Some books change your mind. But other books confirm strange things that you deeply believed all along. Vibrant Matter by Jane Bennett is one of those books. You mean, a philosopher and political theorist senses what this silly woman with an overactive imagination senses, too? That things both human and nonhuman have agency? Thing Power?
Thing power gestures toward the strange ability of ordinary, man-made items to exceed their status of objects and to manifest traces of independence or aliveness, constituting the outside of our own experience (xvi)
Vibrant Matter is a beautifully and poetically conceived and written metaphysical meditation on thing power. Vibrant Materiality. Nonhuman agency. From landfills which generate an “alive” mix of chemicals, the electrical power grid which flows in ways unplanned and unintended by humans, and the Great Pacific garbage patch (does the Great Pacific garbage patch give you nightmares, too?). She talks about Dewey, and Nietzsche, and Thoreau, omega-3 fatty acids, worms, and metal. And us. Humans are there, too, just not as the center of everything.
Bennett notes that one way to become aware of vibrancy of matter is by seeing where people anthropomorphize objects. I understood this concept best not from her book, but from a lecture she gave at The New School (long but completely amazing). She works with the concept of hoarding and hoarders, and experimentally sees the phenomenon not as a pathology, but rather as the hoarder being a person especially sensitive to the agency of matter. Hoarders say things like “but all of those books need me!” or “Who else will take care of these boxes.” The notion of anthropomorphizing objects is not only important because it expresses the vibrancy of matter, but because it “works against anthropocentrism,” the belief that humans are the most significant entity in the universe (120). I was able to find this in my research thus far with the objects of Rose Valley, and don’t you think many authors are very sensitive vibrant materialists too? Dickens comes to mind immediately.
A shift from environmentalism to vibrant materialism is pondered. Instead of using less, perhaps we need to acknowledge (embrace, cultivate a careful attentiveness to) the complexity of all? Although I originally read this book as an “in” to New Materialism for my Rose Valley project, I realized it was the more abstract sister of the New Materialism happening in “maker” circles (for which I’m a huge proponent and participant).
Bennett ends her book with a New Materialist manifesto of sorts, which sends chills down my spine. I love it. I believe it. I try to live it each day:
I believe in one-matter energy, the maker of things seen and unseen. I believe that this pluriverse is traversed by heterogeneities that are continually doing things. I believe it is wrong to deny vitality to nonhuman beings, forces, and forms, and that careful course of anthropomorphization can help reveal that vitality, even though it resists full translation and exceeds my comprehensive grasp. 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)
Also, how cool is it that when I requested this book via interlibrary loan, the copy that Jane Bennett gave to her alma mater arrived for me?!
Vibrant Matter INDEED!
nota bene: The moment I get my tuition reimbursement for this semester I’m purchasing this book. I can’t stand to live without it. If you are interested in such things, I most highly recommend it. I need to read it at least 10 more times posthaste!
image: from Friends of the Pleistocene.