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)

Rough Cuts: Post-Techne and Posthuman Material

Hawk, Byron. “Vitalism, Animality, and the Material Grounds of Rhetoric.” Communication Matters: Materialist Approaches to Media, Mobility and Networks. Eds. Jeremy Packer and Stephen Wiley. NY: Routledge, 2011. 196-207.

“If ceaselessly redefining life goes hand in hand with rhetoric and politics, I would redefine life not as animal, human, or bare, but emergent—the complex production and circulation of in/corporeal assemblages through which refrains emerge and life communicates with itself” (206).

Expanding Kennedy’s vitalist turn (humanist) through the works of Agamben (antihumanist), Deleuze and Guttari (posthumanist)

  • humanism: privileges human thought and embodiment over other aspects of the world and builds rhetoric on models of representation and persuasion that uphold these distinctions
  • antihumanism: privileges apparatuses that dominate humans and sees rhetoric as a corrupting force
  • posthumanism: privileges assemblages that are multiple, open, and always in the process of transformation

Humanism: The Anthropological Machine

  • ancients produce the human through humanization of the animal
  • moderns produce the human by animalizing the human
  • humans can see their limited environments via the critical distance that language provides

AntiHumanism: Apparatuses

  • there is not inherently or distinctly human life, only living beings and the apparatuses that captivate them
  • with no existing human subject, apparatuses have to create a subject that corresponds to the functioning of their networks
  • language a manipulative force within media apparatuses or increases the distance of language from the system, leaving rhetoric to retreat into an outside

Posthumanism: Refrain

  • a refrain is any recurring pattern of sounds, positions, actions, or qualities that simultaneously marks a territory center from its outside, internally organizes the assemblage, and opens it to other functions and assemblages
  • assemblages (from Deleuze and Guatarri) are part of a constant process beyond a deterministic notion of system of apparatus with three types of movement
  • one that demarcates an assemblage in relation of the chaotic world around it
  • one that organizes the internal assemblage once is is distinguished from its milieu
  • one that opens the assemblage back to the outside world in order to make new connections with it
  • posthuman: capacities of humans as would be conceived of any animals but always within the context of specific assemblages and processes of re/territorialization
  • rhetoric in materialist flow acknowledges in/corporeal aspects of rhetoric’s role in emergence

Hawk, Byron. “Toward a Post-Techne Or, Inventing Pedagogies for Professional Writing.” Technical Communication Quarterly. 13(4) 371-392.

Technique is both a rational, conscious capacity to produce and an intuitive, unconscious ability to make, both of which are fundamental to technê. This dual conception of technique moves technê away from a reductive, generic, a-contextual conception of the technical toward a sense that technique operates through human bodies in relation to all other bodies (animate and inanimate) in larger, more complex contexts (372)

pushes the discussion away from a humanist conception of the subject that is caught in a subject/object dilemma (i.e., do humans control technology or does technology control humans?) toward one that is posthuman

[complex] systems evolve toward an open future marked by contingency and unpredictability (quoting N. Katherine Hayles 373)

Heidegger as proto-posthumanist

classical rhetorical theory tends to uphold the concept of the human subject in control of the technological object. Heidegger’s view of technê, on the other hand, redefines the human relationship with technology as one that can no longer be reduced to deliberate human intervention or to a narrow view of human control over the contextual situations—especially human control via technology or technique (374)

instrumental conception/implementation of technology is also a way of revealing that allows us to see one truth about the world; that is, by pushing us to see the world’s limits, technology forces us to see ourselves in an ecological relationship with itself, nature, and language (375)

Rickert’s integration of ambient rhetoric/logic with network logic through Heidegger

posthuman subject based on relationality in terms of complexity theory and emergence and links it to the concept of ambience (378)

“This view sees cognition, thinking, and invention as being beyond the autonomous, conscious, willing subject. A writer is not merely in a situation but is a part of it and is constituted by it. A human body, a text, or an act is the product not simply of foregrounded thought but of complex developments in the ambient environment”

method: post-technê would follow Heidegger in viewing technique as a way of revealing constellations or ecological realities within these situations

Technique as post-technê, then, should set up constellations of relations that allow its users to see something as something else—that is, to see in a new way through those constellations of relations (379)

Heidegger’s recognition that something can arise spontaneously from itself and its situation is a key to moving beyond instrumentality and humanism with regard to invention (380)

Aristotelian theory argues that everything has four causes:

  • material cause—what the thing is made of
  • efficient cause—the agent, beginning, or source that brings the thing into existence
  • formal cause—the thing’s abstract structure or design
  • final cause—the thing’s purpose or aim

