some initial thoughts on Bennett’s “Vibrant Matter”

Welcome to the next installment of Robin blogs her way through initial research for her new book. As usual, this is all very raw, just me trying to articulate some ideas and think out loud. I’ve made a little headway into Jane Bennett’s “Vibrant Matter,” and now I want to lay out some questions and ideas that I want to follow through with as I read the rest of the book.


Why choose life?

  • This text recuperates, as and for life, what modernist humanism constitutively excludes. I have two questions about this move:
    • (1) The constitutive exclusion gets passed off to what? It’s not clear that vital materialism breaks with the logic of constitutive exclusion, so in recuperating what was once excluded, there’s now something else that is excluded in its stead–so what is it? (hypothesis: it’s what’s perceived as un-dynamic (bc un-adaptable), what still doesn’t have ‘voice,” what Spence calls ‘exception’);
    • (2) Why life? Why does this text “choose life”? Instead of thinking of the inanimate as alive, why not think of life as un-dead?
  • Asking “How would political responses to public problems change were we to take seriously the vitality of (nonhuman) bodies?” (vii), Bennet implies that vital materialism would have positive political outcomes for traditionally oppressed groups. Given what Foucaultian analyses of biopolitics tell us about the ideology of life-management and optimizaiton, is an appeal to “life” really going to work in the interest of oppressed groups? In other words, if “life” or health is the reason for and mechanism of MRWaSP oppression (kill some to protect/optimize the life/health of the population), is assimilating previously inanimate/non-human entities to the realm of the living really a radical disruption of MRWaSP’s underlying logic? Or is it just letting so-called “matter” Lean In to “life”? Is vital materialism another instance/permutation of neoliberalism working as or via re-valued femininity?

Why is life “vibrant”? Why this adjective?

  • Bennett speaks of “the idea of vibrant matter” (viii), or of “vibrant matter and lively things” (viii).
  • Does “life” lend itself to the concept or logic of vibration, of “sounding” as dynamic patterning? What concept of “life” is best captured by the idea of vibration? Is it a biopolitical understanding of life qua evolution/adaptation/resilience?

Is vital materialism an ideal theory?

Sure everything can be an actant, but don’t material-historical situations (in the strict Beauvoiran sense) mean that some actants make more of a difference than others? What does Beauvoir’s theory of oppression do to/for vital materialism?

  • Following Latour, Bennett argues that “an actant is a source of action that can be either human or nonhuman; it is that which has efficacy, can do things, has sufficient coherence to make a difference, produce effects, alter the course of events” (viii). According to Beauvoir, oppression is the systemic and institutionalized inability to make a difference. Oppressed people do stuff all the time, but the material-historical situation is such that these doings don’t have a legible impact on the world. She writes:
    • “It is this interdependence which explains why oppression is possible and why it is hateful. As we have seen, my freedom, in order to fulfill itself, requires that it emerge into an open future: it is other men who open the future to me, it is they who, setting up the world of tomorrow, define my future; but if, instead of allowing me to participate in this constructive movement, they oblige me to consume my transcendence in vain…they are cutting me off from the future, they are changing me into a thing…Oppression divides the world into two clans: those who enlighten mankind by thrusting it ahead of itself and those who are condemned to mark time hopelessly in order to support the collectivity” (82-3); “the oppressed can fulfill his freedom as a man only in revolt, since the essential characteristic of the situation against which he is rebelling is precisely its prohibiting him from any positive development” (87).
  • When the world is arranged in ways that undercut the impact you can and do have on it (and on others), then you’re oppressed. For example, women have always practiced creative arts, but for most of history (and arguably even still today) creative genres that were predominantly by and/or for women–needlepoint, chick lit, etc.–have been seen as something other than “real” or “fine” art (see Parker & Pollock’s “Old Mistresses” for an early version of this argument). Women’s work doesn’t really “count” as such–the situation of patriarchy prohibits them from positive development, so to speak.
  • So sure, ontologically everything is an actant; but materially, not everything is. Not everything has, in fact, a legible effect. Following Beauvoir, oppression is the material situation that prevents certain classes of things from having thing-power (to use Bennett’s jargon). I think my underlying question here is this: Is vital materialism actually an ideal theory–a theory based on how things ought to be in the abstract (“ideal-as-idealized-model”), not how things are arranged on the ground?
  • Ontologically flattening differences in a politically non-flat context naturalizes the political non-flatness.

