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Agency, nature and emergent properties: An interview with Jane Bennett

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Agency, nature and emergent properties: An interview with Jane Bennett

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Vital Materiality and Non-Human Agency: an interview with Jane Bennett
Jane Bennett, Professor of Political Theory at the Department of Political Science at Johns
Hopkins University published her awaited book Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things in
2010. Her distinctive notion of ‘vibrant matter’ invokes a new and different political imaginary
outside the Hegelian and psychoanalytic framework of the subject and object/other relation.
Bennett demonstrates that both human and non-human entities (including inorganic matter) is
comprised of vibrant matter. In Bennett’s view, matter that we consider ‘dead’ such as fossils
and stones are not actually dead but very much alive and constituted by a lively and energetic
play of forces. Following a long tradition of thinkers who have sought to de-center ‘the human’
(for example Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault), Bennett’s emphasis on non-human matter
challenges the ontological privileging of ‘the human. However, her notion of ‘distributive
agency’ creatively affirms the necessity of human embodiment, understood as one site of agency
within and across a multiplicity of other material bodies and formations. In Vibrant Matter
Bennett deploys the provocative strategy of anthropomorphising to demonstrate the affinities
between human and non-human matter and to challenge the anthropocentrism of humanist
approaches. Her notion of agency also seeks to avoid reducing politics to morality, which has
implications for the predominant analytical framework that is heavily underpinned by a Kantian
conception of moral agency with its emphasis on intuitions, duties and obligations. Bennett’s
contribution to political theory with its accentuation on nature, ethics, aesthetics,
environmentalism and vitalism, is inter-laced with a political interest in the literary writings of
Kafka, Coetzee, Thoreau and Kundera, on whom she has published several articles and essays.
Her work has clear implications for re-thinking our relations to and engagement with the vitality
of nature.
Gulshan Khan: Jane, thanks for agreeing to this interview. I would like to begin by exploring
some of the themes from your new book Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (2010),
which has been positively received by sympathizers and critics alike. I will then move onto
questions about your theory about the enchantment of modernity, nature, and agency.
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Gulshan Khan: Can I press you to explain your notion of ‘thing’s’ or ‘vibrant matter’ and how
it differs from contending versions?
Jane Bennett: I’m trying to take “things” more seriously than political theorists had been taking
them. By “things” I mean the materialities usually figured as inanimate objects, passive utilities,
occasional interruptions, or background context - figured, that is, in ways that give all the active,
creative power to humans. I focus on five exemplary “things” in the book: stem cells, fish oils,
electricity, metal, and trash. Our habit of parsing the world into passive matter (it) and vibrant
life (us) is what Jacques Rancière (in another context) called a “partition of the sensible.” In
other words, it limits what we are able to sense; it places below the threshold of note the active
powers of material formations, such as the way landfills are, as we speak, generating lively
streams of chemicals and volatile winds of methane, or the way omega-3 fatty acids can
transform brain chemistry and mood, or the way the differential rates of cooling organize the
unpredictable patterns of granite.
My experiment is this: What would the world look and feel like were the life/matter
binary to fall into disuse, were it to be translated into differences in degree rather than kind?
And how would political analyses of events change, were they to recognize an elemental,
material agency distributed across bodies human and nonhuman? Who or what would count as a
“stakeholder”? How would a “public” be constituted? Would politics become less centered
around the punitive project of finding individual human agents responsible for the public
problems of, say, an electricity blackout or an epidemic of obesity, and more concerned with
identifying the complex human-nonhuman assemblage that’s churning out the negative effect
and with investigating how this assemblage manages to hold itself together - how it endures or
feeds itself? Until we do that, political attempts to remedy the problem are likely to be
ineffective.
Gulshan Khan: What sort of politics or agency follows from your notion of vibrant matter?
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Jane Bennett: I seek a style of political analysis wherein the default locus of agency is presumed
to be an assemblage of human and nonhuman, of physiological, physical, and technological
elements. By assemblage I mean a configuration of an ontologically diverse range of actants, of
vital materialities of various sorts that produce effects. Assemblages are throbbing collectives
with uneven topographies, and because some of the points at which their affects and bodies cross
paths are more heavily trafficked than others, power or efficacy is not distributed equally across
its surface. An assemblage has no sovereignty in the classical sense, for it is not governed by a
central head that persistently determines its trajectory or impact. The effects generated by an
assemblage include those that are unheralded or emergent, rather than preformed as possibilities
awaiting realization. Assemblages appear as such when their effects are felt by us as problems,
or as affordances. In other words, the outlines of these strange machines appear retroactively in
the wake of their effects on us. The "on us" remain important to me as a human, even as I strive
to better acknowledge the vital participation of a host of nonhumans inside and around human
bodies. These others too strive to persist, in Spinoza's sense of a conative drive. But I too have a
conatus and thus still retain a degree of "speciesism".
