The core of Bennett’s argument in Vibrant Matter – or what is, for me, the most compelling and perhaps politically urgent of her contributions to the discourse we have been following throughout this seminar – comes up in her seventh chapter, on “Political Ecologies”:
If human culture is inexplicably enmeshed with vibrant, nonhuman agencies. and if human intentionality can be agentic only if accompanied by a vast entourage of nonhumans, then it seems that the appropriate unit of analysis for democratic theory is neither the individual human nor an exclusively human collective but the (ontologically heterogeneous “public” coalescing around a problem. (108)
This redefinition of the ‘appropriate unit’ for political analysis seems to be based upon what she introduces, in an earlier chapter, as “the ‘prodigious’ idea that activity is the ‘vague essence’ of matter,” drawn from the ontological work of Deleuze and Guattari (54). As with Deleuze and Guattari, she seems to be referring here to essence in a decidedly non-Platonic manner – that is, as an essence that is not to be understood as some sort of essentializing mobile-colonial universal. (Hence the application of the qualifier ‘vague’ – a quality with which I think, in general (vaguely speaking), we could all stand to be somewhat more comfortable, in appropriate circumstances. Abstraction is not something to be feared always, or condemned, outright and universally!)
Such a notion is, by this point in the semester, one that we have encountered rather frequently, in one form or another. Coupled with the fact that I have read Bennett’s text previously once before – around a year ago – this led to me feeling quite comfortable with Bennett’s assertions throughout Vibrant Matter. My mind wasn’t blown, so to speak, by any of her assertions regarding being, ontology, etc. However, what I did appreciate most, were her forays into more specific exemplum of the places in which we encounter the vague essence of vibrant materiality. In particular, I appreciated her discussion of food, typically conceived of as the epitome of passive and inert matter – something that is simply there to be consumed, without any reciprocal agentic capacity of its own. As I sit in front of my laptop, a large cup of coffee at my left hand, I am all to aware of the agentic capacity of those entities I take into my body – consumption is a two-way street, as any graduate student who has ever overdone it on the coffee (or burritos, or beer, etc) can attest.
Vibrant Matter brought to my mind the imagery of Shakespeare’s comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a play teeming and brimming over with intertwining vivacity. A good example is Titania the fairy queen’s monologue in Act 2, scene 2:
And never, since the middle summer’s spring,
Met we on hill, in dale, forest or mead,
By paved fountain or by rushy brook,
Or in the beached margent of the sea,
To dance our ringlets to the whistling wind,
But with thy brawls thou hast disturb’d our sport.
Therefore the winds, piping to us in vain,
As in revenge, have suck’d up from the sea
Contagious fogs; which falling in the land
Have every pelting river made so proud
That they have overborne their continents:
The ox hath therefore stretch’d his yoke in vain,
The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn
Hath rotted ere his youth attain’d a beard;
The fold stands empty in the drowned field,
And crows are fatted with the murrion flock;
The nine men’s morris is fill’d up with mud,
And the quaint mazes in the wanton green
For lack of tread are undistinguishable:
The human mortals want their winter here;
No night is now with hymn or carol blest:
Therefore the moon, the governess of floods,
Pale in her anger, washes all the air,
That rheumatic diseases do abound:
And thorough this distemperature we see
The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts
Far in the fresh lap of the crimson rose,
And on old Hiems’ thin and icy crown
An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds
Is, as in mockery, set: the spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world,
By their increase, now knows not which is which:
And this same progeny of evils comes
From our debate, from our dissension;
We are their parents and original.
You know, I was only looking for a small passage to demonstrate Shakespeare’s imagery, but it seems right to include the entirety of this monologue. And not only because it’s simply fantastic poetry, but because Titania is describing something like Bennett’s disavowal of “strong responsibility” (37). Sure, the fairy queen eventually ascribes the continuum disturbance of her assemblage to herself and Oberon, but the subjectivity of the characters themselves is thrown into question by Shakespeare’s vivacious intermingling throughout the play. Of course, I shouldn’t get too carried away making ties between this monologue and Vibrant Matter. Although Shakespeare strains the nature / culture divide to the tearing point in this monologue and elsewhere, he does not seem (to my memory) to bring non-organic life into his assemblages. There is food, nature, and abstractions, but no rocks or boots. Nonetheless, I think that A Midsummer Night’s Dream could be an untapped (well, lightly tapped, by me, before it was cool) goldmine for the coming (?) wave of object-oriented literary criticism.
