Tuesday, June 29, 2010

My favorite version of Being and Time.

There was recently a brief multi-blog discussion of everyone's favorite translation of Heidegger's Being and Time. Forgive me for not rounding up the links, this discussion took place a couple of weeks ago. It was occasioned because someone noticed that a new version of Joan Stambaugh's translation (revised with notes from Dennis Schmidt) is coming out. Almost all of the other blogs agreed that the Macquarrie and Robinson translation was their preferred one. That's not surprising, considering they all found the book useful, all spent a lot of time with it, and all started with the M&R translation. I'm one of the few people I know who first read B&T in the Stambaugh translation. But that's not my favorite translation.

My favorite translation is Mark Z. Danielewski's novel House of Leaves. For those that don't know the book, it's like a good rock band that wears all their influences on their sleeves. Sure, those other bands might have been better, and certainly more original, but this band rocks and knows how to have fun. Moreover, HoL is a wonderful parody of academic writing and the standards of the academy. Meanwhile, the book is basically inspired from being to end by Being and Time (along with several other thinkers). Get this, it even shares Heidegger's anthropocentrism and belief that animals can only perish and not die. All of that, plus it is shamelessly self-indulgent, outlandishly funny, and often spooky as hell. I know a couple of posts below I talked of rereading a couple of big books (by Heidegger and Luhmann), but maybe this should be the next big book I reread.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Bennett, ch. 8

Sorry again for running late. Hopefully in the next few days I will have a post on the book in toto. This will be a short one on chapter 8. Also, if you haven't already, read Adrian on the final chapter here and here.

First, let me say I liked this chapter a lot. It's important and interesting. Her arguments for what a vital materialism can bring to the green movement is strong and important (though her object of critique, environmentalism, seems a little unclear to me. But critique isn't the most important thing here). Her criticism of portrayals of nature as harmonious is key here. And it ties into her closing point that we need to be careful of our only environmental maxim being to tread lightly. This image of nature is one where it is passive and perfect until the evil humans come and muck everything up. I doubt highly it is accurate, and probably doesn't help us figure out better models of interaction and communication with everything that isn't human. Rather, echoing the conclusion by Bennett, sometimes we need to tread lightly, and sometimes we need a Bataillian expenditure, and sometimes we need other levels of action. What we need is a Kairos, a sense of time that is bound to action and inaction, to the opportune time. We need an archer's sense of time, a time that cares about hitting our target, and that takes into account all sorts of nonhuman interactions like bows, strings, wind, force and velocity.
While I think it is clear what benefits vitalist materialism brings with it for the green movement, my only worry is the language is filled with far more radical conditions for success. Complete revolutions in relations to ourselves and to others. I am not saying all of that is not needed, but something like cap and trade whose benefit is that it manages a goal without requiring a revolution should not be lost. We cannot be like, "Let's stop cap and trade because it keeps the market system in place!", because such a move would surely be suicidal as well. This too must be kairos, a sense of timing of when to take a revolutionary step, and when to take a reforming step. Deleuze liked to speak of the importance of stammering, but I think stumbling is also a necessity.

Though my favorite part of this chapter was Bennett's defense of anthropomorphism. Adrian wrote on this, but I think it is also one of the things that would seem the most familiar and important to many of the readers of this blog. Bennett argues, "[m]aybe it is worth running the risks associated with anthropomorphizing [...] because it, oddly enough, works against anthropocentrism" (p. 120). I cannot possibly remember the number of times I have said some version of anthropomorphism might not be the worst thing ever. If one is willing to risk anthropomorphism, it is often because anthropocentrism is seen as a greater enemy. However, if you think that human exceptionalism is actually a good thing or a necessary thing, then anthropomorphism would be one of the worst sins you could commit. I'm not sure I want to defend anthropomorphism as always a good thing, but it is certainly a risk I don't mind running. Maybe we can turn to the both familiarizing and de-familiarizing effect of anthropomorphism later, but this stumbling and stammering end seems a good place to end this post.

A Post of Links

Peter has a response up to my most recent comments on Bennett. Major take away point, time for me to reread Heidegger's 29/30 course, which is a big book. It's been about four years since I read it, but mostly I remember the best thing in there was getting me to read Uxekull. I'd also add as awesome as Uxekull is, Heidegger was one of the few philosophers who have been influenced by him that has a decent excuse for not knowing about more current advances biology and zoology. Still, now is a good time to start re-reading it.

Levi also has a response up to my recent comments on Bennett. Major take away point, time for me to reread Luhmann's Social Systems, which is an even bigger book. I think it's been seven years since I read that book cover to cover, and I'm on his side about the importance of Luhmann generally for philosophy.

Adam Merberg has a wonderful post on the idea of nutrient cycling from Michael Pollan. I think it might be time to seriously consider what it was about The Omnivore's Dilemma that made it such a success. Because it certainly wasn't the quality of information contained.

It seems Zer0 books has it's own website now, check it out.

