Bennett: good in-flight reading

April 29, 2010

On the flight, when not sleeping, I was going back through Bennett’s Vibrant Matter more thoroughly (in preparation for reviewing it). It’s a remarkable piece of persuasive writing, and of course I also happen to agree with most of it.

If there’s one thing I disagree with, it’s the continued use of an opposition between individual things and assemblages. The idea still seems to be widespread that to think of things as individuals is some sort of reactionary essentialist move that fails to note that things are also determined by their environment, that they enter into assemblages with other things, and so forth.

That is certainly the case. And no object-oriented turn would be worthwhile if it were saying: let’s bring back static essences and unchanging natural kinds and downplay the role of context.” That would in fact be one possible response to the postmodernist era: a conservative reaction of the “naive realist” sort.

But those are not the stakes here. It is certainly true that context and relation can affect the reality of an individual thing. It does not follow that each last detail of a context or relation changes the thing that is involved with them. An individual is a kind of filter (or “firewall,” as I often call it) responding to some relation partners but not all. To be affected by something outside us is a special case, even if not a rare one. Countless things happen around us without this entailing that our reality registers each tiny fluctuation in such a way that it changes who we are.

Unless a philosophy can account adequately for the fact that not all changes make a difference, then its sense of individuals is too weak.

The same holds for any philosophy that jumps from (a) nothing is simple; everything is built an assemblage of parts; to (b) therefore, everything is determined by its context, relations, environment.

These are two separate claims. The fact that I am made of pieces does not mean that I am determined by my status as being a piece of something even larger. (And in the first place, I’m not even entirely determined by the pieces of which I am made: partly because I am something over and above these pieces, and partly because they can be shuffled or replaced within certain limits without there being any effect on me.)

To oppose relationism is not to oppose change. It simply means that any theory of change has to take account of the extraordinary capacity of individuals to resist or even ignore many or even most of the fluctuations in its environment.

There are times when Bennett and I are close to agreeing even on this issue, of course. She is well aware, for example, that assemblages do not exhaust their components, and precisely this is what gives them the “vibratory” character that is referred to even in the title of her book.

Her knack for examples is really something to experience.


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