Let me start out by saying that this week’s readings, especially the excerpt from Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, completely and thoroughly enchanted me. For today, in an effort to organize the abundance of thoughts bouncing around in my head relating to thing theory, I would like to focus specifically on Vibrant Matter.
In my opinion, the most fascinating part of Bennett’s “political ecology of things,” as she sub-titles her book, was her focus on “thing-power.” In Chapter 1, she writes:
On a sunny Tuesday morning on 4 June in the grate over the storm drain to the Chesapeake
Bay in front of Sam’s Bagels on Cold Spring Lane in Baltimore, there was:
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
Glove, pollen, rat, cap, stick. As I encountered these items, they shimmied back and forth
between debris and thing—between, on the one hand, stuff to ignore, except insofar
as it betokened human activity (the workman’s efforts, the litterer’s toss,
the rat-poisoner’s success), and, on the other hand, stuff that commanded attention in its
own right, as existents in excess of their association with human meanings, habits, or projects.
She continues, referring again to the list of objects, “[T]hey were all there just as they were, and so I caught a glimpse of an energetic vitality inside each of these things, things that I generally conceived as inert. In this assemblage, 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). While reading these passages, I was struck by how similar it sounded to the way I learned to write poetry from my absolutely amazing undergraduate creative writing professor. Specifically, Bennett’s argument reminded me of imagism and the desire to accurately portray an image. As Ezra Pound suggested in “A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste,” one should strive for “[d]irect treatment of the ‘thing,’ whether subjective or objective.” I think also of William Carlos Williams and “The Red Wheelbarrow”:
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
The image of this wheelbarrow, and thus, the wheelbarrow itself, seems to exert the thing-power that Bennett describes; as Bennet would say, it vibrates.
Later in the same chapter, I was intrigued by Bennett’s argument that vital materiality does not lessen humanity. She writes:
If matter itself is lively, then not only is the difference between subjects and
objects minimized, but the status of shared materiality of all things is elevated. All bodies
become more than mere objects, as the thing-powers of resistance and protean agency are
brought into a sharper relief. . . . The ethical aim becomes to distribute value more generously,
to bodies as such . . . [which] can inspire a greater sense of the extent to which all bodies are
kin in the sense of inextricably enmeshed in a dense network of relations. And in a knotted
world of vibrant matter, to harm one section of the web may very well be to harm oneself. (13)
Essentially, Bennett writes that looking at all matter as vibrant connects humans to each other and to the rest of the world in a way that the current “model[s] of personhood” do not typically allow (13). I will admit that I am usually disillusioned with arguments supporting materialism, but as Bennett writes, “American materialism,” in effect, “is antimateriality” (5). Materialism, especially what she calls vital materialism, instead relates to understanding the vibrancy of matter as she describes above.