Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter, reviewed by Noel Castree
Jane Bennett, Vibrant matter: a political ecology of things, Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2010, xix + 175 pages, $21.95 paper, ISBN 9780822346333
This manifesto for a more-than-human politics has the same radical aims as Bruno Latour’s (2004) Politics of Nature. Like Latour, Jane Bennett uses the term ‘political ecology’ to describe forms of political deliberation and recognition in which people are not the only significant actors. She argues that politics needs to be ‘ecological’, not in the classical sense of that term (i.e. focused on stable interdependencies between species) but in a more ‘vitalist’ sense that de-privileges humans without presupposing the membership or interests of the new polis. “By ‘vitality’”, she explains, “I mean the capacity of things – edibles, commodities, storms, metals – not only to impede or block the will and designs of humans, but also to act as quasi-agents or forces with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own. My aspiration is to articulate a vibrant materiality that runs alongside and inside humans to see how analyses of political events might change if we gave the force of things more due” (page viiii). This articulation is achieved by combining the ideas of a star-studded cast of philosophical thinkers with those of several political theorists. Bennett seeks to concretise these ideas and show their utility with reference to contentious issues like stem cell research, power black-outs, obesity, and food politics. This said, most of the chapters – some of which are very short (as is the book) – are highly philosophical and discursive. Bennett writes well, and I found the book highly readable. Indeed, I digested its contents in just two sittings in a single day.
This book is the product of many years of reading, thinking, and analysing. Though some of the eight chapters are revised versions of previously published essays, most are new. These chapters, which are preceded by a substantial preface, are full of resonances and echoes. Bennett does not seek to integrate them tightly or cross-reference them often, and the tactic works. The reader encounters succinct discussions of a myriad of philosophers – among them Spinoza, Bergson, Epicurus, Deleuze, Guattari, Whitehead, and Dewey. While some were political philosophers, others proposed ontologies that have political implications. Most of these names are familiar, though some (like Hans Driesch) are less well known to us. Bennett’s discussion of Kant’s philosophy is also pleasantly surprising if one previously assumed that the Königsberg scholar was an inveterate cleaver and dichotomiser. Bennett shows us that, in different but ultimately complementary ways, these thinkers took seriously the world’s liveliness, with some of them (like Guattari) prepared to unthink ‘politics’ as a purely human pursuit. By the end of Vibrant Matter, Bennett succeeds in showing readers that ‘vitality’ has been a focus of European thought for over 2000 years, starting with the ancient Greeks, re-emerging during the early Enlightenment period, and re-surfacing again at the turn of the 20th century. Her book is very much a reflection of, and contributory to, the latest resurgence. Bennett belongs to a loose, multi-disciplinary epistemic community. Latour, Tim Ingold, Donna Haraway, and Nigel Thrift are among its leading lights (so too Sarah Whatmore, who is wrongly described as coeditor of Hybrid Geographies (2002) on the back-cover of Vibrant Matter). These authors have, in different ways, criticised the ontological diet fed to recent generations of scholars, students, and citizens. They advocate a major reorientation in our thinking about, and action upon, the world.
Why talk-up the vitality of matter in order to challenge what Latour (1993) famously calls ‘the modern constititution’? “[M]y hunch”, Bennett explains, “is that the image of dead or thoroughly instrumentalized matter feeds human hubris and our earth-destroying fantasies of conquest and consumption. It does so by preventing us from detecting … a fuller range of non-human powers … which can aid or destroy, enrich or disable, ennoble or degrade us, [but] in any case call for our attentiveness, or even ‘respect’ …” (page ix). So, this book – like Politics of Nature – is written in the name of non-human others in order to give them their due. These others are understood in relational, co-constitutive ways – as part of what Timothy Morton (2010, page 8), in The Ecological Thought, calls “… a vast, sprawling mesh of interconnection without a definite centre or edge”. However, unlike so much environmental philosophy and bioethical theory, Bennett does not present readers with a fresh vocabulary of concepts designed to re-value the non-human or the human in their vibrant relationality. Indeed, she tends to ignore five decades of ‘green’ political thinking: as noted, her interlocutors are not out-and-out advocates for the ‘rights’, ‘needs’ or ‘entitlements’ of species or ecosystems. Most of the book is an abstract manifesto for a vitalist philosophy, leavened with case material. Despite its subtitle, precious little of Vibrant Matter focuses on ‘the political’ as such. Bennett presents the latter as one of three aims (page x), but in practice she circles around at a very high level of analytical abstraction in just two of the eight chapters. ‘Political ecologies’ (Chapter 7) seeks to rethink the idea of the public building on John Dewey’s formative contributions. Chapter 8 (‘Vitality and self-interest’) gently criticises ‘environmentalist’ politics (a la Greenpeace or the Sierra Club) and hypostatisations of ‘human nature’ (as in much bioethics) for their tendency to cut the Gordian knots comprising life on earth.
