My apologies for not getting this reflection up earlier this week. I have been working on a chapter all week that has taken up most of my time and writing energy. Adrian has posted some reflections concerning this chapter at his place. I’ll try not to repeat too much of what he has already said.
Bennett claims up front that this chapter has two goals. The first is a description of what Darwin called “small agencies”, the power of things we don’t give much attention to “make big things happen”. She focuses in on two worm stories, of how worms play a vital role in the ecosystem. The second goal is to deal with the problem of the political capacity of these small agencies or, to use Latour’s term, “actants”. The worm stories are interesting, especially to see Darwin himself ascribing certain non-mechanistic quality to the actions of the worms. The second one has to do with a particular group of worms in the Amazonian rainforest that changed the conditions of the border between the savanna and the forest, essentially redrawing the boundary (Bennett doesn’t say this, but in ecology this is called an ecotone). An interesting story for those who think only humans, or human predominately, have the ability to change ecosystems. The question is whether or not this was a conscientious change, an open question since there was no understandable mechanistic reason for the worms to act in this way:
“Latour and the scientists he is observing eventually conclude that, for reasons unknown to the humans, worms had gathered at the border and produced a lot of aluminum, which transformed the silica of the sandy soil into the clay more amenable to forest trees, and so it was the forest that was advancing into the savanna.” (98)
Here Bennett pauses to defend a certain weak anthropomorphism. As a quick aside, I was initially thinking that Bennett was going to do something similar to what I have sketched out in my doctoral thesis. Yet, I was somewhat dissatisfied with what is really a heuristic anthropomorphism. What Bergson might call a fabulation, a certain untruth that we will tell ourselves, that lies outside the rational, but which can be a spur for an inventive creation of thought. Essentially Bennett’s argument is that by beginning from ourselves and making analogical connections with other things in the world we can begin to uncover “a whole world of resonances and resemblances” ultimately concluding that:
“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. In revealing similarities across categorical divides and lighting up structural parallels between material forms in ‘nature’ and those in ‘culture’, anthropomorphism can reveal isomorphisms.” (99)
After this Bennett turns to the political problem of the political capacity of these non-human actants. The problem is clear, Bennett’s challenge to the commonplace notion that politics is a purely human affair requires that she deal with the particular way in which these non-human actants can be said to have a stake in “the public”. The phrase is drawn from John Dewey’s political philosophy and she defines it as, “A public is a contingent and temporary formation existing alongside many other publics, protopublics, and residual or postpublics.” (100) The public is equated with an ecosystem (though, as someone doing something very similar with philosophies and theologies, I wasn’t happy with this as it simply remains a metaphor since she does not unpack the meaning of this). This leads to some, for me, troubling aspects of Bennett’s book, aspects that fail to really move beyond political theory as it is normally practiced. Essentially, it doesn’t allow the ecosystem-thought (or -metaphor, as I claim it remains here) to exist outside of a certain biopolitics (something Scu brought to my attention about environmental thought in general). Thus Bennett claims,
“For while every public may very wel be an ecosystem, not every ecosystem is democratic. And I cannot envision any polity so egalitarian that important human needs, such as health or survival, would not take prioity. […] Why not? […] To put it blunty, my conatus will not me ‘horizontalize’ the world completely. I also identify with members of my species, insofar as they are bodies most similar to mine.” (104)
To my mind, this places Bennett’s vibrant materialism far too close to certain conceptions of biopolitics and again has this post-vitalism flirting with conservative political thought, as Bennett noted with vitalism in the preceding chapters. (This shouldn’t be taken as some kind of ultra-leftist condemnation of the book. I’m not writing it off because of this, but think this is a particular weakness that needs to be addressed, not only by Bennett, but other ecological thinkers. I’m locating a live problem that I think Bennett would be sympathetic to.)
Since Bennett has put in place a kind of weak hierarchy, one based on a Spinozist conatus and claims of power. This shouldn’t be taken in a Hobbesian way, which it sometimes is amongst (Anglo- and Roman)Catholic social thinkers, because it recognizes a certain “complication” of human power with thing power (this is why many see Spinoza as an early ecological thinker). It does, however, mean that these non-human powers, because they are not linguistic and can then not communicate (though, I think this claim may be somewhat hasty or inexact, they cannot communicate linguistically), can not be said to be part of democracy in the same way that human beings are. Bennett suggests that, instead, they participate in the public democracy as “disruption”, drawing on the political philosophy of Jacques Rancière. An example here may be Hurricane Katerina’s turning of a much wider base of the American people against Bush or the disruptive power of the destruction of the Gulf’s ecosystem by the introduction of crude oil.
I wonder if a Green-Marxist analysis would not fill out and challenge some of Bennett’s ideas here. I realize that Rancière is a kind of post-Marxist, but she focuses on his notion of disruption (the most popular of his ideas probably) rather than some of the work he has done on the productive power of the poor, which would connect to the more traditional Marxist ideas about labour power as the underlying substance that capitalism depends on. Is thing-power not precisely the very condition for democracy? And, finally, is there any ground for being bolder than Bennett in calling for a very different form of democracy? A communism of things, rather than the Latourian (capitalist) parliament of things?