Critical Case Study Review
Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things
In traditional thoughts, politics belongs to the concern of men, precisely so in the polis from the Classical world (e.g., Aristotle 1995). Although more recent literature on politics becomes more inclusive and intersectional of human actors of various identities, the politics barely reaches out of the realm of human (Jackson 2011:127). A recent book Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things by Jane Bennett (2010) takes a theoretical leap by proposing a vital materialism, which delves into the intrinsic vibrancy of nonhuman and their political quality. In this short essay, I will critically review her arguments and theoretical bearings. In my opinion, this is a theoretically enlightening piece, as her vital materialism dissolves the ontological divide between subjects and objects, re-defines politics and agency, and offers a new perspective to explain situations and events. Despite the lack of more practical methodological concerns in archaeological studies, this book opens new ground in conceptualization of political relations in the past.
Summary of the book
In this book, Bennett shifts her attention from the human experience of things to things themselves in terms of political agency. She theorizes a vitality intrinsic to materiality and argues that things are also vital players in the world (Bennett 2010:4). In her theory, assemblage is the key concept that allows independence of things and the horizontal juxtaposition of human actors and nonhuman actants. She argues that political theory should recognize the distributive agency and active participation of nonhuman forces, so that a more ecologically sound politics can be developed and the web of forces affecting situations and events can be anticipated.
Throughout the book, Bennett argues against the ontological divide between subjects and objects, life and matter, human and nonhuman, and proposes for a one matter-energy and a heterogeneous monism of vibrant bodies. She does so by joining a growing band of theorists who seek to overcome the ontological dichotomy of active humans and passive nature, such as Spinoza, Nietzche, Darwin, Deleuze, Bergson, Driesch, etc., and examining commonplace things and physical phenomena such as trash, electricity, metal, stem cells, worms, etc. In all, she sketches out the contour of a vital materialism, which enables a fuller understanding of contemporary politics that involves both human and nonhuman.
The ontological binaries
One of the greatest insights of this book is its effort to alleviate and dissolve the ontological divide. Such a divide is long standing and its traditions can be traced back to Aristotle, who divided the world into spheres of politics and sphere of nature, in which men are social and political in nature while the things are intrinsically functional and mechanical (Aristotle 1995:10-11). From the dichotomous perspective, humans are active, superior, and even unique over the inert and passive things; the role of nature in political theory has remained as a passive backdrop to the human drama. Review of the philosophical history by Bennett also shows the process of alleviation and dissolution is slow, gradual, and fickle: from Lucretius, through various medievals to Spinoza, to Feuerbach and Darwin, into Bergson, Driesch, Whitehead, Deleuze and Guattari, and up to today in the work of writers like Serres, Latour, and Massumi (Jackson 2011:127). Yet, in this book, Bennett explicitly argues against the ontological division, refuses the hierarchical relation between life and matter, and minimizes difference between subjects and objects through the concept of thing-power (2010:10-13), so that “all bodies are kin in the sense of inextricably enmeshed in a dense network of relations (ibid.:13).” In this sense, her ontology is closer to Latour and his notion of ‘actant’, which is “a source of action that can be either human or nonhuman… and which has efficacy, can do things, has sufficient coherence to make a difference, produce effects, alter the course of events (ibid.:viii).”
Politics and agency in the vital materialism
Built upon her ontological standing, Bennett re-defines politics and agency – two key concepts in her vital materialism – in a way that is fundamentally different from previous, or mainstream, political theories.
In the early anthropological formulations of politics such as structural-functionalism and social evolutionism, politics refers to forms, functions, and causation for transition through different stages of complexity (e.g., Morgan 1877; Fortes, and Prichard 1940; Radcliffe-Brown 1965; Childe 1950; Flannery 1972; Johnson and Earle 1987). The datasets under these paradigms can be selective: it can look at a specific group of people such as aggrandizers or elites, a specific social structure such as institutions and governments, and a specific linear evolution of politics teased out of the living mess. However, in the vital materialism, politics is defined as “a political ecology and a notion of publics as human-nonhuman collectives that are provoked into existence by a shared experience of harm (Bennett 2010: xix).” For Bennett, politics is not an exclusively human affair, rather, it includes nonhuman beings (2010:30); it is about the assemblage consisted of various actants and their intricate associations; and most importantly, the complex is a whole and is irreducible to selective features.
