Bennett 2010

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Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.
"Mine is not a vitalism in the traditional sense' I equate affect with materiality, rather than posit a separate force that can enter and animate a physical body." (xiii)
"My aim, again, is to theorize a vitality intrinsic to materiality as such, and to detach materiality from the figures of passive, mechanistic, or divinely infused substance." (xiii)

methods of demystification (exposing) is "an indispensable tool in a democratic, pluralist politics that seeks to hold officials accountable", but creates "hermeneutics of suspicion [that] calls for theorists to be on high alert for signs of the secret truth (a human will to power) below the false appearance of nonhuman agency"; "limits to its political efficacy" (xiv)

The Force of Things

actant: Latour; source of action, human or not, combination of both; neither an object or subject but "intervener" (9)

quasi-causal operator: Deleuze; "that which, by virtue of its particular location in an assemblage and the fortuity of being in the right place at the right time, makes the difference, makes things happen, becomes the decisive force catalyzing an event" (9)

in subject-oriented philosophies, the agent or deodand (English law 1200-1846; "that which must be given to God", nonhuman agents of harm like a knife)

"human power is itself a kind of thing-power. At one level this claim is uncontroversial: it is easy to acknowledge that humans are composed of various material parts (the minerality of our bones, or the metal of our blood, or the electricity of our neurons). But it is more challenging to conceive of these materials as lively and self-organizing, rather than as passive or mechanical means under the direction of something nonmaterial, that is, an active soul or mind." (10)

deLanda; mineral material producing bones, enabling evolution (11); humans as "complex collection of materials" (11)

vital materialism

  • objection to it: humans become mere things, can be used as such
  • answer to objection: "promot[e] healthy and enabling instrumentalizations" (12); "moralism can itself become a source of unnecessary human suffering" (12)
"We are now in a better position to name that other way to promote human health and happiness: to raise the status of the materiality of which we are composed. Each human is a heterogeneous compound of wonderfully vibrant, dangerously vibrant, matter. If matter itself is lively, then not only is the difference between subjects and objects minimized, but the status of the shared materiality of all things is elevated. All bodies become more than mere objects, as the thing-powers of resistance and protean agency are brought into sharper relief." (12)

nonidentity: Adorno; "that which is not subject to knowledge but is instead 'heterogeneous' to all concepts" (14); haunting feeling that something is being left out

  • Adorno denies vital materialism; but is nagged by what Bennett calls "thing-power"

cultural/historical/linguistic constructivism tends to obscure thing-power (17)

The Agency of Assemblages

problems with vital materialism/thing-power:

  1. overemphasizes "thinginess" -- stable identities -- of things (20); wants rather "to theorize a materiality that is as much force as entity, as much energy as matter, as much intensity as extension"
  2. "latent individualism"; "atomistic rather than a congregational understanding of agency" (20)

conative/affective bodies: Spinoza; things as neither subject nor object but "mode" of Nature that is an assemblage/mosaic of simple bodies

  • conatus in simple bodies expressed as "a stubbornness or inertial tendency to persist"; in complex body/mode, to "the effort required to maintain the specific relation of 'movement and rest' that obtains between its parts" (22); continual invention
  • modes enter into alliances, form assemblages
"bodies enhance their power in or as a heterogeneous assemblage. What this suggests for the concept of agency is that the efficacy or effectivity to which that term has traditionally referred becomes distributed across an ontologically heterogeneous field, rather than being a capacity localized in a human body or in a collective produced (only) by human efforts." (23)

assemblage: Deleuze and Guattari; "ad hoc groupings of diverse elements, of vibrant materials of all sorts" (23); effects generated are emergent properties (23); each member has vital force, but also an efectivity to the grouping as such

2003 black-out example; power grid as assemblage; agency distributed along a continuum, extruding from multiple loci (28)

in Augustine, Kant; concept of human will/free agency divided against itself

Bernard Stiegler, stone tools as first "archives" for human reflection, by persistant objectness

distributed agency tied up with three notions:

  • efficacy: creativity of agency, capacity to make something new appear
  • trajectory: directionality/movement away
  • causality: emergent and fractal; indeterminate, after-the-fact

Chinese shi (34-5)

"Autonomy and strong responsibility seem to me to be empirically false, and thus their invocation seems tinged with injustice. In emphasizing the ensemble nature of action and the interconnections between persons and things, a theory of vibrant matter presents individuals as simply incapable of bearing full responsibility for their effects." (37)

confederate agency attenuates the blame game, but still identifies harmful effects -- even broadens scope of search

