Vitalism and Life

Anthony Paul Smith has a great post, and he links well her point by point descriptions to Catholic Social Thought.

As I’m working on another project, I’ve been putting away references to “life” going back to Aristotle, since I’m not satisfied with much of the work on it. I think on this Agamben’s work has been fruitful since he points to the sovereign decision over life/non-life. This chapter enters this tricky area right at what would be a border case of stem cells. I think Bennett sets up fruitful distinctions for her own vitalism, but I didn’t find this chapter convincing. But in the end, as Aristotle would say, the aporia in the object (peri tou pragmatos), not just in the path we have taken. As such, I’m not I’d find any chapter on this wholly convincing.

To be simplistic, we see this question of life on both the side of increased mechanization (does a robot count?) and knowledge about bacteria, etc. (do viruses count as life?).  And “a” life is at what level? Is the eco-system itself “a” life? (People who like Deleuze always thought that reference to “a” life over “life” did much more work than it ever did, since obviously that just kicks the question down the road a bit…) In any case, this chapter is well worth reading because she in quick order moves to exactly the right questions.

A.P. Smith added to his post this, and here I pause of moment:

I think Bennett needs to do more work in terms of the place the lab takes here. She suggests that the difference between Driesch’s vitalism leading pacifism and the Nazi’s violence undergirded by soul vialism has to do with Driesch paying attention to things in the lab. But, this fostering of empathy, this recognition of “thing-power”, didn’t occur in the Nazi’s labs. The fact that the Nazi’s also had labs, that many of the worst crimes of the holocaust occurred by turning these places into labs, surely means this is not where we can locate the difference.

I’ll have to get my copy off of my desk to see if this is her argument, since somehow I missed this when I read it the first go-round. Driesch had more empathy for things, and therefore this lead him to pacifism? Because he worked in a lab? Let this be another example where “one didn’t become a Nazi because X” doesn’t really work…


This is why, I’m sorry to say, critics of Levi’s onticology will not be at all convinced by his example of his daughter. I’m not disagreeing for a moment with what he writes (especially the lack of control part), but the difference people will point to is that “life” is autonomous and secrets away its singularity—but this would prove nothing about “objects” that are not life. This is why Bennett’s book is fruitful, since I think she sees (as I’m sure Levi does, from posts on this) that it is this question of what counts as “life” is the cudgel used to deny what he describes to actants that don’t happen to be precocious 3 and 1/2 year olds.


  1. I may have overstated the point concerning labs and empathy, as I remembered it after the original post and wanted to get it down before I forgot again. She puts forward the hypothesis (not really an argument, more of an aside couched as ‘perhaps this is it’) that D. was able to form a critical vitalism (i.e one that didn’t need the strong ontological hierarchy present in the soul vitalism the Nazis used to differentiate themselves from other peoples and things) because he gave attention to things and saw in them their own power. I am convinced that Bennett takes more care than most in terms of arguments that run “ontology x leads to politics y”, but I also recognize there does some to be a tendency for vitalism to often go hand and hand with political movements I find wrong. I was glad to see her try to deal with it (since I haven’t come up with any great answer myself), though this lab thing struck me as the wrong way to go about it.

  2. I may, if I can find some extra time today, try to post on this in relation to ecology and the split between ecosystem scientists and environmental managers (there is an interesting theory/practice or academic/activist split going on here that complicates our everyday understanding of ecology).

Comments are closed.