To be clear: the agency of assemblages of which I speak is not the strong kind of agency
aspirationally attributed to humans or God. My contention, rather, is that if one looks closely
enough, the productive impetus of change is always a congregation. As my friend Ben Corson
helped me to see, not only is human agency always already distributed into “our” tools,
microbes, minerals, and sounds. It only emerges as agentic via this distribution into the “foreign”
materialities we are all too readily figure as mere objects.
Gulshan Khan: What kind of materialist are you and from whom do you take inspiration?
Jane Bennett: I was initially drawn to (what turned out to be a quite diverse tradition of)
materialism because of its non-theism and its pragmatic this-worldly focus. I sought in particular
a materialism where a mechanistic model of Nature or of change did not serve as the default, for
that model implicitly gives humans the status of consummate agents who run the machine. I
wanted to follow what Althusser called an underground stream of a more aleatory materialism.
For me, the stream includes Spinoza, whose notion of affective bodies that strive to enhance their
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power of activity by forming alliances with other bodies contributes to my materialism -- even if
the question of God-or-Nature within his metaphysics of Substance is more complicated than
that. The stream also includes Diderot’s picture of matter as a spiderweb of vibrating threads,
Nietzsche's image of Nature as a “play of forces and waves of forces, at the same time one and
many,” Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of a “material vitalism that doubtless exists everywhere
but is ordinarily hidden,” and Bruno Latour’s horizontal ontology of human and nonhuman
actants.
I also take inspiration from Epicurus and Lucretius: the idea that there is a swerve of
unpredictability at the heart of matter (the clinamen) and their monistic faith that everything is
made of the same quirky stuff, the same “building blocks,” if you will. Lucretius speaks of
primordia; today we might call them atoms, quarks, particle-streams, matter-energy. This same-
stuff claim, which insinuates that deep down all’s connected, resonates with an ecological
sensibility, and that is important to me. But the oneness to which Epicureanism attests is neither
a smooth harmony of parts nor a diversity unified by a common spirit. It is, as Michel Serres
(2001) says about it in The Birth of Physics, a turbulent field in which various and variable
materialities collide, congeal, morph, and disintegrate.
Epicureanism is too simple in its imagery of individual atoms falling and swerving in the
void, but I share its conviction that there is a natural tendency to the way things are - and that
human decency and a decent politics are fostered to the extent that we are tuned-in to the strange
logic of turbulence. This ontological field of turbulence is heterogeneous, with lots of internal
differences and differentiation. This differentiation is profound in the sense that there is no one
key difference, no single red thread - “this is human, this is not” - running through it. Any
assemblage that forms and operates is a joint effort of human and nonhuman elements.
One additional point about the idea of “vital materiality”: I’ve found a rich source of
ideas in the tradition of vitalism,” even though I do not endorse that tradition finally.
Especially important are those early 20th century strands called “critical” or “modern” vitalism,
whose advocates included Henri Bergson and Hans Driesch. These vitalists distinguished
themselves from the “naive vitalism” of soul by means of their close engagement with
experimental science. They of course were anti-materialists of a sort, for many of the
“materialists” of their day (and still of ours) were mechanists for whom materiality is something
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that was in principle fully calculable. The critical vitalists did not think that nature was that
simple. And so they struggled mightily both to remain scientific and to appreciate the fact that
not everything was fully calculable. They were attuned, not to an intrinsic purpose in things but
to an excess that escapes quantification, prediction, and control. They named that vital force
“life,” entelechy, elan vital.
In their subtle attempts to give philosophical voice to the vitality of things, Driesch and
Bergson came close to a vital materialism. But they stopped short: they could not imagine a
materiality adequate to the vitality they discerned in natural processes. Instead, they dreamed of
a non-material life force. Their vitalisms nevertheless fascinate me, in part because we share a
common foe in mechanistic or deterministc materialism, and in part because the lively
materiality of which I dream hovers close to a notion of vital force.
