More on Vibrant Matter: on noise, biopolitics, new paradoxes of whiteness, & why Beauvoiran Freedom is better than Bennettian Vitality
This is yet another installment of Robin blogs her way through the initial research for her new book project. So, all the usual caveats: initial thoughts, raw and unrefined, barf-it-out-in-writing, needs lots of feedback and revision, etc etc. I realize that this is an epically long post, so I’ve made it available as a gdoc here if that makes for easier reading.
Non-propositionality & Receptivity
Interactivity that is irreducible to “linguistic or deliberative competence” (107), voice, the vibrant resonance of matter, does not communicate a propositional (in the philosophical sense, not in Bennett’s sense) content. As Bennett explains, it exhibits something similar to what Adorno calls “nonidentity,” namely the “inadequacy of representation” of that which is “‘heterogenous’ to all concepts” (41). In philosophy, propositional knowledge is knowledge thematized by a concept, word, image, or representation. It can be explicitly stated as a sentence, a symbol, or a logical/mathematical formula–that is, it can be put in the form of a proposition. Non-propositional knowledge cannot be explicitly stated in these ways. Alexis Shotwell uses the ability to ride a bike as an example of non-propositional or “implicit” knowledge. Similarly, the muscle memory involved in playing a musical instrument, or what Carolyn Abbate calls the “drastic” aspect of musical performance/experience are examples of implicit/non-propositional knowledge. “Voice” is Bennett’s term for non-propositional or “nonlinguistic” (104) communication. Voice is a rippling agency, a type of resonance or “buzz” (14) that is induced by and induces sympathetic vibes “as a swarm of vibrant materials ente[r] and leav[e] agentic assemblages?” (107). “Voice” doesn’t express or represent a content; it sets things in motion, has formal effects. To be a bit blunt and reductive, Bennett thinks we need to stop listening for content and instead listen for the patterns of relationships that emerge when things vibrate together, in and out of phase. Because it isn’t guided by the rationality of propositional knowledge, such receptivity may come off as an “an irrational love of matter” (61).
Vital materialism is a human attunement to this “irrational” or non-propositional voice. It is the answer to Bennett’s quasi-rhetorical question “How can humans learn to hear or enhance our receptivity for ‘propositions’ not expressed in words?” (104; emphasis mine). I’m concerned that Bennett’s project is primarily a call to privileged populations to work on themselves, to change their attitudes toward the oppressed and excluded, and that it focuses on the ethics-of-concern-for-privileged-selves to the exclusion of any imperative to restructure the patterns of material relationships that constitute MRWaSP capitalism. For example, she argues that “the ethical task at hand here is to cultivate the ability to discern nonuman vitality, to become perceptually open to it” (14). This is an ethics for us humans as human after all: we must increase our receptivity to the non-human. Vital materialism, at least as Bennett articulates it here, feels too much like the ultimately white supremacist approaches to anti-racism that, by treating anti-racist work primarily as a matter of white therapy and self-work, re-center white people.
Bennett attempts to respond to a similar objection, namely, the objection that “such communication is possible only through the intermediary of humans. But is this really an objection, given that even linguistic communication necessarily entails intermediaries?” (36). Deflecting the question of human-centrism to one of mediation, Bennett’s rhetorical question never addresses the objection. Sure, all communication is mediated, but this is not the same claim as “all communication is mediated by and through humans.” Bennett seems to be reducing “communication” to only the kinds of communication that happen on our (albeit increasingly sensitive and responsive) human networks. WHen humans become more sensitive and responsive to a greater range of frequencies, more stuff can be channeled through human, erm, channels. This doesn’t de-center humans so much as make us the TimeWarner/Comcast of voices.
