Archive for the ‘Animals’ Category

On the Politics of Earthworms: Reading Jane Bennett

July 27, 2011

A review of Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (2010):

Why advocate the vitality of matter? Because my hunch is that the image of dead or thoroughly instrumentalized matter feeds human hubris and our earth destroying fantasies of conquest and consumption. It does so by preventing us from detecting (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling) a fuller range of the nonhuman powers circulating around and within human bodies. (ix)

Bennett asks her readers to rid themselves of the illusion of human control, to shed their protective shells, by adopting what she calls a “vital materialism.” By focusing on an assortment of seemingly unrelated subjects, including earthworms, stem cells, omega-3 fatty acids, trash, and metals, Bennett argues for an ecology of things, in which the complex interconnections of life are fully acknowledged. Bennett speaks of vital materialism as a combined strategy of lavishing attention on commonplace objects and by adopting anthropomorphism, a trope that is widely censured as an essential trait of human arrogance. In contrast, Bennett sees anthropomorphism as a useful way of extending the notion of agency to include the nonhuman. “We need to cultivate,” she states, “a bit of anthropomorphism – the idea that human agency has some echoes in nonhuman nature – to counter the narcissism of humans in charge of the world” (xvi). In implementing this strategy, Bennett echoes Bruno Latour’s call for “the Parliament of Things.”1 Where Latour could be criticized for not backing his arguments up with specific examples, Bennett grounds her argument in the everyday by tracing the significance of commonplace objects, showing how they have been used to establish scientific facts, political theories, and literary figures, and how they can physically transform humans and the world around us. Bennett contends that the main reason we have problems acknowledging the effectiveness of things, how they act on and through us, is because it conflicts with human exceptionalism. Where Latour defiantly argues that we never been modern, Bennett is equally defiant in arguing that we have never been exceptional.

Bennett’s most engaging implementation of her strategic anthropomorphism occurs in the penultimate chapter of her book, in which she presents the figure of the earthworm as something of an ecological hero. To add credence to her argument, Bennett points out that Darwin also ascribed a form of agency to earthworms:

Darwin describes the activities of worms as one of many “small agencies” whose “accumulated effects” turns out to be quite big. It would be consistent with Darwin to say that worms participate in heterogeneous assemblages in which agency has no single locus, no mastermind, but is distributed across a swarm of various and variegated materialities. (96)

For Darwin, earthworms exercise a degree of freedom, as they can be observed engaged in a variety of different behaviors in reaction to a particular change in their environment or the availability of food. The worms can also be seen acting in ways that conflict with the notion of a mechanical response. For an example Darwin turns to the commonly observed phenomenon of a worm that “fails to recoil and retreat to its burrow when exposed to bright light. Darwin notes that this overruling [of a normal physiological response] occurs when a worm is focused closely on a task, such as eating, dragging leaves or mating” (96). By exercising these impulses, worms will often suffer dire consequences, to the delight of hungry robins. Darwin’s earthworm is essential in creating healthy conditions for growth. Rather than being a passive and ineffectual creature, the worm is shown to be an indispensable component in the active forces that combine to transform dead vegetal material, such as fallen leaves, into enriched soil.

Latour also surfaces in this discussion of worm agency. Bennett references Latour’s sojourn into the Amazonian rain forest where he joins a group of scientists who are curious about the soil conditions of a strip of land separating the rich soil of the jungle from the arid soil of desert. This soil is “‘more clayey than the savanna but less so than the forest.’ How was the border between savanna and forest breached (96)?” The scientists wonder if this strip signals the deterioration of rainforest soil and the subsequent expansion of the desert or vice versa. Is the rainforest expanding into the desert and, if so, how it is accomplishing this feat? Again the earthworm takes center stage, as the scientists come to the conclusion “that, for reasons unknown to the humans, worms had gathered at the border and produced a lot of aluminum, which transformed the silica of the sandy soil into the clay that was more amendable to forest trees, and so it was the forest that was advancing into the savanna” (98). Bennett stops short of declaring earthworms environmentalists, even though they seem to be engaged in an active and organic form of reforestation. The point of her anthropomorphism is not to focus or fix agency as an attribute belong to humans or nonhumans. Instead, she speaks of anthropomorphism as a way of giving voice to an ecological notion of agency, one in which actions and actants are dispersed along a horizontal chain of unfolding phenomenon. “A touch of anthropomorphism,” she states, “can catalyze a sensibility that finds a world filled not with ontological distinct categories of beings (subjects and objects) but with variously composed materialities that form confederations” (99).

