Academic journal article New Formations

Autonomous Objects

Academic journal article New Formations

Autonomous Objects

Article excerpt

AUTONOMOUS OBJECTS Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: apolitical ecology of things, Durham, North Carolina, Duke University Press, 2010; 200pp, £14.99 paperback.

Jane Bennett's Vibrant Matter is an admirable book for at least three reasons. First, it is wonderfully written in a comfortable personal style, which is rare enough for academic books. Second, Bennett makes an explicit break with the timeworn dogmas of postmodernist academia. She bids farewell to the continental platitudes of recent decades: the social construction of the real, and a dominant human subject cloaked in the alibi of language. In place of these tattered garments she gives us 'thing-power', and from this new autonomy of things much follows. Better yet, Bennett repeatedly avoids the half-measure of saying that things 'resist us with their recalcitrance', that disappointing manoeuvre which leaves humans in command while merely haunting them with a vague letter X beyond their grasp. The third point that makes this book admirable is Bennett's professional position: Chair of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University. That someone in a Political Science department at an important university could write as candid a work of metaphysics as Vibrant Matter is an encouraging sign. Perhaps philosophical speculation on fundamental topics is poised for a comeback throughout the humanities.

Bennett's twelve-page preface has a certain freshness to it, and serves as a fine overture to the chapters that follow. What she seeks is a 'vital materiality' or 'material vitalism' sharing more in common with childhood naivete than with the aloof critique that one normally adopts as a basic intellectual stance. This leads her to oppose a Hegel-Marx-Adorno axis of 'historical materialism' that tends to 'follow the trail of power to expose social hegemonies' (pxiii). Instead, Bennett empowers the non-human world, dropping the tedious opposition between active humans and inanimate things. This leads her to endorse an alternate materialist axis of Democritus-Epicurus-SpinozaDiderot-Deleuze. This may seem too close for comfort to Deleuze's own pantheon of favoured thinkers (I will return to this issue later). Nonetheless, Bennett's preface contains a flurry of insights. The usual tool of the intellectual is d?mystification, and for Bennett it must be used with caution, since 'd?mystification assumes that at the heart of any event or process lies a human agency that has illicitly been projected into things' (pxiv). Things do not just obstruct human action, but have an inherent liveliness that allows them to act in the world at large, not just on us. And finally, in a stirring declaration: 'I will emphasize, even overemphasize, the agentic contributions of nonhuman forces.... in an attempt to counter the narcissistic reflex of human language and thought' (pxvi). The usual charge against those who describe inanimate things as actors is 'anthropomorphism', yet Bennett answers convincingly that anthropomorphism may be needed in order to counter anthropocentrism.

Chapter One, 'The Force of Things,' develops another key insight as Bennett defines her concept of 'vibrant matter'. It is meant to replace the half-hearted realism that views the world as 'recalcitrance' or 'resistance'. For if it is conceded that even cultural constructions such as gender or nationality can resist our attempts to reshape them, this does not go far enough. The role of reality is not just to obstruct and perplex the human cogito, since objects affect one another even when humans are not watching. This step alone is enough to give value to Bennett's book, since it shatters the dominant human-world couplet that Quentin Meillassoux's 2006 book After Finitude described as 'correlationism'. This divides Bennett from her Johns Hopkins colleague Hent de Vries, who proposes a recalcitrant absolute beyond human knowledge (p3) and even from Theodor Adorno, whose Negative Dialectics does bow before the unmasterable reality beyond concepts, but who is 'quick ? …

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