Last April I joined a group of colleagues from Stockholm University and the Royal Institute of Technology who monthly discuss academic books. They had scheduled “Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things” by Professor of Political Theory Jane Bennett. This a fascinating book not only because Bennett’s accessible and compelling writing makes it possible to learn more about classical works in Continental Philosophy but also because Jane Bennett explains why it is important to interrogate us about how we think, relate, and take care of things, non-human matter.
Her book brought me back to “Steps to an Ecology of Mind” (Bateson, 1972), a book that I read many years ago (during my psychologist training), and that completely changed my view of illness and human relationships. Particularly, Bateson’s writing made me understand that if we want to help people to change their behaviors, their practices then it is better, as a therapist to target their relational modes or ways to relate to each other rather than their individuals’ symptoms.
Bennetts’ way to write about relations also resonated with Decuypere & Simons (2016). In that article, the authors distinguish the relational modes from the representationalist modes of thinking by arguing that “relational thinking places the primacy on the prevalent relations in a setting” rather than on social and/or material distinct entities. As such, these authors underscore the importance of looking “at the relations between different actors – and this to such an extent that actors are, in fact, the result of the relations they uphold with other actors” (p.3).
Reading Bennett with Decuypere & Simons’s distinction in mind, makes me think that actors are also the result of the relations they uphold with things. Paying attention to the relations with things, Bennett makes a compelling distinction between things and objects, as she speaks of vibrancy of things and not of objects because objects are the ways things appear to a subject but things are something else, she writes: “things signal the moment when objects become the Other” meaning that things somehow escape the relationship between subject-object; things are at the outside of human/knowledge relationships and then can be called: the out-side. Bennett writes that she tries to give voice to a thing power, to a vibrant matter by underscoring the conative nature of things; that means underscoring the attempted action of things rather than the action itself.
But can this be possible? How can we give voice to the conative nature of things? Most importantly how can we know about “things” being at the outside of the relationship subject-object?
Bennett’s answer connects among others with Adorno’s specific materialism and the idea of Adorno’s nonidentity which is “the discomforting sense of the inadequacy of representation [that]remains no matter how refined or analytically precise one’s concept can become” (p.14). In experiencing such a discomforting sense of the inadequacy of representation, Bennett thinks there is an ethical task to do here. Such a task is not the one of keeping remembering this discomforting sense of the inadequacy of representation and thus learning to accept this but rather acknowledging that we are part of things. “We are vital materiality and we are surrounded by it, though we do not always see it that way. The ethical task is to cultivate the ability to discern nonhuman vitality, to become perceptually open to it”. (p.14).
How is it possible to think about us as a vibrant matter which is part and parcel of non-materiality, this out-side? Someone who trained to think about this out-side and human participation in shared materiality was Adorno who wrote about a set of practical techniques, intellectual and aesthetic exercises for training oneself to better detect and accept what is called “nonidentity”.
Somehow these techniques about negative dialectics reminded me of a game that I played when I was little. It was in the bathroom of our house, there was a vanity. It had three flat mirrors and I could play with them and place them forming a certain angle to each other. The thing is that when you place an object between them, then several images can be observed depending on the number of angles that the mirrors form with each other. As the angle becomes smaller, the number of images increases. I was the thing placed between the mirrors so I could play with the number of the images of myself by going back and forth with increasing and decreasing the angles. The favorite part of the game was when I could find the smallest angle and get the most images of myself reflected on the mirrors. At this moment and only at this precise moment I could ask: who is this?
This moment was special as I tried to relate to me as I was an Other, I was looking at me as I was a stranger, an alien. I remember the feeling, the experience, it was both scary and fun. It was memorable. Was it a way to see the thing in me? Was my game with the mirrors and their changing angles a sort of a nonidentity technique to getting to know me as a thing from the out-side? Were the images of myself reflected on the mirrors a thing of power? More importantly, was I contemplating (representing) or experiencing (acting) the thing power? Was I developing a relationship with the out-side?
The thing power and the idea of out-side, the pillars of Bennett’s “vital materialism” posits that “this sense of a strange and incomplete commonality with the out-side may induce vital materialisms to treats nonhumans – animals, earth, even artifacts, and commodities – more carefully, more strategically, more ecologically” (p. 18).
Based on that one can think that my game with the mirrors was also a game to both explore and participate in new types of relationships. Perhaps was it my way to train a new type of relationship with myself as a stranger or rather a strange thing? A way to relate to the image of myself (as an unknown) without necessarily exercising power on it, conquering it, colonializing it, dominating it? Was this perhaps a new way of being, a sort of exploration of an existential relationship with myself? Or was just this game a way to learn to appreciate, accept the perceived otherness in me?
Bennett’s book is an intellectually stimulating reading about ontological thinking and political theory as well as the relationships between both. On the one hand, it is about how we can possibly discern the vitality of matter and maintain a focus on it while writing about it. On the other hand, the book is about the political implications of the relationships we develop with nonhuman bodies in such a process where we discern the vitality of matter; a vitality that makes us think about the ethics enacted in such a process.
In the end, the take-away message for me is this fascinating intellectual journey experienced and the hope to be able to contribute to developing more responsible and caring ways to relate to what is unknown and to non-human things. Because as Bennett brilliantly shows it, this matter alien to us is constitutive of who we are: vital materiality.
Bateson, G. (2000). Steps to an ecology of mind: Collected essays in anthropology, psychiatry, evolution, and epistemology. University of Chicago Press.
Bennett, J. (2010). Vibrant matter: A political ecology of things. Duke University Press.
Decuypere, M., & Simons, M. (2016). Relational thinking in education: Topology, sociomaterial studies, and figures. Pedagogy, Culture & Society, 24(3), 371-386.
 Bennett writes about the three techniques that Adornos suggests to practice nonidentity exercises. She points to (1)the intellectual practice consisting of attempting to make the very process of conceptualization an explicit object of thought because conceptualization obscures the inadequacy of its concepts and then we need a concept of nonidentity to “cure the hubris of conceptualization” (p. 14). There is also (2)this thing with exercising one’s utopian imagination so we can “re-create what has been obscured by the distortion of a conceptualization” (p.15). I understand it is a way to put conceptualization into brackets and get a more genuine understanding of the out-side (?). Finally, there is (3)the thing with admitting a playful element into one’s thinking and be willing to play the fool by questing after (as Adorno does) “the preponderance of the object” that Bennett calls the thing-power (p. 16).
 Bennet explains “composing and recomposing the sentences of this book- especially in trying to choose the appropriate verbs, I have come to see how radical a project it is to think vital materiality. It seems necessary and impossible to rewrite the default grammar of agency, a grammar that assigns activity to people and passivity to things. Are there more everyday tactics for cultivating an ability to discern the vitality of matter?” (p.119) as “is it not, after all, a self-conscious, language wielding human who is articulating thus the philosophy of vibrant matter? (p.120).