Monday, May 03, 2010

Flash Review: Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter

by J J Cohen
(Read Eileen's summary of the NYU Nature conference first. She is more interesting).

Last night I finished Jane Bennett's Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Now that I sometimes can find the leisure to read a book, Bennett's latest has been at the top of my list ... and once I began the work, I could not put it down.

Vibrant Matter is a lucid and compelling account of how materiality, too often considered as an inert substance, can be rethought as a plethora of things that form assemblages of human and nonhuman actors (or actants, to use the term Bennett takes from Bruno Latour). When humans are but one force in a potentially unbounded network of forces, everyday phenomena no longer seem so quotidian (now wonder Bennett's earlier work was on enchantment in everyday life). Power grids, refuse atop a storm drain, stem cells and fatty foods are some of the things she explores as vibrant matter, as a web of objects with agency -- and if this effectivity is at times aleatory, it is seldom negligible and always a challenge to anthropocentricism. She concludes the book with what she calls a "kind of Nicene Creed for would-be materialists" -- and that religious designation is only partly tongue in cheek. Vital materialism is a kind of spiritualism without gods, a way of restoring sacredness to worldliness. The creed:
"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)
Admittedly, 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 FĂ©lix Guattari, Manuel de Landa, Michel Serres, and even Baruch Spinoza -- all of whom Bennett considers in the course of her unfolding project. Through much of the book I found myself nodding in agreement; she articulates better than I ever could ideas about the posthuman I've been groping towards for, um, well since I started writing scholarship, but especially in Medieval Identity Machines. That book was finished in 2001, and as I read Bennett I kept thinking about how much the field has changed in about a decade: I once described MIMs as my unloved child (see comment), because for a long time it seemed like I'd composed a work that had no audience -- meaning that c. 2003 when the book appeared only a few medievalists were talking about D&G, actor network theory, thinking temporality more thickly, affect as intersubjective, and all those other "posthuman" issues that still obsess me. Where was Vibrant Matter when I needed it?! That is to say, much of the book affirmed what I knew already rather than challenged me to think anew.

Though I've not often cited his work, I've been having an intellectual love affair with Bruno Latour for quite some time (romance of more than a decade still in progress). Vibrant Matter should bring his work to a larger public. In the last year, via Michael O'Rourke, I've discovered Graham Harman, and am struggling to comprehend the challenge that Object Oriented Ontology poses, with its insistence on the cryptic and subterranean mystery that will always be an untouchable and discrete part of things. Look to hear much more on Harman in the near future via the Speculative Medievalisms project; in the meanwhile, it is interesting to note that OOO is not considered in Vibrant Matter.

One of the best things Bennett's book is now accomplishing is to bring Actor Network Theory to a much wider audience by making it relevant to an array of current social issues. The book ends with one of the weakest of these considerations, though: an argument for vital materialism over environmentalism. I am not as deeply read in ecocriticism as I would like to be, even if I have proclaimed its power for rethinking world and person here at ITM. Yet I didn't recognize the rather flat and inert version of the field she narrates.

But I don't want to end on a sour note; I want to conclude by stating again how elating I found reading Vibrant Matter, with its eloquent vision of an ethics of the nonhuman. Bennett argues for a perceptual style open to the appearance of thing-power: we who study the texts and objects of a remote age can get behind that, I think. Indeed, for those of us for whom time doesn't simply pass into lostness we are already behind it, still feeling the power of history's things, which didn't know they were supposed to be still.

1 comment:

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

PS If you are interested in Bennett, you'll enjoy this brief post by Graham Harman, where he writes:

But back to Bennett for a second… The most important principle we share is that it’s not enough to say that the world is “resistant” or “recalcitrant” to the human subject (that’s her way of putting it, which I found quite appealing). If you take that step, you’re simply adding a bit of darkness and occlusion to the same old human-world pair that was made central by Descartes and fixed in cement by Kant.

To really get out of the human-world correlate, you have to be able to say something about “world-world” relations too: or rather, thing-thing relations...

In other words, I don’t think the problem with correlationism is simply that it’s human and world, as though bringing non-humans in can fix things. Shifting from (cor)relationism to simple relationism is already a refreshing step, but still leaves the central problem untouched. There are too many pitfalls that arise when you think a thing is only what it is for other things, without reserve.