Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things

Duke University Press
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In Vibrant Matter the political theorist Jane Bennett, renowned for her work on nature, ethics, and affect, shifts her focus from the human experience of things to things themselves. Bennett argues that political theory needs to do a better job of recognizing the active participation of nonhuman forces in events. Toward that end, she theorizes a “vital materiality” that runs through and across bodies, both human and nonhuman. Bennett explores how political analyses of public events might change were we to acknowledge that agency always emerges as the effect of ad hoc configurations of human and nonhuman forces. She suggests that recognizing that agency is distributed this way, and is not solely the province of humans, might spur the cultivation of a more responsible, ecologically sound politics: a politics less devoted to blaming and condemning individuals than to discerning the web of forces affecting situations and events.

Bennett examines the political and theoretical implications of vital materialism through extended discussions of commonplace things and physical phenomena including stem cells, fish oils, electricity, metal, and trash. She reflects on the vital power of material formations such as landfills, which generate lively streams of chemicals, and omega-3 fatty acids, which can transform brain chemistry and mood. Along the way, she engages with the concepts and claims of Spinoza, Nietzsche, Thoreau, Darwin, Adorno, and Deleuze, disclosing a long history of thinking about vibrant matter in Western philosophy, including attempts by Kant, Bergson, and the embryologist Hans Driesch to name the “vital force” inherent in material forms. Bennett concludes by sketching the contours of a “green materialist” ecophilosophy.

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About the author

Jane Bennett is Professor of Political Theory and Chair of the Department of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University. She is the author of The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics and Thoreau’s Nature: Ethics, Politics, and the Wild, and an editor of The Politics of Moralizing and In the Nature of Things: Language, Politics, and the Environment.

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Additional Information

Publisher
Duke University Press
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Published on
Dec 14, 2009
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Pages
200
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ISBN
9780822391623
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Language
English
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Genres
Philosophy / Political
Political Science / History & Theory
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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Eligible for Family Library

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It is a commonplace that the modern world cannot be experienced as enchanted--that the very concept of enchantment belongs to past ages of superstition. Jane Bennett challenges that view. She seeks to rehabilitate enchantment, showing not only how it is still possible to experience genuine wonder, but how such experience is crucial to motivating ethical behavior. A creative blend of political theory, philosophy, and literary studies, this book is a powerful and innovative contribution to an emerging interdisciplinary conversation about the deep connections between ethics, aesthetics, and politics.

As Bennett describes it, enchantment is a sense of openness to the unusual, the captivating, and the disturbing in everyday life. She guides us through a wide and often surprising range of sources of enchantment, showing that we can still find enchantment in nature, for example, but also in such unexpected places as modern technology, advertising, and even bureaucracy. She then explains how everyday moments of enchantment can be cultivated to build an ethics of generosity, stimulating the emotional energy and honing the perceptual refinement necessary to follow moral codes. Throughout, Bennett draws on thinkers and writers as diverse as Kant, Schiller, Thoreau, Kafka, Marx, Weber, Adorno, and Deleuze. With its range and daring, The Enchantment of Modern Life is a provocative challenge to the centuries-old ''narrative of disenchantment,'' one that presents a new ''alter-tale'' that discloses our profound attachment to the human and nonhuman world.

Meeting the Universe Halfway is an ambitious book with far-reaching implications for numerous fields in the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities. In this volume, Karen Barad, theoretical physicist and feminist theorist, elaborates her theory of agential realism. Offering an account of the world as a whole rather than as composed of separate natural and social realms, agential realism is at once a new epistemology, ontology, and ethics. The starting point for Barad’s analysis is the philosophical framework of quantum physicist Niels Bohr. Barad extends and partially revises Bohr’s philosophical views in light of current scholarship in physics, science studies, and the philosophy of science as well as feminist, poststructuralist, and other critical social theories. In the process, she significantly reworks understandings of space, time, matter, causality, agency, subjectivity, and objectivity.

