Review: Vibrant Matter Jane Bennett

As others have noted, Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter is a significant book — it’s what I was looking for when I started down the OOO path (which admittedly reflects more upon me than upon OOO or Vibrant Matter (VM)). VM is sort of the dual of OOO: whereas OOO is fine-grained, and develops a focus on the surfaces and interiors of objects as objects for themselves, VM focuses on the mid-scale (human scale) impacts of the objects as actants, which Bennett describes as:

The term is Bruno Latour’s: an actant is a source of action that can be either human or nonhuman; it is that which has efficacy, can do things, has sufficient coherence to make a difference, produce effects, alter the course of events.

So this matter becomes vibrant (important) because it can impact our lives and has it’s own (non conscious) agenda, but VM is much, much less concerned with analyzing the character of the being of the objects It’s not so much anthropocentric as anthropometric.

Bennett shares with OOO the sense of inexhaustibility (via analysis) and alterity of the objects, which she intriguingly characterizes as absoluteness— absoluteness as absolute otherness.

It is from human thinking that the absolute has detached; the absolute names the limits of intelligibility

She challenges us by framing the discussion in terms of matter rather than objects. Matter can be more ephemeral: a cluster of debris in a storm drain catch; a hurricane’s wind, wind driven rain, and cascading objects; or even a power blackout. I think this is informed by her perspective as a political scientist — for her, the shape, structure and evolution of anything that has a political impact is open to investigation. The result is an interesting combination of completely non-controversial and totally radical. I don’t think that there’s question that even something as ephemeral as hurricane Katrina can have a major impact on the polis of a large and powerful country, but to think of it as a political actor with an agenda, however temporary, is root radical.

Bennett’s willingness to posit as Vibrant Matter any ad hoc, identifiable constellation of interacting stuff, blurs the lines between the analyst and the analysand and permits the matter to accrue any conscious entities that might be observing or thinking about that constellation, as she puts it:

But what if the swarming activity inside my head was itself an instance of the vital materiality that also constituted the Trash.

So rather than focusing on a being with a distributed consciousness reliant upon a supportive environment to function in it’s mostly unconscious activities, she’s open to considering a distributed non-conscious actant than can evoke activity in the form of a conscious actor, e.g., if the sewer stinks, the public will be provoked to act. I want to be very clear here, she makes no claim made that the sewer has an interest in whether or not it stinks, since interest requires a subject, just that it has developed a stink and the stink elicits action from those nearby.

It’s a stated goal of her project to engender a more ecological ethics: an ethics that is less vertical (people on top, in a strict hierarchy) and more horizontal (which gives strong consideration to the existence of the “things” which coexist with us on the planet)

And to note this fact explicitly, which is also to begin to experience the relationship between persons and other materialities more horizontally, is to take a step toward a more ecological Sensibility.

After all, if we not only become aware of the actant nature of these entities, it becomes more difficult to consider them as simple tools for use to achieve our ends. Tools yes, simple, no.

Playing with these concepts prompts her to stretch her temporal boundaries a bit and consider a tantalizing possibility:

 In the long and slow time of evolution, then, mineral material appears as the mover and shaker, the active power, and the human beings, with their much-lauded capacity for self-directed action, appear as its product

Extending the range of our considerations to include vibrant matters effect on us prompts greater caution in altering things to suit our current whims (which after all are heavily dependent upon the actants in our immediate neighborhood) .

 There are of course differences between the knife that impales and the man impaled, between the technician who dabs the sampler and the sampler, between the array of items in the gutter of Cold Spring Lane and me, the narrator of their vitality. But I agree with John Frow that these differences need “to be flattened, read horizontally as a juxtaposition rather than vertically as a hierarchy of being. It’s a feature of our world that we can and do distinguish . . . things from persons. But the sort of world we live in makes it constantly possible for these two sets of kinds to exchange properties.

I want to pause for a moment and point to what was just postulated: many of our preferences, decisions and actions are strongly influenced by our macro and micro environments. This, coupled with recent findings of intra-personal genomic mosaicism, genomic variation , and the importance of the gut micro biome strongly suggest that our conception of person, agency, etc. are likely due for a major revision in the next decade.

Pulling out of the actor/subject paradigm into this more distributed actant viewpoint also trashes the “great man” view of history — when the situation is looked at from multiple viewpoints and timescales it all becomes vague:

A third element in the agentic swarm is perhaps the most vague of all: Causality. If agency is distributive or confederate, then instances of efficient causality, with its chain of simple bodies acting as the sole impetus for the next effect, will be impossibly rare. Is George W. Bush the efficient cause of the American invasion of Iraq? Is Osama bin Laden? If one extends the time frame of the action beyond that of even an instant, billiard-ball causality falters. Alongside and inside singular human agents there exists a heterogenous series of actants with partial, overlapping, and conflicting degrees of power and effectivity.

This introduces the political aspects of her idea: if you think of political movements as emerging in response to (public) problems, then it becomes somewhat obvious that political movements can be a response to a particular agentic swarm.

The essence of an effective political movement is the ability to adapt and respond to the situation as it evolves. After all, many movements have an unclear goal, and ofttimes the goal is just a negative “let us be rid of this annoyance” (the Arab Spring Leaps to mind), rather than a positive program.

I’m not completely positive about the book. On the downside, she spends too much time highlighting how imprecise our terms become, once we try to define them at a very fine-grained level of detail. Although you could posit this as demonstrating the incommensurability of vibrant matter with an analytic approach, I thought this difficulty had been demonstrated long-ago: the world in which we are embedded does exceed our current analysis ability (and arguably, always will).

A similar blind spot emerges when she discusses technical systems, wherein she appears to think these systems are both deterministic and non-adaptive. If that were the case, few, if any of our current systems would work (to pick a simple example: ethernet is both non-deterministic and adaptive).

However, these are minor quibbles — I found the overall work is a good mind stretch, opening up my thinking in directions I hadn’t considered before.

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