Call Me Crazy

Call me crazy, but I just don’t get it. I spent about an hour or so reading Jane Bennet’s Vibrant Matter, chapters 1 and 2, last night (I read slowly) and I’m not sure I’m buying it. After reading it, the main thought I was left with was doubt, not in a negative, pessimistic fashion, but more in a curious and questioning one. Also I just came out of a pretty debate intensive class, so I’m feeling a bit argumentative. 

Feel free to correct me, but unless I am mistaken, Bennet is arguing the “vitality of matter” as she puts it, that seemingly ordinary objects (a dead rat, a glove, pollen etc) have a kind of “thing-power” which allows it to affect us in a variety of ways. It can be disgust, joy, happiness, regret, sadness, etc. The idea is that viewing such objects as actants, instead of just inanimate, meaningless things, will unlock some great mystery of the world. Maybe it can, maybe it can’t.

Personally, I think it can. But not for the reasons Bennet describes.

Bennet notes, after seeing a collection of objects in passing, that those objects exhibited thing power to her, and that they called out to her, but perhaps in a way she did not understand. She states she was “rebelled by the dead, dismayed by the litter,” but also aware of “the impossible singularity of that rat, that configuration of pollen, that otherwise utterly banal, mass produced plastic-water cap.”

Now don’t get me wrong, this is all well and good. In fact, I completely agree that ordinary objects have the ability to affect us in ways that we may not expect, such as those that Bennet describes above. However, I have always ascribed this “thing-power” to be one of human origin, and of human capacity for thought, not some uniquely unnoticeable “vitality” that things innately possess. Bennet herself notes this objection of mine, that the “thing-power” was merely an extension of her humanity, but then defends her original point by insisting that the “swarming activity inside her head was itself an instance of the same vital materiality.”

Unfortunately Ms. Bennet, no. That would be cognitive thought, and human action.

The dead rat, was absent of life and likely smelling, and therefore would repulse any given person with sufficiently functioning senses. Litter, being counterproductive to the well-being of a clean society, would off-put any environmental citizen. And arrangements of pollen, almost always unique, can catch the eye of someone looking for a pretty scene.  

Please do not misunderstand me. I 100% believe that people can find meaning, significance, and just about any emotion from any given object. But I believe that it is fundamentally at its core a result of some kind of human activity. For example, when I get back to my room every day after a string of classes, and see my bed, I feel instantly happy and assured because I know that I can now rest. Bennet would have me believe that the bed is acting on me, that its thing-power and vitality are impressing upon me notions of rest and ease. However, in reality this emotion is brought about because I know my bed is comfortable and I have fond memories of sleeping soundly on it, Another person, who has never seen my bed before, may view it for the first time and experience a similar emotion because he is reminded fondly of his own comfortable bed. Perhaps he prefers the floor, so the sight of a bed repulses him. The point is the same.

The point is that the bed’s thing-power is in reality a function of my ability to either think, or recall, something regarding the bed, or something similar to it. Had I never seen a bed, slept on one, or known what one was, seeing a bed for the first time would confound me, not because it is exerting affects of confusion onto me, but because I recognize its uniqueness in my life thus far.  

Bennet questions in her preface, “what difference would it make to public health if eating was understood as an encounter between various and variegated bodies, some of the mine, and some of them not, and none of which always get the upper hand?” She asks similar questions relating to how our views might change if we started viewing things as actants. I posit that, in reality, nothing SHOULD change. Bennet seems to think that thinking of eating as the combination of things that are inherently made of the same matter (a true belief by the way), will somehow increase the propensity of people to eat healthy. In response, I ask, what I believe to be a far more meaningful question. What if people viewed eating as a way to either keep their body healthy versus unhealthy? Is this methodology of thinking not only more to the point, but greater in its impact? If we stop thinking of taste, and instead focus on the well being of our bodies, and those around us, do we not then achieve a state of public health, without the need to ascribe vitality to things?

This post is already getting quite long so I will attempt to wrap up. The point I am trying to make is that people give things meaning. I have in my room, a box of every card that has ever been written to me since 7th grade. These objects are inanimate, their essence, unchanging. Yet I cherish these objects as some of the most prized possessions I own because when I see them, when I read them, I recall the person who wrote it. It is not the card, by its nature that acts upon me. It is what I make of the card, that gives it meaning.

TLDR; I completely acknowledge the possibility that I may have missed the point of Bennet’s work, but as of now, I don’t buy it. We, as people capable of cognitive thought, give meaning to things that otherwise have none.

