Vibrant Matter Reading Group: Chapter 7 “Political Ecologies”

My apologies for not getting this reflection up earlier this week. I have been working on a chapter all week that has taken up most of my time and writing energy. Adrian has posted some reflections concerning this chapter at his place. I’ll try not to repeat too much of what he has already said.

Bennett claims up front that this chapter has two goals. The first is a description of what Darwin called “small agencies”, the power of things we don’t give much attention to “make big things happen”. She focuses in on two worm stories, of how worms play a vital role in the ecosystem. The second goal is to deal with the problem of the political capacity of these small agencies or, to use Latour’s term, “actants”. The worm stories are interesting, especially to see Darwin himself ascribing certain non-mechanistic quality to the actions of the worms. The second one has to do with a particular group of worms in the Amazonian rainforest that changed the conditions of the border between the savanna and the forest, essentially redrawing the boundary (Bennett doesn’t say this, but in ecology this is called an ecotone). An interesting story for those who think only humans, or human predominately, have the ability to change ecosystems. The question is whether or not this was a conscientious change, an open question since there was no understandable mechanistic reason for the worms to act in this way:

“Latour and the scientists he is observing eventually conclude that, for reasons unknown to the humans, worms had gathered at the border and produced a lot of aluminum, which transformed the silica of the sandy soil into the clay more amenable to forest trees, and so it was the forest that was advancing into the savanna.” (98)

Here Bennett pauses to defend a certain weak anthropomorphism. As a quick aside, I was initially thinking that Bennett was going to do something similar to what I have sketched out in my doctoral thesis. Yet, I was somewhat dissatisfied with what is really a heuristic anthropomorphism. What Bergson might call a fabulation, a certain untruth that we will tell ourselves, that lies outside the rational, but which can be a spur for an inventive creation of thought. Essentially Bennett’s argument is that by beginning from ourselves and making analogical connections with other things in the world we can begin to uncover “a whole world of resonances and resemblances” ultimately concluding that:

“A touch of anthropomorphism, then, can catalyze a sensibility that finds a world filled not with ontologically distinct categories of beings (subjects and objects) but with variously composed materialities that form confederations. In revealing similarities across categorical divides and lighting up structural parallels between material forms in ‘nature’ and those in ‘culture’, anthropomorphism can reveal isomorphisms.” (99)

After this Bennett turns to the political problem of the political capacity of these non-human actants. The problem is clear, Bennett’s challenge to the commonplace notion that politics is a purely human affair requires that she deal with the particular way in which these non-human actants can be said to have a stake in “the public”. The phrase is drawn from John Dewey’s political philosophy and she defines it as, “A public is a contingent and temporary formation existing alongside many other publics, protopublics, and residual or postpublics.” (100) The public is equated with an ecosystem (though, as someone doing something very similar with philosophies and theologies, I wasn’t happy with this as it simply remains a metaphor since she does not unpack the meaning of this). This leads to some, for me, troubling aspects of Bennett’s book, aspects that fail to really move beyond political theory as it is normally practiced. Essentially, it doesn’t allow the ecosystem-thought (or -metaphor, as I claim it remains here) to exist outside of a certain biopolitics (something Scu brought to my attention about environmental thought in general). Thus Bennett claims,

“For while every public may very wel be an ecosystem, not every ecosystem is democratic. And I cannot envision any polity so egalitarian that important human needs, such as health or survival, would not take prioity. [...] Why not? [...] To put it blunty, my conatus will not me ‘horizontalize’ the world completely. I also identify with members of my species, insofar as they are bodies most similar to mine.” (104)

To my mind, this places Bennett’s vibrant materialism far too close to certain conceptions of biopolitics and again has this post-vitalism flirting with conservative political thought, as Bennett noted with vitalism in the preceding chapters. (This shouldn’t be taken as some kind of ultra-leftist condemnation of the book. I’m not writing it off because of this, but think this is a particular weakness that needs to be addressed, not only by Bennett, but other ecological thinkers. I’m locating a live problem that I think Bennett would be sympathetic to.)

Since Bennett has put in place a kind of weak hierarchy, one based on a Spinozist conatus and claims of power. This shouldn’t be taken in a Hobbesian way, which it sometimes is amongst (Anglo- and Roman)Catholic social thinkers, because it recognizes a certain “complication” of human power with thing power (this is why many see Spinoza as an early ecological thinker). It does, however, mean that these non-human powers, because they are not linguistic and can then not communicate (though, I think this claim may be somewhat hasty or inexact, they cannot communicate linguistically), can not be said to be part of democracy in the same way that human beings are. Bennett suggests that, instead, they participate in the public democracy as “disruption”, drawing on the political philosophy of Jacques Rancière. An example here may be Hurricane Katerina’s turning of a much wider base of the American people against Bush or the disruptive power of the destruction of the Gulf’s ecosystem by the introduction of crude oil.

I wonder if a Green-Marxist analysis would not fill out and challenge some of Bennett’s ideas here. I realize that Rancière is a kind of post-Marxist, but she focuses on his notion of disruption (the most popular of his ideas probably) rather than some of the work he has done on the productive power of the poor, which would connect to the more traditional Marxist ideas about labour power as the underlying substance that capitalism depends on. Is thing-power not precisely the very condition for democracy? And, finally, is there any ground for being bolder than Bennett in calling for a very different form of democracy? A communism of things, rather than the Latourian (capitalist) parliament of things?

