Graham announces the follow up to Bryant’s The Democracy of Objects at Open Humanities Press. Read about the volume on new materialism here.
Mike Witmore has a wonderful post up relating SR, especially Meillassoux (plus Harman and others), to the kind of work that he does in the history of the book, Shakespeare studies, and broader questions about materiality and textuality. Witmore’s a fascinating guy, and someone you can describe as brilliant without stepping into hyperbole. Not that long ago, while he was still at Carnegie Mellon University, I had the pleasure of taking a course that Witmore co-taught with Dan Selcer, called ‘Late Epicureanism: Varieties of Materialism in Early Modernity’. It is possibly the most thrilling graduate course under my belt.
There is audio of the recent ‘Real Objects or Material Subjects?’ conference at Dundee (March 2010) available at Daily Humiliation. Hallward, Harman, Johnston, and Williams talk about objects, matter, subjects, and related metaphysical issues.
Thanks to Graham Harman for alerting me.
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’m currently reading Jane Bennett’s wonderful new book, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Duke UP). It’s a concise (122 pages without endnotes) statement of what shes calls her ‘vital materialism’. It draws on Spinoza, Latour, Deleuze, Thoreau, Adorno and others to build a theory of political agency that takes nonhuman forces just as seriously as human acts.
Two criticisms at this point (I’m in chapter 2): First, the book cover. Nowhere on the back cover does it mention that Bennett engages and features Latour, specifically his notion of actant. This omission is misleading, and inexplicable given that six other prominent thinkers are listed on the cover.
Second, Bennett offers a notion of ‘thing-power’ to describe the efficacity of things. This idea is coming out of Latour and, from what I can tell, Adorno. With this notion she hopes to describe the shadowy power of objects as well as their tendency to withdraw from us humans. The language and conceptuality is strikingly similar to the object-oriented philosophy movement, yet Bennett references neither Graham Harman, Levi Bryant, or any other object-oriented philosopher.
These are minor criticisms. They in no way diminish Bennett’s statement, which is admirably concentrated and courageous in its metaphysics. It’s a book I would have liked to have presented at the first annual graduate student conference that we put on at Duquesne several years ago, enititled ‘Political Ontology and a New Metaphysics’.
From Althusser’s ‘Portrait of the Materialist Philosopher’, in Philosophy of the Encounter:
The man’s age doesn’t matter. He can be very old or very young. The important thing is that he doesn’t know where he is, and wants to go somewhere. That’s why he always catches a moving train, the way they do in American Westerns. Without knowing where he comes from (origin) or where he’s going (goal). And he gets off somewhere along the way, in a four-horse town with a ridiculous railway station in the middle of it.
This post stands as the first in a series of posts about the concept of sensation. Nothing like a history of the concept of sensation, save Daniel Heller-Roazen’s marvelous The Inner Touch (Zone 2007), exists. Unless I am mistaken. There is also the out-of-print Sensation and Perception: A History of the Philosophy of Perception, by D.W. Hamlyn. This book is something closer to a survey, less of a detailed conceptual history. Such a history should be written. Absent such a history, we are left to fashion an ad hoc story about the fate of sensation in the history of philosophy. It seems that after Kant sensation must remain relegated to the noumenal realm, and therefore off limits to our finite minds. On the other hand, sensations are often regarded as purely subjective, felt phenomena. They are never pure or without sense, or so we are told. This latter rendition of sensation neglects an essential feature of sensation, however, which is why I think we ought not subjectivize sensation: sensations are received. They come from elsewhere in many instances. In this way, they are objective and real in an important respect.
Then we are back to Kant. On this view, if sensations are objective, then they are unknowable. They are inferred from perception; they explain the variety of our perceptual experiences, but they never appear. It’s not satisfying to stop there. The Kantian framework calls for speculation. It is at this point that I see my own interest in sensation sympathizing with the speculative realist movement, which I first encountered reading and dialoguing with Graham Harman. Graham’s concern is with the reality and autonomy of objects, wholly apart from their dealings with humans. For my part, I want to say something about the reality and autonomy of sensations. If objects are objectively real, then the sensory content they emit must have a reality of its own. I’d like to give a quite strong sense to this reality, perhaps allowing sensations to have their own substance, even if this substance is constituted relationally.
Now, I’m not concerned with whether or not an object is really red or really blue. The point is that it has the capacity to produce a sensation of red or blue in me: it has a color power. This power is real and it is in charge of the sensations given off by the object. A phenomenologist like Merleau-Ponty will argue against the reality of sensation by pointing out that we only ever encounter meaningful, sense-full, things. The atomistic impression conjured by the empiricists just doesn’t exist at the level of perception, which is our primary mode of engagement with the external world. On this view, perception will always be one step ahead of sensation; sensation remains outside the scope of normal possible experience. There might be limit cases. For instance, hallucinogenic drugs may allow us access to genuine sensations. We don’t have separate sensation and perception so strictly to get to sensation, even if there are advantages to doing so.
First, it’s not really necessary to infer the nonexistence of sensation just because perception is primary. Perception shouldn’t be seen as a wall between us and the sensory manifold. There is no reason to not regard the qualitative content of perception as the content of sensation given that the qualitative content provokes responses in us that are not ‘meaningful’ in the usual sense of that term, but are instead affective. If we take the affective to indicate something like emotional meaning, then the qualitative is meaning-laden. Merleau-Ponty talks about the repellent nature of red, which would seem to essentialize that color’s meaning for the body. I don’t know if we can go that far, but I think he is right to note that colors do things to bodies.
Second, it’s advantageous to keep sensation completely separate from perception, in which case sensation would belong to ‘a past which has never been present’, or an a priori sensuous realm of experience. Both Merleau-Ponty and Levinas (the latter to a greater extent) acknowledge his realm. On this reading of sensation, the sensuous is constantly introducing a diachrony into what would otherwise be a synchronized relation between subject and object. This notion of synchrony is often at play in the phenomenological literature (which is the literature that I’m primarily drawing my reading from), and it gives a false sense of our material relations. This is really what’s motivating my interest in sensation, particularly the materiality of sensation. Because the phenomenological perspective is quite keen on finitude and the limits of knowledge, and because it confines itself in principle to ‘the things themselves’, it has trouble giving an adequate account of what is not ‘given’ to consciousness. Sensation is one of the great ungivens, the withheld elements of experience. But the autonomic systems of the body tell us a different story, a story which shows that sensation is not withheld from experience, just withheld from consciousness. Massumi’s first chapter in Parables for the Virtual, ‘The Autonomy of Affect’, is a good read on this.
A nonreductive account of the affective and effective dimensions of sensation is needed to qualify its autonomous functioning. Such an account will be metaphysical to the extent that it will be (a) speculative and (b) treat sensations as powers, where a power is understood as a real, nonphysical capacity to affect bodies. Given this view of sensation, we will be allowed to speak about the sensations undergone and possessed by inanimate objects. This is one of the non-anthropocentric payoffs. There are a handful of allies in this cause, including James and Dewey, Whitehead, Lingis, E. Straus, Levinas, Hippocrates, Spinoza, and Deleuze.