Giving back to the things/labor which theory abstracts away
According to many new materialists including Bennett, humanist/correlationist/language-centered theories abstract agency away from things. These theories think abstraction itself is the problem, and that this problem can be solved by upgrading our theoretical approach. The way to change the situation of things/matter is to change the way “we” think about them–if we stop trying to (mistakenly) think of them as abstract, then the problems of abstraction will go away. (Of course, this raises the question: what if the problem of abstraction isn’t limited to theory? What if abstraction is a material-historical process, too?)
This move–”The problem, my dear philosophers, is that our theories are too abstract”–seems to strongly parallel a move Foucault ascribes to the mid-century neoliberal economists who re-theorized “labor” as “human capital.” In the same way that new materialists accuse humanism of obscuring matter, “the charge made by neo-liberalism that classical economics forgets labor and has never subjected it to economic analysis” (Birth of Biopolitics 220). Classical economics certainly talks a lot about labor–there’s the labor theory of value that informs Locke’s notion of property, and of course there’s Marx who wrote a whole lot about labor’s alienation and abstraction. But neoliberal economists thought these theories of labor were themselves too abstract: it is not that capitalism makes labor into something that is (wrongly, injustly) abstract, but that classical political economy is itself too abstract to fully appreciate and account for labor in all its fullness and complexity. As Foucault explains
Now, say the neo-liberals–and this is precisely where their criticism departs from the criticism made by Marx–what is responsible for this ‘abstraction.’ For Marx, capitalism itself is responsible; it is the fault of the logic of capital and of its historical reality. Whereas the neo-liberals say: The abstraction of labor, which actually only appears through the variable of time, is not the product of real capitalism, [but] of the economic theory that has been constructed of capitalist production. Abstraction is not the result of the real mechanics of economic processes; it derives from the way in which these processes have been reflected in classical economics” (BoB 221; emphasis mine).
For neoliberals, the problem isn’t with capitalism, it’s with our theoretical framework. So we don’t need to change the world, just re-theorize it. Or, as Foucault puts it, the neoliberals think “we should not continue with…accusing capitalism of having made real labor abstract; we should undertake a theoretical criticism of the way in which labor itself became abstract in economic discourse” (BoB 222). Instead of critiquing institutions, neoliberals critique theory for being too….critical (e.g., for noticing a gap between how we say things are and how they matrially are, or for noticing the gap between use and exchange value, etc.). If only we made our theory less “critical” and more “immediate,” then this injust and incorrect practice of abstracting labor will resolve itself.
Human capital is their re-theorization of labor as (supposedly) non-abstract. Instead of thinking of labor abstractly as alienated by capitalism, as something that renders individual laborers powerless and disenfranchised, we need to think of human capital as something positive and empowering. And we can do this, they think, by shifting our analysis away from “processes of capital” and towards “the nature and consequences of…substitutable choices” (BoB 222). Instead of looking at what capitalism does to workers, let’s think of it as what workers choose to do for themselves. This move away from institutions and towards individual choice is thought to be empowering because it returns agency and self-determination to workers. There is no abstract labor anymore; we are all capitalists, all entrepreneurs of ourselves, owners and managers of the capital invested in our bodies and our social relations.
To me, the resonances between neoliberals’ move from labor to human capital and new materialists’ move from humanism to thing-power/object-orientation/etc. are just too strong and too obvious to overlook. They both (a) identify the problem with the theory not the institution; (b) think the solution is to re-orient theory rather than change the world; and (c.) re-orient theory in a (bad faith?) attempt to give agency/choice back to the little guy, thus flattening any distinction between subjects/objects and capital/labor. If what Foucault described is a manifestation of neoliberalism in economics, could we say that new materialism is how this logic manifests in the humanities?