"Perhaps the ethical responsibility of an individual human now resides in one's response to the assemblages in which one finds oneself participating: Do I attempt to extricate myself from assemblages whose trajectory is likely to do harm? Do I enter into the proximity of assemblages whose conglomerate effectivity tends toward the enactment of nobler ends?" (37-8)
"A moralized politics of good and evil, of singular agents who must be made to pay for their sins ... becomes unethical to the degree that it legitimates vengeance and elevates violence to the tool of first resort. An understanding of agency as distributive and confederate thus reinvokes the need to detach ethics from moralism and to produce guides to action appropriate to a world of vital, crosscutting forces." (38)

Edible Matter

"productive power intrinsic to foodstuff, which enables edible matter to coarsen or refine the imagination or render a disposition more or less liable to ressentiment, depression, hyperactivity, dull-wittedness, or violence. They experience eating as the formation of an assemblage of human and nonhuman elements, all of which bear some agentic capacity. ... On this model of eating, human and nonhuman bodies recorporealize in response to each other; both exercise formative power and both offer themselves tas matter to be acted on. Eating appears as a series of mutual transformations in which the border between inside and outside becomes blurry: my meal both is and is not mine; you both are and are not what you eat." (49)
"In the eating encounter, all bodies are shown to be but temporary congealments of a materiality that is a process of becoming, is hustle and flow punctuated by sedimentation and substance." (49)

A Life of Metal

a life; Deleuze; overflow and vitality, but also terror and meaningless void

"A life thus names a restless activeness, a destructive-creative force-presence that does not coincide fully with any specific body. A life tears the fabric of the actual without every coming fully 'out' in a person, place, or thing." (54)

hylomorphic model, form of vitalism (56)

Deleuze and Guattari interested not simply in "social lives of objects" but "a vibratory effluescence that persists before and after any arrangement in space: the peculiar 'motility' of an intensity" (57)

"The aim is to articulate the elusive idea of a materiality that is itself heterogeneous, itself a differential of intensities, itself a life. In this strange, vital materialism, there is no point of pure stillness, no indivisible atom that is not itself aquiver with virtual force." (57)

objects that confront us as fixed, still, are actually heterogeneous materials whose speed/rate of change is slow compared to duration/velocity of human bodies participating/perceiving them (57-8)

  • "It is hard indeed to keep one's mind wrapped around a materiality that is not reducible to extension in space, difficult to dwell with the notion of an incorporeality or a differential of intensities." (58) -- to live, humans must perceive a material world
"The project, then, is to theorize a kind of geoaffect or material vitality, a theory born of a methodological commitment to avoid anthropocentrism and biocentrism -- or perhaps it is more accurate to say that it is born of an irrational love of matter." (61)

for Deleuze and Guattari, matter is itself the "active principle" (61)

Neither Vitalism nor Mechanism

Henri Bergson, elan vital; Hans Dreisch, entelechy; "Whereas the vitalists lifted instances of 'life' outside the reach of this mechanical world, the materialists insisted that every entity or force, however complex, 'organic', or subtle, was ultimately or in principle explicable in mechanical or, as they called it, 'physico-chemical terms." (64)

Bildungstrieb: Kant; separates life from "crude matter", but has to find a way to connect them; Bildungstrieb does this, "inscrutable self-organizational power present in organisms but not in mere aggregates of matter" (65)

  • not a soul -- soul can exist without body, whereas Bildungstrieb animates bodies
  • Bildungstrieb inherence in bodies distinguished Kant from vitalists, he thought
  • borrowed from Jophan Friedrich Blumenbach
  • for Kant, then, matter alone "is a dull, mechanistic stuff in need of a supplement (which is neither material nor soul) to become active" (68)

entelechy: Dreisch;

  • "it is the intensive manifold out of which emerges the extensive manifoldness of the mature organism" (70)
  • not spiritual; "the contrary of mechanical is merely non-mechanical, and not 'psychical'" (qtd on 71)
  • formative principle, makes life morph in a way that crystals cannot; inorganic matter cannot learn (72)
  • "entelechy decides which of the many formative possibilities inside the emergent organism become actual" (72)
  • responds to a set of possibilities within the cell (73)
  • cannot be an "energy", because energies are quantifiable and life is unquantifiable (74); "entelechy is order of relation and absolutely nothing else" (qtd on 74)

Dreisch finds mechanistic explanations of morphogenesis inadequate because "an organism is a working whole capable of innovative action ... [whereas] a machine (as a mere aggregation of physico-chemical elements) 'does not remain itself, if you take from it whatever you please'" (74); i.e., machines cannot self-repair, and if you divide a machine in half it cannot regenerate itself into a whole -- it remains simply half a machine (74)

entelechy emerges from believe that materiality is too passive/dull to organize matter -- "Dreisch thought he had to figure entelechy as nonmaterial because his notion of materiality was yoked to the notion of a mechanistic, deterministic machine" (75)

