“-No one really knows what human agency is, or what humans are doing when they are said to perform as agents. In the face of every analysis, human agency remains something of a mystery. If we do not know just how it is that human agency operates, how can we be so sure that the processes through which nonhumans make their mark are qualitatively different?” from Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things.
There’s a list of books waiting to be reviewed here at F.A.D.; an ever-expanding list which I can’t seem to get to. But Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, probably the most interesting book I read this year, is just too good to let slip by without talking about it.
In Vibrant Matter, Bennett asks us “How would political responses to public problems change were we to take seriously the vitality of (non-human) bodies? By “vitality” I mean the capacity of things – edibles, commodities, storms, metals – not to impede or block the will and designs of humans but also to act as quasi-agents or forces with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own….[What if] we gave the force of things more due?“ The discussion of this question, situated loosely within the disciplines of political theory and contemporary philosophy, also offers one of the most poignant narratives for engaging with landscape in its most inclusive and egalitarian conception.
Vibrant matter is a theoretical inquiry in that Bennett situates her ideas within a long genealogy of thinking that includes the likes of Spinoza, Thoreau, Darwin, Deleuze, Latour and others. Yet her approach is equally like that of an experiential field manual, as her narrative style is immediate and accessible as much as it is philosophical. Bennett begins by describing her physical experience of being transfixed while observing the urban flotsam of a dead rat, a dense mat of oak pollen, a stick, a white plastic bottle cap and a large black glove, all collected together on a storm drain in Baltimore:
“…I was struck by what Stephen Jay Gould called the “excruciating complexity and intractibility” of non-human bodies….I caught a glimpse of an energetic vitality inside each of these things, things that I generally conceived as inert. In this assemblage objects appeared as things, that is as vivid entities not entirely reducible to the contexts in which (human) subjects set them, never entirely exhausted by their semiotics…I achieved for a moment what Thoreau had made his life’s goal: to be able, as Thomas Dumm [Politics of the Ordinary] puts it, “to be surprised by what we see.” (p.5)
[Tully Construction installing "a landfill gas collection system to include over 280 gas extraction wells that penetrate into the landfill refuse, and over 50,000 linear feet of an interconnecting gas pipe system which is imbedded in a 24 inch barrier protective soil layer. The barrier protective soil is capped by 6 inches of a final vegetative topsoil layer, which is seeded to re-establish the native grasses and wild flowers that flourished prior to landfilling." Freshkills, 2006]
In Bennett’s material spaces “all bodies are shown to be but temporary congealments of a materiality that is a process of becoming” (49). She takes us on a fantastic tour of such material encounters, including the unique, active compositions of landfill leachates, the embodied mood-altering effects of consuming omega 3 fatty acids from fish (in one case producing a 35% reduction in offenses among prison inmates), and the wicked assemblage of things and processes that formed the 2003 northeast electrical blackout. Bennett builds off Deleuze and Guattaris’ notion of assemblages, combined with Latour’s networked agents, stating that “efficacy or agency always depends on the collaboration, cooperation, or interactive interference of many bodies and forces (21)”. Accordingly, material, in all its organic or non-organic varieties, is always dependent upon the shifting milieu that envelopes it to determine its own effects. Bennett’s conception of stuff is inherently relational and thus ecological, dispersing agency to all matter as “an interconnected series of parts, but it is not a fixed order of parts, for the order is always being reworked in accordance with a certain freedom of choice exercised by its actants” (97). This, not incidentally, is also a fantastic description of landscape and of our engagements with it.
