Friday, August 27, 2010

One name kept popping up in my mind as I read Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter.

Heidegger? Spinoza? Latour? Adorno? Well, they’re all copiously referenced in the text, but nope.

Amelie. Yeah, the winsome Parisian magic-realist poppet.

Now there is undoubtedly much subtlety of argument and observation in the book that sailed over my half-educated head, maybe I have no right to comment on it at all, but then, given it’s a plea for new forms of political engagement I guess it does concern me, being a member of the “public” (along with diphtheria, lint, halitosis and chalk) that any politics needs, and having been interested enough in her general project to seek her work out anyway.

So why did Amelie pop into my head every ten pages or so? To crudely summarize Bennett’s message, I got this out of it: Any number of factors both human and non-human (actants) combine (assemblages) to contribute to/cause any given situation. To say that only humans “act” is to misjudge the situation, a kind of “folk agency” as humans themselves are not closed and hermetically sealed off from any outside but in a constant relationship with it: ergo we need to pay more attention to the role which non-human agents play in events. For example, thinking of metal as an “actant”: spending on elderly care in a given state consumes a huge part of the budget, leaving less to invest in education due to the high number of Alzheimer’s sufferers in that region, something attributable to the rates of exposure to aluminium in pans during the seventies. The wave of unemployed teens who commit suicide later is a consequence in many ways of the aluminium.* We can’t say at that aluminium is “alive” as such but it has “a life”, it interacts and creates new potentialities, new situations. Hence everything is really “living” (to the extent I suppose that it enters into a dynamic relation, perhaps not, some undiscovered mineral contains “life” latently, I suppose) and it is the typical post-Cartesian chutzpah to suppose we can especially privilege the “human” in this network**.

Like most general readers I tend to power through the bits where she’s obviously just justifying herself to other philosophers in terms of age-old arguments ( the chapter on Vitalism, the stuff on Adorno) accepting that I’ll half understand it. The consequence here at least is that the book is a not untypical combination of the recondite and the bleeding obvious. Apparently the stuff you eat makes a big difference to how you feel. You don’t say? Ask the guys down my local Gym, they’ll tell you all about the peculiar human/non human assemblage that’s called lifting weights: you eat a load of protein, you break down muscle fibre allowing it to overcompensate through rest, you become stronger, you feel more confident in the street, you have more fights, the hospitals are crowded on Friday night. Hey, ask a drug addict! You mean that people who work in power plants ought to consider the extent to which the physical properties of the plants components are important, especially under pressure from other non human sources? Like they don’t do that already?

Early on Bennet spots some detritus in a local drain ( a bag, a cup, a dead rat, a used condom.. or something… I finished it last Sunday I can’t remember everything,) and is lead on to reflect on the kind of unique, vibrant power of this particular assemblage. This is where my incredulity kicked in and Amelie popped up. I can’t seriously disentangle Bennett’s project from an aesthetic argument or a liberal “rights” based argument. First up the book is a plea to look around us and see the world in more magical terms, as a kind of holistic, living/non-living source of speculative wonder, and secondly this leads on to a tweeness, never far below the surface, in which, by extending consideration and purpose to everything we kind of “enfranchise” salt, lice and strep throat. Hello trees, hello sky, hello quartz! It’s all about human non-human respect and recognition.

The final chapter, in which this new, more radical ecology, a political ecology no less, is to be systematized is revealingly confused and partial, it’s kind of a plea for open-mindedness against common sense, which is odd as the argument is basically common sense re-mystified. So much time is spent trying to justify the basic proposition that any possible political applications are lost. Once again we’re being asked to start thinking about the world in a new way in the hope that something good will eventually spontaneously arise from our re-conceiving the role of the human. Why are philosophers, especially political philosophers, so reluctant to give us a 10 point plan that needs immediate effect? Ah, because that would be oppressing us in a way and not nurturing us in our difference.

I am all for new age shorn of the mysticism: Let’s take yoga: is yoga some kind of encounter with a great beyond? Nope, it’s basically just an excellent system for balancing hormonal levels. I’m not sure you need to invoke Heidegger to get that point across: go ask Gillian McKeith. Ecology shorn of the pathetic fallacy, sure, why not, but this just seems like the pathetic fallacy extended, hence all the garbled pleading for a qualified anthropomorphism at the end. So Vibrant Matter basically commits the same sin, it is way too respectful of the thing, it approaches it with a kind of creeping liberal handwringing, too desperate to abase itself for all the nasty years of human-centeredness that dead fish, leaves and cadmium have had to suffer. From tree-hugging to kind of embracing matter in a big cosmic hug.

It’s an old lesson and you’d think I’d have learned it by now: never trust a hippy.

* I’m not suggesting aluminium does cause Alzheimer’s it’s just an example.

**plus, why is there no mention of Graham Harman in this book?

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