Vitalist Receptivity and Humanism’s Skeptical Melancholy

Robert Gooding-Williams uses the term “skeptical melancholy” to describe the white/masculine Modern subject’s alienation from sensuous affect. I’ve talked about it here and here. “Receptivity” is the opposite of/cure for skeptical melancholy. It is the ability to be moved by something, and is required to perform similarly moving works. To be really brief and reductive, you could say that skeptical melancholy is the attunement only to propositional knowledge, whereas receptivity is the attunement to extra- or non-propositional knowledge (what musicologists call the “drastic”).

I am concerned that Bennett’s vital materialism is, effectively, little more than a re-branding of receptivity. Is vital materialism treated as the cure for the skeptical melancholy of both (a) humanism and (b) metapolitical theory? [1]

First, (b): Bennett treats critical theory–what she calls “demystification,” and which we might call, following Ranciere, “metapolitics”–as something that alienates its practitioners from affect. Methodologically, it’s like noise-cancelling headphones that tune out vibrations it deems irrelevant and meaningless–vibrations made by things rather than humans. The problem with metapolitics is that it treats nonhuman agency as a misrepresentation or symptom of a hidden human agency: “This hermeneutics of suspicion calls for theorists to be on high alert for signs of the secret truth (a human will to power) below the false appearance of nonhuman agency” (xiv), and the effect of this is that “demystification tends to screen from view the vitality of matter and to reduce POLITICAL agency to HUMAN agency” (xv). Metapolitics (aka “demystification”) filters out the voices of non-human matter, and prevents us from attending to the fullness and significance of thing-power. As Bennett argues, “the capacity to detect the presence of impersonal affect requires that one is caught up in it. One needs, at least for a while, to suspend suspicion and adopt a more open-ended comportment” (xv; emphasis mine). Suspicion–demystification, metapolitics–alienates us from our capacity to detect “impersonal affect” or thing-power. That sure sounds a lot like skeptical melancholy to me. Subject-centered humanism is a kind of skeptical melancholy, and the way to get over it is to be receptive to objects/things.

So, (a): One of the stated aims of Bennett’s book is ““to induce in human bodies an aesthetic-affective openness to material vitality” (x). As a method of “open-ended comportment” to thing-power, vital materialism sure sounds like a type of receptivity. In fact, Bennett even uses that term to describe her project: “the hope is that the story will enhance RECEPTIVITY to the impersonal life that surrounds and infuses us, will generate a more subtle awareness of the complicated web of DISSONANT connections between bodies” (4). I’ll talk about the significance of “dissonant connections” later. But for now I want to focus on this idea of “enhanced receptivity” to affect, to what is illegible to traditional/propositional “discourse.” Receptivity is, as Bennett describes, “a certain anticipatory readiness on my in-side…a perceptual style open to the appearance of thing-power” (5). Receptivity is traditionally feminized and racially blackened; interestingly, Bennett positions thing-power as in continuity with but better than femininity and blackness. “Not Flower Power, or Black Power, or Girl Power, but THing-power [is] the curious ability of inanimate things to animate, to act, to produce effects dramatic and subtle” (6). I think what aesthetics scholars call “receptivity,” Bennett calls “ecological sensibility” (10).

To what is vital materialism receptive? Or, what kind of “voice” do things have?

Bennett repeatedly describes her project as the attempt “to give VOICE to a thing-power” (2). By this she means “the task of speaking a word for vibrant matter?” (xiii). This “speaking for” formulation should automatically set off lots of critical theory alarms; Spivak’s iconic essay both explained the cause for such alarm, and argued that the use of  “voice” or “speech” as concepts for political agency is possible because of the way liberalism understands the relationship between political representation (Vertretung) and artistic representation (Darstellung) (she gets that German from Marx).

