The following began as a summary of the final chapter of Vibrant Matter, but it somehow mutated into something more like a position statement (which I hope doesn’t sound like too much of a rant). But I’ll let it go as it is, running the risk of speaking too loudly to no one in particular, since it doesn’t directly address the core issues my cross-blog reader-colleagues have identified so far. I’ll revisit my thoughts about the book in a couple of days.
“Vitality and Self-Interest” is the title of the final chapter of Vibrant Matter, though it’s an odd title, since the “self” is clearly something more like the extended self deep ecologists speak of than the liberal, humanist self. Like the previous chapter, it is among the strongest in the book, and it serves as a worthy conclusion to the project Bennett pursues in this slim but very readable volume.
A quote or two should suffice to demonstrate the relevance of what she is writing about:
In response to a series of practical problems, including Hurricane Katrina (August 2005), expensive gasoline, tornadoes in months and places where they had not normally occurred, the dead and tortured bodies from the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and pathogens in spinach, hot peppers, chicken, and beef produced by long-distance factory farming, an American public [in Dewey's sense of an active collectivity emerging out of a shared experience or "problem"] seemed to be coalescing. Stirred from their ‘fatalistic passivity’ by a series of harms, some members of this public began to note aloud — in the news, in schools, on the street — the self-destructive quality of the American way of life. Environmentalism, invented in the 1970s, was making a comeback.
This is a stirring opening to a chapter that was obviously written a few years ago — stirring because it speaks so clearly to our own time, a couple of years after that “public” coalesced into action on behalf of a presidential candidate who seemed entirely, or substantially, different from his predecessors (and especially the most immediate one). Substitute Katrina with the oil disaster in the Gulf, but leave most of the other points in place, in broad strokes if not in precise details, and there we are today.
Bennett wonders aloud “whether environmentalism remains the best way to frame the problems, whether it is the most persuasive rubric for challenging the American equation of prosperity with wanton consumption, or for inducing, more generally, the political will to create more sustainable political economies in or adjacent to global capitalism.” She asks, “Would a discursive shift from environmentalism to vital materialism enhance the prospects for a more sustainability-oriented public? [...] If environmentalists are selves who live on earth, vital materialists are selves who live as earth, who are more alert to the capacities and limitations — the ‘jizz’ — of the various materials that they are.” [italics added]
This vital materialism inflects matter “as vibrant, vital, energetic, lively, quivering, vibratory, evanescent, and effluescent”; as natura naturans, nature naturing, “the uncaused causality that ceaselessly generates new forms.” Bennett closes the book with a “Nicene Creed for would-be vital materialists”:
“I believe in one matter-energy, the maker of things seen and unseen. I believe that this pluriverse is traversed by heterogeneities that are continually doing things. I believe it is wrong to deny vitality to nonhuman bodies, forces, and forms, and that a careful course of anthropomorphization can help reveal that vitality, even though it resists full translation and exceeds my comprehensive grasp. I believe that encounters with lively matter can chasten my fantasies of human mastery, highlight the common materiality of all that is, expose a wider distribution of agency, and reshape the self and its interests.” (122)
As Jeffrey Cohen writes, “much of this creed — and much of Vibrant Matter — won’t seem all that novel to those familiar with the work of Bruno Latour, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Manuel de Landa, Michel Serres, and even Baruch Spinoza.” Cohen laments that the book wasn’t available ten years ago when he was working on Medieval Identity Machines, a book that argued for a Deleuzian “posthuman” Middle Ages, but that preceded a decade in which vital material questions — pursued by Deleuzians, actor-network theorists, neo-materialists, critical affect theorists, socio-natural and non-representational geographers, enactive and distributed cognitivists, post-Haraway feminist ontologists, and all manner of others — have flourished wildly, even if they have not yet settled into a recognizable paradigm.
(I feel the same way as Cohen, in retrospect, about my 2001 book Claiming Sacred Ground, where I tried to theorize the “tangled web within which the world is ever being created — shaped and constituted through the imaginative, discursive, spatial, and material practices of humans reflectively immersed within an active and animate, more-than-human world” — and in which the Earth, quoting Donna Haraway, was a “coding trickster with whom we must learn to converse.” I grappled with Haraway, Latour, Tim Ingold, Deleuze and Guattari, and what seemed to be the most workable strands within hermeneutic phenomenology to articulate as best I could a post-constructivism for a densely entangled socio-ecological world. Vibrant Matter and Bennett’s previous book, The Enchantment of Modern Life, would have been perfect reading for me at the time, had they been available.)
Reading the book now, however, I’m struck, like Cohen, by how much has changed, and yet by how little it seems to have accomplished. Despite all that work, we still haven’t gotten to the point where a co-constructive, post-humanist, material-semiotic, socio-ecological paradigm has crystallized enough so that it can speak to that broader public — if only even our environmentalist friends (of which I’m one), let alone their political rivals — in convincing and relevant ways. Bennett’s bringing Thoreau into the picture is refreshing for such a philosophical book, but for the most part this weaving in of publicly known environmental figures remains in the background. (She mentions Barry Lopez, Wendell Berry, Scott Russell Sanders, and Shellenberger and Nordhaus — most of them well known to American environmentalists — in this final chapter, but these mentions are very brief, a few of them only in footnotes.)
