Everything is everything

by olasvenle



Jane Bennett writes hopefully in her book Vibrant Matters about the subjectification of things as an answer to the desire for alternatives to and ways out of the race to the bottom of the narcissistic consumerist society. However her train of thoughts has a long way to go to have an impact on the contemporary public, whose image of the world situation is at best influenced by professor Hans Rosling’s statistics focusing on the level of education, infant mortality, vaccination programs against common diseases and similar exclusively human concerns.

Certain concerns of Western thought a little over 100 years ago spring to my mind. Following the all-encompassing changes brought about to British society in the 19th century by industrialization, disrupting social and economic life, a new sense of realism arose in intellectual and artistic circles. On one hand it opposed the idealism of the academic, which can be said to represent an old abstraction of the things, reducing them into instances of governing ideals. One the other hand it countered the new threat from the mass-production of industrialization. The new abstraction consisted in the machine, housing the actual expression of the thing, while the commodity being produced was rather a bi-product. The proposed alternative was centred on human beings. Humans as creative force, the human creation as the central concern and the thing, the object, constituting its witness. It upgraded man violently, with the degradation of industrial labour as the backdrop. It postulated an individualistic take on man, the personal ability to create meaning, apart from a collective one. Denouncing industrial mass-production meant a more gentle use of resources.

Over a century later Bennett’s vital materialism recognizes the way that raging consumerism has plundered the earth of its resources and threatens to devastate man’s home. Human intentions do not suffice to explain or lay the foundation for chains of events. Instead entire swarms of factors are recognized as underlying. By defining the action concept without including intention, all objects can be included, human and non-human alike, living and non-living. As the concepts “efficacy, trajectory, causality”[1] are used to define actions, all worldly objects become potential actors, in groupings (assemblages), with other entities. Instead of animating nature and objects (like the animism of indigenous people and fetishism) the soul is sucked out of humans, leaving them on the same level as everything else existing in the life-world. Parts of humans form alliances with parts of other entities and become assemblages acting according to their potentialities. No qualitative differentiation between human and nonhuman action.[2]

A theory as hands-on as this can’t help but pronouncing normative ethics: “We need not only to invent or reinvoke concepts like conatus, actant, assemblage, small agency, operator, disruption, and the like but also to devise new procedures, technologies, and regimes of perception that enable us to consult nonhumans more closely, or to listen and respond more carefully to their outbreaks, objections, testimonies, and propositions.”[3] Challenging.

Arts-and-Crafts was all about the presence of man within his things. Vital materialism aims at upgrading the things, the nonhuman, to the human level of significance. The things aren’t loaded with the human spirit; it’s not man who invests himself in the things, but man denouncing his supremacy, acknowledging its non-existing exceptionality. Actually quite the opposite.

[1] Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter, 2010. p. 31

[2] Bennett, 2010, p. 34

[3] Bennett, 2010, p. 108