Oct 06 2010

Vibrant Matter, Jane Mitchell

by at 3:40 pm under Uncategorized

Right now I’m working on expanding a chapter of my thesis (“Electric Publics and Electric Nations: The Creation of a National Identity in Herman Melville’s Pierre; or, The Ambiguities). After I had finished my thesis, Dana recommended that I check out Jane Mitchell’s Vibrant Matter , largely a philosophical and political work that challenges our notion of thingliness by looking at how supposedly inert matter is very much alive. Dana thought this could be revelant to my project. She was right of course. My thesis was all about looking at how the atmosphere or air–that seemingly inert, open, and dead space that surrounds us–is actually very lively and filled with moving matter–matter that often is emitted from so-called live bodies. Lookng back, my project was very much about dissolving the distinction between the body and the atmosphere.

So clearly Mitchell’s book could be really useful in helping me work on this chapter for publication. So here are my extensive notes on the book.

Mitchell’s project:

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. This habit of parsing the world into dull matter (it, things) and vibrant life (us, beings) is a “partition of the sensible,” to use Jacques Ranciere’s phrase (vii).

Mitchell here is talking about the problems of concieving matter in a purely dialectical construction–one that posits what she calls dull matter versus vibrant life . Mitchell’s title title vibrant matter is part of an attempt to argue that all matter, whether it be humans or electrical charge, are inherently life-like.

As Mitchell says: “I will turn the figures of “life” and “matter” around and around, worrying them until they start to seem strange, in something like the way a common word when repeated can become a foreign, nonsense sound. In the space created by this estrangement, a vital materiality can start to take shape” (vii).

History of philosophical treatment of vibrant matter:

“The idea of vibrant matter also has a long (and if not latent, at least not dominant) philosophical history in the West. I will reinvoke this history too, drawing in particular on the concpets and claims of Baruch Spinoza, Friedrich Nietzsche, Henry David Thoreau, Charles Darwin, Theodor Adorno, Gilles Deleuze, and the early twentieth-century vitalisms of Bergon and Hans Driesch” (viii).

Also note how Mitchell’s study are predominantly philosophical texts. Becuase Mitchell’s analysis is more of a philosophical one it will be helpful for me to follow this paper trail of hers as a way of enriching my chapter.

Vitality of non-human matter (non-human matter as actants):

“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 (non human bodies)? By “vitality” I mean the capacity of things–edibles, commodities, storms, metals–not only to impede or block the will and designs of humans but also to see how analyses of political events might change if we gave the force of things more due. How, for example, would pattern of consumption change if we faced not litter, rubbish, trash, or “the recycling,” but an accumulating pile of lively and potentially dangerous matter? […] What difference would it make to the course of energy policy were electricity to be figured not simply as a resource, commodity, or instrumentality but also and more radically as an “actant?” (viii).

Definition of actants:

“The term is Bruno Latour’s: an actant is a source of action that can either be 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).

“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. It does so by preventing us from detecting (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling) a fuller range of nonhuman powers circulating around and within human bodies. These material powers, which can aid or destroy, enrich or disable, ennoble or degrade us, in any case call for our attentiveness, or even “respect” (provided that the term be stretched beyond its Kantian sense) (ix).

So I should probably read Deleuze and Guattari:

“In the “Treatise on Nomadology,” Deleuze and Felix Guattari experiment with the idea of “material vitalism,” according to which vitality is immanent in matter-energy. That project has helped inspire mine. Like Deleuze and Guattari, I draw selectively from Epicurian, Spinozist, Nietzchean, and vitalist traditions, as well as from an assortment of contemporary writers in science and literature” (x).

“In what follows, then, I try to bear witness to the vital materialities that flow through and around us. Though the movements and effectivity of stem cells, electricity, food, trash, and metals are crucial to political life (and human life per se), almost as soon as they appear in public (often at first by disrupting human projects or expectations), these activities and powers are represented as human mood, action, meaning, agenda, or ideology. This quick substitution sustains the fantasy that “we” really are in charge of all those “its”–its that, according to the tradition of (nonmechanistic, nonteleological) materialism I draw on, reveal themselves to be potentially forceful agents” (x).

I should also probably read Spinoza:

“Spinoza stands as a touchstone for me in this book, even though he himself was not quite a materialist. I invoke his 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. Spinoza rejected the idea that man “disturbs rather than follows Nature’s order,” and promises instread to “consider human actions and appetites just as if it were an investigation into lines, planes, or bodies” (x).

Universiality of substance in philosophy:

“Lucretius, too, expressed a kind of monism in his De Rerum Natura: everything, he says, is made of the same quality stuff, the same building blocks, if you will. Lucretius calls them primordia: today we might call them atoms, quarks, particle streams, or matter-energy. This same-stuff claim, this insinuation that deep down everything is connected and irreducible to a simple substrate, resonates with an ecological sensibility, and that too is important to me” (xi).

Also, what about a political (in terms of citizen and representation before the law) sensibility?

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