Tag Archive: Bennett

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.

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Bennett’s conatus

Just as I was getting ready to wind up the Bennett discussions yesterday, Scu posted a substantial piece about chapter 7, and promised more to come on chapter 8. I’m glad to see it, since I thought there could have been more discussion about both (and about some general issues throughout the book).

Picking up on the same lines I had noted (“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”), Scu writes:

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In Chapter Eight of Vibrant Matter, Jane Bennett asks: “Are there more everyday tactics for cultivating an ability to discern the vitality of matter?” and, in response, mentions allowing oneself

to anthropomorphize, to relax into resemblances discerned across ontological divides: you (mis)take the wind outside at night for your father’s wheezy breathing in the next room; you get up too fast and see stars; a plastic topographical map reminds you of the veins on the back of your hand; the rhythm of the cicada’s [sic] reminds you of the wailing of an infant; the falling stone seems to express a conative desire to persevere.

What I like about this is not so much the argument for anthropomorphism (specifically) as the implied and more general argument for ‘morphism’, that is, for allowing one’s imaginative capacities — the capacities to take on and think with images — to build the forms of one’s perceptions and conceptions of the world. We’ve lost this ability somewhat since the decline of the epistemologies of resemblance that characterized the pre-modern and Renaissance imagination (according to Foucault and others). The ability to read the “signatures” of the world is something poets, of course, have not forgotten, but it’s also something that semiotics (of the Peircian variant) holds, or should hold, as central to the ways sense is made of things.

As for anthropomorphism, as John Livingston taught me, there’s nothing unusual about it. Dogs canomorphize, birds avimorphize, humans anthropomorphize. All of these morphic practices can be tested by trial and error for their validity in specific circumstances. The idea that something that looks somewhat like me and acts in some ways like me is like me is a reasonable starting hypothesis for a relational epistemology and ethic.

(See here for more on theorizing imagination.)

partitions of the sensible

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:

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The five week long, cross-blog reading group on Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter is wrapping up this week, with the discussion officially moving here for the final stretch. Here’s what’s been written so far (at least what I’ve seen):

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half-way house

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.

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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?

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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.

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We live in a universe of hazard, a place where asteroids strike, where car smash-ups pluck out a life like a boot squashing a centipede, where planes fall out of the sky, a heart attack takes a brother from behind in the middle of a night, a train runs over a friend’s passed out daughter, a truck runs over a fallen bicyclist girlfriend, where heartbeats blinking on a screen one day vanish by the next. (I won’t go into the personals of any of these; the asteroids, in my life at least, remain fictitious.)

When these events happen, meaning-craving beings like us seek an explanation, a story to give us some way of accounting for them. Sometimes the explanations are there — because the world is thickly networked and the connections leading from one thing to another are fairly evident (this thing led to that which then led to that), or they can be reconstructed through some pattern-observation and model-building, which is essentially what science does. But even when the hows are evident, the whys remain elusive. Most of us carry around maps of why — god-stories that make sense of anything with a little tweaking: it’s divine punishment or reward, a trial to make one stronger, some kind of karmic compensation for past misdeeds (back to the latter in a moment), a conspiracy of “them” or my own eternally recurrent failure, “that’s how it was meant to be.” These why-stories are like nests built out of twigs and branches and leaves. Some are built stronger than others. Some turn into multilayered, convoluted architectures capable of accounting for anything, as long as we focus well beyond the twigs and branches and leaves that disintegrate when we stare at them too closely.

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