Vibrant Matter and Relations of Things

“-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.

[The active suchness of Yolo County’s Landfill Bioreactor.  Image source]

“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 speculationVibrant 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]


  1. incredible image from Beirut, and great review. Thanks for this.

    I think the last sentence misses though- the emphasis on creating a language (I could be wrong). While language is a part of our interaction with and understanding of vibrant matter, it isn’t for a lot of other entities, and isn’t even the whole or most important of our interaction with it. The statement would be problematic for Harman (I think), as well as technological historians like David Nye. They would argue that grappling with the agency of other things must extend past the development of a language and deal with the things themselves. Which gets back to one of your primary preoccupations- embodiment:
    Tools are older than written language (perhaps, as the chimpanzee’s “fishing stick” suggests, even older than spoken language) and cannot merely be considered passive objects, or “signified.” Tools are known through the body at least as much as they are understood through the mind.” (David Nye in Technology Matters).
    I’m not sure where I’m going with that except that I want to tease out some additional insight I suspect you have, given the experimental landscapes you’ve created in the last year…

    Somewhat unrelated- you also reviewed The Ecological Thought. It seems to me there would be a lot of close ties there (either they are in agreement or taking opposing positions, but speaking to one another). But you don’t mention it- was there some connection?

  2. Thanks Brian. Excuse the long bit of language this brought to mind:

    “…While language is a part of our interaction with and understanding of vibrant matter, it isn’t for a lot of other entities, and isn’t even the whole or most important of our interaction with it.”

    I can get behind that, but ‘language’ is our particular lot to contend with, for better or worse, isn’t it? Isn’t it an essential way in for us? Why we are able to engage like this, and why we need to find new ways of engagement? I need more than just physical tools. And even if I tried to, I would still find my way back to getting meta about it all, whether I want or or not. The synching together of the mental with the physical is what we are after, right, rather than intentionally neglecting or under-serving the former? Maybe Harman would disagree, but Harman, Bennett and Morton’s primary generative output is that of ideas, language and the meta narratives they deconstruct and create. That is what they give us as ‘catalytic material’. I loved Bennett’s book because it rides the threshold of thought and physicality the whole way through, like an engaged landscape manifesto that wasn’t even targeted as being such, which is probably why I liked it so much…the form of the language was different, fresh. Similarly, perhaps the way of used the term language is too broad here? Would narrative or meta-narrative be more useful?

    “…grappling with the agency of other things must extend past the development of a language and deal with the things themselves. Which gets back to one of your primary preoccupations- embodiment”

    Are our interactions with anything ever uninfluenced by narrative? Is there a landscape I can explore that isn’t covered in it (via other people or myself)? I think not, and therefore I am obliged to creatively interact with that arena as much as my physical self. Trying to tie those two together is often what I mean by embodiment, or the act thereof.

    As much as I’m all about physical, embodied forms of engagement with space, I find such action and investigations to be inseparable and entwined with how we conceptualize, apply, and communicate about what those experiences open up. I need both. Both create openings, and in terms of causality, they can interchange their roles: a narrative can lead to new approaches to engaging with matter – texts such as Bennett’s, Harman’s, and Morton’s (and all the former narratives they build upon or break apart), or the embodied engagement with physical stuff can lead to the formulation of new narratives. Morton’s ripping apart of the linguistic constructs of ‘nature’ – exposing how nature’s meta-narrative can be a straitjacket that obscures ways of engaging with space- is for me a great example of the former. Peter Del Tredici embodied engagements with weeds created a field manual that in turn is effecting our engagements with those things on a grand scale, a great example of the latter. I think we need to deconstruct and reformulate the narrative as well as and in addition to the tools, tactics and embodied interactions (need a language for reading the landscape and a corresponding design sensibility). The two inform each other. I think the problem has been that the conceptual has outpaced the physical and the embodied.

    I speculate that maybe you have something to say here about mythology and/or ontology?

