Just a few quick notes on chapters 2 and 3 of Vibrant Matter. See Critical Animal for the continuing cross-blog discussion of the book (to be resumed after the Memorial Day holiday, no doubt), and Philosophy in a Time of Error for what’s been said so far.
These two previously published chapters seem to me to be illustrations of Bennett’s thesis, but not necessarily advancements of it, so I will be reserving more commentary for what comes later in the book.
While I like the notion of “distributive agency” (see my previous post), which Chapter Two (“The Agency of Assemblages”) develops further, and while I think there’s much to be gained from a more complete actant-assemblage analysis of the 2003 power blackout (the focus of the chapter), I’m not sure that this chapter’s conclusions about moral and political judgment advance us much beyond what has already been said elsewhere about the blackout, or about analogous events. One could, for instance, do a similar analysis of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and be left with little indication of how such spills could be averted in the future.
“In a world of distributed agency, a hesitant attitude toward assigning singular blame becomes a presumptive virtue. Of course, sometimes moral outrage [...] is indispensable [. . .] but a politics devoted too exclusively to moral condemnation and not enough to a cultivated discernment of the web of agentic capacities can do little good. [. . .]
“It is ultimately a matter of political judgment what is more needed today: should we acknowledge the distributive quality of agency to address the power of human-nonhuman assemblages and to resist a politics of blame? Or should we persist with a strategic understatement of material agency in the hopes of enhancing the accountability of specific humans?”
This is an important question, and Bennett’s hesitation from answering it, coupled with the hinted preference for the first option over the second, can be taken as a way of keeping the ball in motion rather than letting it land, perhaps prematurely. If one is looking for an accounting and assessment of the blackout that would help us prevent similar events, or that would redistribute risk and/or justice in one way or another, the chapter does not provide that. Bennett is right: we do live in a complex socio-natural world, one in which the assignment of blame is rarely simple. The blackout is a perfect example of that, while the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is perhaps a better example of blameworthy behavior by those who cut corners for profit. But we still need better, more reliable accounts of how things happen and where the gaps and disjunctures in systems of accountability occur. These are questions of design. We need to design better, more responsive and responsible systems.
In its concluding notes on the Slow Food movement, the next chapter, on “Edible Matter,” shows us one very promising direction for doing that — a social movement appealing, with some success, to diverse constituencies in order to bring together and act on concerns for “ecological sustainability, cultural specificity, nutritional economy, aesthetic pleasure, and the skills needed to make meals from scratch.” Environmentalists, except perhaps for a few die-hard skeptics, would largely agree with a positive assessment of that movement. The chapter as a whole, however, with its accounts of Nietzsche’s and Thoreau’s reflections on food, provides good illustrations, but not advancements, of the book’s thesis about vital materiality. Food, in Bennett’s account, is “an actant in an agentic assemblage that includes among its members my metabolism, cognition, and moral sensibility”; it is “a self-altering, dissipative materiality” and “a player” that “enters into what we become.”
Food, however, is also more than vital matter in “what we become” (as David Goodman’s and other political ecologists’ work demonstrates). It is a process by which certain things become nutritive substance for others, and in which relations between all of them get arranged in particular ways, for the benefit of some but not others. Our cultural practices and technologies of food production, distribution, and consumption, are also “players” that “enter into” what the world becomes. What we turn into “food” becomes vital matter for us; but the process of turning something into food is also a process of rearranging relations on a mass scale (since modern humans live on a mass scale) that alters food-making processes for all kinds of other things. There’s a ‘cosmopolitics’ to all of that — an ethical political ecology that I’m hoping to hear more about in upcoming chapters.