Pedagogical Techniques

Janet Atwill

Atwill argues that Aristotle’s notion of productive knowledge has been lost because rhetoric (and consequently technê) has been cast in terms of theoretical (subjective) and/or practical (objective) knowledge.

transferable strategy for her notion of power and subjectivity:

one: discern a point of indeterminacy in the situation

two: overreach a boundary that the situation places on you

three: intervene in the systems of classification and standards of value set up within and by the situation

productive knowledge has three primary characteristics:

1. it is never static

2. it resists identification with a normative subject

3. it is not a subjectivity or virtue but a capacity or power to transgress existing boundaries

Cynthia Haynes

The goal for Haynes’s technique is not intervention as much as invention through the human body’s situatedness in a context that draws on the power of a particular constellation. Like Hayles’s discussion of navigation, Haynes utilizes human codevelopment with technique (technology) and physical context as a distributed cognitive environment.

Atwill’s heuristic emphasizes the subject’s power external to the situation that prompts the action—that is, the intervention. Haynes’s technique seems to rely more on situating a body in a never-static context that prompts the enaction, the opening up of that constellation’s possibilities.

Haynes’s is closer to utilizing all three criteria I’m using to characterize post-technê: placing a body within a situation, utilizing the power of that situation, and enacting ambient elements of that situation in the service of invention

Post-technê, as it has developed through this article, is the use of techniques for situating bodies within ecological contexts in ways that reveal models for enacting that open up the potential for invention, especially the invention of new techniques.

A post-technê that is more attuned to kairos, emergence, and ambience starts with the structure of particular constellations and the invention of techniques for and out of those specific occasions (384)

This constellation amounts to continual, situated invention—that is, remaking techniques for every new situation.

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question: making computer interfaces from posthuman perspectives

Hawk, Byron and Andrew Mara. “Posthuman Rhetorics and Technical Communication.” Technical Communication Quarterly. (19)1 1-10. 

We have always been posthuman—humans have lived in, beside, and as hosts of systems (from N. Katherine Hayles)

traditional humanistic tools/hueristics for anticipating system behaviors and complications (audience analysis and peer review) become overwhelmed when trying to account for “the tendential forces if nonhuman actors and activities” (Mara and Hawk 2).

Posthumanism is a general category for theories and methodologies that situate acts and texts in the complex interplays among human intentions, organizational discourses, biological trajectories, and technological possibilities. These approaches counter theories that see human action and production from either the perspective of individual intention or the dominance of larger human discourses and mechanical structures (Hawk and Mara 3)

Why pro/tech writing is good to explore:

As organizations become more complex, technologies more pervasive, and rhetorical intent more diverse, it is no longer tenable to divide the world into human choice and techno- logical or environmental determinism. Professional and technical communication is a field that is perfectly situated to address these concerns. Because it is already predisposed to see the writer in larger organizational contexts, the moment is right to explore technical communication’s connections to posthumanism, which works to understand and map these complex rhetorical situations in their broader contexts

The prevalence of increasingly seam- less human-machine-network environments calls for broader and more rigorous investigation of technical writing’s connections to the automated and globalized workplace and the multiple systems that users and producers inhabit

Spinuzzi’s model of distributed cognition:

Weaving is based on humanisms such as Marxism and activity theory that see communities built by artisans. Workers might weave nets, fish, build boats, and cook, all to support the community. But the larger these networks get, the more fragile they become. Splicing, on the other hand, is based on the posthumanism of Latour. In contemporary society, communities give way to net- works in which technicians splice together electronic devices to build new alliances.

Brooke’s extensive technological contexts deictic systems:

function as actors to collate data in ways that enable human communication and choice. Without the capability to constantly update mass amounts of information that these technologies provide many of the corresponding human acts would not be possible

Posthuman Models

Foucault: He argues that it is not possible to map all relations into a totalizing picture or theory; instead, he emphasizes diagramming the local points of contact through which power passes in order to contextualize rhetorical action in that specific configuration.

Latour: Actor-network theory ascribes agency to non-human actors that contribute to the development of scientific thought. Latour is interested in examining how scientific discoveries are not just the product of a single scientist’s mind or intentions but they emerge from the larger, more complex associations of material, social, and human capacities.

Haraway: She complicates the boundaries between human/animal, human/machine, and physical/nonphysical with the image of the cyborg as a new map for social and bodily reality…acknowledging connections across these binaries

Hayles: characterized posthumanism as locating thought and action in the complexity of distributed cognitive environments…Agency emerges from “the distributed cognitive system as a whole, in which ‘thinking’ is done by both human and nonhuman actors”