Vibrant Matter – Initial Thoughts: Skepticism, Vitalism and the Ecology of Politics

As I stall my more substantive comments until Bennett’s book arrives I can at least begin with some remarks about the interesting introductory content posted at Peter Gratton’s blog Philosophy in a Time of Error :

My first impression of Bennett’s project after reading Peter’s outline and interview with Bennett was one of skepticism. It wasn’t clear to me that Bennett will be able to achieve what she seems to attempt: namely, a non-metaphysical, non-transcendent, refurbished immanent vitalism. Although, i suspect such skepticism is more about 'vitalism' in general than about Bennett's abilities. As Daniel Dennett has quipped, "Vitalism—the insistence that there is some big, mysterious extra ingredient in all living things—turns out to have been not a deep insight but a failure of imagination." [source] And all my past contacts with so-called vitalist thinking (mainly in Spinoza and Bergson) has left me with a sense that the ‘vitality’ of these accounts rely on some sort of theological projection – where God or an outside ‘something else’ bestows reality with its animating character.

However, Bennett’s approach seems intent stretching the discourse on vitalism by linking a wide range of theoretical movements in Continental philosophy and political theory - from Spinoza to Bergson to Deleuze and even Bruno Latour - and rethinking traditional notions of matter and life. While I’m not qualified or capable of assessing exactly how successful she is with this project, I remain skeptical about anyone’s ability to synthesize the best ideas flowing from all these thinkers while also jettisoning the most distracting. I will, however, remain open to the prospect that Bennett’s treatment of the issues and ideas will provide ample opportunity to prove me wrong. As Peter writes,
“What Bennett offers is a “vital materialism” that negotiates the difficult —some would say impossible —task of presenting a vitalism that comes unhinged from Spinozist teleologies of nature. She thus describes vibrant networks of change operating beyond and within human beings without providing a purposiveness to the separable matter of nature, either coming from human beings (anthropocentrism) or some divinity (ontotheology).” [source]
I do hope she achieves exactly what Peter implies here – because materialisms in general, and political materialisms in particular are in desparate need of re-theorizing if we ever hope to both describe the world as it is and more affectively rouse the imaginations of our species towards more sane and ecological worldviews and behaviors.

And, at the risk of giving up my game from the start, I’ll be most interested in any possible questions her descriptive encounters with more-than-human assemblages might raise for politics (broadly and practically conceived), rather than in her philosophical leanings per se. Here, too, Peter gives me hope when he writes, “Bennett’s book gains its vitality from her descriptions of the life of metal, the agency of food, and even the wrong way to read vitalism as she approaches recent debates over stem cell research.” [source]

In a nutshell: my reading of Vibrant Matter is charged with an anticipation of encountering in Bennett’s prose any potential articulation and development towards an affective and therefore decidedly 'political' vocabulary of radical immanence. I'll be reading to see if Bennett's lines of reasoning provides some means to not only take the living properties and powers of the world and ‘things’ seriously, but also if she can develop a post-Cartesian description of human agency as it relates to the wider carnival of nature’s beings and becomings. If Bennett can navigate the rough seas of vitalist theory and ecological description she might just help provide some very important bridging work towards enacting, evolving and engaging the various realities, intensities and opportunities within our contemporary conditions. I look forward to the journey.

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