Thing-Power of the Immaterial?

Nonliving, material objects are at the epicenter of an individual’s life in this postmodern time period. They are ubiquitous, everything ranging from plates to chairs to computers, and are arguably the thing that humans interact with the most on a daily basis. The material objects that I must confront everyday are clothing, my macbook, my cellphone, pens, paper, the subway and so forth. You get the point, life revolves around constant interactions between these material things that surround us. Perhaps another title that could be ascribed to these material objects is the term commodity. Marx defines the commodity as “An external object, a thing which through its qualities satisfies human needs of whatever kind”(Marx, Capital 125). All the material objects I mentioned above are examples of commodities. An umbrella is a commodity because it is an object that satisfies the human need of staying dry when it is raining outside.

Since commodities are nonliving material objects manufactured for specific human needs it is often naturally assumed that they do not have an agency of their own. However this is not the case. In the preface of Vibrant Matter Jane Bennett says “In chapter 1, ‘The Force of Things,’ I explore two terms in vital materialist vocabulary: thing-power and the out-side. Thing-power gestures toward the strange ability of ordinary, man-made items to exceed their status as objects and to manifest traces of independence and aliveness, constituting the outside of our own experience”(Bennett, xvi). How does thing-power materially manifest itself? What does aliveness of a material object mean?

An interesting “object” to consider in this context is the Internet. In the Marxist definition the Internet is considered a commodity. It is an external object used by humans to satisfy many needs including but not limited to memory extension, knowledge acquisition and entertainment. It is also a material object because it is compose of wires and servers that are physically connected that send and received digital information. Thus, in Bennett’s sense, the Internet has its own material agency. But the Internet is also immaterial and its materiality is not what humans engage with on a daily basis. Tim Berners-Lee et al describe the Internet in “The World-Wide Web” by saying “The World-Wide Web (W3) was developed to be a pool of human knowledge, which would allow collaborators in remote sites to share their ideas and all aspects of a common project”(Berners-Lee, 76). Its initial function remains similar to what it does today; The Internet is still a virtual space filled with user created information. It is this virtual and immaterial space: websites that humans relate to it. Since the relationship between humans and the internet is articulated through this immaterial element how, then, do we apply Bennett’s theories which are heavily rooted in the materiality of the object?

– Hang Yu

Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Vol. 1. Trans. Ben Fowkes. New York: Penguin, 1990. Print.

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter. USA: Duke University Press, 2010. Print.

Berners-Lee, Tim et al. “The World-wide Web.” Communications of the ACM Vol. 38 No. 8, August 1994: 76. Print.


~ by hy521 on September 11, 2013.

One Response to “Thing-Power of the Immaterial?”

  1. I like how you mention commodity, we tend to forget that not everyone has the opportunity to access the internet and some don’t even have the means to choose what they can or can not view. Even then with censorship and laws, people will never know if they are seeing what they are allowed to see or if they are seeing what someone else wants them to see.

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