Engaging Vibrant Matter

A first pass through Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things as I search for resonance with techne and understanding the history of materialism. Reading her account of vibrant materiality from a history of vitalism, I am curious for depper accounts of instrumentality, mechanism and mechanist, and mode(i)fication to get at the interaction of materials.

A (more or less direct) quote from her keynote “Artistry and Agency in a World of Vibrant Matter” her uncanny task:

see what happens to our writing, our bodies, our research designs, our consumption practices, our sympathies. If this call from things is taken seriously, taken that is, as more than a figure of speech, a projections of voice onto some inanimate stuff, more than an instance of the pathetic fallacy. What if some things in an undetermined way can hail us and offer a glimpse through a window that opens of lively bodies that are unparsed into subjects or objects? Now at best this window has a rickety sash that may slam close at any moment…I tried to narrate what I saw, enunciate this thing power and try to translate the nonlinguistic transmissions…Word workers can try to do that. They do that best when they can stay true to things in the best way if one approaches language as rhetoric sort of as word sounds that tune the body and render it more susceptible to the frequencies of the material agencies inside and around us. So the goal: to use words to make whatever communication already at work between vibrant bodies more audible, more detectable, more sensible.

Jane Bennett calls for “maybe a less verbose practice to acknowledge and translate the call of things, addressing the arts. I am curious how craft, or something like [rhetorical] carpentry (Ian Bogost; developed by Nathaniel Rivers and Jim Brown) might lend a hand in the translation of things—focusing on the space between human and nonhuman.

A selection of quotes and concepts from each chapter:

The Force of Things

  • distinguishing between objects and things: objects are the way things appear to a subject with a name, identity, gestalt and stereotypical template while things signal the moment the object becomes an other, as something uncanny (quoting W.J.T. Mitchell)
  • “I will try impossibly, to name the moment of independence (from subjectivity) possessed by things, a moment that must be there, since things do in fact affect other bodies, enhancing or weakening their power” (3)
  • from Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception “an immanent or incipient significance in the living body which extends…to the whole sensible world; our gaze, prompted by the experiences of our own body, will discover in all other objects the miracle of perception” (50
  • matter’s inherent creativity (7)
  • from Bruno Latour an actant is neither a subject nor an object by an intervener (9)
  • direct sensuous apprehension (13)
  • nonidentity from Adorno as a presence that acts upon us: we knowers are haunted by a painful nagging feeling that something’s being left put
  • negative dialectics: pedagogy inside materialism to become more cognizant that conceptualization automatically obscures
    • technique: imaginatively re-create what has been obscured
    • technique: to admit a playful element into one’s thinking and be willing to play the fool
    • technique: aesthetic attention to object’s qualitative moments

The Agency of Assemblages

  • clinamen: an actant never acts alone; its efficacy or agency always depends on the collaboration, cooperation, or interactive interference of many bodies or forces (21)
  • mode: form alliances and enter assemblages it is to mode(i)fy and be modified by others (22)
  • Bruno Latour “That which acts through me is also surprised by what I do, by the chance to mutate, to change, to bifurcate” (27)
  • “There was never a time when human agency was anything other than an interfolding network of humanity and nonhumanity; today this mingling has become harder to ignore” (31)
  • agency: efficacy, trajectory, causality
  • efficacy points to the creativity of agency, to a capacity to make something new appear or occur
  • agency is also bound with the idea of trajectory, a directionality or movement away from somewhere even if the toward which it moves is obscure or even absent
  • causality chain of simply bodies acting as the sole impetus
  • from Deleuze “adsorption” gathering of elements in a way that both form as a coalition and yet preserves something of the agential impetus of each element (35)
  • human intentionality can emerge as agentic only by way of distribution; the productive power that has engendered an effect will turn out to be a confederacy and the human actant within it will themselves turn out to be confederations of tools, microbes, minerals, sounds, and other foreign materialities (36)

