Review of Vibrant Matter (Bennett)

Bennett J. (2010). Vibrant matter: A political ecology of things. Durham: Duke University Press.

Note: I’ve had this book sitting on my shelf for a month or two now and have been meaning to read it. I was recently prompted to attend to it more quickly and seriously by the following tweet courtesy of NC State’s Lauren Clark.

So if you happen to either love or hate this post, blame her.

Jane Bennett’s Vibrant matter: A political ecology of things explores the recent shift in science and technology studies (STS) towards an ontologal/material foundation for inquiry. As part of this effort, she offers her theory of a “vital materiality” that locates activity and agency at various loci throughout material-semiotic systems. Bennett outlines her primary goals for the text in the following passage:

(1) To paint a positive ontology of vibrant matter, which stretches received concepts of agency, action, and freedom sometimes to the breaking point; (2) to dissipate the onto-theological binaries of life/matter, human/animal, will/determination, and organic/inorganic using arguments and other rhetorical means to induce in human bodies an aesthetic-affective openness to material vitality; and (3) to sketch a style of political analysis that can better account for the contributions of nonhuman actants. (p. x)

In tackling these goals, Vibrant matter is divided into eight chapters, and I would suggest that those chapters can be understood as comprising three parts. (Understandably—given the monograph is 176 pages including all bibliography and indices, these divisions are not explicit.)

In roughly the first third of the text, Bennett explores the agency and vitality of various ‘entities’ that would under the modernist rubric be classified as either objects, collections of objects, or events. (I should note that I struggled greatly in the last sentence finding a collective term to describe these ‘entities’—hence the scare quotes. I’d like to use Latour’s notion of a quasi-subject/quasi-object, but I’m not sure that even that applies to an event, though perhaps it does.) In any event (sorry), Bennett’s foci of analysis include a collection of debris found in a storm drain, a power outage along a major urban electrical grid, Omega-3 Fatty Acids, and Prometheus’ adamantine chains. Her exploration of these ‘entities’ includes a thoughtful, engaging, and eminently perspicuous recounting of the ontological shift in STS. This sub-text includes a careful and diligent exploration of the relationships among and arguments surrounding the ontological/material theories of Foucault, Deleuze, Guattari, Deleuze and Guattari, Haraway, Latour, and Idhe. Furthermore, she artfully interrogates the manifold connections between these ontological/material approaches and critical cultural theorists such as Derrida, Adorno, Althusser, Eagleton, Butler and Hayles. (Of course more than a few scholars from each list belong on both.) This was my favorite part of the book and I would highly recommend its inclusion in any graduate seminar in rhetoric of science or critical theory. The clarity with which Bennett delineates these and explores these manifold approaches is nearly unparalleled. I think even those students resistant to theorization would find these explanations compelling.

Part two is the section about which I have the least to say. The second third of the book interrogates theories of vitalism drawing heavily on Henri Bergson and Hans Driesch. Vital philosophies are certainly not my strong suit, so I’m reticent to evaluate this section. From what I remember from my undergraduate philosophy degree, Bennett’s exploration of this work is thorough and consistent with the standard continental evaluation of elan vital and entelechy. In any event, I found the argument for enlisting a modified vitalism as one way of accounting for the agency of the material, compelling and clear.

The final section of Vibrant matter is the one with which I had the most difficulty. Then I read it again as I wrote this post and changed my mind entirely. (I’ll explain why at the end.) The final section provides a cogent and engaging exploration of the affordances of vital materiality and political ecology. More specific, it offers the twin notions of vital materiality and political ecologies as a way of realizing Latour’s “parliament of things.” In short, if one recognizes the agentive vitality of the material, then one opens the door for something like the civic representation of material entities. And I certainly would support any effort to extend moral considerablity to nonhuman actacts—especially those that that we have most damaged through our environmental recklessness. My greatest disappointment (which admittedly is not all that great) comes from the final chapter of Vibrant matter. There, Bennett argues that political ecologies constitutes a more productive rubric for nonhuman inclusion than environmentalism. She argues this for three reasons: 1) Bennett suggests that environmentalism posits the environment as “a substrate of human culture” and that therefore an ecological model “horizontalizes” humans and nonhumans more effectively (pp. 111-112). 2) She further argues that the agency and vibrancy of matter in her model provides a more democratic alternative to the concept of nature as harmonious equilibrium. 3) And finally, in fracturing the unity of “the environment,” a vital-material ecology embraces the complexity of bodies and embodiment in a way that separates us from the concept of bounded unified human entities and therefore enshrines an ecological model that permeates humanity and human flesh alike.

On first pass, I was unconvinced regarding the distinction between environmentalism and ecologicalism. (I’m sure there’s a better word for that.) However, environmentalism and Bennett describes it does, indeed, exist. Further, I am convinced by her arguments against that form of environmentalism. However, I still do think that her painting of environmentalism denies the richness of traditions—i.e. the ecology of perspectives within the –ism, including the availability of ecologically-oriented environmentalisms.
But I digress. Buy this book and read it twice.