Lastly, here is one of my favorite Take Away Shows, Yeasayer performing a mixture of their "2080" and "Tightrope". Long, but a perfect blend of humor of amazing sound.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Flat Ontology, Flat Ethics: More thoughts on Bennett ch. 7

Following up on my last post on chapter 7, this post is mostly a response to Adrian. So make sure to read his first.

Let me begin by agreeing that I find Bennett mostly an ally. If it has come out any other way, let me apologize for being unclear. The disagreements I have with her work, and the limitations I find in it, are real and important. But if everyone shared her beliefs I am pretty sure the world would be a significantly better place (for humans and all sorts of nonhumans). A polity with better channels of communication is something we can all agree is both needed and needs to be worked toward. But differences remain. I love Adrian's description, "At least Bennett and Scu are moving in the same direction, one more hesitantly, trying to keep the laggards on board with her as she proceeds, the other more intently and insistently." Though, the question of hesitation with Bennett is one I am curious of. In describing Bennett as trying to keep the laggards on board, there is a suggestion that maybe her actual beliefs are a bit more radical. That she slows down for the sake of others she is convincing. I assumed the hesitation was her own.

I also agree with Adrian when he says that a flat ontology does not necessitate a flat ethics. Far from it, many people have tended to use the flattening of ontology to reassert human exceptionalism. The most common example for those of us who argue for egalitarianism between those beings who are called The Animal and those beings who are called The Human is a common objection. Aha, says the humanist: What about plants? Sometimes this is a sincere objection, frequently it is the humanist performing a version of Freud's joke about the broken kettle. So, there is a certain type of person who seems to misunderstand ethical vegetarianism and veganism as being about creating a morally innocent way of eating. That concern for plants translates somehow into a criticism of veganism only makes sense if you assume ethics is about innocence. Nothing is innocent to eat, says this type of humanist, so everything is innocent to eat (except humans, for no particular reason)! Ethics is not about finding innocence, but about living after innocence. Ethics is about thinking and living in our postlapsarian world without alibi.

Now, let me be clear, nowhere does Bennett come across as the type of humanist I described in the preceding paragraph. She seems honestly committed to complicating our relationship with the nonhuman. But that is why her random moment of humanism is so odd. It isn't an appeal to not knowing, but rather an appeal to a bit of simplicity. That when it comes to humans they are still top ape. Adrian engages in a few abstract questions of if I have to save an infant or an ant, I save the infant (which after watching Toy Story 3, an amazing movie, raises the question: What would it mean to save a plastic toy vs an infant?), or a slightly more complicated one about electrically shocking people who shock chimps. I agree with Adrian on these. But let's point to a different example. I have two cats, I fed them, take them to the vet when they get sick or for check-ups, buy them treats and the occasional toy. I bought an expensive carrying bag for the one time one had to go on a plane. What I am saying is I spend some money on these felines. And while this world is filled with pets who are neglected or abused, there are quite a few pets (particularly dogs) who are pampered far more than my cats. Who have a lot more money spent on them. What if that money didn't go to dogs and cats and other pets? What if, instead, all that money went to Oxfam (or wherever)? How many humans could have basic needs met? And yet many people, many people who claim that humans always come first, have made the choice to give a certain animal a well cared for life. And that's just pets. What about the people who spend lots of money keeping classic cars running well, looking after musical instruments, preserving odd buildings, maintaining gardens that don't even provide food, and on and on. People always say that they would choose the infant or the human and yet daily many of us don't make that choice.
And this is important, because almost all of us have chosen to spend time and money on developing relationships and supporting the well-being of nonhumans, and that money and time could be spent directly helping humans. So, when Bennett says human's health and lives are more important, what does that mean? Does that mean when the philosopher asks the abstract question: A Picasso or an infant, we all say an infant? If so it's an empty promise. Things are already more complicated. We are, as Adrian points out, already entangled. Already bound up in so many obligations and commitments and loves and relationships. To think ethically will mean to think from this situated entanglements. I think in our intellectual circles such practical ethics have gotten a bad rap. People want to replace rigorous ethics with strictly intuitive jumps at that moment. Intuition matters, but rigorous ethics will always help transform and shape our conatus, our desire and intuition (one might start thinking here of an intuitive method in the sense that Deleuze speaks of in his work on Bergson).

A Post of Links

Craig has a copy of his paper up, "What's so Critical About Critical Animal Studies". Hopefully a longer response from me is forthcoming.

Adrian and Peter both have responses to my comments about Bennett's ch. 7. Adrian is here, and Peter is here. Thanks to both of them for their comments. I do plan to post on chapter 8 and also the book as a whole within this coming week. I know that is a week late, and I want to thank both of them for keeping the reading group focused and on time. Also, Adrian has a final wrap up here.

Ben Woodard and Tim Morton have a new journal, Thinking Nature. The first CFP is here. I like the title of the journal, it has wonderful double meaning. Both thinking about nature, but also nature that thinks. Nature becomes both a subject and object of thinking, which is pretty great.