How, then, is a “discursive shift from environmentalism to vital materialism” to take place? And what would it mean? What’s wrong, in any case, with “environmentalism”?
I think Bennett, like Shellenberger and Nordhaus, Tim Morton, and many others (I’m thinking back to the mid-1990s polemics over Bill Cronon’s “Trouble with Wilderness”) are right to critique the dualism that has shaped the environmental imaginary — the idea that humans are over here, nature is over/out there, and that we must protect it but have done an atrocious job doing that. The philosophical solution to that dualism is not necessarily what we’ve been missing, however. It’s been there, available to be worked on and developed at least — in Spinoza, Schelling, Peirce, Bergson, James, Whitehead, and all the sources Deleuze and others have been digging up, as well as in some of the non-Western traditions that Romantics and Transcendentalists and others have looked to in their quests for viable non-dualisms. (Those are just my own favorite places to look for it; there are obviously others.)
Philosophy, however, isn’t enough. The overarching dualism — a layered and interlocking set of dyads that Val Plumwood identified so many years ago as a “logic of domination” — is something that’s gotten ingrained into our systems of collective functioning. As Latour argues, the material world has gotten relegated to the scientists, while ethics and politics have left out matter. The systems that rule in our time — in both the material and social domains — are the instrumental, economic ones. BP is devastating the Gulf of Mexico and the human and animal communities that depend on it because they provide the goods for us — oil and jobs — which gives them the privilege to act as they please. Both the “democracy of objects” and democracy itself have been eclipsed, all the more by the last few decades of neoliberal policies, but really through the entirety of the period within which democracy supposedly took shape.
The problem, it seems to me, is not that material things aren’t valued, or even that they aren’t valued in and for themselves (as opposed to their value for us). When asked, many people agree with “environmental” goals: protecting the natural world, polluting less, living more sustainably, eating more organically, and all of that. But in practice those goals are never as immediate as the others — feeding one’s children, keeping up with the neighbors, driving oneself and one’s kids to work and school and taking those few weeks off every year to get far enough away from work to be able to recover from it, staying sane. If we could, without an exorbitant amount of effort, clean up our rivers, end hunger, and bring about world peace, many of us would.
The problems, however, are systemic ones. They are about how the system has been designed, so that politics, for instance, is about rotating the deck chairs on the interlocking corporate-governmental Titanic and shouting the right slogans periodically to make it appear that it’s not about that. And how it’s been designed so that food comes from the supermarket (not really from the ground), houses are built in rows without any sense of where sunlight comes from, cities are built around highways, and life revolves around banks (rather than the other way around, at most). Human-made objects are imposed onto a world as if they were alien to it, not as if they emerged through the same kinds of processes that have kept the whole thing going and growing for millions of years.
Changing all that is a communicative challenge that calls for a new vocabulary of images, affects, sentiments, desires, and collective and individual identities. The point is not just to come up with the right philosophical tweak, or even paradigm shift; it is to bring that paradigm alive. Writing must be supplemented by sound, image, video, and performance, and accompanied by a revolution in the means of cultural production so that culture becomes about food (how it’s grown, raised, and moved around), clothes (ditto), shelter (how we arrange ourselves materially and spatially), and politics. Not the old kind of politics, but cosmopolitics, which, as Bennett rightly argues, could benefit from a relaxation of the strictures against anthropomorphism (which is something that Disney, Pixar, and a lot of artists know very well). What we need is an effective cosmopolitical imaginary to begin circulating in the image-affect and media networks that inform people’s identities around the world.
Vibrant Matter hints at so much of this, though for the most part doesn’t get into the details. (The topic of media, for instance, is conspicuously left out.) Its sensibility reflects the kind of generosity of thought that nudges readers forward, without clamoring for attention, and for those who have already been engaging deeply with the vibrant materiality of things, it is likely to be a quietly inspirational read rather than a transformative one.
Bennett’s colleague and partner William Connolly has been getting at the bigger picture of many of these same issues — his books in political theory, philosophy, neuropolitics, religion and secularism, grapple with the ways the socio-political system can itself be nudged into a more eco-egalitarian direction. Together, Bennett and Connolly (along with colleagues like Dan Deudney) have made the Johns Hopkins Political Science department a unique place, and a home for a kind of broadly transdisciplinary and radical thinking that hardly fits conventional notions of what constitutes “political science.” (I should mention that their work has been an important influence on this blog from its beginnings.)
Vibrant Matter is a worthy addition to this ongoing project. But if there’s one thing I would wish the book’s philosophical readers would not take away from it, it’s that this is a strictly philosophical project. As Bennett writes in the book’s third sentence (a theme she takes up again in the penultimate chapter), the “habit of parsing the world into dull matter (it, things) and vibrant life (us, beings) is a ‘partition of the sensible,’ to use Jacques Ranciere’s phrase.” Overcoming this partition is, in Bennett’s account, one of the democratic, and I would say cosmopolitical, imperatives of our time. Repartitioning the sensible is a matter not only for words, but for images, sounds, and the whole array of methods that work with and through sensation and perception. It is a work not only of concepts, but of percepts and affects; not only of logic, but of aesthetics and ethics. Successfully connecting these three registers is the work of philosophers, artists, and activists — or, better still, all in one. That’s where the important work lies ahead.