The Vibrant Matter Reading Group has launched: see Peter Gratton’s generous flow of postings at Philosophy in a Time of Error, all linked here.

What follows is my first series of thoughts on the book, with a focus on chapter 1. I’ll try to add bits of these as appropriate to the comments in Peter’s postings, but since I’ll be in transit for a large part of today and at a retreat much of the day tomorrow, I thought I would get these out here first.

To start with, I should say that I am deeply sympathetic to Bennett’s project, which I see as closely aligned with the theoretical task that’s been central to my own thinking for several years now. That 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.


Many of the same theorists I have been inspired by — from Deleuze and Latour to various ecological theorists — feature more or less centrally in Bennett’s own cast of inspirational characters. So my comments on her book will take this background of shared goals and theoretical and political sympathies for granted. They will, therefore, be largely intended to draw out some of the common dilemmas and challenges facing processual, relational, ‘socio-natural,’ and ‘vital materialist’ forms of theorizing.

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 the imbroglios, 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’s Whiteheadian 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 flatten certain 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.

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