Day: May 26, 2010

Whatever Language your Reading in, Read with Us

As our Swedish friends have put it,

Eftersom jag ändå nämnde Jane Bennets Vibrant Matter i förra inlägget vill jag passa på att nämna att det komemr ske en läsgrupp bland ett flertal bloggar av den boken. Den har redan blåst upp några småstormar bland engelskspråkiga filosofibloggar. Gissningsvis kommer ooo-lägret att tycka om den men dissa den som alldeles för flödesinriktad. Jag citerar schemat här:

Eftersom jag ändå nämnde Jane Bennets Vibrant Matter i förra inlägget vill jag passa på att nämna att det komemr ske en läsgrupp bland ett flertal bloggar av den boken. Den har redan blåst upp några småstormar bland engelskspråkiga filosofibloggar. Gissningsvis kommer ooo-lägret att tycka om den men dissa den som alldeles för flödesinriktad. Jag citerar schemat här:

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).

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

CHAPTER 1, SECTION VI: “THE NAÏVE AMIBITION OF VITAL MATERIAISM”

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

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).