For Bennett, vibration is a literal characterization of life. Living isn’t “like” vibration, it really does vibrate. As Bennett understands it, vibration is “the dynamic force emanating from a spatio-temporal configuration” (35). An “indeterminate wave of energy” (106), vibration is like Spinozan “conatus[, which] refers to the effort required to maintain the specific relation of ‘movement and rest’ that obtains between its parts, a relation that defines the mode as what it is” (22). So, vibration is a dynamic pattern of movement and rest, or a pattern of force/pressure that is transmitted by the movement and rest of objects as they displace the ambient air. Bennett understands vibration–and thus life–according to more or less the same model by which contemporary physics understands sound. Sound waves are dynamic patterns of pressure waves that result from the air displaced when objects vibrate. Bennett’s language often echoes this idea of dynamic patterns of pressure. For example, she argues that “what philosopher Brian Massumi describes as the ‘pressing crowd of incipiencies and tendencies’ that IS matter’ (57; emphasis mine), and that “life” is “itself a differential of intensities” (57).
Because matter is literally vibratory, it is also literally sonic. Thus, we should pay careful attention to turns of phrase such as “a chord is struck between person and thing, I am no longer above or outside a nonhuman ‘environment’” (120). “Chords” aren’t just or even primarily groups of tones; their consonance or dissonance is an effect of the phase relationships among their overtones and the harmonics that emerge out of these relationships. If persons and things “strike chords,” their interactions most important effects are these “secondary” resonances. Chords and their emergent resonances are one way to understand Bennett’s concept of distributed agency: the real action isn’t in the primary tones, but in the patterns that emerge from their interaction. “In nonlinear assemblages, ‘effects’ RESONATE with and against their ‘causes’” (52). [For Bennett, even thinking/theorizing works this way. Ideas are what emerge from striking concepts like “life” and “human agency” together: “In a vital materialism, an anthropomorphic element in perception can uncover a whole world of resonances and resemblances–sounds and sights that echo and bounce far more than would be possible were the universe to have a hierarchical structure. We at first may see only a world in our own image, but what appears next is a swarm of ‘talented’ and vibrant materialities (including the seeing self)” (99). Here, vibrant materialities are the harmonics that emerge from the “anthropomorphism” chord, the thought-experiment that rubs “things” up against “human agency”.]
Bennett is not the first to think vibration as sound; this move has a long history in Western thought. As Shelley Trower argues, “sound is the experience through which the conceptualization of vibration more generally is made possible” (4). What’s significant about Bennett’s model of vibration isn’t that it’s sonic, but that it’s modeled on a very particular concept of sound–sound as dynamic patterning, of the emergence of signal out of noise. Her concept of distributive agency suggests this signal/noise interpretation. Bennett writes:
A theory of distributive agency…does not posit a subject as the root cause of an effect. There are instead always a swarm of vitalities at play. The task becomes to identify the contours of the swarm and the kind of relations that obtain between its bits (31-2).
In this swarm, everything is rubbing up against everything else, creating a lot of noise; dynamic patterns fall in and out of phase with one another. The theorist’s task is to find the signal–literally, the frequencies or phase patterns (contours, peaks and valleys) of the major players, and their resonance (consonance/dissonance, harmonics)–in the swarm’s noisy buzzing. (Notably too, this process of “identifying contours…and the kind of relations that obtain between its bits” is a pretty decent general description of how (big) dataveillance works.) The events or actions that happen in the world are the ‘signals’ that emerge from every-things’ vibratory buzzing. As Bennett puts it, “effects generated by an assemblage are…emergent properties” (24) Or, put differently, these signals are themselves dynamic patterns that emerge from intra-active resonance.
This concept of sound is, as I have argued here, a more general model for biopolitical life. Bennett’s concept of sound is biopolitical because it is grounded in the idea of resilient, dynamic emergence. This emergence is resilient because it is strengthened rather than weakened by noise and dissonance. For example, Bennett argues that even though no part of an assemblage is perfectly in phase with the rest, or, in other words, even though “each member-actant maintains an energetic pulse slightly ‘off’ from that of the assemblage…“its jelling endures alongside energies and factions that fly out from it and disturb it from within” (24). Instead of using hierarchies to protect purity and eliminate noise, biopolitics promotes and fosters noise so that the strongest, most well-adapted signals can emerge out of them. Bennett calls this resilience “The strange structuralism of vital materiality, a structuralism that includes the aleatory” (119).