In an agential realist account, the world is made of entanglements of “social” and “natural” agencies, where the distinction between the two emerges out of specific intra-actions. Intra-activity is an inexhaustible dynamism that configures and reconfigures relations of space-time-matter. In explaining intra-activity, Barad reveals questions about how nature and culture interact and change over time to be fundamentally misguided. And she reframes understanding of the nature of scientific and political practices and their “interrelationship.” Thus she pays particular attention to the responsible practice of science, and she emphasizes changes in the understanding of political practices, critically reworking Judith Butler’s influential theory of performativity. Finally, Barad uses agential realism to produce a new interpretation of quantum physics, demonstrating that agential realism is more than a means of reflecting on science; it can be used to actually do science.

A major work by one of the more innovative thinkers of our time, Politics of Nature does nothing less than establish the conceptual context for political ecology--transplanting the terms of ecology into more fertile philosophical soil than its proponents have thus far envisioned. Bruno Latour announces his project dramatically: "Political ecology has nothing whatsoever to do with nature, this jumble of Greek philosophy, French Cartesianism and American parks." Nature, he asserts, far from being an obvious domain of reality, is a way of assembling political order without due process. Thus, his book proposes an end to the old dichotomy between nature and society--and the constitution, in its place, of a collective, a community incorporating humans and nonhumans and building on the experiences of the sciences as they are actually practiced.

In a critique of the distinction between fact and value, Latour suggests a redescription of the type of political philosophy implicated in such a "commonsense" division--which here reveals itself as distinctly uncommonsensical and in fact fatal to democracy and to a healthy development of the sciences. Moving beyond the modernist institutions of "mononaturalism" and "multiculturalism," Latour develops the idea of "multinaturalism," a complex collectivity determined not by outside experts claiming absolute reason but by "diplomats" who are flexible and open to experimentation.



Table of Contents:

Introduction: What Is to Be Done with Political Ecology?

1. Why Political Ecology Has to Let Go of Nature
First, Get Out of the Cave
Ecological Crisis or Crisis of Objectivity?
The End of Nature
The Pitfall of "Social Representations" of Nature
The Fragile Aid of Comparative Anthropology
What Successor for the Bicameral Collective?

2. How to Bring the Collective Together
Difficulties in Convoking the Collective
First Division: Learning to Be Circumspect with Spokespersons
Second Division: Associations of Humans and Nonhumans
Third Division between Humans and Nonhumans: Reality and Recalcitrance
A More or Less Articulated Collective
The Return to Civil Peace

3. A New Separation of Powers
Some Disadvantages of the Concepts of Fact and Value
The Power to Take into Account and the Power to Put in Order
The Collective's Two Powers of Representation
Verifying That the Essential Guarantees Have Been Maintained
A New Exteriority

4. Skills for the Collective
The Third Nature and the Quarrel between the Two "Eco" Sciences
Contribution of the Professions to the Procedures of the Houses
The Work of the Houses
The Common Dwelling, the Oikos

5. Exploring Common Worlds
Time's Two Arrows
The Learning Curve
The Third Power and the Question of the State
The Exercise of Diplomacy
War and Peace for the Sciences

Conclusion: What Is to Be Done? Political Ecology!

Summary of the Argument (for Readers in a Hurry...)
Glossary
Notes
Bibliography
Index



From the book: What is to be done with political ecology? Nothing. What is to be done? Political ecology! All those who have hoped that the politics of nature would bring about a renewal of public life have asked the first question, while noting the stagnation of the so-called "green" movements. They would like very much to know why so promising an endeavor has so often come to naught. Appearances notwithstanding, everyone is bound to answer the second question the same way. We have no choice: politics does not fall neatly on one side of a divide and nature on the other. From the time the term "politics" was invented, every type of politics has been defined by its relation to nature, whose every feature, property, and function depends on the polemical will to limit, reform, establish, short-circuit, or enlighten public life. As a result, we cannot choose whether to engage in it surreptitiously, by distinguishing between questions of nature and questions of politics, or explicitly, by treating those two sets of questions as a single issue that arises for all collectives. While the ecology movements tell us that nature is rapidly invading politics, we shall have to imagine - most often aligning ourselves with these movements but sometimes against them - what a politics finally freed from the sword of Damocles we call nature might be like.
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