But before I get into the politics of speaking for, I want to think a bit about what conceptual work the term “voice” does in Bennett’s analysis. “Voice” lets Bennett assimilate what modernity constitutively excludes from the political (from ‘life) into an upgraded but not revolutionized concept of the political. That is, if deliberative democracy conventionally understands speech as propositional, vital materialism opens “speech” to include non-propositional vocalizations.

According to Bennett, subjects speak propositionally or “discursively.” Things speak affectively, in excess of the “human…semiotics” of propositional speech. [2] As Bennett says, “stuff exhibited its thing-power: it issued a call, even if I did not quite understand what it was saying. At the very least, it provoked affects in me” (4). (Insofar as humans are things they also speak affectively, but subjects can’t hear affects. That’s their skeptical melancholy–their alienation from affect.  So learning to be receptive to thing-power is learning to ‘hear’ affect.) She doesn’t “understand” its voice because it’s speaking in a register that exceeds mere propositional content. Her reading of Kafka is instructive here:

On the one hand, like an active organism, Odradek appears to move deliberately…and to speak intelligibly…And yet, on the other hand, like an inanimate object, Odradek produced a so-called laughter that ‘has no lungs behind it’ and ‘sounds rather like the rustling of fallen leaves…’” (8)

She distinguishes between “intelligible” speech and non-verbal sounds. Vibration is the ‘voice’ of things. Saying things vibrate with life and agency/actancy means that their emissions aren’t mute gestures, but legitimate speech. These non-verbal sounds also count as “voice” or “speech”–that’s how vital materialism separates itself from modernist, subject- and proposition-centered notions of speech.

Speech and voice are still the categories of recognition and legibility; vital materalism just universalizes it. Everyone/thing has a voice. But isn’t this precisely what Ranciere critiques as “consensus” democracy/neoliberalism? He writes:

consensus is a certain regime of the perceptible: the regime in which parties are presupposed as already given…the principle of postdemocracy is to make the troubled and troubling of appearance of the people and its always false count disappear behind procedures exhaustively presenting the people and its parts and bringing the count of those parts in line with the whole (Disagreement 101-2).

Universal envoicement actually is “not the liberation” from silencing but the “loss” (Disagreement 102) of political mechanisms for addressing oppression. In giving voice to all matter, is Bennett disappearing vital materialism’s constitutive outside (the out-out-side, so to speak) behind a claim for universal envoicement?

For example, Bennett argues that “a vital materiality can never really be thrown ‘away,’ for it continues its activities even as a discarded or unwanted commodity” (6). This strongly echoes Irigaray’s claim in “Women On the Market” that women/commodities aren’t voiceless, but speak a “patois” that is trivialized and discounted as real speech. Ok, so, you legitimate patois by claims for all-inclusiveness: vital materialism hears all vibrations as legit speech, or at least that’s what it claims to do. But that claim itself renders non-vibratory communication/life as the constitutive outside of the community of things. However, there’s no way to address this exclusion within vital materialism’s own terms.

The ‘White Saviorism’ of Things?

  • Ok, so, back to the “speaking for” problem. This is a genuine question: Is vital materialism really de-centering the subject and her voice? Or is the theorist still the one doing the acting? Is the vital materialist the ‘white saviorist’ of things?
  • For example, look closely at Bennett’s verbs in this sentence: “I will try to give voice to a vitality intrinsic to materiality, in the process absolving matter from its long history of attachment to automatism or mechanism” (3; emphasis mine). Earlier she says that her aim is “to theorize a vitality intrinsic to materiality as such, and to detach materiality from the figures of passive, mechanistic, or divinely infused substance” (xiii; emphasis mine) .“Give to,” “absolve from,” “detach from”–these verbs present the human theorist as the subject of the sentence, and things as the object to/for which she does these things. It seems like the theorist is liberating matter, not matter liberating itself.

Signal and Noise–or, how does vital matter vibrate in harmony?