When sound waves are transmitted, they get distorted; this happens in all types of transmission–physical (like echoes in a domed building), analog (FM radio broadcast), and digital (mp3 compression). When sounds interact with the material in which they’re transmitted (air/stone, air/electric components, code/hardware), their vibratory patterns change. Something like conatus is important to vital materialism because it does indeed take effort to maintain consistent patterns/frequencies, which Bennett calls, after Spinoza, “modes”:
this maintenance is not a process of mere repetition of the same, for it entails continual invention: because each mode suffers the actions on it by other modes, actions that disrupt the relation of movement and rest characterizing each mode, every mode if it is to persist, must seek new encounters to creatively compensate for the alterations or affectations it suffers (22).
“Conatus” is Bennett’s Spinozist term for the activity or energy that keeps a frequency vibrating at a consistent rate, not despite but because of interference. This activity is also what we’ve designed a lot of audio equipment (and now, software) to do. For example, audio engineers use dynamic processing algorithms to maintain a consistent broadcast signal; the algorithm compensates for the alterations or affectations the broadcast signal suffers.
Mode maintenance is also the role neoliberal political economy assigns to the state: instead of using the rule of law to regulate processes so that they are always identical (e.g., due process), the state is to constantly and vigilantly intervene at the level of background/material conditions, tweaking and adjusting so that no matter what happens on the ground, the “market” is always as healthy as possible. In such a configuration of the (Rancierian) “police,” “the demos” is an “indeterminate wave of energy” (106), an unanticipated noise that takes more effort than usual to equalize or dynamically process.
I’ve already argued here that neoliberal economics and contemporary acoustics are conceptually very close. I’m not going to recapitulate that argument, at least for now. I want to focus on how the sonic characteristics of Bennettian “vibration” overlap with Foucault’s description of neoliberal economics.
According to Bennett, each “life” or frequency or “mode vies with and against the (changing) affections of (a changing set of) other modes, all the while being subject to the element of chance or contingency intrinsic to any encounter” (22). So, vibrations fall in and out of synch as dynamic matter behaves dynamically. This means that sometimes things vibrate legibly, as a mode/signal to which we are habituated, but other times, things vibrate illegibly as noise. Humanism can be understood as an attempt to eliminate noise, to introduce strict regulatory structures that prevented such noises from ever emerging. But vital materialism accepts noise as inevitable. “Friction…between parts” is a “fact of the coexistence and mutual dependency” (23) of things. Because they are dynamic, things form “living, throbbing confederations that are able to function despite the persistent presence of energies that confound them from within” (23-4). Similarly, neoliberal economics sees “friction” as something that is an inevitable outcome of increased competition and entrepreneurship: “the greater the development of multiple and dynamic forms typical of this ‘enterprise’ unit, then at the same time so the number and size of the surfaces of friction between these different units will increase” (BoB 175). Noise isn’t to be eliminated, but encouraged.
Biopolitics again, or “Biology replaces mechanics” (Attali, Noise 89)
Bennett repeatedly emphasizes the distance between vital materialism and any sort of organicism. Vital materialism takes “the figure of life” and “pull[s it] away from its mooring in the physiological and organic” (53). But what does Bennett mean by “physiological and organic.” Generally, “physiology” refers to a mechanistic understanding of the body, one that views materiality as little more than wetware, a machine with chemical-electrical software and fleshy hardware. Physiology is, in Bennett’s view, deterministic: the software and hardware assure that inputs always lead to the same, consistent output. Organicism isn’t mechanistic or deterministic, but it sees bodies as integrated wholes, as systems of organs that all function together somewhat like the various sections in a symphony orchestra. (63-4).
