There’ve been smatterings of commentary on the posts dedicated to specific chapters of Vibrant Matter, but not the kind of extended arguments I had originally anticipated (before reading the book). So I’m guessing we may be wrapping up this cross-blog reading group (though Scu may still post on chapter 8).
To the list of entries, which can be found here, you can add my last two (on Signatures and Partitions of the sensible), and Scu‘s followed by my response to it. I don’t have much more to say beyond what I’ve already said. So instead what I’ll do here is to interleave several quotes from different posts (including Bennett’s own words from her interview with Peter Gratton) to create a kind of unresolved, non-chronological quasi-conversation among them. I apologize in advance for the selectiveness and for any inaccuracies in perception that may result from such a procedure. They’re merely intended to remind us of a few of the things that have been said. A brief summary comment follows.
The philosophical problem that Bennett confronts is a post-Cartesian description of nature in modernity as mechanistic and lifeless. The subject of modernity lives off the materials of the world and, in contradistinction to the inorganic materials around it, has a freedom and agency that transcends its natural environment. Once we question this opposition between subjects and things, a number of traditional “ontotheological binaries,” such as organic/inorganic, human/animal, will/determination, etc., begin to “dissipate” (x). [...]
It is just this agency that is at work, Bennett claims, in our airfields, in the wild, in the rush of a blackout, and all around and within us (our bodies are nothing but organic and inorganic assemblages). What is crucial is that Bennett takes the deus ex machina of our typical explanations of the world, namely the quasi-divine human being standing over mechanistic nature, and kills this last of the gods. As she argues well, human agency “remains something of a mystery” in the “face of every analysis” (34), and this mastery is a presupposition that grants us sovereignty over nature even as our material bodies tell us otherwise. To ascribe such agency, she notes, risks a “touch of anthropocentrism” (99) but she is strategically right that without this risk of exporting what was previously considered human to a supposedly mechanized nature, we can never pull off descriptions that render animals and things not merely as “behaving” but as acting (108).
For me Bennett’s book presents very few ideas I don’t already agree with and it is presented in a very lucid style. For me this often results in a strange deflation. Whereas when I read someone whose work is presented in a more difficult idiom, say Deleuze (whom she draws on), or when I read someone with whom I disagree quite a bit, say Badiou, I feel spurred to more productive interactions with that text. This isn’t really a fault of Bennett’s though, it is my own particular “ecology of reading”. What I also find disappointing about engaging with a book that ultimately is putting forward a perspective I already agree with (and ultimately Bennett’s book is about a perspective) is that it doesn’t involve my moving forward to deal with particular problems within that perspective (and Bennett’s book is not really about those problems, though I would like to see her deal with some of them using the same intellectual ease she presents the perspective).
As mentioned in my previous post, my concern with much of Bennett’s work is the humanist traces that remain in her critique as well as the ecological approach as overly horizontal. [...]
While Bennett’s attack on biocentrism and anthrocentrism is warranted, if life is equated with vitality the capacities of the biological seem to get lost. 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. There is a difference between life as biological and life as a humanist category (which is also biological). A life (in Deleuze and Guattari’s sense) would seem to erase the material (if not ontological) difference between a hunk of metal and a cluster of bees which creates a poverty of temporal-spatial organizational difference.
And this also is where the conservative nature of the [food] examples weighs down the radical nature of the thought. All the discussions of food seem to center on a certain humanism (though maybe not an anthropocentrism), in which the major concerns are concerns on the vitality of human eaters. Or on the vibrant nature of already dead beings. What becomes skirted are those beings who became instruments to empower the assemblage of us as a human, but where themselves losers or victims in this instrumentality. These questions have to be confronted. I look forward to the rest of the book (particularly on the ending chapters where so much of these issues are going to have to rest).
Is thing-power not precisely the very condition for democracy? And, finally, is there any ground for being bolder than Bennett in calling for a very different form of democracy? A communism of things, rather than the Latourian (capitalist) parliament of things?
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).
Bennett wishes to tap the breaks on her movement towards egalitarianism. Whatever else she may have led us to believe, humans are still firmly in the driver’s seat. Now, this doesn’t just mean that we have greater responsibilities, but like all executives we get more perks, too. So, whatever she has said about enabling instrumentalizations from before, this is a fairly classical move: Deontology for humans, utilitarianism for everything else.
My political strategy is indirect because its target is not the macro-level politics of laws, policy, institutional change but the micro-politics of sensibility-formation.
In the book, I also suggest that a heightened sensitivity to the agency of assemblages could translate into a national politics that was not so focused around a juridical model of moral responsibility, blame, and punishment. The hope is that the desire for scapegoats would be lessened as public recognition of the distributed nature of agency increased, and that politics would take on a less moralistic and a more pragmatic (in Dewey’s sense of problem-solving) cast.
One of the projects I’m working on now is to explore theorizations of the strange kind of structuration at work in what Michel Serres has described (inThe Birth of Physics and Genesis) as “turbulent” systems. Here Graham Harman’s critique (in Prince of Networks) of “lump ontology” (which he, perhaps too hastily, associates with Deleuze) highlights for me the relatively undertheorized quality of the question of formativity within philosophies of immanence, including the version at work in my Vibrant Matter book. 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? How, Serres asks, “is Venus born from the sea, how is time born from the noisy heavens?” (Genesis 26) What is this strange systematicity proper to a world of Becoming? What, for example, initiates this congealing that will undo itself? Is it possible to identify phases within this formativity, plateaus of differentiation? If so, do the phases/plateaus follow a temporal sequence? Or, does the process of formation inside Becoming require us to theorize a non-chronological kind of time? 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…
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I suspect that we would all agree that Bennett brings some useful theoretical tools to both of these tasks identified here — the first being the theorization of “thing-power,” the agency of nonhumans (in their many forms); the second being the politics that might be generated by a more thing-powered, vital materialist view of the world. That their political implications are not entirely clear, and that the theorization remains incomplete, should not surprise us. These tasks are daunting; they involve questions with no obvious answers, and so they remain unfinished projects. But they are among the most important philosophical tasks for a world in which matter is coming, ever more obviously, to matter in ways that philosophy has forgotten or never realized until now.
I’ve called Bennett a relational thinker, and I think the label is warranted given most of the theorists she draws on. Her emphasis on “things,” however, opens up a nice dialogue with the kind of object-focused philosophizing that Graham Harman, Levi Bryant, and others have been popularizing. Beyond a certain point, the dichotomy of objects-versus-relations doesn’t really hold: there are things (identifiable objects or entities), but these things change, develop, relate to other things, turn into other things, and the point is to understand the nature of what those things do. That’s what Bennett’s “thing-power” is best at: helping us understand how things do things — helping us understand agency, capacity, and the power to do, in ways that take us well outside the traditional anthropocentric frames for such things. (How many times can you use the word “thing” in a sentence-thing?)
With that, I’m signing off (unless there are questions or comments from anyone…).
Thanks very much to all the participants and readers, but especially to Peter, Scu, Anthony, and Ben, for all their work in co-hosting the event. I enjoyed the collaboration very much.
On to other things!