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7 Responses to “Vibrant Matter Reading Group: Chapter 7 “Political Ecologies””

  1. Adrian Says:

    Very interesting thoughts, Anthony… A couple of questions for you:

    You write: “To my mind, this places Bennett’s vibrant materialism far too close to certain conceptions of biopolitics and again has this post-vitalism flirting with conservative political thought, as Bennett noted with vitalism in the preceding chapters”

    Do you mean that Bennett is flirting with conservative political thought, and, if so, is it just by maintaining a “weak hierarchy” in her thinking (i.e. by not being able to fully “horizontalize”), or is there something else that I’ve missed or misinterpreted?

    I suspect that a Green-Marxist analysis would, as you suggest, be helpful — which is why I was hopeful when she used the term “political ecology” in the title of this chapter (much of political ecology being at least a weak sort of green Marxism). I’m wondering, though, what a “communism of things” would look like and how it would be different from a “parliament of things”? I like Latour’s term because it emphasizes the built or constructed nature of the “parliament” — and of course he means ‘co-constructed’ by humans and all sorts of other things (i.e. by the labor of various kinds of builders). I’m not convinced by Badiou, Zizek, Ranciere et al’s efforts to revive “communism” (given the term’s history), but I do think there’s promise is the kind of communism of the commons that Hardt and Negri and others allude to. Care to say more about how you see it?


  2. Anthony Paul Smith Says:


    Thanks for your response.

    It isn’t so much the weak hierarchy that is the cause of my concern but the appeal to something like a static nature, “it is just my conatus”, that underpins it that disturbs me. I think she needs to do more work here. So, why more sympathy with my own species? Because they look like me. Why not sympathy for those in my species who most look like me? It treads too close for comfort to certain remarks you hear in CST.

    I was very unconvinced by Latour’s appeal to a parliament of things, perhaps for the same reason you’re suspicious of the attempts to rehabilitate communism. In part, it has to do with the closed nature of a parliament (in practice) and the entrenched class divisions that support parliamentarian government. To my mind any political ecology must deal head on with capitalism, not because actually existing Communist societies were greener (of course, we know, they were often very destructive, in part because of their humanism), but because, more than the representational governments, the interests of capital decide on things in the last instance. A communism of things, and this is just sketchy, may be a kind of collective poverty, a pushing of the isomorphisms to disrupt our “conatus” and its auto-destructive drive (in ignorance). The liberation theologian Leonardo Boff has written some of the more interesting stuff on the commons and ecology I’ve read, but it remains under-developed there.

  3. Guido Nius Says:

    Anthony, insofar ecological thinkers are characterized by a desire to ‘conserve’ (species, ecosystems, …) it is not very coincidental that they end up on the conservative side (& I do apologize for milking the use of the same word stem but it seems even more hypocritical to avoid it).

    I think ecologisms that focuses on the creative part are of a drastically different nature than ecologisms that focus on an original state of nature (or some such thing). The latter fear death and will do anything to avoid putting humanity as the special thing in nature. The former will see death as (‘ashes to ashes’, comes to mind) a fact of life and will embrace the specificity of humanity as capable of increasing what nature does.

    (I have been reading the Kolkman on Bergson thing in your volume (Amazon was early) and: me liked it very much)

  4. Craig Says:

    The definition of “public” you isolate is one that troubled me as well because, I think, it represents an undercurrent in her book (I found the same problem with Morton’s): technical terms are proposed but they are never discussed technically. Thus, “public” is defined as “contingent formation” (are all contingent formations “publics”? the dog hair that gathers in the corners of my house is surely a “contingent formation,” but it certainly isn’t a public–if not, what separates the hair in the corners of my house from a public?) that exists alongside other “publics, protopublics and postpublics,” i.e., a contingent formation that exists alongside… other contingent formations. Does “formation” refer to some sort of stability while “proto” and “post” refer to some forms unstability–forming and deforming, perhaps?

    It itself, the weak anthropomorphism isn’t particularly troubling, but it becomes somewhat more troubling when paired with her weak humanism and weak anthropocentrism–yes, we’ve been mistaken all along… non-human things are important, but not nearly as important as humans. I don’t see how this is little more than a revision to standard liberal humanist political theory!

  5. Timothy Morton Says:

    “Communism of things” is a good phrase. I’m up for it!

    I try to get over said vitalism in The Ecological Thought by putting “animism” sous rature–but it might just be a gimmick…

  6. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    Yeah, my thesis supervisor keeps pushing me on some of the formulations I’ve come up with, asking if they’re just jargon… I think they’re not, but making the arguments are a bit more complex. Not sure my communism of things isn’t just a gimmick, at least not without doing more work on it.

    Thanks for commenting here. I’m waiting for my next paycheck, but looking forward to reading your book. Your article in the recent Collapse convinced me to put up the cash.

  7. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    Actually, if you’re interested, drop me an email at anthonypaul(dot)smith(at)gmail(dot)com and I’ll send you the draft of an article that should be published in Polygraph sometime this year. It’s a kind of condensed form of what I’m doing with Laruelle’s non-philosophy and science. I felt a real divergence with your first book, but (even though it is a prequel of sorts) think this part of your project and mine might overlap, especially as regards “the strange strangers”.

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