Vital materialism understands life as neither mechanistic nor integrated. “Life” in this view, is “an interconnected series of parts, but it is not a fixed order of parts, for the order is always being reworked in accordance with a certain ‘freedom of choice’ exercised by its actants” (97)–it is, in other words, an “ecology” (97). (This ecology sounds a lot like a neoliberal market, no? Constantly reworked in accordance w participants’ ‘free choices’?)
This shift from physiology to ecology parallels what Jacques Attali describes as the shift from mechanics to “biology” aka biopolitics. Because his discussion of ‘representation’ resonates with Bennett’s and other new materialists’ use of the term (modernist hierarchical dualisms superseded by flat monism) I’ll quote at length:
In the eighteenth century, the paradigm of representation succeeded in establishing itself as a scientific method in music and the sciences…The practice of creating economic models, combinatorics, harmony, the labor theory of value and the theory of social classes, Marxism. All of these concepts stem from the world of representation and still live by its conflicts. Recording expresses itself in an overturning of the whole of understanding. Science would no longer be the study of conflicts between representations, but rather the analysis of processes of repetition. After music, the biological sciences were the first to tackle this problem; the study of the conditions of the replication of life has led to a new scientific paradigm, which, as we will see, goes to the essence of the problems surrounding Western technology’s transition from representation to repetition. Biology replaces mechanics” (Noise 89).
Biology is the statistical (Attali repeatedly emphasizes this, especially in his Social Text interview) understanding of the “conditions of replication of life,” a science focused on “the analysis of processes of repetition.” It’s basically what Foucault identifies as the biopolitical study of populations–birth rates, death rates, infection rates, IQ scores, etc. All these metrics study the processes of repetition and the replication of life. And they replace the mechanical structural, metapolitical understanding of pre-19th century anatomy and physiology. All this is to give some evidence that Bennett’s concept of life is biopolitical.
I want to briefly mention two further pieces of evidence. First, Bennett argues that “the appropriate unit of analysis for democratic theory” is “the (ontologically heterogeneous) ‘public’ coalescing around a problem” (108). Here she makes the shift from the individual as the subject of disciplinary power to the population as the subject of biopolitical administration. Second, the idea that by “listen[ing] and respond[ing] more carefully to their outbreaks, objections, testimonies, and propositions” is “profoundly important to the HEALTH of the political ecologies to which we belong” (108) echoes the common practice of dataveillance. Or, as Ranciere describes at the end of Disagreement, this is the convergence of science and the media into consensus democracy–we manage the population by constantly listening to everyone’s opinions.
As I suggested in my previous post, Bennett’s repeated claims for all-inclusiveness seem to embody precisely the postdemocratic ethos Ranciere critiques. One formulation of this claim is particularly suggestive. Bennett asks, rhetorically, “surely the scope of democratization can be broadened to acknowledge more nonhumans in more ways, in something like the ways in which we have come to hear the political voices of other humans formerly on the outs” (109). As PLENTY of feminist, critical race, and queer theorists have demonstrated, this “inclusion” of women, minorities, and gays and lesbians has actually been an upgrade and strengthening of white supremacist patriarchy, not its undoing. So to model vital materialism on something like neoliberal multiculturalism or homonationalism is, to read Bennett as charitably as possible, counter-productive.
Constitutive Exclusion and the Politics of Exception
One of the main ways modernist white supremacist patriarchal upgrades itself to MRWaSP is by supplementing constitutive exclusion with a politics of exception. Constitutive exclusion coheres a body or group through the elimination (indeed, abjection in the strict Kristevan sense if you wanna be technical) of whatever makes that body incoherent or inconsistent. It is a politics of purity: exclude whatever contaminates. For example, liberalism classically excludes women and minorities from the public/citizenship because including them would show that not all “men” are equal under the eyes of the law. The politics of exception formally includes everyone–everyone has the technical/juridical right and/or opportunity to be a full participant–but material conditions ensure that some groups are consistently unable to meet the requirements for entry. For example, in North Carolina everyone over 18 can vote, and legally everyone over 18 has access to a state-issued picture ID…but due to material circumstances, not everyone actually has access to that ID, so technically not everyone has access to their ‘right’ to vote. The politics of exception rejects purity in favor of constituting a healthy or maximally functional mix. I really like Lester Spence’s breakdown of the politics of exception. There are three groups: (1) those who already exhibit the behaviors required for membership; (2) those who are included as in need of reform, or those who do not currently but can potentially exhibit the behaviors required for membership; and (3) those incapable of exhibiting the behaviors required for membership, those who are incapable of reform. Group 3 is the “exceptional” group. This group fails is seen as pathological–their pathology is why they fail to meet behavioral standards, and it is also why they must be subject to more strict and intense regulation–both “for their own good” and to protect their pathology from infecting and/or negatively impacting the broader population.
