bennett’s vibrant matter

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’.


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Contemporary philosopher.
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3 Responses to bennett’s vibrant matter

  1. Pingback: Plastic Bodies on Bennett « Object-Oriented Philosophy

  2. Amy says:

    I’m also currently reading Bennett’s insightful new book (just finished chapter 2 today). From what I understand of OOP (having only, at this stage, read Harman’s Tool-Being and a smattering of Prince of Networks, plus a handful of his essays), Bennett’s vital materialism doesn’t quite fit the bill. Although Bennett’s notion of vibrant matter and OOP overlap in what I see as their most pressing concern (the de-privileging of the human) they diverge in quite particular ways. Bennett posits a vital materialism based on relationality/becoming (hence, her borrowings from Deleuze, Spinoza, etc. are right on) while OOP (Harman’s version) sees objects as individual/concrete (emphasis on being rather than becoming). OOP-ers would probably argue that the relations between vibrant matter in what Bennett calls “assemblages,” are also objects. (Also, importantly, she eschews the term “object” altogether in favor of “thing”). This might be why Harman, et al. are not cited in Vibrant Matter. Again, I’m no expert in OOP, though I’m utterly taken in by it.

    I agree that the omission of Latour on the cover is a little disarming, since she consistently refers to vibrant matter as “actants.” Then again, it’s not so surprising that she clamps on Latour; actor-network theory is all about relationality.

  3. plasticbodies says:

    Amy, yes, I very much agree with your rationale for the OOP omission. There are some passages in Bennett that sound very much like Harman, and anyone whose read either Tool-Being or Guerrilla Metaphysics would notice the similarity of description–especially the talk of how objects ‘withdraw’ from us. Since there is a enough OOP literature out there these days, and part of their project is to differentiate their object-oriented approach to realism from a materialist approach (I think Levi Bryant is paying a lot of attention to this), it would seem that anyone interested in defending a strong realism of any sort–in the continental tradition, that is–will have to differentiate their position vis-a-vis OOO.

    Of course, there is only so much literature that one can get through. And I’m certainly not willing to condemn Bennett for the oversight, if we could even call it that. The point is minor, as is the point about the cover. I’m loving the book and am really glad it’s out there.

    Thanks, Amy, for reading!

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