My overall reaction to this book is that it seems to reiterate many ideas that we’ve already read before (although in fairness to Bennett, this book is older than much of our other reading). It seems to lay down the main ideas and the stakes of OOO/SR very well and clearly, if more simply than in Morton, Bryant, or others. I bet that a lot of people will find her rejection of ‘strong responsibility’ problematic, but I agree with her to a degree. Blame is certainly complicated and difficult to place. Where do you draw the line on personal responsibility? You can’t chalk everything up to a vast assemblage. Moral philosophy is not an area that I’m too keen on, but here’s how I tend to resolve this sort of dilemma: I hold people responsible for their actions when they are aware of a negative situation or possible negative outcome, have the means to prevent it or investigate it and become able to prevent it, and choose not to. In that case, I think, we can play the “full blame game”. People are often operators – potentially very strong elements in assemblages. So they should bear responsibility according to their acting power. I think that Bennett opens a whole can of worms with this section of the book, and seems to gloss over it too lightly.
I am much more comfortable with Bennett’s vibrant matter than I am with Harman’s withdrawn objects. I am still unable to accept the latter’s vacuous Lovecraftian universe of lonely wolves and armies. Bennett – finally – articulated something like the view that I’ve held since the beginning of the semester, namely that objects are ‘slowed down’ processes of becoming that only appear as objects to humans because of our sensory apparatus. They are actually in a state of perpetual flux. But I don’t agree with Bennett all the way here. I don’t think that “to live, humans need to interpret the world reductively as a series of fixed objects” (58). Bennett is still holding up a strong subject / object divide, as if humans were placed into a foreign universe that we need to navigate, bewildered but potentially masterful over our surroundings, freshly fallen East of Eden. People don’t look out and perceive the universe; people are the universe. We do interpret the world but so does everything else. By whose standard then is that interpretation “reductive”?
“Thing-power gestures toward the strange ability of ordinary, man-made items to exceed their status as objects and to manifest traces of independence or aliveness.”
I cannot claim to be a Deleuze scholar. In fact, my main points of contact with Deleuze are the Cinema books and the brief chapter on “Immanence: A Life.” This is not a disclaimer for what follows, but rather a plea to those more familiar with Deleuze to answer some o the questions that Bennett’s concept of thing-power raises.
As you can see from the title of my post, I’m interested in the potential connection between Bennett’s thing-power and the concept of virtuality, for which Deleuze may be our prime interlocutor. In Bennett’s in initial definition of thing-power, she uses the phrase, “exceed their status as objects.” This immediately raised the question of virtuality for me, in particular because I had just referenced Mark Hansen’s definition in a seminar today: “to be in excess of one’s actual state” (my emphasis).
I know Deleuze’s conception of virtuality is somewhat similar, in that the virtual is real without being actual (like DeLanda’s “capacities” and “tendencies”). But in what I’ve read in Deleuze, the virtual has seemed fairly nebulous. The actual is the physical, the material, while the virtual is otherwise.
What Bennett’s thing-power appears to do is to provide a more vital, active, and altogether less ambiguous (though perhaps not “less metaphorical”) notion of the virtual. Can we equate the two? Does one help us understand the other? Am I asking you to do some of my work for me?
Placing blame is not a fruitful labor. In the wake of travesty, it is after all a purely retroactive activity, one that stalls progress and will never offer a solution (case in point, New Orleans). Responsibility, however, is distinctly different: responsibility provides a list of operations that one is to complete, maintain, monitor, however you want to phrase it. Responsibility, in a cultural sense, gives purpose to states, associations, businesses, individuals, and even objects themselves (it is my chair’s responsibility to keep me suspended comfortably above my floor).