I think Bennett’s explicit rejection of hierarchy in favor of a healthful, vibrant, responsive ecology is a performance of this shift from exclusion to exception. Put simply, everything vibrates, but not every vibration or “chord” struck by an assemblage is healthy. Bennett emphasizes that not all vibrations have equal access or import to the relations that matter (at least to us, as humans): “to acknowledge nonhuman materialities as participants in a political ecology is not to claim that everything is always a participant, or that all participants are alike” (108). So every vibration may have been created equally (as that flat ontology would suggest), but not all vibrations carry equal function or weight. Bennett’s reading of Thoreau suggests that some vibrations are to be actively and positively avoided because they diminish the vibrancy of the assemblages that matter most. “Thoreau strives to confederate with a set of bodies…that render his own body finer, leaner, and more discerning–better able to sense the force of things” (47). Thoreau chooses to associate himself only with the bodies that maximize his health; this implies that some bodies are pathological. Pathological bodies or vibes diminish the health of the ‘confederation’ that is Thoreau’s body. Vibes that can’t be modulated, compressed, filtered, or transposed into healthy forms must be avoided, must not be allowed to join in confederation with healthy ones.
Again, the problem isn’t impurity, but lack of fitness. “The human is not exclusively human” (113); we’re all strangers to ourselves. “Vital materiality better captures an ‘alien’ quality of our own flesh…My ‘own’ body is material, and yet this vital materiality is not fully or exclusively human. My flesh is populated and constituted by different swarms of foreigners” (112). But some swarms are more vital than others. “The irresistible wildness of a lively woodchuck” is invigorating, but “the repellent uncleanliness (in the sense of dirty, slimey, gooey) of its corpse” (46) is dampens vibrations with its viscosity. As the preceding paragraph shows, we’re supposed to eschew the company of matter that drags us down. So, though “it is futile to seek a pure nature unpolluted by humanity, and it is foolish to define the self as something purely human” and preferable to “recas[t] the self in the light of its intrinsically polluted nature” (116), vital materialism’s “case for contamination” (to echo the title of Kwame Appiah’s NYT piece on cosmopolitanism) is actually a case for a biopolitics of exception. Unhealthy pollutants must be filtered or phased out of the healthy, vital mix.
New Paradoxes of Whiteness
As I talk about extensively here, traditional/modernist whiteness is paradoxical: whiteness is something “in” a body but not “of” it (e.g., Descartes’ Cogito is housed in a body but of a different order of being than this body). This in-but-not-of paradox relies on a whole series of hierarchical binaries, the very hierarchical binaries vital materialism claims to flatten. As Bennett puts it, “humans are both ‘in’ and ‘of’ nature, both are and are not the out-side” (114). Where the nature/culture hierarchy requires a “but,” vital materialism’s flat ontology and politics of exception put an “and”: in-but-not-of (in but not of a body) becomes both in-and-of and not in-and-of.
