I learned today at Graham Harman’s blog that he will review Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter. Now that’s what I call productive, interdisciplinary dialogue.
If I may speak hyperbolically for a moment, few things irritate me more than when somene in Amazon’s Marketplace lists their book as either Very Good or Like New and then indicates that there is some underlining, highlighting, or note-taking contained in the text. This bothers me because the person has obviously not taken the time to see that only books with clean text can qualify as Very Good or Like New. Text with writing or highlightin in them are Good, at best. Presumably, these titles mean something, right? So please, Amazon sellers, look it up.
Perhaps even more bothersome is when uber-sellers list their texts as Like New or Very Good, and then indicate that the book may have highlighting or some other markings. This obviously means that their supply is too large to thoroughly inspect, and thus they have to speculate about the condition of their books. Fine, this means lower prices for the buyer. But it also requires blatant dishonesty. If you list a book as in Very Good condition without first making sure that it qualifies as Very Good, then you’ve posted your listing without verifying the acutal condition of your merchandise; you’ve given a specific descripton about some mysterious content. This violates the spirit of the used book marketplace by treating it as though it were the typical retail outlet.
First, it’s nice that Bennett is not afraid to promote a modest degree of anthropomorphism with respect to objects, even if this promotion is simply a rhetorical maneuver. Rhetorically, it lends object a force that they are often denied. It may just be a Wittgensteinian ladder that we will one day kick away, finding it no longer of use or necessity.
Second, and more importantly, Vibrant Matter is an intense book. This is by virtue of its clarity, concision, and compactness. Each chapter gets right to the point, explaining difficult concepts without the philosophical jargon and without succumbing to the desire to digress into local debates. Bennett’s trajectory is concentrated; she resists diffusion and keeps focused on the book’s payoff: the application of a certain tendency in materialism to contemporary politics. Sure, I would have liked her to engage more object-oriented philosophy, or take up Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire, but this kind of engagement would have been out of place in a book which is primarily situated in political theory, not philosophy.
Philosophically, Vibrant Matter is neither remarkable nor contentious. She efficiently assembles some concepts from the likes of Latour, Deleuze, Spinoza, Dreisch, Kant, Bergson, and others (often only a single concept or two: body, elan vital, assemblage, actant), and puts them to work for her “vital materialism.” She effectively inscribes Bush and his cohort into the history of vitalism, only to quickly display how such a “soul vitalism” has already been criticized and surpassed, worn out. This is where the force of Bennett’s philosophical work is felt, in the political arena.
Perhaps Vibrant Matter could be one of the founding documents of the Materialist Party?
I’ve delivered more than one conference paper on the philosophy of Edgar Allan Poe, so I was more than delighted to hear that Joaquin Phoenix would be starring in a new film about the author.
Thanks to Graham Harman for the clue.
There’s a bit of irony in Leiter’s recent post about whether or not prosepctive graduate students should heed the disparaging comments that faculty from one school level at faculty from another school. Leiter seems right about this, but his rightness sheds an ironic light on his earlier post regarding ‘party line continental’ schools. Perhaps it’s not so nice to disparage faculty from your own philosophical tradition, but ‘analytic’-on-‘continental’ hating is alright?
Imagine a stretch of road that gets lots of traffic and is heavily traveled during the morning and afternoon commute. The road is windy at parts, has numerous intersections, and some nearly blind turns that can become dangerous if traffic gets backed up. In the interest of safety, and after careful study, the city sets the speed limit at 35 mph.
This road gets extremely congested during the commute. If commuters did not consistently break the speed limit, traveling at 45, 55, 65 mph, the congestion would easily turn into a crawl with frequent stop-and-go activity. Most drivers justify this infraction by telling themselves that 35 mph is a stupid limit and the relative infrequency of traffic accidents (even at rush hour) proves it. The commuters appreciate the unspoken pact between them because, after all, if no such pact existed they would all spend a lot more time traveling to and from work. The benefit of breaking the speed limit outweighs the increased risk of winding up in an accident.
Now, if the speed limit were set democratically, the majority of these drivers would vote to increase the limit, despite the evidence which suggests that an increase would be detrimental to the safety of drivers. Insofar as this is not an unlikely example, I think it serves as a nice allegory for one of the weaknesses of democracy.
There’s a piece in the Times about how Glenn Beck’s mentioning of The Coming Insurrection (Semiotext(e), 2009) boosted the book’s sales tremendously. Beck finds the book to be quite ‘evil’, as one would assume, although the best line comes from Lotringer, the editor of Semiotext(e):
“I would be willing to come on the show if he had read the book, but he has never read it,” he said. “Nothing that he has said shows that he read it. He is incapable of reading it.”
Pat has a telling, and humorous (I think), post up about the perils of studying for the comprehensive exam. Here.
The bonus question on a recent ethics exam I gave read: ‘In Crimes and Misdemeanors, what food did Cliff pass to Halley when they were in the movie theatre?” One of my students answered: the $5 box from Taco Bell. I’m not sure they had these in the late ’80s, but it got me thinking how funny it would be if several minor alterations were made to the film. Small things like substituting the hamburger for a $5 Taco Bell box, or perhaps donuts for the Indian food the pair consume in Cliff’s editing room, or Chairman Mao in the place of Mussolini in Cliff’s documentary. I don’t know how such a feat would be pulled off, but I would certainly get a kick out of it.
Post is up at Crooked Timber.