Lastly, My Brightest Diamond performing the classic, "Feeling Good." From the amazing compilation album, Dark was the Night.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Thoughts on Bennett, ch. 7

Sorry for missing making comments on a couple of chapters there, but I don't want to backtrack too much. So, some comments on chapter 7 now, and then later this week some comments on chapter 8 and the book as a whole. Also, before I get into this make sure you read APS's post on this chapter (and the discussion, featuring Adrian among others).

Chapter seven, on political ecology, didn't clarify the issues I hoped would be. Indeed, the chapter reflected both the positive and frustrating aspects of the book. First, I won't get into it here, but her readings pushing both Dewey and Ranciere into a stronger anti-anthropocentric vibe are wonderful. For those sections alone I would suggest this chapter (especially if you have any interest in those two thinkers). But her own commitment to being anti-anthropocentric struggles in this chapter. Or, as I put it before, her commitment to a certain type of anti-anthropocentrism (in ontology and policy) seems to not also mean an escaping a certain humanism (an anthropocentrism in ethics and politics, if you will). That's the only way I can possibly understand her claiming at one point in this chapter that we need to move beyond an human exceptionalism, and her claims that certain human interests will always come first and that humans must play an executive role in the world. So, while obviously supportive of the first move (the need to get rid of human exceptionalism) I think we need to spend some time with these last two claims.
In a footnote Bennett claims "this fermentation seems to require some managing to ensure, for example, that all the ingredients are in the pot. It seems to require humans to exercise this 'executive' function" (p. 150 n. 19). This seems to lay in conjunction with her claim that:
For while every public may very well 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 priority.
Why not? Since I have challenged the uniqueness of humanity in several ways, why not conclude that we and they are equally entitled? Because I have not eliminated all differences between us but examined instead the affinities across these differences, affinities that enable the very assemblages explored in the present book. To put it bluntly, my conatus will not let me "horizontalize" the world completely. I also identify with members of my species, insofar as they are bodies most similar to mine. (p. 104)

Okay, let's parse this position. Bennett wishes to tap the breaks on her movement towards egalitarianism. Whatever else she may have led us to believe, humans are still firmly in the driver's seat. Now, this doesn't just mean that we have greater responsibilities, but like all executives we get more perks, too. So, whatever she has said about enabling instrumentalizations from before, this is a fairly classical move: Deontology for humans, utilitarianism for everything else. Now, this may be unfair, but it is hard to read this in another way. Maybe I am being too quick to think that phrase "important human needs" is fairly useless qualifier, not nearly strong enough ethical, politically, or ontologically to actually protect nonhumans. Her justification for this human exceptionalism is perhaps the worse part: Her conatus makes her. Seriously? Maybe Bennett needs a new conatus. There is nothing her to explain why species difference is an ontologically, ethically, and/or politically important difference or coherent category. My cat is obviously not the same as myself, but my female partner is also obviously not the same as myself. There are plenty of times when we do not flatten out differences but still demand egalitarianism and democracy. Racists who had bothered to read Spinoza might talk about how they can't support egalitarianism because ultimately their conatus makes them support people of the same race because they are more similar. Or class, sex, nation, what have you. It speaks of the profound anthropocentricism of the world that we think people can simply slot in the word species and not suffer from similar issues as if they had said race, sex, class, etc.
Again, this may seem as if I am being too hard on Bennett. so let me clarify. I may find this move disappointing, but I also don't have solutions here. I have occasionally been attacked as simply replacing an anthropocentrism with some sort of animal-centrism. Not entirely fair, but partially true. In that I think that figuring out how to integrate animals into our political and ethical systems is hard enough for now. I could say: Democracy for all! Which is fine if I simply want to work in slogans, but far more complex to actually have some sort of flat ethics. I have repeatedly come out that I worry that a flat ontology can justify its own humanism. I think this is one example of that.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Story of Cap and Trade: A Rebuttal

I know I need to respond to some emails and comments still. I also need to get back on the summer reading group horse. But, here is an off-topic post anyway.

While I was at the wedding my brother brought up Annie Leonard's short animated film, "The Story of Cap and Trade." Now, I know that I am well behind the curve here, but I hadn't seen the film before. So, I know that for many of you this is already a decided and done issue one way or another. I am also sure there are probably several more thorough responses out there, and maybe I should have just searched for them and linked here. Regardless, this video both angered and worried me, and I felt it deserved a direct response since I have come across it.

