Against the classical notion that matter is inert and passive, the ideas are familiar and will come as no surprise to any casual reader of popular science. For all that, Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (2010) represents one more contribution to the new materialisms, affect, and post-humanism literatures now inundating the humanities. The view is one that looks past the narrow subjective frame of Cartesian human consciousness to model the world in terms of vital material energies that flow through and around us human beings. The kind of thought here attends closely to our non-human constitution at the intersection of human artifacts and nature. Organic and non-organic things like food, metals, industrial waste, and electric power grids are presented as actants with their own agency, with their own self-organizing capacities, with their own power to persist in a vast and vital political ecology that outstrips the human subject. With that human subject no longer positioned at the apex of creation, attention is drawn more horizontally. In the view ascribed to “vital materialists,” the distinction between a thing and a person is relative, not ontological.
So if the science is more or less basic and beyond dispute, what remains is the act of judgment by which to assess the more peculiar claims about the relation between human and non-human agencies. Bennett is at her best when she self-knowingly steps back from the Kool Aid. She openly accepts the risk that some of what she is going to propose might actually end up sounding naïve and even foolish (pp.xiii-xiv, 15, 17). Examples could include claims about the agency of inorganic matter, the inclusion of non-human bodies into the public sphere, the playful working through ideas drawn from Darwin, the vitalism of the embryologist Hans Dreisch, entelechy and morphogenesis, Bergson and Nietzsche, and Kant’s concept of the Bildungstrieb in the critique of teleological judgment, an idea which he took from Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, who was on the medical faulty at Göttingen. For all that, Bennet is a theoretical experimentalist who almost always has the good sense to walk back some of the woolier claims that she herself promotes for our consideration.
Beyond the popular science, the most important standout feature of Vibrant Matter is the understanding that Bennet is actually advancing a kind of anthropomorphism by rejecting anthropocentrism. Normally understood, an anthropomorphic claim is one that falsely ascribes human characteristics to non-human beings and things. Bennet’s point is the exact opposite. Since I am not radically (ontologically) unlike non-human actants, my point of view can be anthropomorphic. Like Darwin writing about worms, one allows oneself to “relax into resemblances discerned across ontological divides…[A] chord is struck between person and thing, and I am no longer above or outside a non-human ‘environment’” (pp.119-20). It may be the case that the vital materialist simply projects human, cultural, and autobiographical meanings on things like “rat,” “plastic,” or “wood,” unless it’s the case that “the swarming activity inside my head was itself an instance of the vital materiality” that constitutes the world around and in us (p.10). In my estimation, this is the most important signature claim advanced by the author.
Another epistemological question is how can we mortal human beings ever detect or sense the presence of vital matter, the vitality of matter that is supposed to lie just beyond the reach of ordinary empirical consciousness? An aesthetic project, the heart of Bennett’s project depends upon the power of cultivated discernment which she claims for herself and like-minded “vital materialists.” Here’s where the author, like many contributors to the literature, drink deep from the Kool Aid. Is this elitism the legacy of Nietzsche and Deleuze? Critical readers will note with some annoyance how much of the analysis here builds on claims about the power of a subject privileged by her or his capacity to “discern,” to “sense” and to “feel.” This then would be a very human subject whose subjective standpoint is first disavowed only to be recouped at a higher level of organization and awareness. Throughout the book, objects shimmer, as the author claims how certain realizations “hit me” or struck me, etc., as if they did so from the outside.
What kind of superior subject is a “vital materialist”? Picturing the world like a physicist, the world is looked upon as a kind of energetic power that resembles phusis in Heideggerian philosophy: pulsing, puffing, sprouting, bringing-forth, self-morphing nature (p.118). Subject to more refined senses than the rest of us, vital materialists “live as earth…more alert to the capacities and limitations…of the various materials that they are” (pp.117, 111). As “conatus-driven bodies,” they “enhance their power or vitality, form alliances with other bodies,” but who elude moral responsibility in any strict sense of the term (p.118, 38). The limited Cartesian subject position is superseded by a higher form of aesthetic awareness that falls close to mystical bodies and ecstatic transformation. There is a lot of this in the affect and posthumanism literatures, based as they are on claims re: that which lies just over the border of ordinary human perception and human being. In relation to this epistemological border, the theorists have to posit a faith in their own capacity to sense things in more deep ways.
Readers of religion (i.e. readers who read for religion) will note an overall sense of the absolute that pervades the rhetoric of Bennet’s presentation of vital matter. At one point she raises this explicitly as such when she identifies what she calls “thing-power” as “akin” to what Hent De Vries calls “the absolute,” i.e. the ‘intangible and imponderable” that “tends to loose its ties to existing contexts.” Bennett notes that this sounds like God, “radically free from representation” as a “no-thing at all” (p.3). Clearly, that’s not what Bennett intends given the investment of her own project in the language of material things and ontological knowing. But putting her own anti-theism to the side, especially in light of her own anthropomorphism, one might wonder nonetheless whether Bennett’s view of nature, presented alongside Spinoza as a form of monism, might lend itself to what one might call, with the kabbalists in mind, the virtual body of God as swarming with forces that are “active, forceful, and (quasi) independent” (p.17). It’s odd how contemporary theorists embrace Spinoza, whose monism is perspectively striated by parallel structures, and for whom physical extension is an attribute of God.
Finally, is the conceit of this carefully and artfully constructed thesis revealed by the cover art by Cornelia Parker on the front cover of the book? This is the way we may picture the world looking like at the molecular level. But rocks don’t float, unless strung up by wires. Bennett’s signature realization is that vital matter absorbs the line separating artifice and nature, which is another way to identify the line between human and non-human things. What’s left then are problems of scale, especially in relation to morality and ethics, question about which are left to hang in the air without a firm subject position, at least as a legal “fiction.” I think this project works less well at that level of scale.