Bennett, Jane

Assigned: Bennett, Jane. From Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Chapter 1. “The Force of Things” (2434-50). Also read the editors’ introduction (2431-34).

From Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (2010)

Chapter 1. The Force of Things

1. On 2434-35 (“In the wake of Michel Foucault’s…”), Jane Bennett alludes to the proliferation of scholarship centered on “the body and its social construction” (2434) immediately after Foucault’s death in 1984. What “initial insight” (2434) stemmed from this scholarship? What further insight was obtained regarding the surprisingly material quality of “cultural forms” (2435)? What course of analysis does Bennett set for herself in subsequent chapters (2435)?

Thing-Power, or the Out-Side

2. On 2435-37 (“Spinoza ascribes to bodies a peculiar…”), Bennett introduces the concept of thing-power through Spinoza’s notion of conatus. How does she explain the meaning and significance of that notion? (2435) She also looks back to Henry David Thoreau’s idea of “Wildness” (2436). What did Thoreau apparently mean by this term? Yet a third and more modern influence is Hent de Vries, who writes about “the absolute” in political theology in a way that resembles Bennett’s conception of thing-power. What are the characteristics of the absolute as de Vries defines it, and how does Bennett differentiate her own concept of thing-power from it? What does she say she will try to do by way of explicating and testifying to the power of “things,” and what good does she believe might come of succeeding in such an attempt? (2436-37)

Thing-Power I: Debris

3. On 2437-39 (“On a sunny Tuesday morning on…”), at a specific time and place in Baltimore, Maryland, Bennett says, she noticed five items: a plastic glove, a mat of oak pollen, a dead rat, a bottle cap, and a wooden stick. What realizations did she come to in gazing upon these five things? (2437) Bennett says that she noticed “a culture of things irreducible to the culture of objects” (2438). What habit of seeing or thinking made it possible for her to notice this strange “culture”? What point does she make regarding “American materialism” (2438) with its incessant purchasing and casting away of commodified objects? How does Robert Sullivan’s travelogue The Meadowlands help her reinforce this point: why, in Sullivan’s terms, is it untrue even to say that we can throw an unwanted thing away? (2438-39)

Thing-Power II: Odradek’s Nonorganic Life

4. On 2439-41 (“A dead rat, some oak pollen…”), in what sense does an author whom Bennett quotes, Manuel de Landa, attribute to inorganic matter a species of creativity? (2439) How does Bennett analyze Franz Kafka’s short story “Cares of a Family Man,” in which the main character is a spool of thread who appears to be animate? (2440) What difficulties does this character, Odradek, present when one tries to pin it down in terms of ontology (being-status) or subjectivity?

Thing-Power III: Legal Actants

5. On 2441-42 (“I may have met a relative…”), how does Bennett discuss the complexities of a seemingly simple “Gunpowder Residue Sampler” (2441)? In what way is it, according to her, what Bruno Latour would call an “actant” as he defines that term? How does the medieval legal term “deodand” (2441) also provide insight into what Bennett calls “thing-power”? What was a deodand, and what did the concept imply about the vitality or significance of inanimate things?

Thing-Power IV: Walking, Talking Minerals

6. On 2442-43 (“Odradek, a gunpowder residue…”), what doubt does Bennett herself raise about her earlier insights into “the vitality of materiality” (2442), into “thing-power”? How does she respond to this doubt? What adjustment, that is, does she suggest must be made in our consideration of “human actants” (2442)? According to Bennett, how might the development of vertebrate life be understood as a triumph of mineralization? (2443) What new view of humanity emerges when one looks at human development and existence in this evolution-savvy way? All the same, what fear takes root when such a view becomes firmly established—what is the potential problem with “failing to affirm human uniqueness” (2443)?

7. On 2444 (“How can the vital materialist…”), what response does Bennett provide to those who fear that replacing traditional notions of humanity with a theory of vital materialism will somehow license the degradation of human beings? What three points does she make to lessen such anxiety? Ultimately, since she argues that it would be best “to raise the status of the materiality of which we are composed,” how would doing so be a positive step for human beings?

