Vibrant Matter Reading Group: Chapter 6 “Stem Cells and the Culture of Life”

This week we’ll be hosting the cross-blog reading group on Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. I must confess from the start that I have been a bad conversation partner, I found it difficult to keep up with the initial flurry of posts at Philosophy in a Time of Error and then fell behind due to activities of shameless self-promotion. There has been a sense from some participants that the book should have caused more discussion at the various blogs and I want to say something about that before I move to the summary of this chapter (the next summary will be posted either Wednesday or Thursday).

For me Bennett’s book presents very few ideas I don’t already agree with and it is presented in a very lucid style. For me this often results in a strange deflation. Whereas when I read someone whose work is presented in a more difficult idiom, say Deleuze (whom she draws on), or when I read someone with whom I disagree quite a bit, say Badiou, I feel spurred to more productive interactions with that text. This isn’t really a fault of Bennett’s though, it is my own particular “ecology of reading”. What I also find disappointing about engaging with a book that ultimately is putting forward a perspective I already agree with (and ultimately Bennett’s book is about a perspective) is that it doesn’t involve my moving forward to deal with particular problems within that perspective (and Bennett’s book is not really about those problems, though I would like to see her deal with some of them using the same intellectual ease she presents the perspective). This was most apparent for me in the “Edible Matter” chapter, where she doesn’t really come forward with much to say on the inherent issues with choosing which “vibrant matter” to eat, while I appreciate (but already thought and agree with) the attention given to the inherent power of eating things, meaning that nothing we eat is ever simply “dead matter”, she doesn’t go into the discussion that critical animal studies folks and philosophical ecology folks need to have. I wonder if, simply put, this is a book written for people who hold to a certain mechanistic account of the universe and the things that populate it as well as for strong humanists who themselves do not deal with the inherent problems in their perspective, rather than for people who already in some way or another hold to a vital materialism (or to its precursor, critical vitalism).

In many ways this chapter, “Stem Cells and the Culture of Life”, is a coda to the previous chapter, “Neither Mechanism nor Vitalism”, which Ben covered last week. I disagree with Ben that Bennett presents a too clean break between a naive or religious vitalism and the critical vitalism present in Driesch and Bergson. Ben’s criticism seems to be directed at Bennett’s lack of historical grounding, which is fair, and he points to some interesting Romantic precursors to critical vitalism, but that seems to lie outside of Bennett’s purposes here. Her claim isn’t that once people were naive, but then Driesch and Bergson showed up and they started doing the real work, it is that there are two competing vitalist visions and this is borne out in the contemporary political debate surrounding stem cells and the “culture of life”.

Bennett locates in culture of life advocates a certain vitalism (soul vitalism) that mirrors naive vitalism, the notion that there is some spiritual spark within matter which is placed there by a divine power (which is itself not material). Thus, there is a certain philosophical connection between the Nazis and the American neoconservative government of George W. Bush in that both affirmed a soul vitalism. Driesch, interestingly, was one of the first non-Jewish academics forced out of teaching for his criticisms of the Nazi’s use of vitalism, for he saw in vitalism a basis for a liberal and pacifistic politics (Bennett should have probably discussed Bergson’s own mixed views here, essentially the difference between his WWI views and the turn they took in the aftermath). Bennett also takes paints to say that she doesn’t see any necessary connection between an ontological position and a subsequent political one, but, in good Bergsonian spirit, she also refuses to deny a certain tendency between vitalism and these conservative movements.

Bennett locates a fittingness between this soul vitalism’s valorization of life and the violence often committed in the name of a culture of life by discussing the seemingly contradictory nature of Bush’s defense of embryo’s as “defending the weak” and the “vital war” waged preemptively in Iraq that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of children. She also points to the interesting notion that the Bushite “culture of life” advocates may not object to the use of stem cells derived from non-embryo sources because these sources are “dead matter”, only the embryo, in these cases, has anything like a soul. She locates four theological theses underlying soul vitalism:

  1. Life is radically different from matter.
  2. Human life is qualitatively different from all other life.
  3. Human uniqueness expresses a divine intention.
  4. The world is a divinely created order and that order has the shape of a fixed hierarchy.

This is the same kind of vitalism I see put forward by Roman Catholic Social Teaching and the one inherent in RO’s theologio-political approach to biology. The idea is that soul vitalism undergirds a natural hierarchy that morally means the “strong must protect the weak” (without investigating the meaning of these terms). So, in this chapter, Bennett is actually doing the work of responding, though not at the length I would like, to an internal problem of vital materialism’s ideational soil (critical vitalism). That is, the connection between conservative political movements that value violence and life in equal measure and their appeals to vitalism.

She ultimately sees in vitalism a preference for freedom that makes it attractive to human thought, she also points out that the mechanistic picture of the world is not longer even scientific (without saying that the scientific picture is vitalistic). So why does this image persist with many political philosophers? She suggests because the vitalist option appears to line up with a certain conservative theologico-political thinking, and I suspect that she is right. She gives us good reason, though, not to just accept this, but to think towards a politically viable vibrant materialism that fits with the best contemporary science. Edit: Though, I think Bennett needs to do more work in terms of the place the lab takes here. She suggests that the difference between Driesch’s vitalism leading pacifism and the Nazi’s violence undergirded by soul vialism has to do with Driesch paying attention to things in the lab. But, this fostering of empathy, this recognition of “thing-power”, didn’t occur in the Nazi’s labs. The fact that the Nazi’s also had labs, that many of the worst crimes of the holocaust occurred by turning these places into labs, surely means this is not where we can locate the difference.

7 thoughts on “Vibrant Matter Reading Group: Chapter 6 “Stem Cells and the Culture of Life”

  1. The question of what kind of text tends to generate more conversation (or more thought, etc.) is an interesting one — unfortunately, I can’t really say more with respect to Bennett since I haven’t read it.

  2. I’ve written a lot of notes on this book and Timothy Morton’s The Ecological Thought (which I found to be entirely unsatisfactory) and, yet, haven’t said anything about the book or really found it necessary to do so. I was disappointed that she did not comment–at any point–on the possible category of “dull life,” which is a hypothetical possibility given the typology she constructs in the “Preface.” Why is a virus vibrant matter and not a dull life? She also fails to address the sociological question: is it really matter (e.g., food) that is vibrant and not the sociological network in which it is immobilized? Some cereal advertisement tells me that people who eat whole grains tend to weigh less than does who do not. Is this tendency derived from something inherent in whole grains or are people who eat whole grains also the sort of people who bike to work, go to the gym, hike on the weekend, etc?

Comments are closed.