[PS All the page numbers are a bit off…]


  • “The philosophical project is to think slowly an idea that runs fast through modern heads: the idea of matter as passive stuff, as raw, brute, or inert” (vii); “The political project of the book is, to put it most ambitiously, to encourage more intelligent and sustainable engagements with vibrant matter and lively things. A guiding question: How would political responses to public problems change were we to take seriously the vitality of (nonhuman) bodies?” (viii).
  • Bennett’s vital materialism engenders politics in a specific way. This is also a book principally interested in reinvigorating under-studies models of materialism


  • “actant”: “The term is Bruno Latour’s: an actant is a source of action that can be either human or nonhuman; it is that which has efficacy, can do things, has sufficient coherence to make a difference, produce effects, alter the course of events” (viii).
  • “thing-power”: “Thing-power gestures toward the strange ability of ordinary, man-made items to exceed their status as objects and to manifest traces of independence or aliveness, constituting the outside of our own experience” (xvi).
  • “out-side”:
  • “assemblages”: preferred to “objects”;


0. Preface

  • “Why advocate the vitality of matter? Because my hunch is that the image of dead or thoroughly instrumentalized matter feeds human hubris and our earth-destroying fantasies of conquest and consumption” (ix). Note that this is still a humanist self-interest for her.
  • “I invoke [Spinoza’s] idea of conative bodies that strive to enhance their power of activity by forming alliances with other bodies, and I share his faith that everything is made of the same substance” (x). Surprising both the invocation of “faith” and that Bennett is essentially proposing a philosophical monism, but one, following Deleuze, that’s “ontologically one, formally diverse” (xi); again, the form/matter debate limned by Sheldon.

1. The Force of Things

  • Grounding theory; exploring the vibrancy of “things.”
  • Relations: “When the materiality of the glove, the rat, the pollen, the bottle cap, and the stick started to shimmer and spark, it was in part because of the contingent tableau that they formed with each other, with the street, with the weather that morning, with me” (5).
  • “But is this evanescence a property of the stuff or of people? Was the thing-power of the debris I encountered but a function of the subjective and intersubjective connotations, memories, and affects that had accumulated around my ideas of these items?” (10). Key ethical question when we think about computation; are we slipping into a “computers don’t kill people, people kill people” fallacy?
  • Bennett solves this problem through deep time: “In the long and slow time of evolution, then, mineral material appears as the mover and shaker, the active power, and the human beings, with their much-lauded capacity for self-directed action, appear as its product” (11).
  • Vital materialism’s response to the concern that decentering the human causes human rights issues: “First, by acknowledging that the framework of subject versus object has indeed at times worked to prevent or ameliorate human suffering and to promote human happiness or well-being. Second, by noting that its successes come at the price of an instrumentalization of nonhuman nature that can itself be unethical and can itself undermine long-term human interests. Third, by pointing out that the Kantian imperative to treat humanity always as an end-in-itself and never merely as a means does not have a stellar record of success in preventing human suffering or promoting human well-being . . .” (12).
  • “There is a strong tendency among modem, secular, well-educated humans to refer such signs back to a human agency conceived as its ultimate source. This impulse toward cultural, linguistic, or historical constructivism, which interprets any expression of thing-power as an effect of culture and the play of human powers, politicizes moralistic and oppressive appeals to ‘nature.’ And that is a good thing. But the constructivist response to the world also tends to obscure fro view whatever thing-power there may be. There is thus something to be said for moments of methodological naiveté, for the postponement of a genealogical critique of objects” (17).

2. The Agency of Assemblages

  • Rejects the object in favor of the Deleuzian assemblage; this is the blackout chapter.
  • “While the smallest or simplest body or bit may indeed express a vital impetus, conatus or clinamen, an actant never really acts alone” (21).
  • “distributive agency” drawn from Spinoza and Deleuze/Guattari.

3. Edible Matter

  • Reconstruction of the self as a lively concrescence of human/nonhuman forces.

4. A Life of Metal

  • What is the liveliness of nonorganic matter?

