The further I have gotten into Vibrant Matter, the more I have been thinking of it as a kind of half-way house on the route to a process-relational ontology. (I’ll admit I’ve read the whole book now, but I’m trying to defer my comments on the final chapter till next week. And I also strongly suspect that object-oriented ontologists might say it’s the same thing en route to an object-oriented ontology; but I’ll leave that particular debate aside, as it’s being taken up in many other places already.)
It’s a weigh station, a place for mulling over, with its host Jane Bennett, the virtues of a less anthropocentric worldview; a welcoming retreat center for trying on ideas — about the vitality and agency of things, of metal (ch. 4), of stem cells (ch. 6), of worms (ch.7), and about what these things imply for existing political theory.
Chapter Seven is particularly effective at this. It’s where a lot of the threads come together — Darwin (and a wonderful account of how worms “make history”), Latour, a careful and nuanced defense of anthropomorphism — and where Bennett’s generosity in reading other people’s writing shines. In this case that’s with John Dewey, whose process-pragmatist political philosophy is clearly aligned with her project, and with Jacques Rancière, whose theory of politics falls far short of Bennett’s de-anthropocentric goals, but which she swerves ever so nimbly (against Rancière’s will) to a vital-materialist end.
Her conclusions are, as always, tentative and hesitant:
“Since I have challenged the uniqueness of humanity in several ways, why not conclude that we and they are equally entitled? [. . .] To put it bluntly, my conatus will not let me ‘horizontalize’ the world completely. [. . .] The political goal of a vital materialism is not the perfect equality of actants, but a polity with more channels of communication between members.”
Who can disagree with this? Yet (as she acknowledges) it leaves many questions unanswered: about who qualifies as a “member,” what degrees of membership may be available and what each provides and requires in return, and so on. She notes that Latour’s “parliament of things” is “as provocative as it is elusive,” and turns instead to Rancière’s theory of democracy as disruption, a singular disruption that “repartitions the sensible” and “overthrows the regime of the perceptible.”
The emphasis, then, is on the sensible, perceptible, and the communicable:
“If human culture is inextricably enmeshed with vibrant, nonhuman agencies, and if human intentionality can be agentic only if accompanied by a vast entourage of nonhumans, then it seems that the appropriate unit of analysis of democratic theory is neither the individual human nor an exclusively human collective but the (ontologically heterogeneous) “public” coalescing around a problem. We need not only to invent or reinvoke concepts like conatus, actant, assemblage, small agency, operator, disruption, and the like but also to devise new procedures, technologies, and regimes of perception that enable us to consult nonhumans more closely, or to listen and respond more carefully to their outbreaks, objections, testimonies, and propositions. For these offerings are profoundly important to the health of the political ecologies to which we belong.”
I couldn’t agree with this more. Bennett’s writing is suggestive and, on the whole, convincing (if we need to be convinced of these things). Both the methods — the perceptual and communicative strategies — and the metaphysical frameworks (that would catalyze a more conclusive, inter- and transdisciplinary shift in the intellectual framing of these issues) remain to be worked out, however. But the threads she is weaving into her discussion help to clarify the stakes and prepare the terrain as we embark on both those projects.
Note: This week’s discussion is being hosted over at Anthony Paul Smith’s An und für sich. Next week we’ll be coming here to wrap things up.