The distinction between these two concepts are all too often forgotten, particularly (and quite deliberately) by corporate industries where it is common practice for, let’s say a corporation who has taken up the job of producing plastics, to produce said plastics in a responsible, safe manner. But, through a simply baffling ideological turn of words, corporations have effectively managed to safeguard themselves from any consequences: it always trickles down to a party who never took up such responsibilities. In a virtual object aggregate like a corporation, while there may be a singular drive that organizes it (i.e. the production of plastics) no one party is at any point responsible for the responsibility. The corporate board or owners have responsibility to shareholders, profit margins, production rates. So overriding are these responsibilities that it makes all other concerns secondary, even from a legal stand-point. Shareholders have successfully sued and ousted CEO’s for making financial decisions that may aid the greater good (i.e. better safety systems, agreeing to environmental policies that may raise production costs, etc.), so clearly their responsibility is to shareholders, not the safe production of plastic. Federal laws mandate that such businesses have safety regulators whom the corporate structure now gets to say are responsible for socially responsible fulfillment of their responsibilities (the repetitive diction is intentional to illustrate the ridiculousness of this), in turn though, these safety regulators operate according to the rules set out by those on top. And it just keeps going from skilled laborer, who passes responsibility to the unskilled laborer, who passes responsibility back up to his or her manager, who passes it back up the corporate latter, who will pass it back down because their main responsibility is to the stockholder…….We get the point, it’s an asinine loop in which the only people who are truly free from responsibility are the ones who set it all in motion provided money didn’t illegally change hands, or they can claim ignorance because that was the responsibility of someone bellow them (this is exactly how Rupert Murdock, Dole, Shell, BP, De Beers and countless other industries have managed to remain intact despite blatantly illegal activity, in the case of the latter 4, literally avoiding charges for crimes against humanity, treason, aiding and funding terrorist organizations, etc). Their main responsibility was to serve capitalism or industry in general; all others fall on someone else’s shoulders.
What I am getting at here is an area that I have found quite troubling in certain texts we have read this semester: rather than creating an increased responsibility in the world, or a democracy of existence that holds all things on equal ontological footing, I see some of the ideas put forth by Harman and in passing in Bennett as justifying this lack of corporate responsibility, albeit in ways I would tend to agree with.
I tend to agree with Harman that ideology and organizations and states all most assuredly exist, maybe not physically, but they are certainly out there operating in the physical world, and we can point to legions of corpses, failed states, failed economies, destroyed ecosystems, and marginalized populations to prove they affect us. So why is it that Bennett, whom I think is making more of a valiant effort at a practical ontology than most of the other OOO and SR heavyweights we have read, seem to vindicate this? I am specifically thinking of the example of assemblage that she gave, the August Blackout of 2003, in which she essentially said that she did not feel that the Ohio based FirstEnergy and Enron were “to blame” for the event, as there were a host of other contributing factors. While I argue that A) she could stand to do more research on the subject since it was definitely proven then Enron was deliberately “turning off” power supplies because they were receiving energy credits and in turn driving up stock value for the stored electricity that was being sold rather than delivered (watch the Enron movie, this is not conspiratorial, there are recorded conversations with executives and traders discussing when they should allow power to be restored), I would also say that B) she and Harman both are running the risk of philosophical justification for this lack of responsibility. Corporate entities are not treated the same way in a court of law as a person as we all know, even though the evils they wrought upon the world most certainly are the actions of humans. So, while a host of circumstances were the ultimate cause of the power outage, she is playing the same semantic games that allow companies to skirt these responsibilities to begin with.
This again just raises the same question I have had all semester: what are we to do with ontology to better humanity, as it seems like these vague grey areas have been being taken advantage of for quite some time. While I love the fact that she is extending ontology to a discussion about diet, language (perfect timing for me in that regard as her discussions of Foucault and representations fit in wonderfully with my final topic), but I fear a full adoption of ontology put into practice could if anything reinforce a great deal of the evils of this world if applied the wrong way, as capitalism is want to do.
Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter makes an admittedly naïve push for anthropomorphism as a solution to anthropocentrism. I think I argued against this defense in class, but since Bennett seems to articulate this line of reasoning most thoroughly, I feel the need to spell out why I disagree. Admittedly, my disagreement probably falls along Althusser or Marxist reasoning against which Bennett polemicizes throughout her work.