“To the vital materialist, the electrical grid is better understood as a volatile mix of coal, sweat, electromagnetic fields, computer programs, electron streams, profit motives, heat, lifestyles, nuclear fuel, plastic, fantasies of mastery, static, legislation, water, economic theory, wire and wood – to name just a few of the actants. Vibrant Matter, p. 25
If you read this blog with any regularity, you know we talk a lot about embodiment and what that phenomenological notion might offer for design speculation. Vibrant Matter sets up a tension between the inter-relational effects of things and the autonomy of objects and bodies in and of themselves. Bennett’s notion of the deeply relational questions both what can be defined as a distinct object and perhaps most interestingly, what is the nature of an object’s threshold, or the interstitial qualities between one body and another? What is the limit of a thing that is both material and relational, be it a potato peeler, the requisite bacteria living in our digestive tract, a pile of excavated dirt, an electrical grid, a geographically dispersed corporation, or a metropolis? Such space is rendered fuzzier and more osmotic than typically assumed within a “nomadism” of matter:
“It is hard 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 incorporality or a differential of intensities. This is because to live, humans need to interpret the world reductively as a series of fixed objects, a need reflected in the rhetorical role assigned to the word ‘material’. As noun or adjective material denotes some stable or rock-bottom reality, something adementine (58).”
The material tension Bennett and her philosophical predecessors set up between object and network has been picked up by other people who have interesting things to say about Vibrant Matter. In a paper entitled Autonomous Objects, by object oriented philosopher Graham Harman, provides a great review of Bennett’s book, and in its conclusion speaks of his discomfort with a conception of a heterogeneous, unified field of matter-energy:
“The old correlation of ‘man and world’ is dissolved, as all human and inhuman actors are placed on the same footing: atoms and stones are no less inscrutable than élan vital or the death drive. And here one can only applaud. Yet it is less clear why dissolving the artificial gap between human and world as kinds of beings entails that we need to challenge the existence of individual things altogether. Instead of simply placing flowers, armies, Italians, Chinese, radios, and hurricanes on the same ontological footing by dissolving the rift between people and things, Bennett also wants to dissolve the rift that divides any given thing from any other. Ultimately, what is real in her new Nicene Creed is a pluriverse not of many things, but of ‘one matter-energy’ that is ‘traversed by heterogeneities’. The danger for Bennett, as for Deleuze and Deleuze’s Spinoza, is that objects are liberated from slavery to the human gaze only to fall into a new slavery to a single ‘matter-energy’ that allows for no strife between autonomous individual things.”
The tension between Harman and Bennett’s take on objects seems particularly fruitful and unresolvable with any finality, as it should be. We postulate that this tension is an essential dialectic that reflects the shifting and mutable nature of space and landscape. Its both-and rather than either-or; the emphasis on object or relationship constantly shifting depending on context, time, and the scale of the gaze. There are always things and always connections and relations encircle relations at scaler points where we can observe emergent patterns and properties.
[Trucks seen moving war rubble. August 2006, Ouzai, south of Beirut. Image courtesy of the New York Times]
If we accept that all things have agency and power, whether that be as relations or as autonomous things, we return to the political agenda of the book. How do we share such efficacy if we are not at the center, and how, why and when do material configuration change – a great question for design writ large. Along these lines Larval subjects explores ‘thing power’ for how it might inform what it terms a post “anthropocentric, humanistic theory of society” (AHTS):
“Under Bennett’s model, we have to expand the AHTS (“anthropocentric, humanistic theory of society”), arguing that 1) societies are composed of humans and nonhumans (technologies, living entities [microbes, plants, animals, viruses, etc.], and non-living entities (rocks, rivers, mountain ranges, meteors, etc.). Only by taking into account the nonhumans that populate societies can we understand why 1) certain social relations persist despite the perpetual threat of entropic dissolution, and 2) why societies change when they do. This is the whole point of her concept of “thing-power”. Yeah, yeah, talking about nonhuman entities– especially non-living, nonhuman entities, raises the hair on the back of the neck of many (I’m looking at you McKenzie Wark!), but the point is that we need to develop a language and aesthetic sensibility that allows us to discern the agency of nonhumans in a way that isn’t reduced to our significations, meanings, power, uses, etc. I think that for Bennett this way of speaking is an “as if” way of talking. What’s at issue is developing a sensibility of, to use Adorno’s term, of “non-identity”, that refuses to reduce entities to our concepts, meanings, and uses that is attentive to how nonhumans contribute something aleatory and unexpected to our social relations.”
Likewise, we need a language for reading the landscape and a corresponding design sensibility with similar capacities for inclusion and complexity.
[Top Image, 'Oil on the Pavement', by flickr user frscspd]