In terms of agency, similarly, political agency in the early theories is reduced to human agency, and especially reducible to individualism and rational minds of a few (e.g., Clarke and Blake 1994). In these accounts, politics is peculiar to human and human activities, and the agency only resides in subjects, and sometimes, in a few subjects. Although the development in feminism and its call for intersectionality since the 1990s leads to an increasing awareness of power and agency in individuals of different social identities, political agency does not extend to the realm of nonhuman in previous literature on politics. But according to Bennett, agency refers to “interfolding network of humanity and nonhumanity (2010:31),” and again, the expansion from human to nonhuman is a fundamental difference from previous definitions. Chapter two specifically explicates the agency of assemblage in terms of its efficacy, trajectory, and causality. According to Bennett, agency is distributive and it is “a swarm of vitalities at play”; it is also a “directionality away from somewhere even if the toward-which it moves is obscure or even absent” and therefore the “open-ended promissory quality (ibid.:32)”; moreover, its causality is “more emergent than efficient” and “more fractal than linear (ibid.:33).” Such a theory of distributive agency indicates Bennett’s engagement with practice and agency theory, as “the slight surprise of action” highlights the unintended consequences of actions and the “melting of cause and effects (ibid.)”
Vital materialism and archaeology
As indicated, the book Vibrant Matter focuses more on the theoretical and philosophical discourse of a vital materialism and less productive in its practical methodology. Especially, Bennett concerns about contemporary politics and how an attention to nonhuman would help solve a series of practical problems, rather than the production of knowledge about the past. Cases discussed in this book are peculiar to the contemporary contexts rather than to a distant past, as they barely consider the temporal depth and influence of deposition (e.g., the affective aspect of trash in the past might not be preserved or readily reconstructed to aid interpretation of their political agency). Thus, however theoretically enlightening, the book itself is not informative enough in terms of an epistemology to study the past.
Yet, despite its methodological concerns are less archaeologically informative, this book still opens new ground for conceptualization of the politics in the past and is still insightful in terms of building the paradigm toward a symmetrical archaeology, which aims to reconfigure the relation between human and things and pursue a symmetrical focus on ontological mixture (Webmoor 2007). To be more specific about its theoretical position in archaeology, I envision the vital materialism as a transition from the historical materialism and the developing paradigm of new materialism. On the one hand, the vital materialism makes a big step forward from the structural functionalist and the social evolutionist perspective of politics, as it does not reduce politics to sequences of historical patterns or search for a linear causality behind the transition between stages. On the other, despite it anticipates the ahistorical and posthumanist materialism, it has not solely centered on materials themselves or their primary agency. After all, the political agency still mainly resides in assemblage, “the human-nonhuman working group (2010: xvii).”
To wrap up, this book is very theoretically enlightening in my opinion, as the vital materialism dissolves the ontological divide between subjects and objects, and balances the previous overemphasis on human agency and ignorance of material agency. It is insightful to see assemblage has agency and human actors are not Bennett’s resistance to anthropocentrism and emphasis on the agentic contributions of nonhuman forces clearly show her attempt to shift the long-standing frame, from seeing ourselves as “human subjects who confront natural and cultural objects” to be “one of many conative actants swarming and competing with each other (ibid.:122)”. Although it does not engage more in archaeological data and knowledge about the past, such a theoretical discussion actually imposes new epistemological challenge to archaeologists: how can we perceive the political ecology in the past through material records? And what kind of methodological devices need to be developed?
1995 Politics. OUP, Oxford (Book 1: Chapters 1 and 2: pp. 8-12)
2010 Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke University Press.
Childe, V. G.
1950 The urban revolution. Town Planning Review 21:3-17
Clarke, John E. and Michael Blake
1994 The power of prestige: competitive generosity and the emergence of rank societies in lowland Mesoamerica. In Factional Competition and Political Development in the New World, edited by E. Brumfiel and J. Fox, pp. 17-30.
1972 The cultural evolution of civilization. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 3:399-426.
Fortes, M. and E. Prichard
1940 African Political Systems. Introduction, pp.1-23. Oxford University Press, Oxford
2011 Book Review: "Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things". Emotion, Space and Society. 4 (2): 127-128.
Johnson and T. Earle
1987 The Evolution of Human Societies: from Foraging Group to Agrarian State, pp. 1-24. Stanford University Press, Stanford.
Morgan, Louis Henry
1877 Ancient Society. Preface, Chapter 1. Henry Holt, New York
Radcliffe-Brown, A. R.
1965 On the Concept of Function in the Social Sciences. Chapter 9 in Structure and Function in Primitive Society. The Free Press, New York.
2007 What about ‘one more turn after the social’ in archaeological reasoning? Taking things seriously. World Archaeology 39 (4): 563-578