5. Neither Vitalism nor Mechanism

  • These two chapters explore vital materialism’s affinities with paths not taken in philosophical history, including Kant’s Bildungstrieb, Driesch’s entelechy, and Bergson’s élan vital.

6. Stem Cells and the Culture of Life

  • This is about Bush’s latter-day vitalism; I think it’s safe to skip as it’s also repeated in the New Materialisms volume.

7. Political Ecologies

  • These two chapters are vital (lol) as they’re directly about ecology and political action.
  • “In this chapter I have two goals. The first is easier than the second: I retell a couple of worm stories, first heard from Charles Darwin and Bruno Latour, to show how worms are ‘like’ us. Here, as elsewhere in the book, I find in a non- or not-quite-human body evidence of the vitality of matter” (92); interesting that through simile comparison (“like us”) we find nonhuman vitality.
  • “The second goal is to confront the hard question of the political capacity of actants” (92); “After the worm stories, I try to explore these very difficult questions by engaging two theories of democracy. I will focus on their different understandings of what a public is, how a public is formed and deformed, and what counts as a political act” (95)—Dewey and Rancière.
  • “Let us call the assemblage in which these wiggling actants participate not (as in Baruch Spinoza) God or Nature, but History or Nature, or, to be more precise, British History or England’s Nature. This assemblage is an ecology in the sense that it is an interconnected series of parts, but it is not a fixed order of parts, for the order is always being reworked in accordance with a certain ‘freedom of choice’ exercised by its actants” (95).
  • On anthropomorphism: “A touch of anthropomorphism, then, can catalyze a sensibility that finds a world filled not with ontologically distinct categories of beings (subjects and objects) but with variously composed materialities that form confederations” (97).
  • Are worms a public? “Dewey makes it clear that a public does not preexist its particular problem but emerges in response to it” (98). Dewey proposes “conjoint action,” action that “no one body owns” but that “conjoin with an impersonal swarm of contemporaneous endeavors” (101). Unsurprising then that big data emerges as a way to tame these distributions…
  • “Since I have challenged the uniqueness of humanity in several ways, why not conclude that we and they are equally entitled? Because I have not eliminated all differences between us but examined instead the affinities across these differences, affinities that enable the very assemblages explored in the present book. To put it bluntly, my conatus will not let me ‘horizontalize’ the world completely. I also identify with members of my species, insofar as they are bodies most similar to mine. I so identify even as I seek to extend awareness of our interinvolvements and interdependencies. The political goal of a vital materialism is not the perfect equality of actants, but a polity with more channels of communication between members. (Latour calls this a more ‘vascularized’ collective.)” (104).
  • Ranciere cares about interference rather than emergence re: publics: disruptions to the demos constitute political acts; Bennett extends the capacity for “disruption” to nonhuman actants.
  • These arguments force Bennett to revise the techniques by which we administer democracy: “Theories of democracy that assume a world of active subjects and passive objects begin to appear as thin descriptions at a time when the interactions between human, viral, animal, and technological bodies are becoming more and more intense. If human culture is inextricably enmeshed with vibrant, nonhuman agencies, and if human intentionality can be agentic only if accompanied by a vast entourage of nonhumans, then it seems that the appropriate unit of analysis for democratic theory is neither the individual human nor an exclusively human collective but the ( ontologically heterogeneous) ‘public’ coalescing around a problem. 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” (106).