Bennett’s reconfigured worldview shares much in common with Karen Barad’s “agential realism.”2 Both Bennett and Barad argue for a more integrated understanding of matter and meaning. And they both ask their readers to expand their understanding of what constitutes life by not reducing things to categories of the organic and the inorganic, the animate and the inanimate, the human and the nonhuman. Bennett explains that by blindingly deploying these categories, we create a vertical world of ascension in which we occupy the dominant position. An inherent sense of human mastery is what is reflected back to us as a result of how we have disciplined ourselves to view the world. She asserts that by seeing the natural world as a realm of instinctual and violent competition, survival, and dominance, we construct a worldview that cannot fail but confirm or reflect back a mirror image of human aspirations and fears of sovereignty. Here Bennett presents us with two versions of anthropomorphism: one in which the natural world serves as a mirror confirming humankind’s power; and another version in which humans are shown to be part of complex networks in which we have little or no control over. Most anthropomorphic fables come to the same conclusion: human hubris comes at price.

Bennett’s vital materialism leads her to the idea of reworking our notion of what constitutes a public according to an ecological model. This would involve acknowledging her list of things – earthworms, stem cells, omega-3 fatty acids, trash, metals – as political actors, as having tremendous political significance. By acknowledging that these things affect us both psychologically and physically in ways that are often beyond our comprehension and control, is to enter into a new understanding of human experience and self-interest. “A more materialist public,” states Bennett, “would need to include more earthlings in the swarm of actants” (111). An important part of this public awareness campaign Bennett argues would also involve acknowledging the collective nature of the human body:

Vital materialism better captures an “alien” quality of our own flesh, and in so doing reminds humans of the very radical character of the (fractious) kinship between the human and the nonhuman. My ‘own’ body is material, and yet this vital materiality is not fully or exclusively human. My fresh is populated and constituted by different swarms of foreigners… The its out number the mes. In a world of vibrant matter, it is thus not enough to say we are “embodied” We are, rather, an array of bodies, many different kinds of them in a nested set of microbiomes (112-113).

In this light, my self-interest, my survival, depends on the collective wellbeing of bodies and forces beyond my control. It would seem that I have always been a collective, an ecology, a diverse assemblage. Bennett’s desired goal is that this realignment of what it means to be human will bring with it a radical shift in how we treat the world. “If more people,” she asks, “marked this fact [of our collective nature] more of the time, if we were attentive to the indispensible foreignness that we are, would we continue to produce and consume in the same violently reckless ways?” (113) This question can also be asked as: Can we tell other stories of the world in which self-interest is always a matter of a collective interest that spreads horizontally to include figures that might initially seem to be totally unrelated, if not antagonistic?

I want to conclude by saying that I find Bennett’s book exceedingly inspiring, as it provides an instructive model for animating discussions of environmental politics. While reading her text I found myself making notes about my dissertation project, how I want to shape it and what arguments I want to make. My plan is to do a version of what of Stefan Helmreich and others refer to a “multispecies ethnography,” and after reading Bennett, I think it would make sense to approach my dissertation as a way of negotiating a multispecies public sphere. What would be the advantages and limits of negotiating and opening up the public sphere to include that which is usually excluded? How are our collective interests disturbed and modified when we acknowledge the contributions nonhumans have made to the wellbeing of the public? Can we be hailed or interpellated by a bicycle, a library card, a raccoon, a derelict building, and in the process come to imagine the public differently? Bennett’s text impels me to ask these sorts of vibrant questions.


1. Latour introduces the idea of “the Parliament of Things” in his We Have Never Been Modern (1991, 1993). For a review of this text, please see below.

