Vibrant Matter: A Feeling for Things

One of the most thought-provoking books I’ve read in recent months was Vibrant Matter  by Jane Bennett. While I’m still a little sceptical about some of the claims made in the book, it nonetheless had what I assumed was one of its desired effects by quite dramatically shaking me out of my intellectual habit of marginalising the non-human. This is the publisher’s blurb from the book and it effectively conveys the sophisticated eclecticism which was my defining impression of it:

In Vibrant Matter the political theorist Jane Bennett, renowned for her work on nature, ethics, and affect, shifts her focus from the human experience of things to things themselves. Bennett argues that political theory needs to do a better job of recognizing the active participation of nonhuman forces in events. Toward that end, she theorizes a “vital materiality” that runs through and across bodies, both human and nonhuman. Bennett explores how political analyses of public events might change were we to acknowledge that agency always emerges as the effect of ad hoc configurations of human and nonhuman forces. She suggests that recognizing that agency is distributed this way, and is not solely the province of humans, might spur the cultivation of a more responsible, ecologically sound politics: a politics less devoted to blaming and condemning individuals than to discerning the web of forces affecting situations and events.

Bennett examines the political and theoretical implications of vital materialism through extended discussions of commonplace things and physical phenomena including stem cells, fish oils, electricity, metal, and trash. She reflects on the vital power of material formations such as landfills, which generate lively streams of chemicals, and omega-3 fatty acids, which can transform brain chemistry and mood. Along the way, she engages with the concepts and claims of Spinoza, Nietzsche, Thoreau, Darwin, Adorno, and Deleuze, disclosing a long history of thinking about vibrant matter in Western philosophy, including attempts by Kant, Bergson, and the embryologist Hans Driesch to name the “vital force” inherent in material forms. Bennett concludes by sketching the contours of a “green materialist” ecophilosophy.

There was a recent seminar at Birkbeck exploring Bennett’s work and I was pleased to learn that the event was recorded (HT David Beer) and the podcasts are now available online. Here’s the description of the event:

The work of the political theorist Jane Bennett (Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore) over the last decade has consistently drawn attention to and had a feeling for things, for the inorganic, and for the agency or quasi-agency of nonhuman actants. Her project of developing a new political ecology and renewed vitalist thought beginning with Thoreau’s Nature: Ethics, Politics and the Wild, Modernity and Political Thought (1994) was further developed in The Enchantment of Modernity: Crossings, Energetics and Ethics (2001)and found its fullest expression in Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (2010) a book which has thoroughly reshaped the way in which we think about landscape, ecology, matter, vitality and the terrain of continental philosophy in a time of critical climate change.

This event makes the writing of Jane Bennett a vibrant matter for discussion across the fields of philosophy, psychosocial studies, political theory, cultural studies, literary theory, visual theory and performance studies among others. In particular, the focus will be on how Bennett’s explorations of vitalism, anthropocentrism, agency, biopolitics and new materialisms contribute to the emerging and fraught conversations between feminist and queer theory, Object Oriented Ontology and Speculative Realism.

This workshop will discuss the intersections between Bennett’s political thought, OOO and feminist/queer theory featuring responses from Eileen JoyJoão Florêncio, Nigel ClarkEszter TimárLisa Baraitser and Michael O’Rourke.

Categories: Outflanking Platitudes

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