Gulshan Khan: How does your notion of ‘vital materialism’ differ from Marx’s “dialectical
materialism” and what we might call the ‘materialism of the body’ expressed in the work of
Michel Foucault and Judith Butler?
Jane Bennett: An especially dogged resistance to anthropocentrism is perhaps the main
difference between the “vital materialism” I pursue and Marx’s materialism, Foucault’s
biopower, and Judith Butler’s notion of bodies that matter. While the power of nonhuman bodies
and flows is acknowledge by these profound thinkers, I want to emphasize, even over-
emphasize, the contributions of nonhuman forces (operative within “external nature” but also
within our bodies and artifacts), in an attempt to counter the narcissistic reflex of human
language and thought. What counts as the material of vital materialism? Is it only human labor
and the socio-economic entities made by men and women using raw materials? Or is materiality
more potent than that? How can political theory do a better job of recognizing the active
participation of nonhuman forces in every event and every stabilization? Can we invent a better
and richer theoretical vocabulary for “thing-powerand the irreducibility of objects to the human
meanings or agendas they embody?
As my political theory friends keep reminding me, Marx was not himself a "historical
materialist," and interesting work is being done to examine the place of a notion of active
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materiality within dialectical materialisms bequeathed to us from Marx and Marxists. Diana
Coole's work here is exemplary, I think. I’ll demur on the complicated question of the
materialism of the body in Foucault and Butler, except to say that the more one focuses on the
activeness of the elements that compose the human body, the less sufficient the notion of the
“incorporation” or “materialization” of human ideas and practices seems. The bodily
incorporation of cultural processes is only one side of the story. Equally important are the
persistent lines of connection between us and interior forces (e.g., hormones, chemicals,
microorganisms) and between us-and-our-interior and the exterior milieu. What becomes
appropriate is to explore the affinities between our bodily composition and that of nonhumans,
both natural and artificial. I agree with Deleuze and Guattari when they say that “a fiber stretches
from a human to an animal, from a human or an animal to molecules, from molecules to
particles, and so on to the imperceptible.” Foucault said that his "main concern" in the History of
Sexuality was to trace the outlines of a strange new kind of power he vaguely discerned around
him, a productive power that did not operate by repressing or by "refusal, blockage, and
invalidation." Extending Foucault's method, I want to keep my eye trained on the productive
power of things.
Gulshan Khan: Over the past 20 years a number of themes and concepts run through your work,
which point in the direction of the notion of “vital materiality.” How has the idea been modified
over time and who or what has shaped the development of this idea into its current
manifestation? What added directions does this concept take in your new book?
Jane Bennett: When I wrote Unthinking Faith and Enlightenment, I was trying to “unthink” my
way out of an oscillation, identified by Hegel in Phenomenology of Spirit, between two
responses to a modernity conceived as haunted by meaninglessness, or as suffering from
“disenchantment.” On the one side was the “enlightenment” response, which attempted to
restore meaning by mastering or more thoroughly humanizing the world; on the other side was
“faith” or the attempt to re-enchant the world with a more modern (less sensuously present) form
of divinity. In that book I didn’t question the diagnosis of modernity as disenchanted (later I
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would); I accepted it, examined the pros and cons of the two responses, and then, finding both
wanting, tried to imagine a better response (outside of a Hegelian frame).
The enlightenment response had negative implications for my ecological commitments,
but the faith response conceived of nature as more purposive than my encounters with it
warranted (especially with regard to my brother’s struggle with schizophrenia). I then affirmed a
stance called “fractious holism,” which remained true to the ecological slogan that everything is
connected but rejected the idea that the connections were part of a pre-given, intelligent plan.
The idea was that we should try to discern, and then more carefully engage, the frictions, noises,
excesses and (though this idea was underdeveloped) surprising powers circulating through
nature-culture.
Later, I turned to Thoreau’s notion of the Wild to develop the idea of that fractiousness:
yes, humans were “part and parcel” of nature, but (internal and external) nature included that
which was perverse or uncanny to it. Thoreau celebrated this wildness for the moral refreshment
it could bring to a self that was also naturally attracted to conformity. Thoreau’s idea of the Wild
morphed, I now see, into the idea of “vital materiality,” a notion I first evoked in The
Enchantment of Modern Life. That book was not an attempt to re-enchant the world with
divinity but to bring to the fore the ways in which “modernity” is always already filled with
lively and enchanting, albeit non-purposive forces. In Vibrant Matter, I try to position the idea
of lively matter within a larger history of philosophical materialisms. I guess that in each book,
my ultimate aim has been to find ways to better cope - more artfully, more wisely - in a world
that’s neither a divine creation, docile matter, nor completely lawful. I should add that I pursued
the image of a world of "vibrant matter" in conjunction with a particular political-ethical
problem: how to induce a more ecologically-sustainable sensiblity in a population whose
political economy is irrationally devoted to endless growth, consumption, and waste. (Here I
also recommend Thomas Princen's (2010) Treading Softly.)