Thing-Power V: Thing-Power and Adorno’s Nonidentity

8. On 2445 (“But perhaps the very idea of…”), Bennett considers the philosophical framework of Theodor Adorno, including his brand of materialism and “negative dialectics.” Adorno, Bennett points out, insists that there is always an unbridgeable gap between “concept and reality, object and thing.” Even so, how does his concept of nonidentity lead to a productive kind of dissatisfaction with the unknowability of objects? What is the role of negative dialectics in dealing with this dissatisfaction, and how does Bennett describe Adorno’s “ethical project par excellence” with regard to this fundamental incapacity on the part of humans?

9. On 2445-46 (“For the vital materialist, however…”), recalibrating Theodor Adorno’s ethical project, Bennett argues for “the recognition of human participation in a shared, vital materiality” (2445). She then adapts Adorno’s concept of “specific materialism” to suggest how this recognition can come about. What three pedagogical (that is, educational) strategies involving Adorno’s negative dialectics does Bennett draw out for their usefulness in this regard? (2446) How does each strategy specifically help?

10. On 2446-48 (“The self-criticism of conceptualization…”), how does Bennett sum up her affinities with Theodor Adorno’s philosophical approach to “things” as well as her differences from that approach? In particular, what comments does Bennett offer regarding Adorno’s insistence that “the desire for transcendence cannot […] be eliminated…” and his retention of a certain “messianic promise” (2447 bottom) that what cannot now be understood will someday be understood? How does Bennett compare her own view to that of Adorno in this regard?

The Naïve Ambition of Vital Materialism

11. On 2448-50 (“Adorno reminds us that humans…”), Bennett, taking issue with any kind of “constructivist response to the world” (2448) that leaves no room for a genuine appreciation of “thing-power,” suggests that there is “something to be said for moments of methodological naïveté, for the postponement of a genealogical critique of objects” (2448). What constitutes this so-called naiveté? What attitude and activities does Bennett counsel as a way of taking a strategically “naïve” approach towards the vitality of material things? (2449) What value might an ancient author such as the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius have for vital materialists such as Bennett? (2449-50) Finally, even though the approach Bennett favors designedly leaves aside the sometimes tortuous intellectual labor involved in approaching objects at a philosophical level, what benefit does she suggest may accrue from this tactical move, this “naiveté”?

12. General question: In our selection from Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Jane Bennett tries to explain how we might come to appreciate and respect all forms of matter as having a kind of “vitality,” an ability to affect the world that we have too often ignored, with the result being thousands of years of human abuse leveled against the natural world and its creatures. Describe your own attitude up until now towards nature, animals, and inanimate things such as, say, rocks, buildings, your cellphone, and so forth. How much integrity and significance do you find yourself granting them in your daily existence? What do you think has influenced you (for better or worse) to think and act as you do in this regard? Explain.

13. General question: In our selection from Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Jane Bennett suggests that as part of what she calls a strategically “naïve” approach to thinking about the vibrancy and effectuality of material things, it is a good idea to become steeped in the ideas of ancient authors such as the epicurean Lucretius, whose long philosophical poem De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), while a poetical masterpiece, one would hardly put forth as the most up-to-date thinking about the material world. Do you agree with Bennett in this regard; namely, that one can still take seriously the materialist philosophy of an ancient poet while more or less leaving aside the promptings of modern science? Why or why not? Explain. How do you approach the notion of “progress” and “currency” when it comes to ideas?

14. General question: In our selection from Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Jane Bennett shows an affinity with theorists of the post-human such as Rosi Braidotti (Leitch 2325-52), Donna Haraway (Leitch 2040-71), N. Katherine Hayles (Leitch 2071-94), and Bruno Latour (Leitch 2111-26). Choose any one of these authors whose selections appear in our Norton anthology and briefly compare their approach to human subjectivity and/or the world of objects with those of Bennett. Whose work do you find most valuable based on what you have read of them thus far? Why?

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

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