It angered me for the way it depicts supporters of cap and trade. Leonard at least implies (if not quite argues) that cap and trade was somehow developed by evil market speculators; like Enron, Goldman Sachs, and Bernie Madoff (wtf on this last one); and that supporters of cap and trade are either dupes or complicit co-conspirators in some new speculative bubble that puts all of us in danger. Whatever your feelings about the effectiveness of cap and trade to handle the problem of rapid global climate change, let's me honest: there are many tireless activists and policy wonks who are fighting for cap and trade and they are not delusional, duped, greedy, or complicit. And many of them not only think cap and trade is the best thing we can get through Congress, they think that a well designed cap and trade program is an essential component of any bill to fight global warming. You can disagree with them without turning them into villains or idiots. Many people on the right, like the Heritage Foundation, are opposed to cap and trade, but I don't claim that Annie Leonard is in league or been duped by the far right. It would be both irresponsible and mean-spirited to do so.
So, cap and trade doesn't get birthed from speculative traders, where does it come from? You won't learn this in something called The Story of Cap and Trade, so let me elucidate. The original cap and trade system was first installed in the 1990 Clean Air Act (which is valorized in this program). If you remember at the time there was a fear of Acid Rain caused by too much production of SO2 and NOx. Both SO2 and NOx were put under a cap and trade program, and it was an amazing success. Levels were reduced far more quickly than anticipated, and for far less than anticipated. We have seen this idea expanded to carbon in the European Union in 2005 and in a regional program in the Northeast US.
What does all of this tell us? It tells us that cap and trade was invented by scientists and policy wonks, it has a record of success and models that we can investigate to make better policy, and it seems politically feasible. The roles of speculative marketers to promote cap and trade are rather marginal to this story, whereas they are central to the story that Leonard tells.

So, that's why it angers me, it worries me because Leonard's video frequently misleads or tells only part of the story. I think if we who are concerned about the environment and ecology depend on information like this, we cannot begin to have the sort of conversations necessary to figure out what is best. So, here are some responses to her video:

(1) It seems to be working in Europe. Leonard points out how rocky the beginning of cap and trade was in Europe. It did result in price fluctuations, and too many permits were given away at the beginning. However, Europe's system was designed in phases, so that things could be fixed. And sure enough, since Phase II began in 2007, things have gotten better. As this German Marshall Fund report (.pdf) explains, much of Europe is set to meet their Kyoto goals because of cap and trade. Indeed, cap and trade seems to be reducing between 2.5 and 5% of carbon annually from Europe. Moreover, prices have largely stabilized.

(2) I think everyone agrees that fully auctioned permits is the best idea for cap and trade. It is unclear from the video if Leonard would be for a system that had fully auctioned permits and strong regulations on offsets. She nowhere says she would be, even though her two concrete problems with cap and trade can be fixed by stronger bills, they are not inherent to the system itself. Anyway, fully auctioned credits would be best. The bill that passed the House a while back, Waxman-Markey, took a hybrid approach to this issue. It gives away most of the permits to begin with, and then gives away less and less of them over time. Moreover, most of permits given away are given away to protect consumer interests, not polluter interests. Would a fully auction system be better? Of course! But better for what? For reducing carbon? That seems unlikely, the cap is the main thing that decides that. So, the auctioned credits are a way of raising revenue, and that strikes most of us as important and good. But it is unclear why Leonard implies that it would make matters worse for the planet if we gave away permits rather than auctioning them off.

(3) The issue of offsets is one that I share a certain amount of skepticism over. And in this case I can see why a system with bad or unregulated offsets might make a system that is worse (though hard to see how it is worse than the status quo) but at least a system that wouldn't be effective enough. My understanding is that Waxman-Markey do a lot to make sure that offsets are abused. This is something I don't know nearly enough about, and am open to learning more. I do know that one of the reasons that offsets are seen as a possible benefit is to jumpstart international action. Basically companies in the US could bribe countries and companies in the rest of the world to act in ways that are important for lowering carbon emissions. To install methane captures and to stop destroying rain forests. But this is something I am skeptical of, and not fully on board with.

(4) Leonard implies that the US starting to tackle carbon emissions itself will somehow undermine international cooperation. I don't even begin to understand this argument. How can us showing that we are serious about tackling carbon emissions make us less serious on the international scene? Wouldn't the opposite be true? Moreover, how do any of her solutions help international confidence? Paul Krugman has suggested two ways with dealing with carbon emissions in the other world (this whole article is worth reading). The first is that if we set up an international market for the cap and trade, then countries that produce less carbon would have more permits to sell. In short, companies form the EU and US would pay companies in China, India, Brazil, etc not to produce carbon. A fairly direct bribery scheme. Another possibility is to enact carbon tariffs. Neither of these are perfect solutions, but I remain confused how focusing on passing a workable national cap and trade program is a distraction from international solutions.

(5) Leonard makes two more arguments for cap and trade as dangerous distraction. The first is that the EPA can somehow cap carbon emissions. Well, it can regulate carbon as a pollutant, but it is unclear how it can cap industry specific carbon emissions. Moreover, the EPA's enforcement will be up for grabs each time the white house changes hands. A law that compels enforcement and sets specific guidelines for caping is far more effective for large scale and continuous change. Now, it is true that some of the cap and trade bills proposed will weaken the EPA's ability to regulate carbon unilateritality. That's not great, but if we get a strong enough bill out of congress it will be worth it. The other argument is that it will make people complacent. If we are actually caping carbon, I don't understand what you want people to be doing. Now, there are ecological issues outside of rapid global climate change, but I don't see how a carbon cap and trade will make us care less about those issues. It is true that an effective cap and trade destroys the meaning of individual actions when it comes to carbon. Deciding to produce less carbon will (seldom) matter because if you produce less it gives room for someone else to produce more. This is either a feature or a bug of the system, depending on who you are. Either you feel this will destroy individual morality, or you feel that a system that doesn't require self-conscious sacrifice but systematic changes is a better thing is up in the air from an ethical perspective. From a getting stuff done perspective, I'd prefer an effective systematic changes.

