this could be a possible question from a feminist standpoint: how does vibrant materiality account for the gendering of bodies? Does it eludes the issue by pointing at the 'lower level' of a common vitality of bodies?]

    3) I am not very clear on this but I suppose that I am trying to clarify in my head Bennett’s ontology viz. the Latourian irreductionism. In this respect it is also interesting to note that she claims that ‘all bodies are kin in the sense of inextricably enmeshed in a dense network of relations’. The discussion of relationism vs subtractive OOO here becomes important. Is it the case that for Bennett all things are ‘inextricably’ into relations but not exhausted by the relations thanks to a certain constitutive ‘stubborness’? Yet what gives them recalcitrance is that very materiality (that basic substrate?) which they always already share with all other thigns.

    1. Fabio, I think you highlight a question I was asking: if “it provides material objects with ‘has no messianic promise’, what drives new forms of matter to achieve different forms?” But recall that the “promise” of the Event (however one reads that in terms of different philosophers) cannot be foretold, since it would no longer be an event, and thus would be utterly unpredictable. Thus on the one side, you have an “otherness” of Levinas and Derrida, and on the other (to simpifly) you have the immanence of Zizek and Badiou (though Zizek takes Badiou to task on this point in Living in the End Times, which is just out) out of which the new is but another configuration that is immanent within the current system. (Interestingly there’s a similar debate in physics about whether our universe is an open or closed system to what is outside it.)

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