8. Vitality and Self-interest

  • This chapter is about the environmentalist imperative of vital materialism.
  • “Following John Dewey, I do not object to the self-interested character of this emergent public. But I do wonder whether environmentalism remains the best way to frame the problems, whether it is the most persuasive rubric for challenging the American equation of prosperity with wanton consumption, or for inducing, more generally, the political will to create more sustainable political economies in or adjacent to global capitalism. Would a discursive shift from environmentalism to vital materialism enhance the prospects for a more sustainability-oriented public?” (110).
  • Three advantages to vital materialism over environmentalism:
    1. “First, if the environment is defined as the substrate of human culture, materiality is a term that applies more evenly to humans and non humans” (111–12).
    2. “A second advantage hinges on the inflection of matter as vibrant, vital, energetic, lively, quivering, vibratory, evanescent, and eflluescent (to recall some modifiers I have used throughout the book). In a world of lively matter, we see that biochemical and biochemical-social systems can sometimes unexpectedly bifurcate or choose developmental paths that could not have been foreseen, for they are governed by an emergent rather than a linear or deterministic causality. And once we see this, we will need an alternative both to the idea of nature as a purposive, harmonious process and to the idea of nature as a blind mechanism” (112).
    3. “Vital materiality better captures an ‘alien’ quality of our own flesh, and in so doing reminds humans of the very radical character of the (fractious) kinship between the human and the nonhuman” (112).
  • Now a reading of Guattari’s Three Ecologies.
  • “Guattari’s claim that the ecological problem is as much a matter of culture- and psyche-formation as it is of watershed management and air quality protection has since been echoed by others” (112). I really need to read this!!
  • “It is futile to seek a pure nature unpolluted by humanity, and it is foolish to define the self as something purely human. But how can I start to feel myself as not only human? Guattari’s call for us to cultivate a ‘transversal’ style of thinking gestures toward one of the ways we might develop this newish self. A vital materialism also recasts the self in the light of its intrinsically polluted nature and in so doing recasts what counts as self-interest” (116).
  • “Michel Serres, for example, suggests that the process of collaboration and contestation between bodies is not random or unstructured, but conforms to the strange logic of vortices, spirals, and eddies, and this logic encompasses politics as much as physics, economics as much as biology, psychology as much as meteorology: it recurs at all scales and locations” (118); which then usefully implies that we can detect the pattern across scales.
  • “For example, while I agree with Latour and Guattari that techno-fixes (smart ones that respect the vitality or quasi autonomy of materialities) must be pursued, and that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with them, I am ambivalent about Latour’s claim that life (for Americans and Europeans) has simply become too technologized for the idea of pristine nature to wield any inspirational value” (121); whole lotta weird claims bundled up in here!
  • “So I will just end with a litany, a kind of Nicene Creed for would-be vital materialists: ‘I believe in one matter-energy, the maker of things seen and unseen. I believe that this pluriverse is traversed by heterogeneities that are continually doing things. I believe it is wrong to deny vitality to nonhuman bodies, forces, and forms, and that a careful course of anthropomorphization can help reveal that vitality, even though it resists full translation and exceeds my comprehensive grasp. I believe that encounters with lively matter can chasten my fantasies of human mastery, highlight the common materiality of all that is, expose a wider distribution of agency, and reshape the self and its interests’” (122).

Archive and Impact

  • Philosophical archive: Latour; Deleuze and Guattari; Spinoza, Nietzsche, Thoreau, Darwin, Adorno, Bergon, Driesch.
  • Bennett participates in a turn in political theory that locates ethics in “micropolitics” as expressed by cultural or quotidian formations; hence her interest in art, cultural techniques, etc. In this turn, affect is central to political formation.
  • “I pursue a materialism in the tradition of Democritus-Epicurus-Spinoza-Diderot-Deleuze more than Hegel-Marx-Adorno” (xiii).
  • Method: “What is also needed is a cultivated, patient, sensory attentiveness to nonhuman forces operating outside and inside the human body” (xiv). Note that she learns this “patience” principally from ecopoetics and literature.
  • Suspicious of demystification as a critical apparatus: “For this task, demystification, that most popular of practices in critical theory, should be used with caution and sparingly, because demystification presumes that at the heart of any event or process lies a human agency that has illicitly been projected into things” (xiv). Notably, this challenges the making the invisible visible assumption that undergirds much of digital studies. Cites a “hermeneutics of suspicion” (Ricoeur). I think we can complicate what the revelation reveals in digital studies but she’s right to note the dominance of that mode of critical engagement. “A relentless approach toward demystification works against the possibility of positive formations” (xv); demystification has limits as a politico-ethical operation.