(6) Cap with no trade strikes me as somewhat problematic. First of all, I don't see the added benefit. If the caps are the same, we would be reducing carbon at the same rate. On the other hand, without trade it would produce much higher costs on consumers. That has its own set of problems. Also, just as I am wary of an unregulated market, I am also wary of the government, of centralized planning. I think we need a system that allows a degree of flexibility internally with a hard cap externally. I guess being for cap without trade makes sense if you are inherently opposed to all markets. The fact that Leonard only speaks in terms of ponzi schemes, bubbles, etc. makes it clear that she seems opposed to all speculative markets. I'm not sure I am, or at least certainly not to the degree I'd be for giving up an effective global warming opposition. As Paul Krugman explains why cap and trade doesn't lend itself to the sort of speculation that Leonard's language emphasis. Seriously, being opposed to the trade of cap and trade only makes sense if you are opposed to all trading, to the trading of wheat futures for example. Also, there is has been no gaming the market system of SO2 cap and trade (.pdf), and no evidence of any gaming the US regional carbon cap and trade (.doc). I don't know about problems of gaming the EU system, and if any of you know I'd be interested. Ultimately my view of markets are similar as those put forward by Braudel in Capitalism and Civilization and Delanda's Braudelian view in A Thousand Years of Non-Linear History. Basically, that markets are powerful and productive. The real problem isn't with markets, but with anti-markets trying to pass themselves off as markets. The creation of an actual market with cap and trade strikes me as beneficial addition to the policy.

At the end, this is a complex issue. Leonard is right that some of the people who first devised cap and trade to handle acid rain are worried about its effectiveness to handle carbon. There are a lot of problems and potholes to be dealt with. But "The Story of Cap and Trade" seems more devoted to rallying troops than it does to grapple with complex issues. That's not at all what we need.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Just got back

My sister is married, and I got back in to FL late last night. The problem with trips is I get very behind on responding to comments, and to reading what other blogs have said. What interesting things did I miss? Self-promotion is always encouraged.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Happy Blogging Anniversary

Critical Animal turns two today. Thanks to everyone that has read, encouraged, commented, or linked. You're the best audience to celebrate an anniversary with.

Speaking of anniversaries, my sister is getting married today. Clearly she wanted to make sure I could remember her anniversary, which is why she set it for today.

I've decided to add some musical accompaniment that is appropriate for both occasions.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

New Scholasticism or Conceptual Personae

This post began bumping around in my head based on the comments from Levi's post on What is Posthumanism? (featuring special guest star, Matthew Calarco). Then became more solidified by a few posts between Peter and Levi (and briefly, here is Peter again. Also, sorry for anyone that didn't see Levi's first post before he took it down). However, I don't have a lot of time to write this out, but I wanted to get some ideas out.

Part of the fear is around a new scholasticism: that we start writing book reports rather than doing philosophy, that we need to be authorized to speak, that we feel we can never speak in our own name. And in general, I think we have all experienced these issues. There is certainly a degree of new scholasticism out. I am lucky that Derrida decided to focus on the question of the animal (particularly late in his life). Not just because he wrote some smart and useful things, but because it has given my work legitimacy that it wouldn't have had even a decade ago (and that is true even if I don't mention Derrida). But while the problems of a new scholasticism are real (though I feel Levi has encountered them more than I have), I also think there is a place for conceptual personae. Of the enabling of thinking and production of philosophy that comes from reading authors. And occasionally, maybe even often, that means giving credit of ideas to these thinkers that are only vaguely or fleetingly there. It is hard, especially on the inside of an idea, to know where that idea originates. If another thinker has allowed to me think something new (at least new for myself) it is common to give credit even if that thought was aleatory to the reading. There is something to do be said for doing work while wearing the masks of other thinkers. The question becomes how do we allow for that to happen, without the issues of new scholasticism? Or, so the problems of new scholasticism become minimized rather than maximized? Because not everyone needs to wear masks when they work, and that is important as well.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Critical Animal Studies and the cocktail party test

Ian Bogost recently had a post about self-branding and doing interdisciplinary work. The first suggestion was to have a name for the work you do. It is in that mode that I have embraced the term critical animal studies. Now, I recognize that to some degree it is a non-sense phrase, but the ambiguity seems necessary at this point to make a large enough tent. Though I tend to share Craig's mistrust of the over use of the term critical, I find the term critical tends to decrease confusion from the phrase animal studies (which tends to lead people to think I do ethology or something of the sort). Regardless, I usually tell people I study philosophy, so the name isn't such a big deal.