Paying attention to things, one’s material surroundings as though they were human-like actants in their own rights might lead one to pay more respect to the dead rat, the plastic glove, the piece of wood, etc. For if one believes or chooses to think of these objects as operative upon the shared world in the same way humans are, then one might be inclined to treat these objects with more care, more respect. The issue lies not so much in the “anthropo” prefix, but in the “morphism”, that man and object are isomorphic, that we share a common morphology, a common shape or form. That the objects interact or operate upon the world in much the same way as we do, that they are not only fellow operators, but that they operate similarly. This practice only underscores the very ideological problematic that this speculation inevitably falls into. That as humans, we cannot even conceive of anything, any mod of operating that is not in some ways isomorphic. For Bennett, an actor’s gestalt is a human gestalt. And while considering objects as just as operant of the shared world as humans are might indeed yield more respect, its true basis is a kind of self-aggrandizement. We respect objects because in the end objects are not so unlike us. In the end this anthropomorphism is a reduction, an annihilation of the other, of the other object, that instead of respecting in its very difference, one might only respect as similar, as quasi-human. This anthropocentrism might reintroduce the very subject-object divide Bennett would seem to want to do away with. For saying that the table is anthropomorphic, that it is a subject-like in that it operates upon the world, only makes the world, or whatever upon which it acts at least temporarily the passive other, the object.
Deleuze’s monism more appealingly deals with this issue. The univocity of being does not reinforce the ideological interpellation of subject-object as much because just as things equally are, things are different; the univocity resounds in a plurality of modes.
(A better-late-than-never blog post)
I found DeLanda’s discussion of memory in chapter 7, “Neural Nets and Mammalian Memory,” to be exceedingly valuable – specifically, in the interest of working through my seminar, in helping me work through some lines of questioning that have remained frustratingly not-quite-convergent until now.
In particular, I took a lot away from DeLanda’s description, in the chapter’s opening, of the need to distinguish between the concepts of significance and signification. Signification, as DeLanda describes it, is a specifically “linguistic notion,” pertaining to the symbolic representation and interpretation of an event (95). He distinguishes this from the significance of an event, which is “related to its capacity to make a difference in an animal’s life, to its capacity to affect and be affected by the animal’s actions” (95).
DeLanda’s description of this distinction has been particularly helpful for me, as I sort through notions of memory/history, in the sense of each pertaining to the accumulation, organization, processing, and presentation of information pertaining to (past) events. I have been trying to approach information from a non-linguistic perspective, handling the notion in terms of perturbations and difference – essentially, of physical affect. DeLanda’s explication of significance is one of the more cogent I have encountered thus far, and seems to me to offer valuable insight into any discussion of literary texts, and their history, that hopes to account for their being in anything but the most strictly linguistic and symbolic terms – that is, in thinking of the text in terms of its function as a sort of memory, an apparatus for the storage of information/energy, only some of which can properly be classified as linguistic or symbolic.
The value of DeLanda’s philosophical-ontological foray into simulations comes down to one key point: the mechanism-independent operation of universal singularities. As Delanda writes
The term “universal” is used for two related reasons: first, the events in which tendencies are manifested and capacities exercised may be entirely different in detail and yet be shaped by the same singularities; and second, two series of events each constituting a different mechanism may nevertheless possess overlapping possibility spaces and display common features that are mechanism-independent.’
The second reason explains the ontological value of simulation. If mechanism-independent (universal) singularities exist, then it is possible for a universal Turing machine to model other systems (assemblages) by drawing upon the same universal singularity. That is, if a simulation can duplicate, within a degree of variation, the possibility space of another assemblage, then one can posit that the same universal singularity is at work. This would be important for methodological purposes.
But more important is the potential value of an ontology that derives from universal singularities. As DeLanda reminds us, the primary ontological concept that we have to operate from is essences. What makes us human? We understand the argument from essences that ultimately relies on some divine support. What is the postmodern/critical theoretical explanation? That “human” is a discursive, cultural representation, but that it isn’t real. What does OOO offer us? That individual humans are withdrawn objects that are always in excess of any relation, but that doesn’t really tell us how we manage to also be object that are not withdrawn and are capable of reproduction, for example. Science can offer us some other explanation about humans as a species, but the concept of species is not without problems. Here we might turn toward Latour in an effort to understand how matters of concern are composed. From DeLanda’s perspective the problem with species might have to do the intersection of universal singularities with individual singularities (in this case, individual humans). Individuals are always more/other than what universal singularities might impart. That is, species cannot exist on the principle of shared essences, but species might exist as assemblages in their own right emergent from populations of animals.