Gulshan Khan: You say that your brother’s struggle with schizophrenia caused you to question
the idea of nature as purposive. I hope you don’t mind if I probe you a bit further on this. Could
you elaborate on the problems associated with understanding nature as having an explicit design
and how this has influenced you in theorising an alternative conception of nature that cannot be
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fully mastered and has no inner telos? How have your experiences with your brother’s struggle
with schizophrenia lead you to question or support medical discourses on ‘madness’,
‘abnormality’ or ‘difference’?
Jane Bennett: To put the point bluntly, repeated (second-hand) encounters with madness
eventually undermine any notion of a Providential nature. And it makes classical scientific
conceptions of a law-like nature less plausible too. Or at least that is what happened to me. Like
most people in my (Italian-Catholic and Irish-Catholic) neighbourhood, I grew up with a
background notion that external nature -- the animals, vegetables, and minerals that surrounded
us -- was designed according to a divine plan. This article of faith was for me set in a liberation-
theology-inflected Catholicism (a Catholicism all but dismissed by the Vatican today), according
to which Jesus is a counter-cultural peace activist, a nature-lover who, like the Franciscans,
Gandhi, and Thoreau, practiced “voluntary simplicity” when it came to the consumption of
material goods. These beliefs were an important part of the rationale for the Earth Day
environmentalism I affirmed in the 1970’s: if nature was God’s handicraft, it was worthy of care
and protection, and we ought to tread lightly upon it.
It was in 1980 that my then 16-year old brother (a common onset age for schizophrenia)
had his first psychotic episode. (He jumped off the garage roof because he thought he could fly.)
He has been in and out of madness ever since. (The legal policies in the U.S. render it effectively
impossible to hospitalize someone against his/her will, which means that the jails are filled with
people suffering from mental illness and many others live on the street.) If you live with a
person living with a brain that periodically malfunctions in dramatic ways - coherent sentences
can no longer be formed, laughing erupts independently of any social or psychic meaning, the
movement of ants on the sidewalk or cars on the highway appear as sinister plots - you can easily
lose interest in the idea of a purposive or providential natural order. (The notion of nature as a
purposive plan starts to seem like the mirror image of my brother’s perverse conviction that the
impersonal behaviour of ants and the anonymous movements of traffic are out to get him. Both
assume purposiveness.) Again, the classical science figure of nature as law-like also loses much
of its persuasive power.
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The misery caused by the diminishment of the lives of those whose brain doesn’t work
right will make it hard to believe in either a benevolent god-creator or in a Newtonian world
where the eternal laws of nature correspond to the mind of a law-giving God. The figure of
matter as an active power capable both of (undesigned) self-organization and of aleatory
alteration becomes more credible if and when you forsake those two contending conceptions of
divinity.
I support medical in the sense of bio-chemical discourses on schizophrenia. Though
of course it is true that social conditions, family contexts and psychic structures are also
involved, they do not alone seem to have the power to fix (or cause?) many types of breakdown
of the organic machinery. I support research in brain science and experimentation with
pharmacological agents that might re-calibrate the delicate chemistry that makes normal thinking
possible.
The political-theoretical impact of my experiences with schizophrenia is this: I needed to
find a new basis -- besides the "natural order" -- for my lingering commitment to a green politics,
to a way of life that was more ecologically sustainable, less poisonous of the water, air, soil, and
thus of human bodies. I needed a figure of nature that did not rely so heavily on what my friend
Hent DeVries calls a “theological archive” of images, concepts, and narratives. The figure of
“vital materiality” or lively matter is one such candidate for that role.
Gulshan Khan: Throughout your work you have suggested that an appreciation of the liveliness
of non-human matter can help us to live ethically, and you maintain that we ignore this at our
own peril. Could you explain how an understanding of the vitality of matter enables us to live
ethically?