John Gonsalves 

~ by jeg417 on September 11, 2013.

9 Responses to “Call Me Crazy”

  1. John, I really liked the way you exposed your ideas but I have to strongly disagree with your argument that the bed does not directly act on you. Not everything is subjective. The way your body feels after a night in comfortable bed is different from when you sleep on the floor or on the street, and I think that is for very physical reasons, not personal.


  2. When discussing complicated texts and theory, it is sometimes difficult to articulate opinions in a smart and clean way. That being said, I felt this post is written in a way that is accessible to everyone. Also, the overall tone made this post interesting and entertaining.
    – Ashley Flor

  3. John-
    I agree with you in that I can’t fully accept Bennett’s ideas. Although they are internally consistent, a lot of her defenses of vital materialism against possible counter argument seem weak (like the moment you pointed out when she defends her theory saying that her reaction was not a byproduct of human thought because “swarming activity inside her head was itself an instance of the same vital materiality.”) The logic seems circular. So yes, I agree with you that the dead rat/glove/pollen allegory was weak.

    I do hope you read the part about the Grid again because that is where I think her ideas (however flawed) become interesting, perspective changing and even useful. Seeing all the ‘actants’ at work aside from human, or alongside human, intervention does give a fuller more interesting view of the situation.

    Excited to keep reading her book/your posts about it and seeing if I am converted or put off ‘vibrant matter’.

  4. I appreciate your take on Bennet’s writing; however, I do not disagree or agree with you completely. I feel that your side can discount the somewhat “magic powers” of seemingly inanimate or “dead” objects. For example, it is true that on an atomic level, there are millions and billions, even trillions, of particles whizzing around with energy. It would be unfair to count it as “dead” or “lifeless”.
    But at the same time, I agree with you that Bennet takes this “thingyness” to an extreme. I am skeptical that a plastic toy that I favored as a child could have this control of my thoughts and make me interested in that. This is not a black and white issue where you can be one side or the other. It seems to me that this is more of a spectrum issue.

    -Cat Schmitz

  5. I understand your argument and from my understanding (albeit limited) of Bennet’s reading, I would have to agree with you in that I believe that objects are ascribed meaning by collective human thought and perception, which is where they receive their “thing-power.”

    -Derek Kaneko
    Criteria 2

  6. One that thing that caught my attention directly was the rare instance that that a student just says that they just don’t buy the reading. The post was well articulated and I agree that maybe Bennett gives too much credit to the thing-power and not enough to human agency. -Soyoon Bach

    I had the same doubt during my read through, and though I want to agree with you, I can’t help but be all the more curious about Bennet’s point. The only reason is the fact that for the whole existence of man (generalization, but just look at the history books), popular opinion has dictated that the world is human-centric. At the same time, humans, animals and “things” are all made up of the same “stuff” – energy-matter, like De Landa was getting at. Though I wouldn’t consider Bennet’s theorizing anything more than theory, I would be all for a thorough investigation and a newfound understanding to the power and meaning she is giving to objects.

  8. I agree with the idea that thing-power has human origins. Thing-power as I understand is a dialogue between a human and material. The ability for the “thing” to exert is power lies in the ways in which it affects the human. For example the fact that humans are generally repulsed by dead rats. Without the human, there would be no elicited affect therefore the “thing” loses its power.

    – Hang Yu
    Criteria 2

  9. I do not believe that you missed the point of Bennet’s article at all. That is a point I rather disagree with! The idea that things have meaning to you beyond the way they exist and how they are processed by our senses is a point you yourself made. As I understood it, Bennett’s idea of things and thing-power seemed easy to understand in sociological sense. The idea of your bed represents different things to different people (as you explained in a very clear and intelligent way). To you, it means rest and comfort, to an insomniac it could mean struggle and disappointment, and to someone who has never seen a tradition, American bed, it means nothing. The same could be said for HTML (since we are talking about technology here). To those who understand it, there is great power, meaning, and possibility. To those who don’t, it is frustration, or even worse, gibberish. Even more importantly, and a point that Bennet makes, things are depending on their environment. HTML on a piece of paper given to a newborn baby is nothing, but given the right landscape and interactions, its existence transcends the physical. Maybe the hippyish wording threw you off, but I really disagree with you, John. I know you understand this “stuff.”

    Natalia Ramirez

Comments are closed.