The real problem with the cocktail party (which I've almost never been to, so I use this to mean any light conversation gathering with mostly strangers) discussion is you can't tell people you are writing a dissertation in philosophy without them asking what the dissertation is on. Now, the problem isn't that I cannot describe my work to non-philosophers, even non-academics. This is when I am jealous of Bogost and wish I could say I was working on video games. The problem is that my work is naturally polarizing. And the point of cocktail parties is to keep things light, fun, and happy. Not focusing on massive forms of violence that we are all complacent in, and a good chance the person I am talking to is invested in denying that violence. Now, that means I either need to mislead the person about what I do ("I work on the distinction between humans and other animals"), or I try to tell them what I do in broad strokes that aren't as controversial ("Factory farms are bad, mmkay").
Ultimately my problems aren't like what most interdisciplinary people have. The real problem is the controversy and sadness that surrounds my work once people actually figure out what I do.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Bennett, Ch. 4

I don't have much to say on this chapter. I'm glad it begins off with her admitting that many of the properties we once thought to be slowly human also belongs to other animals. I would have liked to see what this insight makes her feel in relation to the previous chapter on edible matter. Though none of that surprises anyone, I am sure.

The rest of the chapter is well-taken. While few of us are metal workers, I am sure we have all had the experience in pottery, or bread baking, or what have you, of the substance we felt of as inert takes on its own generative properties and force. But how do we tie together this almost pantheistic vitalism, in which everything has force, with the affirmation of a life or the life from outside that Deleuze was so fond of speaking of. If you turn to Deleuze's book on Foucault, in the chapter "Strategies and the Non-stratified", you will see Deleuze speak of certain thought of life that comes from the outside, and that does not belong to any species. In the same chapter you will see he talk of the necessary human life, the power particular to human life. My concern here, and I have spoken of this before, is a fear that a notion of a general materialist vitalism might dismantle anthropocentrism while maintaining humanism. And it is this book's relationship to humanism that I continue to wonder about.

Also, if this blog was the type to post pictures, I would have a picture of Wolverine or Weapon X, something like that in honor of the discussion of adamantine.

Monday, June 7, 2010

A Post of Links

I leave for GA tomorrow for my sister's wedding. Blogging will be light to non-existent while I'm gone.

Ben is up with his post on chapter 4 on Vibrant Matter. I wish he'd expand his critical comments, because I am interested, but I am unclear what he is arguing for. Regardless, looking forward to his comments on the next chapter.

William Gibson has mostly given up blogging to embrace twitter, but this blog post on future fatigue is wonderful. It is smart and somewhat rambling. It stands firm against teleology and utopianism (an interesting stance for a sci-fi writer, which he gets into somewhat). It also has this little gem:
The synthetic genome, arguably artificial life, was somehow less amazing. The sort of thing one feels might already have been achieved, somehow. Triggering the “Oh, yeah” module. “Artificial life? Oh, yeah.”

Though these scientists also inserted a line of James Joyce’s prose into their genome. That triggers a sense of the surreal, in me at least. They did it to incorporate a yardstick for the ongoing measurement of mutation. So James Joyce’s prose is now being very slowly pummelled into incoherence by cosmic rays.

Ian Bogost recently had an interesting post on self-branding when you do interdisciplinary work. Very interesting, and I had hoped to get around to writing a blog post about the differences of how these conversations go when you work on video games, versus when you work on something that is immediately polarizing.

Most of you seemed to really enjoy the link to Feminist Hulk. Well, just in case you missed it. Feminist Hulk has a delightful interview with Ms. Magazine. Well worth the read.

I've recently been finding and trying to figure out the best version of "St. James Infirmary Blues". Long one of my favorite songs, I have no doubt this has been inspired by how much I have enjoyed watching Treme. Right now, Snooks Eaglin has been winning the battle of the best (sung) version.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

One last one on Bennett

I'd leave this for Ben, but because it seems mostly inspired by one of the chapters I did, I'll go ahead and post this one here. This comes from the blog The Electrate Professor. I'll post most of it here, but please click the link to read the rest.

I was immediately struck by Bennett’s description of her philosophical project on the first page of the preface as an attempt “to think slowly an idea that runs fast through modern heads: the idea of matter as passive stuff” (vii). This immediately made me think of De Landa’s reference to glass as a slow-moving fluid, one that takes centuries to flow. Deleuze and Guattari often engage the phenomenon of speed as a way to indicate degrees of difference: “Speed turns the point into a line.” Her chapter on “Edible Matter” references the slow food movement, which I used to conceive of “the slow thought movement.”

So how does one think slowly? Perhaps it is as easy as paying more attention. In the words of one aphorism, “a thing is simple or complex, depending on how much attention one pays it.” Slow thinking would suggest the kind of attention to historical process that De Landa makes famous in his A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History, a book that Bennett uses (among others) to frame her argument in chapter one.

Perhaps the claim to a vitality intrinsic to matter itself becomes more plausible if one takes a long view of time. If one adopts the perspective of evolutionary rather than biographical time, for example, a mineral efficacy becomes visible. (10-11)

She then provides a long example of such mineral efficacy from De Landa’s book, a quote which is worth repeating here since it’s so interesting:

Soft tissue (gels and aerosols, muscle and nerve) reigned supreme until 5000 million years ago. At that point, some of the conglomerations of fleshy matter-energy that made up life underwent a sudden mineralization, and a new material for constructing living creatures emerged: bone. It is almost as if the mineral world that had served as a substratum for the emergence of biological creatures was reasserting itself” (11, quoting Nonlinear History p. 26).

She also quotes Adorno at one point, who writes, “What we may call the thing itself is not positively and immediately at hand. He who wants to know it must think more, not less” (13). This “thinking more,” I believe, is enhanced by “the long view of time” Bennett mentions. Slow thinking allows for a sedimentation, a layering of processes and matter-energy flows that make up the complex expression of the here-and-now (or the wherever-and-whenever we happen to be attending to).

Bennett’s discusses Adorno’s “negative dialectics” as a way to “become more cognizant that conceptualization automatically obscures the inadequacy of its concepts,” at one point quoting him as saying, “objects do not go into their concepts without leaving a remainder” (14, emphasis mine). I wondered here again about the possibility of a different way of thinking, along the lines developed in a previous blog post trying to think beyond the concept. Perhaps there’s something here that would allow me to develop the idea of “the incept” as a way in to an object, a kind of “becoming-thought-object,” a thinking-with or -through an object. Such inceptual thinking would require a slowing down, a kind of phase-alignment of one’s own energy with the objects under observation (for her it was the debris that “provoked affects in me” [4]).

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Bennett's Vibrant Matter so far, moving on to Naught Thought

I've enjoyed hosting this week's discussion of Bennett's Vibrant Matter. Starting tomorrow we move on to Ben's place at Naught Thought.

If you want to see the first week's posts, please check out Philosophy in a Time of Terror.

Here is my precis on chapter 2, and here is my commentary on chapter 2.

Here is my precis on chapter 3, and here is my commentary on chapter 3.

Here is Adrian Ivakhiv on chapters 2&3.

And here is Ben Woodard on the book so far.

Update: The Electrate Professor has a post up here on the book so far (mostly chapter 3).

Friday, June 4, 2010

Philosophically evil animated kid's movie

I recently watched Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths (let's skip why) and normally this event would not be blog worthy. After all, it is a rather intolerable film, with a mediocre script, so-so voice acting, and absurdly long animated action sequences that made little sense. But if you are looking for a movie for a child the age to enjoy such things it is on watch now for netflix. But here is the thing, the main villain is inspired by some sort of existentialist/nihilistic philosophy. The rest of this post is going to contain spoilers, such as they are. You might, possibly, want to stop reading.

The movie makes use of a strong version of multiple worlds theory (the second laziest and most incoherent sci-fi device, lead only by time travel), the sort that claims that every little action produces several different worlds. So, in this story a villain known as Owlman (a evil version of Batman), is part of a gang of superpowered thugs who have developed a doomsday device called the Quantum Eigenstate Device (or as it is always referred to, The QED). The supervillain gang thinks this device is going to be used to blackmail their world, but really Owlman has a different plan. He is haunted by some trauma from his past, and broods on the fact that the notion of the multiverse means no action can ever have any sort of meaning. Because no matter what happens, everything happens. But, somewhere exists an Earth Prime, and if that planet is destroyed, then the entire multiverse can be destroyed. So, Owlman is possessed by the desire to commit the only action that can possibly have any meaning, the destruction of the whole multiverse. I have to admit, I really enjoyed the philosophical justification for his villainy. That part was pretty good for a direct to DVD kids movie.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

A Post of Links

Anthony Paul Smith and Daniel Whistler have a new edited volume out that looks to be exciting: After the Postsecular and the Postmodern: New Essays in Continental Philosophy of Religion. This very well could be the first of many more posts on this new work.

EJ has a draft up on his paper about Judith Butler and animals. It is entitled "Species Trouble", good title. Highly suggested read.

The UN says we need to move away from a diet of animal products, or else. As Erik Marcus points out, they never mention the words vegetarian or vegan.

I recently said something supportive of Michael Pollan, time to push back. He recently bashed feminists (again). As my brother aptly put it, this is just another piece of proof that for people like Pollan and Salatin this is fundamentally a conservative movement in liberal drag.

This Onion video about apes facing their mortality is truly funny. Though my guess is apes already know they are one day going to die.

And the best thing on the internet these days is Butler inspired feminist Hulk twitter feed. (h/t Feminist Philosophers) Here is an example:

And another one:

How can anyone not love that?