What universal singularities offer then is a way to understand how objects emerge that both accounts for their unique emergent properties and their ability to participate in productive relations. Without universal singularities or essences, we don’t really have a way of accounting for the way properties, tendencies, and capacities get distributed among objects.
The scope of Philosophy and Simulation is as large as it gets, and I admire De Landa’s ability to pull off such an ambitious project. However, I found the scale of his thinking to be a potential weak point. While I respect De Landa’s rigorously scientific approach (and should probably kindly back off because I honestly didn’t understand a whole lot of what he was talking about at some points), I was constantly thinking about how much of the irreducible singularity and ‘haecceity’ of life that De Landa’s simulations necessarily leave out. I’m thinking especially true of the later chapters about the emergence of human society. In the light of our recent reading of Latour, I am particularly critically minded towards such an over-arching and massively reductive approach. A hypothetical ancient anthropologist employing actor-network(-?)theory would likely discover irreducible singularity and totally individual factors in every emergent society they observed. And in each individual within those societies. I am just hesitant to accept such a broad take on why existence unfolded the way it did. I think that psyches are truly infinitely complex things, and no two are quite alike. I don’t think that simulations can account for this complexity – for love, our endless neuroses, transcendence, trauma, the aesthetic dimension, self-consciousness, insanity, despair, etc., etc.
I’m also left at a loss as for what exactly the point of De Landa’s exploration is. Like John, I wonder what ultimate philosophical value there is to this project other than to conclude that we can simulate really complex things. I guess De Landa’s ‘point’ comes in the last paragraph: “…it has been the underlying message of this chapter that social simulations as enacted thought experiments can greatly contribute to develop insight into the workings of the most complex emergent wholes on this planet.” Okay, I guess that’s a pretty noble cause now that I think about it. But I’d be interested to see how this knowledge could be used for some kind of greater good.
Criticisms aside, this is a very impressive and intimidatingly well-researched book. It’s also hard to believe that De Landa could pack such a large theory into so few pages.
Where to begin? DeLanda’s use of computer simulations to speculate on the emergence of human takes me so far out of my element I don’t know where to begin. The implications of DeLanda’s simulations, which purport to afford us some access to reality, are so wide ranging I hardly have the grounding to consider them. When I have time, I think I’ll check out this talk DeLanda gives on “A Materialist Theory of Language,” in which he uses assemblage theory to confront the linguistic theories of Chomsky and Saussure, among others.
In “Multiagents and Primitive Language,” DeLanda returns to automata theory, which he discussed in the difficult Cellular Automata chapter, featuring a lengthy discussion of The Game of Life. The origins of language, DeLanda speculates, begin with “monolithic symbolic artifacts,” or “labels that referred to directly experienced objects and acts” but that are not combinatorial (147). He uses the term “directly” again in his discussion of the emergence of reference: “the creation of a conventional association between monolithic symbolic artifacts and real entities mediated by meanings” (149). Meanings, he says, are “prototypes that neural nets extract from sensory experience, nonlinguistic categories or generalizations stored as distributed patterns of activation” (149). Finally, we get directly to “directly,” in that the meanings are directly associated with their referents by virtue of their derivation from direct encounters.
The above directness seems to contravene Saussure’s theory of the arbitrariness of language, given the fact that in DeLanda’s simulations, language bears a direct relationship to the thing represented. I can’t claim to grasp the complexities of DeLanda’s entire linguistic simulation, but this particular point, the emergence of language from an external source, and beyond that, the twin influences of biology and culture, seems worthy of further consideration.