  • Bakhtin critiques in 1926, says Dreisch failed to imagine a self-constructing machine
  • Dreisch cannot, because to do so would be to quantify life (76)

elan vital: Bergson;

  • "inner directing principle"
  • "The task of elan vital is to shake awake that lazy bones of matter and insert into it a measure of surprise" (78)
  • not simple or homogeneous; like a "sheaf" (Dreisch's "intensive manifold")
  • unlike entelechy, aim is not to maintain the whole, since any "whole" is always in transition, on the way in or out (78)
  • increases instability, inserts indetermination into matter; creative (78-9) (though not teleological); "the vital impetus is a splaying out, a rendering of itself more indeterminate, and this means that some lines of the spray will conflict or counteract others." (79)

neither entelechy or elan vital reducible to the matter they animate -- are agents (80)

Stem Cells and the Culture of Life

"compassionate conservatives" link "culture of life" and violence

role of freedom in vitalism; "vitalism recurs because it defends a world that is not predetermined but open, a land of opportunity for creativity, surprise, and choice" (90)

pluripotentiality of cells points to an open-ended freedom

Political Ecologies

Darwin, earthworms, Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Actions of Worms with Observations on Their Habits (1881)

  • really about history
  • worms make vegetable mould, which "makes possible an earth hospitable to humans, which makes possible the cultural artifacts, rituals, plans, and endeavors of human history" (96)
  • bury artifacts under their castings, preserving things for archaeologists (!) (qtd 96)
"It would be consistent with Darwin to say that worms participate in heterogeneous assemblages in which agency has no single locus, no mastermind, but is distributed across a swarm of various and variegated vibrant materialities." (96)

Darwin noticed this through anthropomorphizing

"A touch of anthropomorphism, then, can catalyze a sensibility that finds a world filled not with ontologically distinct categories of beings (subjects and objects) but with variously composed materialities that form confederations." (99)

John Dewey, publics -- members inducted into; nonvoluntary; "public as a confederation of bodies pulled together not so much by choice ... as by a shared experience of harm" (100)

  • pushes toward vital materialism by saying publics form around non-human things; but still human-governed

Latour, rejects "nature" and "culture" in favor of the collective; "parliament of things" (104)

for Ranciere, "the political act consists in exclamatory interjection of affective bodies as they enter a preexisting public" (105)

seeing things as part of a public helps "to devise more effective (experimental) tactics for enhancing or weakening that public" (107)

"to imagine politics as a realm of human activity alone may also be a kind of prejudice: a prejudice against a (nonhuman) multitude misrecognized as context, constraint, or tool. A vital materialist theory of democracy seeks to transform the divide between speaking subjects and mute objects into a set of differential tendencies and variable capacities." (108)

Vitality and Self-interest

"It is difficult, for example, for a public convened by environmentalism to include animals, vegetables, or minerals as bona fide members, for nonhumans are already named as a passive environment or perhaps a recalcitrant context for human action. a more materialist public would need to include more earthlings in the swarm of actants. 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. If environmentalism leads to the call for the protection and wise management of an ecosystem that surrounds us, a vital materialism suggests that the task is to engage more strategically with a trenchant materiality that is us as it view with us in agentic assemblages." (111)

Guattari, Three Ecologies (1986): environmental, social, mental; IWC (integrated world capitalism)

Latour: we're better at seeing humans infecting nature than seeing nonhumanity infecting human culture; argues for pragmatics that "explicitly acknowledges this commingling, and for (liberal democratic) public policies designed to 'follow through' or attend to the problems for human flourishing caused by the intimacy of the human and the nonhuman. Admit that humans have crawled or secreted themselves into every corner of the environment; admit that the environment is actually inside human bodies and minds, and then proceed politically, technologically, scientifically, in everyday life, with careful forebearance, as you might with unruly relatives to whom you are inextricably bound and with whom you will engage over a lifetime, like it or not. Give up the futile attempt to disentangle the human from the nonhuman. Seek instead to engage more civilly, strategically, and subtly with the nonhumans in the assemblages in which you, too, participate." (115-6)

natura naturata (passive matter organized by Creation); natura naturans (uncaused causality that generates new forms) -- Spinoza, Ethics (117)

Greek phusis -- natura -- puff, blow, swell up, sproud, growth (118)

"an active becoming, a creative not-quite-human force capable of producing the new, buzzes within the history of the term nature" (118)