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Johns Hopkins UniversityArts and Sciences Magazine

Expert Opinion

Jane Bennett is a professor of political science at the School of Arts and Sciences whose research interests include political theory and American political thought. Her new book, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, was recently published through Duke University Press.

Q:In your latest book, you make the case for why inanimate objects serve as important, and often overlooked, players in the political milieu. Could you explain how?

A: What I try to do in my book is to take “things” more seriously than itisusual to do. By “things” I mean the ordinary stuff around us that we possess and use, and are possessed and used by. I focus on five exemplary “things” in the book: stem cells, fish oils, electricity, the metal of chains, and trash.

We usually consider stuff in terms of “inanimate objects” that form the background context for our actions—in other words, we usually consider it in ways that give all the active, creative power to humans. But it seems to me that by parsing the world into passive matter (it) and vibrant life (us), we are limiting our understanding. By making a strict separation between matter and life, we overlook the active powers of material formations, such as the way landfills are, as we speak, generating lively streams of chemicals and volatile winds of methane, or the way omega-3 fatty acids in a diet will alter brain chemistry and mood, or the way industrial and pharmaceutical compounds that find their way into the water supply can act as “endocrine disruptors.”

I think that human agency is best conceived as the outcome or effect of a certain configuration of human and nonhuman forces. When humans act, they do not exercise exclusively human powers, but express and engage a variety of other actants—including food, micro-organisms, minerals, artifacts, sounds, bio- and other technologies, and so on. There is a difference between a human individual and a stone, but neither considered alone has real agency. The locus of agency is always a human–nonhuman collective.

One example I work with in the book is the agency behind the widespread electricity blackout in 2003 in North America (and later in the year, in Europe). The government and industry response in the U.S. was to identify some human—some Enron executive or energy trader—who was responsible and then to punish him. Meanwhile, the relations between the infrastructure of the grid, the legislation deregulating energy trading, the structure of consumptive desire, and the natural tendencies of electricity itself remain unconsidered. And the danger of blackouts remains the same. The tendency to define social problems as moral failures, exclusively the doing of a human agent (and the implicit assumption that we are in charge) prevented us from discerning the real locus of agency—the assemblage of human and nonhuman actants—and attempting to alter the configuration of that human-nonhuman assemblage.

The guiding question of my book is this: How would our political analyses of events change were they to acknowledge an elemental, material agency distributed across bodies, human and nonhuman? Who or what would count as a “stakeholder”? How would a “public” be constituted? Would politics become less centered around finding and punishing individual human agents responsible for the public problems of, say, an electricity blackout or an epidemic of obesity, and more concerned with identifying how the complex human-nonhuman assemblage that’s churning out the negative effect holds itself together? How it endures or feeds itself?

Until we do that, political attempts to remedy the problem are likely to be ineffective. My point is really a pragmatic one: Ethics and politics have more traction on material assemblages and the way they reproduce patterns of effects than they can have on that elusive spiritual entity called the “moral agent.”