As I have mentioned previously, I have a particular interest (though admittedly a casual one) in the cognitive sciences, particularly in the case of animal cognition. For this reason, I have been looking forward to the section on neural nets and mammalian memory since first perusing the table of contents. The complex layering of neural nets to facilitate the many mental processes involved in either reacting or dismissing any external stimuli (calling upon memory, conditioning, spatial relations, etc.) was incredibly interesting, as well as DeLanda’s knowledge on recent cognitive experiments in the animal world. I was amazed by the complex simulations that take into account recollection and retrieval schema, or “the mapping of relations of similarity into relations of proximity in the possibility space of activation patterns of the hidden layer. That is, objects that resemble each other become neighboring points in the neural possibility space, and vice versa, objects with a high degree of dissimilarity (faces and non-faces) end up as points that are far away from each other in the space of possible activation patterns” (98), which mimics the process of “successive approximation” (99). I thought this was all just amazing.
For that matter, DeLanda’s reference to language experiments in primates was also an interesting one. Through sign language, we now know that at least great apes (and I would argue dogs, but I will address this point in detail shortly) dream in images. I once read reports from a cognitive experiment discussing a gorilla that had been taught sign language. Said gorilla had a pet kitten (an actual pet kitten), who it was terribly fond of. Well, midway through the experiment, the kitten met an untimely end, which sent its gorilla friend into a depression. When researches noticed that the ape was particularly despondent one morning, they asked why it was upset, the ape then began to explain that the night before it had been playing with its kitten friend, and was sad that he was gone when she woke up. This was solid proof that not only was the ape dreaming in images derived from episodic memory, but also that it understood the difference between this nightly cognitive fiction and the real world (the ape asked if it could go back to sleep after having this conversation with the researcher, thus showing it understood that this meeting did not take place in the real world).
As heartbreaking and adorable as this story may be, it clearly shows the complexities of consciousness in at least our closest ancestors, but what of the four-legged friends that have traveled along side of us all throughout our evolution? The complex relationships between dogs and humans may have begun as a relation of mutual gain, but our canine companions have a far more complicated understanding of us than we have of them, as there are experiments that prove that dogs are the ONLY species that we can prove a definitive cognitive empathy with.
We may not notice, but we humans do something strange every time we look at another human face: we subconsciously look to the left side of a person’s face to accurately appraise their emotional state. Because of left-right orientation in our brains, the left side of a face provides a more accurate/honest outward showing of emotional states. As humans, we subconsciously recognize this, and through retina tracing software, we can show that we all know this and do it, quite literally almost 100% of the time. This is an instinctual awareness of meta-consciousness: we understand other humans we interact with are thinking creatures, and being the social animals we are, seek this tell to better negotiate encounters. No other animal does this, either with humans or other animals of their own species (this is partially because only a handful of species display internal emotional conditions through facial expressions: primates, dogs, cats, and horses form the bulk of the list, with the latter three being credited for the activity based on their co-evolution with humans, so it is difficult to deduce if this is natural in the species or a reaction to us). There is one exception, however: Dogs.
Our mutual evolutions are so closely linked that dogs, too, first glance at the left side of human faces in order to mitigate their interactions with us. This shows a complex understanding of human cognition, maybe not in exact detail, but this explains showings of sympathy or empathy that we notice in dogs (what pet owner hasn’t come home angry or depressed only to have their trusted friend hop in their lap and be particularly affectionate? This is why!).
So, I guess this has me curious about how simulations might be able to account for such interactions between species. This relation would seem distinctly different from previous models that account for predator and prey relations, and may fall more in the line of the social relations that come up in later chapters. Could a neural net (or more accurately, a set of neural nets) account for this? It would have to account for first, the emotional response of the human, the stimuli or inputs that caused this reaction, and the outputs that demonstrate it, then consider the inputs and outputs from the dog’s net, each of these processes involving many complex layers (the stimuli causing the emotional response, the individual processing, showing of emotional response, recognition in the dog, retrieval from memory sets of human physical reactions, separating the stimuli of the left side of the face from that of the right, constructing an appropriate reaction, then calling upon motor memory to accurately act on all of the results of this interaction). Can computer simulation handle such distinctly different approximations stemming from two entirely different process sets? I’d be curious to see how dexterous these simulations can be (though I am already impressed with the complexities they already account for).