  3. I shouldn’t butt in here, given that I haven’t really read any of the books from Harman/Morton/Bennett, but:

    “Are our interactions with anything ever uninfluenced by narrative? Is there a landscape I can explore that isn’t covered in it (via other people or myself)? I think not…”

    Sounds really Kantian to me, and Kantian epistemology (or maybe Kantian epistemology as it evolved into social realism, through what Bryant calls the Copernican turn here) seems to be one of the two things that the speculative realists in general and the object-oriented ontologists in particular are arguing against. Given that both of you have read more of these folks than I have, I’m interested in whether you think that is accurate.

    (That said, there are pieces of Kantian epistemology — call it folk-Kantianism — that have always seemed common-sense to me, and what Brett is saying here — that narrative influences all our intereactions — instinctively rings accurate.)

  4. Thanks for this juicy response, Brett. A lot of good thoughts here.
    I’m not sure of the answer to your first couple of questions, but have some thoughts that might help work them out. I agree that language is a way in, a method for engaging. But it is only a method, not the essence or the substance itself- this is where folks like Ann Spirn or James Corner go too far, I think- and this methodological approach allows us to construct an idea that can contend with the real objects, or vibrant matter. But it doesn’t necessarily do it better than, say, drawing something out, or experimentation with the medium itself, or modeling it. I’m also not interested in saying that language has less of a role to play than other methods either. I think you and I both greatly appreciate the role of actually describing things, creating conceptual tools, naming things, etc- all that comes along with writing.

    Language is problematic, however, because through abstraction it tends to reduce its objects to their cultural representations without remainder (of course, the representations can be myriad, which is when we get misunderstandings or revisionist readings, neither of which is necessarily bad). I agree with the point Rob brings up about Kantian epistemology and its limitations regarding the landscape. Even though human presence is fundamental to landscape, it is not the whole story by a long shot, and in fact the human presence might be one of the smallest pieces of the puzzle, or one of the biggest but most insignificant, or any other variation.

    “I think we need to deconstruct and reformulate the narrative as well as and in addition to the tools, tactics and embodied interactions.” I do agree with this (and I realize you’re just reiterating your original last sentence) but I wonder about one point: are the two separate-but-linked or are they part of a single practice which has succumbed to a false division? I think this is a key distinction (though subtle at first) and I am in the camp of the latter. Isn’t this what Bennet and Morton and Bryant are arguing for?

    I say this because I suspect that there might be some undergirding principles or- ahem- ontology of landscape that we might actually be needing to develop (as opposed to just a language) and all we are really talking about is differing methods for circling around the object.

    (please chime in, Rob. Your obvious lack of knowledge has never stopped you before:) I’m interested as to where this might go.

  5. “…we are really talking about is differing methods for circling around the object.”

    My intent wasn’t to tread too far into the social realism realm or to privilege language and humans over other things. I was more speaking from within speculative realism – the development of language and new narratives as part of the tools of speculative realism, highlighting those that have particular resonance for me (…and what I’ve read is only a tiny part of the output on the topic, so I’m speculating). The call for expanded exploration of other tools is well taken. I’m far more interested in the direct engagement with stuff and landscapes and what we can learn from those encounters far more than I am in diving deep into social and textual relativity. We’ve been there. Yet, as Rob mentions, there is the intuitive and practical sense that narrative influences our interactions, so one eye always has to be kept there. Language is lively, feral, mesh-like, and dark, and a particularly fecund generator of objects (side note, but Harman does argue in Space Time and Essence that reality does not matter in the definition of objects, its only the simple fact that something is or seems to be one thing).

    Brain I’m drawn to how you phrased your last point here about narrative , tools, tactics, and embodied interactions being part of a single practice which has ‘succumbed to a false division’. I’m interested in unpacking what we might mean by ‘false’, or arriving at how their non-integration has come to be (such as disciplinary specialization, habits of commercial practices, etc.). I deeply agree that the unity of all of them is what we are looking for and investigating (and which perhaps is what you were meaning with your initial comment that I pushed in a different direction). As I’ve mentioned above, the synthesis of all of them feels like the richest form of embodiment.

  6. The Ontic Principle post by Levi Bryant that Brain incidentally referenced at FASLA is a nice addition to this discussion.

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