An Interview with Jane Bennett
by Gulshan Khan
Jane Bennett is Professor of Political Theory and Chair of the Department of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, USA. In 1986 she received her doctorate in Political Science from the University of Massachusetts. In the following year her dissertation was published with New York University Press under the title Unthinking faith and enlightenment: nature and state in a post-Hegelian era. Her subsequent published books include Thoreau’s Nature: Ethics, Politics, and the Wild (Sage Publications, 1994) and The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics (Princeton University Press, 2001). Her new book, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, is forthcoming from Duke University Press. In 1988 Bennett became an Assistant Professor at Goucher College in Baltimore, where she also became the Elizabeth Todd Professor in the year 2000 until 2004 when she moved to John Hopkins. She has been a visiting fellow at universities in Britain and in Australia. Bennett is on the editorial and advisory board of a number of prestigious journals and book series ranging from Political Theory to Critical Horizons.
Bennett co-edited The Politics of Moralizing (Routledge, 2002) with Michael J. Shapiro and co-edited In the Nature of Things: Language, Politics and the Environment (University of Minnesota Press, 1993) with William Chaloupka. She and William E. Connolly are in the beginning stages of co-writing a political theory textbook, Friends of the Earth: Minor Voices in the History of Political Thought. These encounters have contributed to Bennett’s distinctive notion of ‘vital materiality’. Her intellectual trajectory is also indebted to aspects of the work of Lucretius (1995), Spinoza (1949), Diderot (1996), Nietzsche (1994), Deleuze and Guattari (1987), Henry Thoreau (1968) and Bruno Latour (1993). Her notion of ‘vital materiality’ also builds upon Michel Foucault’s notion of bio-power and Judith Butler’s early notion of ‘bodies that matter’. Conversely, the notion of agency that stems from Bennett’s work makes an important and substantive contribution, away from the politics of performativity associated with Butler and towards a politics of nonhuman matter and agency. She invokes a new and different political imaginary outside the Hegelian and psychoanalytic framework of the subject and object/other. In this sense her work shares a ‘subject matter’ as well an intellectual affinity with Elizabeth Grosz’s (1994) Deleuzian inspired works. Following a long tradition of thinkers who have sought to de-centre ‘the human’ (for example, Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault), Bennett’s emphasis on nonhuman matter challenges the ontological privileging of ‘the human’. However, her approach creatively affirms the necessity of human embodiment, understood as one site of agency within and across a multiplicity of other material bodies and formations. Her notion of agency also seeks to avoid reducing politics to morality, which has implications for the predominant analytical framework that is heavily underpinned by a Kantian conception of moral agency with its emphasis on intuitions, duties and obligations. Bennett’s contribution to political theory with its emphasis on nature, ethics, aesthetics, environmentalism and vitalism is inter-laced with a political interest in the literary writings of Kafka, Coetzee, Thoreau and Kundera, on whom she has published several articles and essays. Her work has clear implications for re-thinking our relations to and engagement with the vitality of nature.
GULSHAN KHAN: Jane, thanks for agreeing to this interview. I would like to begin by exploring some of the themes you are currently working on in your new book and issues raised by your paper presented at the ‘Stem Cell Identities, Governance and Ethics’ conference at Nottingham University in 2007.1 I will then move onto questions about your theory about the enchantment of modernity, nature and agency.
You are currently working on a book entitled Vibrant Matter: The Political Ecology of Things (2010), and I find myself drawn to your version of post-structuralism, which does not reduce life or matter to the play of language. Instead, you outline a layered notion of reality and in particular you delineate a conception of matter as a lively force present in all things. You seem to want to challenge our received notions of the distinction between nature and culture. For example, in your article ‘The force of things’ (2004) you confront Theodor Adorno’s (1990) point that we cannot make any positive claims about the ‘non-identity’ between the concept and the thing. By way of contrast, you offer an affirmative account of this non-identity understood as the play of lively animate forces. Can I press you to explain your notion of ‘things’ or ‘vital materiality’ and how it differs from contending versions?
JANE BENNETT: I’m trying to take ‘things’ more seriously than political theorists had been taking them. By ‘things’ I mean the materialities usually figured as inanimate objects, passive utilities, occasional interruptions or background context – figured, that is, in ways that give all the active, creative power to humans. I focus on five exemplary ‘things’ in the book: stem cells, fish oils, electricity, metal and trash. Our habit of parsing the world into passive matter (it) and vibrant life (us) is what Jacques Rancière (in another context) called a ‘partition of the sensible’. In other words, it limits what we are able to sense; it places below the threshold of note the active powers of material formations, such as the way landfills are, as we speak, generating lively streams of chemicals and volatile winds of methane, or the way omega-3 fatty acids can transform brain chemistry and mood, or the way the differential rates of cooling organize the unpredictable patterns of granite.
My experiment is this: What would the world look and feel like were the life/matter binary to fall into disuse, were it to be translated into differences in degree rather than kind? And how, in particular, would our political analyses of events change were they to acknowledge an elemental, material agency distributed across bodies, human and nonhuman? Who or what would count as a ‘stakeholder’? How would a ‘public’ be constituted? Would politics become less centred around the punitive project of finding individual human agents responsible for the public problems of, say, an electricity blackout or an epidemic of obesity, and more concerned with identifying how the complex human–nonhuman assemblage that’s churning out the negative effect holds itself together – how it endures or feeds itself? Until we do that, political attempts to remedy the problem are likely to be ineffective.
An ‘assemblage’ is an ad hoc grouping of an ontologically diverse range of actants, of vital materialities of various sorts. It is a vibrant, throbbing collective with an uneven topography: some of the points at which its diverse affects and bodies cross paths are more heavily trafficked than others, and thus power is not distributed equally across its surface. An assemblage has no sovereignty in the classical sense, for it is not governed by a central head: no one materiality or type of material has sufficient competence to determine consistently its trajectory or impact. The effects generated by an assemblage are, rather, emergent properties, emergent in that their ability to make something happen (a blackout, a hurricane, a war on terror) is distinct from the sum of the force of each materiality considered alone. An assemblage thus has both a distinctive history of formation and a finite life span.
To be clear: the agency of assemblages of which I speak is not the strong kind of agency traditionally attributed to humans or God. My contention, rather, is that if one looks closely enough, the productive impetus of change is always a congregation. As my friend Ben Corson helped me to see, not only is human agency always already distributed to ‘our’ tools, microbes, minerals and sounds. It only emerges as agentic via its distribution into the ‘foreign’ materialities we are all too eager to figure as mere objects.
It is, I think, the ‘responsibility’ of humans to pay attention to the effects of the assemblages in which we find ourselves participating, and then to work experimentally to alter the machine so as to minimize or compensate for the suffering it manufactures. Sometimes it may be necessary to try to extricate your body from that assemblage, to refuse to contribute more energy to it, and sometimes to work to tilt the existing assemblage in a different direction. In a world where agency is always distributed, a hesitant attitude towards assigning moral blame becomes a virtue. Outrage should not disappear completely, but a politics devoted too exclusively to moral condemnation and not enough to a cultivated discernment of the web of agentic capacities can do little good. A moralized politics of good and evil, of singular agents who must be made to pay for their sins – be they Osama bin Laden or George W. Bush – becomes immoral to the degree that it legitimates vengeance and elevates violence to the tool of first resort. A distributive understanding of agency, then, re-invokes the need to detach ethics from moralism… Read More