Given the history of audition in the West, it’s easy to understand vital materialism as a kind of sonic or acoustic mode of being: matter vibrates (thing power is “vibratory” (5)), and when it does, it displaces air; we feel these patterns of displacement as pressure waves, either tactically or audiologically. Bennett uses tons of sonic vocabulary and metaphors to describe vital materialism.

Obviously we’ve had many different concepts and models of acoustics and aurality–so what to what notion of sound do Bennett’s metaphors appeal? Arguing that “my monism posits neither a smooth harmony of parts nor a diversity unified by a common spirit” (ix), she specifically rejects classical notions of acoustics as geometric proportionality (“a smooth harmony of parts”), as well as modernist notions of (tonal) homophony–assimilation to a general will/underlying tonic. The formula here…[is] a turbulent, immanent field in which various variable materialities collide, congeal, morpho, evolve, and disintegrate…human decency and a decent politics are fostered if we tune into the strange logic of turbulence” (ix). Bennett’s “logic of turbulence” is neither ‘smooth’ nor ‘unified’ but “strange.” So it’s not immediately given or prefabricated, but something we have to “tune into”–we have to find the signal, the harmonics or partials that emerge when things vibrate together. They don’t have to vibrate in synch–indeed, they crash and collide. Life is the vibrancy that emerges from the noisy turbulence.

[At this point I need to think more about Bennett’s use of “wildness” and its relationship to noisy turbulence. She argues that “wildness was a not-quite-human force that addled and altered human and other bodies. It named an irreducibly strange dimension of matter, an out-side” (2). If “life” is the vibrant signal that emerges from all the wild noisy turbulence, is this a way of domesticating the constitutively excluded (the out-side, the wild)?]

From Hierarchy to Biopolitics

Enlightenment theories of musical harmony were hierarchical: the overtone series provided the model for hierarchically ranking intervals and, in turn, chord functions. The octave/first overtone is strongest, then the major fifth/second overtone, and so on. As I’ve argued here, this hierarchy overlaps with the kinds of hierarchical thinking at work in Enlightenment notions of gender and race: just as the order of intervals/chord functions needed to reflect the natural, hierarchical order of overtones, the order of civil society needed to reflect the natural, hierarchical order of human bodies.

Bennett’s vital materialism seems to be strongly motivated by a desire to get away from hierarchical thinking. For example, she argues:

  • “I agree with John Frow that these differences need ‘to be flattened, read horizontally as a juxtaposition rather than vertically as a hierarchy of being” (10).
  • “These vital materialists do not claim that there are no differences between humans and bones, only that there is no necessity to describe these differences in a way that places humans at the ontological cent or hierarchical apex” (11).

So the humanism that she’s trying to avoid is the same humanism that informs Enlightenment music theory and political philosophy–the humanism grounded in a “hierarchy of being.” This hierarchy of being was what justified the instrumentalization of most of the world and its population by a small group of properly white bourgeois white dudes. Only those at the top of the hierarchy counted as full moral/political persons, so only those people had rights that others needed to respect.

Without these hierarchies to keep everyone in their place, there’s turbulence. Tuning out hierarchies and tuning into turbulence, vital materialism

open[s] up a space for forms of ethical practice that do not rely upon the image of an intrinsically HIERARCHICAL order of things. Here the materialist speaks of promoting HEALTHY and enabling instrumentalizations, rather than of treating people as ends-in-themselves, because to face up to the  compound nature of the human self is to find it difficult even to make sense of the notion of a single end-in-itself. What instead appears is a swarm of competing ends being pursued simultaneously in each individual, some of which are healthy to the whole, some of which are not” (12).

Here Bennett argues that turning to vital materialism shifts our relevant ethical criteria from personhood to “health.” This is a shift from a “hierarchical order of things” to what, I think, is a biopolitical order of things: instead of instrumentalizing non-persons, we instrumentalize those whose suppression is “healthy to the whole.” What Bennett describes here sounds like a shift from Kant to biopolitics (see Foucault’s SMBD chapter 11 for an account of the latter).