The Vibrant Matter reading group has moved over to Ben Woodard’s Naught Thought this week. Like Ben, I have felt a little apologetic for not participating in discussions (though I’ve summarized my thoughts so far here and here). But to be frank, the discussions have not been nearly as active as I had anticipated, and I’m wondering if that’s indicative of something about the book. Is it that Bennett’s thesis — about the liveliness of matter — is not as controversial as it initially appears, or as forcefully articulated as it could have been?
Ben and Scu have voiced a little discomfort with the lingering “humanist traces” in Bennett. Scu fears “that a notion of a general materialist vitalism might dismantle anthropocentrism while maintaining humanism,” and Ben notes that “Materiality as self activating, in D and G’s sense, utilizes a noetic supplement which is far more humanistic than it appears.” (For those unfamiliar with this derogatory use of the word humanism, it’s not meant in the everyday sense of “being nice to people,” but rather in a more philosophical and ideological sense whereby things in general are judged according to their value and usefulness for humans, as opposed to their value for the world, for nature, for ecosystems, for themselves, etc.)
I can see where in the book one might get that sense of a lingering humanism. (I alluded to it, indirectly, in my comments on the “Edible matter” chapter.) All the same, Chapter 4, “A Life of Metal,” seems to me to be hardly blemished by any such “humanism.” (And Chapter 5, with its gentle critique of Driesch and Bergson for not completely getting beyond the matter-vitality dualism, doesn’t seem blemished by it either.) The book’s vital materialism is, to my mind, presented as clearly and directly in Chapter 4 as it has been anywhere in the book so far. Bennett counterposes hylomorphism, with its assumption that “a presumably passive, unorganized, or raw matter can be given organic ‘form’ only by the agency of something [external] that is not itself material”, to a vital materialism that sees matter as consisting of “incipient tendencies and propensities” and “variable intensive affects.” The immanent “a life” of matter (she uses Deleuze’s term here), with its “interstitial field of nonpersonal, ahuman forces, flows, tendencies, and trajectories,” presents “not only a negative recalcitrance but a positive, active virtuality.” The trick, to my mind, is to be able to say something about how that “active virtuality” works. There are hints strewn all through this book, but it’s less a book of biology or physics than it is an intervention into discussions about politics and social theory. (Perhaps it needs to be read alongside Karen Barad’s Meeting the Universe Halfway and Stuart Kauffman’s (and others’) work on autocatalysis, molecular dynamics, and the like.)
Ben raises the issue that there are differences between the biological and the (non-biological) material that are put at risk by a horizontal account Bennett is proposing. “The biological is a difference that shouldn’t be taken as a form of ontological superiority but as a stratification of materiality and fundamental forces.” I think there’s an important insight here. I’ve argued against the notion of a “flat ontology” before, though I understand its tactical virtues as well as the ways in which some “flat ontologies” (like DeLanda’s) aren’t really flat at all — they leave plenty of space for the kinds of stratified materialities I think Ben is referring to. But Bennett’s arguments, so far, are less about the kinds of materialities that emerge in a world as complex as ours, and more about making the case that even the most seemingly material things — rocks, metal, and artifacts (“glove, pollen, rat, cap, stick”) — that is, the most seemingly “dead” things, are forms of lively, vibrant matter.
One way to think about those kinds of things is through what Bennett coyly calls a “theory of relativity (of sorts)”:
the stones, tables, technologies, words, and edibles that confront us as fixed are mobile, internally heterogeneous materials whose rate of speed and pace of change are slow compared to the duration and velocity of the human bodies participating in and perceiving them. ‘Objects’ appear as such because their becoming proceeds at a speed or a level below the threshold of human discernment. (pp. 57-8)
Objects, in other words, may be slower than we can perceive. Or, they may be faster than they appear. And once an object is recognized as having more or less speed, it’s not so much an object as a relational process.
Thanks to JunkFest for the photo.