Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Book review: "Vibrant Matter" by Jane Bennett

Through history humans have debated how to understand and relate to their surrounding reality. We have all heard about societies that believed that every object and thing has a soul. Today this is commonly seen as a primitive and outdated view. The  dominating modern view is instead that reality consists of the human, spiritual, world of life, and on the other side the dead, material, world of matter. This division of living things from dead things is highly influential in the way humans think and act on their world.

However, in modern philosophy there is a new trend that is bringing the importance of objects and matter back into our focus. In a new book by Jane Bennett "Vibrant Matter-- a political ecology of things" one such position is presented. Bennett claims that her ambition is to develop a positive ontology of 'matter as vibrant', and to dismantle the divisions between the binaries life/matter, human/animal, organic/inorganic, and to do this with the purpose of strengthening a political analysis that  better can account for the contribution of "non-human actants".

The overall topic and the political aspects of Bennett's work is on environmental sustainability. Her claim is that we need a new understanding of our environments, of our material "things", if we will be able to find strategies for sustainability that are 'sustainable'. She writes that if we are able to find a relationship to 'things' that are built on another understanding of their nature it "might augment the motivational energy needed to move selves from the endorsement of ethical principles to the actual practice of behavior". With this she means that we need new incentives, a new motivation, that can give us the energy to engage effectively in behaviors that are positive for the environment. The argument is that it is not enough to understand intellectually that our behavior needs to change, we need to have ethical reasons for actually doing it. And if 'things' are seen as co-actants in our world, we will start to see our world differently and start acting differently.

Of course, this is a difficult argument to make and it feeds into all kinds of  'new age' ideas of living matter, spiritual thinking, energy forces, etc. Bennett does make a great case though and builds her argumentation on a solid philosophical foundation. It is not a surprise that Bruno Latour is one of her major references even though her approach differs in many and important ways from the philosophy of Latour. However, it is clear that Bennett falls into the new trend where Latour is a major thinker together with others such as Graham Harman, Peter Paul Verbeek, and what by some has been called an Object Oriented Ontology.

Overall, I am attracted by the ideas Bennett presents. They lead to new ways of thinking about things and artifacts, and for those of us who are used to think about embodied interaction, user experience, etc. many of the ideas are not that far fetched. I am curios to see how this and similar new philosophical attempts will be translated into more concrete activities and approaches relevant for design. This new evolution of ideas concerned with the status of 'things' and of the material world is highly interesting and with Bennett's work we have another example of why we need it and how it could be used. I am convinced that we will see many more examples of this philosophical development in the near future. And I am curious to see how it will influence the world of design which is a natural arena for such ideas.


Anonymous said...


In my opinion, this is the best review you wrote, so far. Very clear and not like the others.

Kaye Shumack said...

Thanks for the review- very interesting and gives a good sense of the arguments. It is indeed interesting to see how 'design' develops engagements with these kinds of ideas.

As a design lecturer working with final year students in visual media, I find many of them are interested in considering the relationship between culture and nature -and open to bringing alternative, transformative thinking to bring into their design project work.

I am currently reading Thomas Princen's 'Treading Softly: Paths to Ecological Order'

thanks for your blog!
kaye shumack

Erik Stolterman said...

Hi Aninymous and Kaye

Thanks for the nice words about the review. And thanks Kaye for the book suggestion!


Marycycle said...

You can hear great audio from Jane Bennett's recent presentation at GWU, "Notes on Material Agency" here: