Thursday, August 08, 2013

Vital Materialisms

Jane Bennett's seminar "A Political Ecology of Things" (which was offered at Cornell's School for Criticism and Theory this past June and July), in which we read among others Thoreau, Whitman, Darwin, Nietzsche, Bergson, Whitehead, Perec, Serres, and Deleuze & Guattari,  has given me valuable new tools for thinking critically and poetically about materialism. The emphasis of the seminar was on vital materialism: a materialism, in a word, that takes into account the uncanny liveliness of matter, harkening back to Bergson's theory of élan vital and farther back than that to Spinoza and Lucretius. Bennett's influential book Vibrant Matter seeks to be an investigation of "thing-power and the out-side" (italics original):
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, constituting the outside of our own experience.... a liveliness intrinsic to the materiality of the thing formerly known as an object (xvi).
It's not entirely clear to me why she restricts this liveliness to "man-made items," given that her investigation begins with the following catalog of found objects encountered in a storm drain in Baltimore:

  • one large men's black plastic work glove
  • one dense mat of oak pollen
  • one unblemished dead rat
  • one white plastic bottle cap
  • one smooth stick of wood

"As I encountered these items, they shimmied back and forth between debris and thing" (4). It is an encounter with brute particularity, but there is more to it than that: "When the materiality of the glove, the rat, the pollen, the bottle cap, and the stick started to shimmer and spark, it was in part because of the contingent tableau that they formed with each other, with the street, with the weather that morning, with me" (5). Bennett's philosophical stance insists that this "tableau" is not an artistic production or an aesthetic reaction centered in herself as subject-observer, but a lively "assemblage" (a word she intends in its Deleuzian sense) in which "objects appeared as things, that is, as vivid entities not entirely reducible to the contexts in which (human) subjects set them, never entirely exhausted by their semiotics" (5).

Bennett's encounter with "a culture of things irreducible to the culture of objects" (5) brings vital materialism into tantalizing contact with what Quentin Meillassoux calls le Grand Dehors, the great outdoors which he claims has been sacrificed to philosophical "correlationism," the post-Kantian doctrine that we can never know things themselves, only in and as they relate to us (After Finitude). This "out-side" takes on its most political charge, in my view, when it is brought to bear on our own entanglement with it on a physiological level: the vitality of microrganisms in my intestines, or my own neurobiology which the right sort of parasite can permanently alter, or the evolutionary imperatives of my genes. Vital materialism extends and scales the insights of the great modern discoverers (Darwin, Nietzsche, Marx, Freud, Einstein) of a universe governed by material forces that we can never master or control without doing tremendous violence to the "out-side" that is, in fact, us. Where environmentalists, as Bennett puts it, "selves who live on earth, vital materalists are selves who live as earth" (111, italics mine).

Materialism, as Bennett is well aware, usually takes a different valence in political theory: it is a word generally attached to the words "historical" or "dialectical." Historical materialism, as she sees it, is limited by its anthropocentrism: "Because politics is itself often construed as an exclusively human domain, what registers on it is a set of material constraints on or a context for human action" (xvi). One way to square the circle of historical and vital materialism comes through Bruno Latour, whose position in Politics of Nature and other books Bennett summarizes: "Give up the futile attempt to disentangle the human from the nonhuman. Seek instead to engage more civilly, strategically, and subtly with the nonhumans in the assemblages in which you, too, participate" (116). Perhaps the nonhuman is the new proletariat of a "vital Marxism." Or perhaps the uncanniness of the participation of the nonhuman in political life needs to be pursued in an archeological fashion: I'm thinking of Foucault here but even more of Benjamin's thing-love. More on that another time.

One of Bennett's most interesting jiu-jitsu moves takes place in her relation to anthropocentrism, which she views not simply as the entire problem (as deep ecologists do) but as something that needs to be applied as it were homeopathically: "We need to cultivate a bit of anthropomorphism--the idea that human agency has some echoes in nonhuman nature--to counter the narcissism of humans in charge of the world" (xvi). This goes hand in hand with a strategic naiveté and a de-emphasis of the task of demystification and critique that are the chief weapons of dialectical materialism (particularly in its Frankfurt School manifestations). There is also in this philosophy a welcome focus on the particular: Thoreau is a touchstone for vital materialism because his version of transcendentalism never reduces this particular huckleberry or that particular wood-thrush to a symbol of anything. (I think Melville and Moby-Dick would also be useful in this regard, particularly as that novel stages in its very structure the conflict between the dark trancendentalist Ahab who would "strike through the mask" of nature and the incredibly detailed investigation of whaling and cetology that shows such care for the particulars of blubber and scrimshaw.)

This has resonance with the challenge presented by the concept of the Anthropocene: humans have become the most significant geological force in the shaping of the planet, so that we have entered a new geological epoch with our name on it. We have met the white whale, and he is us. But he is also not us. Paradoxically, our confrontation with the Anthropocene demands on the one hand an ontological power grab the likes of which has not been seen since Copernicus; on the other hand, it requires a vast humility and Buddha-like acceptance of our inability to fully control the forces we have unleashed. Which is not to say that we mustn't try to control them! But I always get nervous when Buddha, or any cosmological world-view with its eye on the big picture, starts asserting itself: such an ontological position provides little ground to stand on for a politics of action. An ethics of humility and letting-be, necessary and beautiful as that may be, must not be severed from a politics of participation and collaboration, though one that cannot have the hypostasization of any one form of life or being as its goal.

What about poetry?

I was very glad, in Jane's seminar, to finally read in Alfred North Whitehead's Process and Reality, an exceedingly difficult text to grasp without guidance. Whitehead was THE philosopher for Charles Olson, and so his influence on Black Mountain poetics cannot be underestimated. Maybe in a future post I'll explore how my reading of Whitehead has clarified the essence of Olson's project, but for now I find that Whitehead's vocabulary of "prehension" and his wonderfully scalar ontology, which is capable of dealing coherently with the relations between a needle and thread as well as between humans and what he insists on calling "God," are quite useful to me. I have been thinking about Stevens and Ashbery lately, and how their poetry through its whimsicality and parataxis can seem like artifacts of a deconstructive faith in the limitlessness of the signifier and the near-irrelevance of the referent. Or put another way, their poetry constantly and consistently defeats mimesis: it is impossible to visualize the action "I placed a jar in Tennessee"; the images in that poem do not cohere into a mimetic narrative but place the emphasis firmly on the sensuous play of such otherwise inscrutable signifiers like "slovenly wilderness" and "a port in air."

And yet: Tennessee is real, and jars are real, as real at least as Heidegger's jug. And poems are real, and if we encounter them as "actual entities," in Whitehead's language, there is a mutual prehension going on. The poem is a datum for the reader, who will be unable to positively comprehend every semantic action in it; but more basic that comprehension is prehension. In the encounter with a poem (I say "encounter" to light up the possibility of reading the poem aloud, or hearing it read, or otherwise interacting with it in a bodily way) there takes place both positive and negative prehension or selection: this happens on a pre-conscious level, something akin to but more primordial than Stevens's adage that "A poem must resist the intelligence almost successfully." If we are in sympathy with a poem, it may have more to do with this material action than with our ability to understand what it "says." The play of the signifier is indissociable from its materiality. That play is akin to what Whitehead calls "process": the becoming of actual entities, the materialization of concepts (what Whitehead calls "eternal objects") in a procession of activities which has no predetermined end point (or "satisfaction"). Whitehead helps me understand the materiality of poetry in a new way, lighting up the complex interaction between things in the poem, things of the poem (words), the thing the poem is, and the reader.

There are implications here for why poetry may be well-suited to the task of cosmogony, of tracing reality flows, and for demonstrating the liveliness of the nonhuman, that I will be exploring for some tie to come.

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