2. Barad proposes “agential realism” as a strategy for reconfiguring the world in her Meeting the Universe Half Way: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter. For a review of this text, please see below.

Ants acting as a superorganism

July 23, 2011

These spiral circles of ants help to explain the related ideas of superorganisms, emergence, swarming, and swerving.

non-human personality

July 15, 2011









Mark Briffa of the University of Plymouth, UK, wondered if personalities might be found even in some of the simplest multicellular animals. Sea anemones are cnidarians, like jellyfish and corals, and unlike most species that evolved later they don’t have discrete brains. Instead they have diffuse nets of nerves running through their bodies.


On the Ethics of Oncomice

July 13, 2011

Review #5: Donna Haraway’s Modest­_Witness@Second­_Millenium.Female-Man_Meets_OncoMouse (1997)

The Passion of OncoMouse

Nostalgia for “pure research” in mythical ivory towers is worse than ahistorical and ideological. A better use of our time, critical skills, and imaginations might come from considering hope-giving, on-the-ground practices toward building a democratic technoscience taking place under our noses and in distant lands. We might try to figure out how to be interpellated into a different sort of molecular politics. (95)

Subtitled “Feminism and Technoscience,” this text is, like all of Haraway’s books, foremost about science in action. One of Haraway’s primary goals is to illustrate how science is a powerful form of socialization. She does this by tracing some of the discourse surrounding figures that have assumed a prominent place in both contemporary science and in popular cultural. These include the computer chip, the gene, the fetus, the cyborg, and the genetically modified Harvard oncomouse. Haraway also analyzes advertisements placed in science journals, material that is supposed to be read as clearly separate and incidental to the main content of the journal and to the important work of science. As her analysis shows, this supposedly “incidental” material does a fair bit of work in disseminating the conventional narratives and values of science. In ad after ad, we are shown how commerce, politics and science are thoroughly entwined.

Being critical of the clichéd and commonplace stories of science is part of Haraway’s call for a radical shift in scientific practice, one in which scientists are encouraged to “situate” and foreground the political and economic goals that influence their work. “Challenging the material-semiotic practices of technoscience,” states Haraway, “is in the interests of a deeper, broader, and more open scientific literacy, which this book will call situated knowledges” (11). For Haraway, this push to situate the production of scientific knowledge is a matter of fleshing out the various direct and indirect connections or nodal points that structure and fuel a given scientific project, field, or phenomenon. To this end, Haraway asserts:

Cells, organisms, and genes are not “discovered” in a vulgar realist sense, but they are not made up… The world takes shape in specific ways and cannot take shape just any way… For humans, a word like gene specifies a multifaceted set of interactions among people and nonhumans in historically contingent, practical, knowledge-making work. A gene is not a thing, much less a “master molecule” or a self-contained code. Instead, the term gene signifies a node of durable action where many actors, human and nonhuman, meet. (142)

What Haraway is insisting on is the active complexity of life, in which things acquire meaning as a result of difference. Instead of functioning as empty signifiers waiting for meaning to be inscribed to them, cells, genes and the other living properties that make our bodies are more akin to actors or agents that help to activate meaning making. While they do not possess fixed or intrinsic meaning that lies dormant waiting to be uncovered, they do have qualities that can be compared to other phenomena. How science arrives at and assess difference, will in turn, be different for different people and will depend on the different things they are looking for and the tools and methods that are deployed. Situated knowledge is to account for all these differences and to determine the ethics that our scientific findings contribute to.