Jane Bennett: I think that the relationship between an enhanced sense of the vitality of things
and ethical life is indirect, although indirection can sometimes be the most effective tactic. It is a
matter of possible alliances and mutual reinforcement of tendencies - a meandering connection
subject to many intervening forces. In the context of, in particular, an American political
economy, there seems to be a resonance between the idea of matter as dull stuff/passive resource
and a set of gigantically wasteful production and consumption practices that foul our own nest.
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These practices endanger and immiserate workers, children, animals, and plants here and abroad.
To the extent that the figure of inert matter sustains this consumptive style, another figure might
disrupt it. It isn’t a coincidence that Kant, when he talks about natural objects at the end of the
Critique of Judgment, affirms together that “the essential character of matter is lifelessness,
inertia)” and that man, as “the only being on earth that has ... an ability to set himself purposes in
his own choice,” holds “the title of lord of nature.”
With regard to Heidegger’s notion of standing-reserve, I agree that it can be put to Green
use, though I don’t pursue that task. I don’t because Heidegger longs to recapture a sense of the
universe as an encompassing whole in which nature and culture engage in a kind of primordial
cooperation (even if that system of relations fades off into indefiniteness and incalculability). I
too am critical of the picture of nature as calculable mechanism. But I am attracted to a more
“pagan” conception of materiality as turbulent, energetic, and capable of emergent forms of
self-organization. It is worthy of our respect because we are composed of it, because we enter
into various relations of dependence with it, and because its force fields can turn on us if we
don’t attend closely to them.
So, should we, for example, love HIV? I don’t know if we should love HIV but I don’t
think that we can love HIV. It is associated with too much human suffering. But its vitality
nevertheless demands respect, more respect than was at the base of our initial attempt to
eradicate the virus, which often resulted in killing the patient. The more effective therapy now
aims to keep the viral load low, enabling a tense coexistence between human and nonhuman. It
is also good to recall the vast array of vital materialities that were enlisted in response to HIV,
the condoms, the laboratory instruments, the animals tested, as well as the revised sexual
practices and rituals of human bodies.
Gulshan Khan: In The Enchantment of Modern Life you develop a polemical critique of the
idea - associated particularly with Max Weber (1981) (but also many others) - that modernity is
characterised by a progressive disenchantment of the world. Common to the various narratives of
disenchantment is the idea that the emergence of modern scientific rationality has radically
transformed our understanding of nature, greatly extending the capacity for human agency in a
world, but at the cost of devaluing non-human matter, which has come to be seen as lifeless,
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inert, and devoid of enchantment or vitality. Your alternative narrative emphasises the
enchantment of the modern experience of the world. Does your counter narrative of the various
continuities between modernity and pre-modernity enable us to draw a distinction between
legitimate and illegitimate forms of power?
Jane Bennett: I’m not exactly saying that there is no break with the enchanted world of pre-
modernity. Clearly things have changed, especially with regard to what is plausibly considered
to be the ultimate source of the power of things to provoke a mood of “enchantment” in humans.
If the natural world was once enchanted with divine will and intentionality (forming an episteme
that Foucault called “the prose of the world”), my claim is that something akin to that wonder
can persist even without the postulate of a God who is actively infused into all facets of the
sensible world. Today things can and do enchant people by virtue of their material complexity,
or by their sheer this-ness, or by their refusal to fit into the categories we bring to bear upon
them.
I think that those moments when things call us up short and reveal our profound
implication in nonhumanity are relevant, perhaps even indispensable, to ethical action. For
ethics requires a bodily comportment conducive to the enactment of “good will” or generosity
toward others. What Spinoza called the joyful affects can provide a soure of fuel for bodies that
are called upon -- by reason, habit, sympathy, or some unnamed motive -- to love, forgive, or
treat with compassion others, or to do as little violence as possible in one’s actions.
So of course I affirm the “rationalizing” project of disentangling political power from
oppressive traditions, and of the norms of due process and the rule of law. But the will to contest
oppressive effects must itself be induced, and the norms of due process and democratic rule are
not self-enacting. In each case, they require aesthetic-affective energy to spark or fuel them. If,
for example, the American public is to be aroused to repudiate torture as a tool of foreign policy
and re-endorse some legal framework like the Geneva conventions, the fearful and vengeful
mood that predominated in the decades after 9/11 must be supplanted by another repertoire of
public comportments. If Americans are to change established modes of energy production and
consumption (to avoid catastrophic climate change and to decrease the social violence it is
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already entailing), we will need to stop thinking of earth as a basket of passive resources for the
satisfaction of desires.