The result is a book that does not, I’m sorry to say, break the new ground I’d hoped that it would. The bulk of Vibrant Matter is an artful restatement of ontological positions that will be very familiar to many readers of this journal – such as the several geographers Bennett acknowledges on page xii (namely, David Campbell, Derek MacCormack, Emma Roe, Nick Bingham, Ben Anderson, Jamie Lorimer, J. D. Dewsbury and the already mentioned Thrift and Whatmore). Bennett’s ‘political ecology’ – where the novelty of her book ought to lie – amounts to a set of recommended sensibilities arising from her philosophical worldview. It does not approach the systematicity or specificity of Latour’s (2004) call for a ‘new constitution’. Equally, Bennett’s political theory suffers, in my view, from failing to engage critically with the rich arguments and concepts proposed by green philosophers and bioethicists. Thoreau, Barry Lopez, and Wendell Berry all get a positive mention, but only because they are not considered ‘typical’ of the genre. Likewise, Jurgen Habermas’ The Future of Human Nature (2003) is discussed, but this is just one example of bioethical reasoning among many others deserving discussion. Bennett ignores too much literature that is arguably germane to her own concerns. Why, for example, is the work of Peter Singer, Tom Regan, and other animal rights philosophers deemed irrelevant to the project of rethinking the moral and practical basis of human action in a more-than-human world? After all, so many of the obese human bodies Bennett discusses are – like ‘normal’ bodies – metabolised out of slaughtered and ingested livestock. Bennett’s positive case for political ecology, it seems to me, is at once highly general and based on relatively narrow foundations. Even her ‘case’ material is brief and, at worst, reads as a set of philosophically-driven examples designed to illustrate (rather than build) the wider case.
Much as I enjoyed this short book, its major lacunae speak to a wider absence in the literature Bennett both draws upon and seeks to add to. Towards the end of Vibrant Matter its author asks: “… what if we loosened the tie between participation and human language use, encountering the world as a swarm of vibrant materials entering and leaving agentic assemblages?” (page 107). In failing to suggest both why and how our current societies could feasibly encounter the world in this way, Vibrant Matter inadvertently raises some critical questions about the epistemic community to which its author belongs. Why the hesitation – or it is an inability – to spell-out why a new politics is not only necessary but achievable? By what mechanisms and means can the formidable ‘modern constitution’ described by Latour be torn-up and replaced?
Some readers might be forgiven for thinking that Vibrant Matter is a pleasing exercise in philosophical utopianism. It can be read as a thought-experiment, an onto-political wish list. More’s the pity. New research that Sarah Whatmore and others are now publishing on local democracy and environmental hazards may take us into the important political territory that Bennett only gestures towards. This work focuses on practices occurring in the interstices between the current conventions and institutions of political practice. As such, it makes Bennett’s case in a less purely philosophical register and its normative aspects are rather more concrete.
Noel Castree, Geography, Manchester University,PO Box 88, Manchester, M60 1QD, U.K.
Habermas J, 2003 The Future of Human Nature (Polity Press, Cambridge)
Latour B, 1993 We Have Never Been Modern (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA)
——- 2004 Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA)
Morton T, 2010 The Ecological Thought (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA)
Whatmore S, 2002 Hybrid Geographies: Natures, Cultures, Spaces (Sage, London)