Month: May 2010

Moby Dick

Since I had the great pleasure of teaching Moby Dick this semester and running through my own favorite passage, i’ll just point you to Harman’s blog for his ongoing quotations. Moby Dick is now one of my favorite novels. And it’s content is it’s form–long and bloated it’s the journey that counts. Plus it’s great for any theory. Animal studies? Check. Object oriented? Check. Race theory? Check. The meaning of whiteness? a whole chapter. And of course lots of juvenile sperm references.

Bennett Reading Group: On to Critical Animal

Tomorrow, Critical Animal takes over as the pivot point for discussion of Bennett’s Vibrant Matter. I’ll post here (and there) my thoughts on these chapters, and I look forward to what Scu and others have to write about those chapters.

Here are many of  the links thus far:

Adrian Ivakhiv on “Thing Power.”

Stuart Elden on Bennett and the history of ideas.

James Stanescu on “Enabling Instrumentations.”

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).

Stanescu on Bennett


I’ll quote much of it here. (Also, if you happen to post on Bennett, drop me an email so I can post it… )

(1) “Enabling Instrumentalizations”

I don’t want to bury the lede, so the most interesting part of the first chapter for me comes on page 12, where Bennett speaks of the need to create and maintain enabling instrumentalizations rather than escaping from instrumentalizations. It is unclear to me if she argues for this position because she thinks it is a better system period, or if she argues for it because she believes escaping from instrumentalization is a pipe dream. However, I am in broad agreement with Bennett on this point, that politically, ethically, and ecologically we need to start thinking of mutually enabling instrumentalizations that escape anthropocentrism. I would push this to say that we need to engage in some type of calculation, the type of calculations that Derrida gestures towards in “The Force of Law” and Rogues. Now, for Bennett, this enabling instrumentalizations is for the physiological and opposed to the moralistic. This moralism, for her, seems to mean Kantianism. This means that Kant’s desire to treat people as ends in themselves is great if you get to be a person, but no so great if don’t get to count as a person (I would add that it shouldn’t surprise us how few beings really got to count for Kant). I’d like to raise two more points here. The first is that Kant isn’t the only thinker worried about instrumentalization, and I’d be interested how Bennett feels about Heidegger’s fears of technological en-framing and Agamben’s desire for rendering inoperative ontological and metaphysical machinery. But the second and more important point deals with conflict of interests. Sometimes choices are going to have to made, sometimes instrumentalizations will not be mutually enabling. And when these moments occur (and I’d say they occur a lot), we are going to have to have some level of normative thought at those moments. Now, that normative thought may be profoundly anti-individualistic and anti-anthropocentric, it may be conceived in terms of tactics and strategy and relations and forces, but the normative element cannot escape a system of enabling instrumentalizations. In a footnote (p. 127 n. 39) Bennett cites that Adorno “describes this pain as the ‘guilt of a life which purely as a fact will strangle other life’ (ND, 364).” I think that ‘pain’ has to be part of any thought of enabling instrumentalizations. Moreover, this pain is coupled with or complicated by the opacity of other beings (Edouard Glissant, admittedly anthropocentrically, deals wonderfully with this issue of opacity in his text The Poetics of Relation, which I highly suggest).

2) A New Adorno
Bennett doesn’t give us a new Adorno, but her few pages on Adorno’s concept of nonidentity are simply marvelous (though I am probably even more sympathetic to Adorno than even she is). I think that in general this forms part of a rather uncoordinated but important re-evaluation of Adorno, who is emerging not just as a thinker of the culture industry and music but is becoming one of the great thinkers of doing philosophy and the limits and pitfalls of humanism. And while his pessimism doesn’t match my own personality or feelings, I think it has often forced me to confront things I would have normally not addressed or have passed quickly by. I won’t summarize Bennett on Adorno, but I suggest a close reading of these brief pages for part of what I feel is this new reception.

There’s more in his own post, but I’m glad he picked up on the “enabling instrumentalizations,” since I marked that and I failed to mention it. (I’m not sure it matches up with Derrida’s relation of aporias of calculation in the face of the unconditional, but that’s another matter.)

Elden on Bennett and the History of Ideas

i’ll just post what he put up on his blog last night:

As I said I have read the book and found it very interesting, beautifully written and full of ideas.

The question I have is an odd, and perhaps indulgent, one because it focuses on how the book should impact on my own work. I’m also thinking of the blurb for The Speculative Turn that says “the new currents of continental philosophy depart from the text-centered hermeneutic models of the past and engage in daring speculations about the nature of reality itself”.

I’m well aware that I have a tendency to focus on texts and not things, whatever kind of work I do. Given that most what I do falls under the broad banner of ‘history of ideas’ this is perhaps not surprising. Nonetheless I’m increasingly interested in the relation between words, concepts and practices, and the interplay that that produces between the semantic, thought and materiality, but in historical work I’m finding it hard to see how that can be done without mediation through texts. The big project I am currently working on is a history of the concept of territory, where the main focus is a rereading of Western political thought with a focus on the question of the relation between place and power.

If I am looking at objects such as an astrolabe, Gunter’s chain or a compass, and seeing how those made possible particular ways of thinking about land or made possible political control of land, then even though I could look at the material object in a museum, the way into thinking about them would always be mediated by texts talking about their design, their use and so on. This historical question seems to be different from Jane’s own encounter with the objects in the storm drain (on p. 4).

In terms of books, the materiality of their production is something that is of interest, especially in terms of the shifts to knowledge when printing became possible. Then there are discussions of particular landscapes or battle terrain—I have a reading of Caesar’s De bello gallico on this, for instance—but what we know is through the medium of a text. Similarly even though we know that certain rivers or mountain ranges formed borders between kingdoms or tribal areas, there is a necessary distance between them as historical objects and the way we can experience or speak of them today. I can see the point when Jane claims that the ‘territory of Iraq’ is an actant (p. 81), but even if Gaul or Germania were too, do we have the same mode of access to them?

I suppose a similar question could be asked for what we know of the body historically. In the case of Foucault’s reading of Damians or Herculine Barbin, for instance, this is through what written records exist. So, though the body is the focus, it is mediated through a text.

I wonder if similar issues came up for Jane when she was reading Aeschylus on matter, or when she was tracing the history of some of the ideas she discusses in the book. I liked the mention of the traffic jam occasioned by Bergson in NYC (p. 64), but I wondered how the material aspect of the history of ideas complicated the stories she told.