Gulshan Khan: For many modern thinkers such as Heidegger, Arendt, and Habermas the
distinction between the human and the non-human remains highly significant. By way of
contrast, you draw attention to the fact that (despite their best intentions) the actions of human
individuals often have effects beyond their intended consequences, and you suggest that forms of
non-human matter possess agency to a certain degree. Indeed, one innovative (and highly
provocative) element of your approach is that you do not restrict the notion of agency to humans
alone. Do you think there is any distinction to be drawn between the human and the non-human
in terms of a capacity for agency? By attributing agency to non-human matter is there not a
danger that the criterion for responsible human action is dissolved?
Jane Bennett: I think that human agency is best conceived as itself the outcome or effect of a
certain configuration of human and nonhuman forces. When humans act they do not exercise
exclusively human powers, but express and engage a variety of other actants, including food,
micro-organisms, minerals, artifacts, sounds, bio- and other technologies, etc. There is a
difference between a human individual and a stone, but neither considered alone has real agency.
The locus of agency is always a human-nonhuman collective. (If this is true, it also puts pressure
on the viability of the distinction between an agent and a mere cause.)
What happens, then, to the question of "moral responsibility"? The responsibility of
humans is reconceived away from an ideal of autonomy and toward the ideal of experimental
heteronomy. If selves are always enmeshed in various assemblages whose contours appear only
in the wake of their effects, then it becomes an ethical task to learn how to "reverse engineer" the
assemblage and its morphology. The aspiration is to become a self sensitized to the effects of the
assemblages in which one finds oneself participating, and then to work experimentally to alter
the machine so as to minimize or compensate for the suffering it manufactures. Sometimes it
may be necessary to try to extricate your body from that assemblage, to refuse to contribute more
energy to it (in the way Henry Thoreau advocated), and sometimes to work with others to tilt the
existing assemblage in a different direction. In a world where agency is always of the
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distributive kind, a hesitant attitude towards assigning moral blame becomes a virtue. Outrage
should not disappear completely, but a politics devoted too exclusively to moral condemnation
and not enough to a cultivated discernment of the web of agentic capacities can do little good.
One example I work with in the Vital Materialism book is the agency behind the
electricity blackout in 2003 in North America (and later in the year, in Europe). The government
and industry response in the U.S. was to identify some human - some Enron executive or energy
trader - who was responsible and then to punish him. Meanwhile, the relations between the
infrastructure of the grid, the legislation deregulating energy trading, the structure of
consumptive desire, and the natural tendencies of electricity remained unchanged. The danger of
blackouts remains the same. The fetish of the exclusively human agent and the tendency to
define social problems as moral failures - and their implicit assumption that we are in charge -
prevented us from discerning the real locus of agency and attempting to alter its configuration. I
don’t say, then, that single, nonhuman actants are agents. I do say that agency itself is located in
the complex inter-involvement of humans and multiple nonhuman actants, which together form
an effective assemblage. So, an actant is any single force with the capacity to make a difference,
and an agent is a more complex formation made up of a variety of actants. Humans too are
emergent and complex phenomena, which means that the intervener does not fully pre-exist the
intervention.
My point is really a pragmatic one: ethics and politics have more traction on material
assemblages and the way they reproduce patterns of effects than they can have on that elusive
spiritual entity called the “moral subject.” Here, I agree with John Dewey that "philosophy
recovers itself when it ceases to be a device for dealing with the problems of philosophers and
becomes a method, cultivated by philosophers, for dealing with the problems of men."
Gulshan Khan: In The Enchantment of Modern Life you explore the power of commodities to
enchant us. You agree with Marx about the mystifying nature of the commodity. However, you
argue that his understanding of commodity fetishism - as well as Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s
(1972) work on “The Culture Industry” that builds up upon Marx’s analysis - is insufficient to
explain the fascination with commodities and the power of advertising in contemporary capitalist
society. How can your emphasis on the elements of enchantment in modern capitalism help
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oppressed people resist and challenge the superficial desires created by capitalist entrepreneurs
and help bring about a more equitable society?
Jane Bennett: Since I had been arguing that cultural artifacts (and not only nature) had the
power to enchant and that this power could become ethical, I wanted to examine a hard case:
enchantment issuing from the commodified object. In particular, I focused on The GAP’s khakis
pants, or, to be more precise, on the television advertisement for them where young men and
women clad in beige material danced to swing music.