For Haraway, science unfolds as a contest of meaning. To make this point, she rehearses some of the controversy surrounding the creation of the Harvard oncomouse, which is the name given to mice that have been modified with human genetic material to make them susceptible to cancer. The oncomouse not only generated debate about genetic modification but also about copyrighting life. While scientists at Harvard tried to represent the oncomouse as a breakthrough in the war against cancer, they were actively seeking a patent on the mouse to protect their investment. The situation was further muddied on April 12, 1988 when the United States Patent and Trademark Office issued Patent Number 4,736,866 to the assignee, the President and Fellows of Harvard. The patent recognizes the mouse as an invention, a human product, and as such the transgenic animal, or rather the procedure, became the intellectual property of the university. In the language of the patent, the mouse carries “a gene which has been introduced into the germline of the animal, or an ancestor of the animal, at an early (usually one-cell) developmental stage” (US Patent number 4,736,866).[1] The university eventually passed the patent on to Du Pont, the multinational giant that had financed the oncomouse project. Thus Du Pont, which has a long history of manufacturing such things as gunpowder, house and automobile paints, Freon, insecticides, pharmaceuticals, weapon-grade plutonium, and Kevlar vests, became the owner of the first trademarked animal.

While the question of what exactly the US patent covers has generated passionate ethical debates, it has generated surprisingly limited litigation. The only legal challenge to the Harvard patent occurred in Canada in 2002. After a lengthy court case, the Federal Supreme Court ruled against Harvard, overturning a decision made in a lower court in 2000 to recognize and honour Harvard’s American patent. In 2003 a modified Canadian patent was granted to Harvard, omitting the “composition of matter” claims on transgenic mice that the Supreme Court ruled against. By delineating these various tangents in the story of oncomouse, Haraway shows how the material-semiotic life embodied in this transgenic figure is far from being resolved.

It is also important to reference how Haraway presents the figure of oncomouse, along with the figure of the cyborg (the FemaleManÓ in her longwinded title), as queer. She does not shy away from the assertion that the anxieties and criticisms raised in opposition to genetic engineering echo the moral panic of sexism, racism, nationalism, and homophobia:

In opposing the production of transgenic organisms, and especially opposing their patenting and other forms of private commercial exploitation, committed activists appeal to notions such as the integrity of natural-kinds and the natural telos or self-defining purpose of all life forms. From this perspective, to mix and match genes as if organisms were legitimate raw material for redesign is to violate natural integrity at its vital core… I cannot help but hear in the biotechnology debates the unintended tones of fear of the alien and suspicion of the mixed. I hear a mystification of kind and purity akin to the doctrines of white racial hegemony and U.S. national integrity and purpose that so permeate North American culture and history. (60-61)

Haraway goes on to clarify that, while she opposes the “patenting of animals, human genes, and much plant genetic material” (62), she values genetic science and the sacrifice embodied in the figure of oncomouse and other lab animals. To this end, Haraway presents the oncomouse as a martyr:

OncoMouse is my sibling, and more properly, male or female, s/he is my sister… S/he is our scapegoat; s/he bears our suffering; s/he signifiers and enacts our mortality in a powerful, historically specific way that promises a culturally privileged kind of salvation – a “cure for cancer.” Whether I agree to her existence and use or not, s/he suffers, physically, repeatedly, and profoundly, that I and my sisters my life. (79)

This queer martyrdom is typical of the figures Haraway champions in her survey of technoscience. She is adamant in showing how the foundations of much of science, its establishment of norms and protocols, has been underwritten by an assortment of characters that have been configured as aberrant, queer, unsound, and dangerous.

By stressing the political making or construction of science, Haraway is not arguing that it is simply made-up or make-believe, a series of relational truths or ideological myths that can be substituted for one another. Matter is not that easily manipulated. For example, the gene has managed to stave off efforts to portray it as essentially selfish or as a clear indication of racial purity. Matter as a whole resists being reduced, fixed, and fetishized. Instead, as Haraway argues, matter and meaning enjoy a relational existence in which truths and livelihoods – ways of living – are made and unmade. Again, I want to stress that Haraway is not invoking a relativist position. There is a big difference in pointing out that life is relational and saying that truth is relative, that truth or reality is what we humans make of the world. Such hubris or arrogance, embodied in the claims of relativists and social constructionists, is very thing that Haraway is opposing. Humans do not go about structuring the world according to relative biases and beliefs (despite their best efforts). Instead, life resists our all-too-human inscriptions and what emerges is a much more engaging and unpredictable contest of meaning.

End notes:

[1] For US patent see