Flattening out these binaries doesn’t eliminate the paradox, but shift its mode–notice how the “not” shifts between formulations from something that mediates whiteness’s relationship to materiality to something that grounds it. Or, the “not” is not exclusionary but included under the umbrella of whiteness. In this way, the paradox has been upgraded to work with/as a politics of exception. The nominal inclusion of the “not” is what makes it possible to render insufficiently flexible instances as ‘exception’ (i.e., instances that don’t sufficiently inhabit or slide between both A and not-A). Humans are both things and not-things; it’s not “us” who are in-but-not of, but thing-power: thing-power is “in” us but not “of” us as humans–that’s why we have to be receptive to it. Only sufficiently receptive humans, those attuned to frequencies in them but not ‘of’ them, only those who “cultivate a more careful attentiveness to the out-side” (17), only they can be “ethical” in the sense that vital materialism proposes–and that, folks, is the politics of exception at work. What Bennett describes as vital materalism’s “performative contradiction” (120) is actually central to its functioning as a mechanism of MRWaSP whiteness.
Freedom vs Life, or why I prefer an ethics of ambiguity to vital materialism
In my previous post on Vibrant Matter I mentioned some overlap/resonance between Bennett’s project and Beauvoir’s theory of oppression in Ethics of Ambiguity. Here I want to attempt the following argument: Beauvoir’s and Bennett’s ethics are similar, but ultimately Beauvoir’s are superior.
In brief, Beauvoir thinks we’re all interdependent, we make the world and the relations that open (and close) the possibility of authentic–i.e., free–existence. To exist authentically is, for Beauvoir, to actively become something that I “am” not. In more Deleuzian terms, you could say that humans are not beings, they are virtualities, and authentic existence is the capacity to act upon, realize, or flesh out — to give life to, even — the virtualities that one ‘is.’ But nobody can do this in a situation of oppression. It doesn’t matter if you’re the oppressed person or not; the oppression of one diminishes the authenticity/freedom of all. So, my authentic existence is concretely tied to everyone else’s authentic existence, my freedom is conditioned on the freedom of others. I am thus obligated, in my duty to myself, to commit myself to the freedom of others. (This is a very different ‘freedom’ than the classically liberal one Bennett discusses in her book–it’s not individual liberty but existential authenticity.) And sometimes (often, even) this means killing the oppressor, even and especially if that oppressor is a teenage Nazi. Now, that might sound a lot like a biopolitics that kills off pathogens, but it’s not. Beauvoir’s ethics are not about health or life, but freedom. Biopolitics kills off those who diminish the vitality of the overall population, those who drag down the social order. Beauvoir’s ethics of ambiguity demands that we kill those whose vitality society is designed to support–that is, it demands that we kill the oppressors, those who society strengthens, not those who the social order renders most vulnerable. If health requires us to kill off the weak, freedom requires us to kill the oppressors. (And hey white people, those oppressors are us: “save the planet, kill yourself,” as they say.)
And killing the oppressors might–well, probably–mean that what looks or feels like “human survival” will have to be de-centered. Killing off MRWaSP means making the most privileged members and institutions mal/dys-functional. So while Bennett says “I cannot envision any polity so egalitarian that important human needs, such as health or survival, would not take priority” (104), I’m arguing, via Beauvoir, that precisely what we need to do is de-center the human in practice as well as in theory. And that will probably feel like “death” to those of us accustomed to having our health and survival more-or-less fully supported by the state, by capital, by patriarchal white supremacy, and so on. For white people, a truly ‘ecological’ practice looks a lot more like what the Church of Euthanasia did in the 90s than what Bennett’s vital materialism attempts to do today.
So, I think Beauvoiran freedom is ethically superior to Bennettian vitality because the latter reproduces the vitality of the MRWaSP status quo, whereas the former demands we kill it off.
I’m looking forward to this book! The connection between economics and ecology has a long history, beginning at least with Linneaus’s proto-ecological writings (http://books.google.com/books/about/Linnaeus.html?id=-wUUAQAAIAAJ) — e.g., dissertations such as “Oeconomia Naturae” and “Politia Naturae” (the police of nature!). I actually have a paper on the back burner about Foucault, the police of nature, and ecology.