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.