Edible Matter

  • mechanical operations

A Life of Metal

  • uncanny nontime exiting between the various moments of biographical or morphological time (53)
  • matter movement, matter energy, matter in variation that enters assemblages and leaves them (54)
  • hylomorphic model: passive unorganized or raw matter can be given organic form only by the agency of something that is not itself material; any formative power must be external to a brute, mechanical matter”
  • this is ignorant of what woodworkers and metallurgists know that there “exist variable intensive effects and incipient qualities of matter that external forms can only bring out and facilitate”; “instead if a formative power detachable from matter, artisans (and mechanics, cooks, builders, cleaners, and anyone else intimate with things) encounter a creative materiality with incipient tendencies and propensities” ((56)
  • the aim is to articulate the elusive idea of a materiality that is itself heterogeneous, itself a differential of intensities, itself a life (57)
  • from a history of metallography is that it was the human metalworkers’ intense intimacy with their material that enabled them, rather than (the less hands on) scientists, to be the ones to first discover the polycrystalline structure of nonorganic matter. The desire of the craftsperson to see what a metal can do, rather than the desire of a scientist to know what a metal is, enabled the former to discern a life in metal, and thus, eventually, collaborate more productively with it. (60)

Neither Vitalism nor Mechanism

  • matter is a tendency toward spatialization (77)
  • this distortion is necessary and useful because humans must regard the world instrumentally if they are to survive in it: there is an inevitable propensity of our mind to view the world as if it consisted not of an ever-changing flow of time but a calculable set of things (we necessarily turn a spatializing tendency into a world of fixed entities) (77)
  • a simple model of harmony (from Driesch) “internal alteration within parts as they develop, as well as changes in the relationship between parts” (80)

Stem Cells and the Culture of Life

  • culture of life (a natural order of rank)
  • life is radically different from matter; human life is qualitatively different from all other life; human uniqueness expresses divine intention; the world id a divinely created order and that order has the shape of a fixed hierarchy

Political Ecologies

  • intelligent improvisations (96)
  • “In a vital materialism, an anthropomorphic element in perception can uncover a whole world of resonances and resemblances—sound and sights that echo and bounce far more that would be possible were the universe to have a hierarchical structure (99)
  • In Art as Experience (Dewey) comes close to saying that even human initiatives are not exclusively human; he flirts with a posthuman conception of action when he notes the porosity of the border between the human body and its out-side (102)
  • the concept of the actant (Latour) pries space between the idea of an action and the idea of human intentionality; rejects nature and culture categories in favor of collective of human and nonhuman elements; action not an enactment of choices but as the v=call and response between propositions (a lending weight, an incentive toward, a pressure along one trajectory) (103)
  • effect (Ranciere )act disrupts as a way to radically change what people can see by repartitioning the sensible, overthrowing the regime o the perceptible (107)
  • a vital materialist theory of democracy seeks to transform the divide between speaking subjects and mute objects into a set of differential tendencies and variable capacities (108)

Vitality and Self-Interest

  • Materiality is a rubric that tends to horizontalize the relations between humans, biota, and abiota. It draws human attention sideways, away from an ontologically ranked Great Chain of Being and toward greater appreciation of the complex entanglement of humans and nonhumans (112)
  • inflection of matters as: “vibrant, vital, energetic, lively, quivering, vibratory, evanescent, and effluescent
  • vital materiality better captures an “alien” quality of our own flesh, and in so doing, reminds humans of they very radical character of the (fractious) kinship between the human and the nonhuman”(112)
  • “In a world of vibrant matter, it is thus not enough to say that we are ’embodied’. We are, rather, an array  of bodies, many different kinds f them nested set of microbiomes” (113)
  • sense of nature as creativity like ancient Greek phusis and Latin natura: to puff, blow or swell up, conveying a sense of germination or sprouting up, bringing forth, opening out, or hatching. Speak as of a process of morphing, of formation and deformation…of becoming otherwise of things in motion as hey enter into strange conjunctions with on another (118)
  • closing creed: I believe that encounters with lively matter can chasten my fantasies of human mastery, highlight the common materiality of all that is, expose a wider distribution of agency, and reshape the self and its interests (122)
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