I don’t believe in God, magic, pantheism, or the (almost-convincing) panpsychism
defended by Freya Mathews in her For Love of Matter (2003) and Reinhabiting Reality (2004). I
am a materialist girl living in a material world, and I take my enchantment where I can get it.
When I watched the GAP commercial, I was enchanted. It animated in my body, and
presumably in others, a certain pleasurable energy or vitality. But what kind of relationship did
this affect bear to the intentions of its artistic creators? My answer was that, like electricity, the
charged affect generated by the commercial was an unruly, swerving force, one apt to overflow
the design of its corporate sponsor. This suggests that corporate capitalism can not be all-
powerful, and that the affective energy it generates might be put to other uses. For affects, once
let loose or put into play, have a degree of independence from their creators. To be too
committed to the idea that capitalism recaptures entirely all the forces it unleashes is to turn
capitalism into a (perhaps evil) god and us into its servants or victims.
My aim was not to defend existing capitalism or even to idealize a more ecologically-
sustainable form of capitalism, though I do think it would be foolish to oppose the latter just
because you favor more radical changes in the political economy. My goal was to explore how
the mood of enchantment works: what were its tendencies, its typical path of development, its
etiology? How does it sometimes manage to activate or enliven human action?
In your question, you worry that even if enchantment can sometimes motivate acts of
ethical generosity, doesn’t it matter whether the source or provocateur of enchantment is itself an
ethical agent? Could generosity issue from an encounter with a advertisement designed to get
consumers to desire khakis for this season only (designed, that is, as part of an economy of
waste), and also designed to obscure from view the working conditions of the people who
15
assemble the slacks (designed, that is, as part of an economy of exploitation)? My “yes, it can”
answer is based on a theory of affect as a wayward force able to ally itself with a wide variety of
semantic contents and political projects. I also said that acknowledgment of the attraction of
commodities needs to be combined with a commitment to reorganize work and the established
patterns of consumption.
The point I elided when I wrote the chapter, however, was this: the promiscuity of affect
means that it will also be unfaithful to any ethical re-deployment of it. I should have thought
more about how to cope with or compensate for that fact, and because I didn’t, it sounded easier
than it is to transform commodity enchantment into non-commercial or counter-hegemonic
modes of activity.
What I continue to affirm is the way commercials, by technologically animating the
materialities that we normally experience as inert, dead, or beneath notice, pose a challenge to
the life/matter binary, which is also at the base of the system of exploitation. I found in this
high-tech refusal to depict matter as merely passive a potential ally in my own project to re-think
what materiality is and does in the world. The infectious energy of the GAP ad issued from the
moving human bodies on the screen, from the sounds and rhythms of the humanly-composed
music, but also from the khakis themselves.
This animism was what the ad men sought: viewers would associate vitality (or youth or
life) with GAP khakis and, because vitality is attractive, desire the pants. This would not work
were the dancing pants to be joined, in the full picture, by the exploited, fatigued, and stressed
bodies of the assembly-workers. But in calling its viewers to a pagan sensibility - to the
childhood idea that matter is alive, that ordinary, nonhuman things have powers over us - the
advert nevertheless produced affective effects in excess of its intentions or of the moral compass
of its authors.
Let me end by saying that what I try to do when I write is to call myself and others to a
different direction, to point to those uneven spaces where nonhumans are actants, where agency
is always an assemblage, where matter is not inert, where man is not lord, where everything is
made of the same quirky stuff. We regularly traverse these spaces but tend to pass through them
without paying attention. To inhabit them more fully is to find ourselves speaking new words,
having new feelings, taking on new postures and practices, making adjustments to the pace and
16
scope and ranking of our encounters with the “outside.” I can’t predict what kind of politics
would result from this. My hunch is that the grass would be greener in a world of vital
materialities.
(Thanks to my friends Rom Coles, Bill Connolly, Bill Dixon, Jairus Grove, and Jennifer Lin for
helping me to say what I say.)
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The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception
  • T Adorno
  • M Horkhiemer
Adorno, T. and Horkhiemer, M. (1972) "The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception" in T. Adorno and M. Horkhiemer Dialectic of Enlightenment. Translated by John Cummings. (Herder and Herder: New York)
Negative Dialectics translated by
  • T Adorno
Adorno, T. (1990) Negative Dialectics translated by E.B. Ashton. (Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd: London).