This post of links' music comes from my favorite album of 2009, Dead Man's Bones. This project was originally intended as a supernatural children's musical, and those roots are pretty obvious in the album it eventually became. Also, who knew that Ryan Gosling had such a super sexy singing voice? Here is "Lose Your Soul"

Ben on Bennett

Ben from Naught Thought has a post up on Bennett's Vibrant Matter. I'll quote it at length, but I highly recommend clicking on this link to read the whole post.

Bennett begins in the usual post-human way of expanding materialism and/or phenomenological thought to grasp non-human actants, objects, entities, etc. Bennett engages Latour, Deleuze, DeLanda and the like to outline the life of the inorganic via an untraditional vitalism. In doing this Bennett makes conceptual alliances which are questionable. Deleuze’s virtuality, Latour’s actant, and Althusser’s atoms are put into play without dissecting the ontological and epistemlogical claims surrounding them. The noetic substance of Althusser’s swerve or the plane of immanence holds onto an anthrocentric ghost.

In a related sense, the first chapter is preoccupied with a kind of phenomenological fascination without ontological justification. The fixation on the heterogeneity of the trash in the gutter while an interesting anecdote to gain traction on the inorganic, begs the question of the philosophical path of this fascination.

This worry leads directly to the second chapter which focuses on distributive agency. Again it seems that phenomenological vestiges. As is the case with Timothy Morton’s work, terms such as interconnectivity, heterogeneity and so on beg the question as the attempt at destroying hierarchy creates a less than helpful unidirectionalism. Stratification is necessary. Bhaskar”s work would be helpful here.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Bennett's Vibrant Matter so far.

Here is what we have so far:
Gratton has last weeks discussion.

Here is my post on chapter 2, and my commentary on chapter 2. Here is my post on chapter 3, and my commentary on chapter 3.

And here is Adrian's discussion of chapters 2&3.

Remember, if anyone writes anything on Bennett this week, to drop me an email so I can add it here.

Initial Thoughts on Bennett, Ch. 3

First, I agree that food is an important conceptual space. What I really like about Bennett in this section is that people who tend to take food issues seriously tend to push heavily towards the importance of the intentional subject (food discourse is saturated with terms like self-control, will power, better health education, etc), and Bennett wants to push us past these terms. By focusing on food we are not just given a particularly good example of the multiple levels of assemblages, but we are also given a chance to leave behind such an anemic conceptual apparatus. But the same part that I like is also one of the parts of the chapter I find least compelling.
In this sense I mean that Bennett talks the right talk on the marco-theoretical level, but the examples she mobilizes tend to undermine these arguments. To take one example, she is interested in some of the early studies concerning Omega-3s positive effects, and worried about Omega-6s negative effects. Such focus on micro-nutrients is rather common today, but rather than representing a move towards assemblage thought, it tends to rather betray what Michael Pollan has usefully called nutritionism. Now, my thoughts on Pollan are well known, and I am generally mistrustful of his shoddy work, but he seems to be right on in this case. The rise of obsession with micro-nutrients comes from a desire to find elemental causes in the assemblage of a whole food. But whole foods constantly work in ways that betray any single elemental cause, they are non-totalizable sums. Moreover, these whole foods not only work without single elemental causes, but also link up to cultures, climates, and specific peoples-- to other macro-assemblages far away from the nutrient. Again, I think Bennett understands this, and she certainly makes clear her philosophical commitments, but the example itself seems tied to a strong anti-assemblage understanding of food and our bodies.
Another example is her thoughts on the issue of obesity. First, it is unclear what Bennett believes is causing an increase in obesity. Before her sentence, "That would explain why the bodies of Americans are larger and heavier than ever before" (p. 40) we see two sentences that outline four different dietary changes within the last 60 years or so. Is she saying all of these changes would explain the changes of our bodies? That a few of them are? That the last one listed, the increase in calorie consumption, is the cause? That weight is large an issue of calories in/calories out is something of a dogma. By which I mean there is large spread belief from experts and lay persons in the truth of this statement without the corresponding body of evidence. (For more on this, I highly suggest this lecture. The conclusions don't really follow, but the problematizing of calories in/calories out strike me as very smart and interesting). Moreover, we know obesity in this country has hit a plateau. And that fact itself challenges the notion that only calories in/calories out is the only thing related to obesity (and we can further bracket the question of if obesity is itself a causal agent in our national health crisis). In order to understand what causes weight gain and weight loss, and in order to understand what is causing our national health crisis, requires the full range of assemblage thought. Sadly, that is not the style of thought that dominates in these discussions, and Bennett's reproducing the commonly accepted beliefs of weight, health, and nutrients push against assemblage thought. Because these commonly held beliefs come very much from a culture of the intentional subject, morality plays, single linear causes, and the ability to break down things to their constituent elements. The radical nature of Bennett's theoretical arguments are being weighed down by the conservative nature of her examples.
Now is a good time to bring up another thing about this chapter that bothered me. When discussing the studies of Omega-3s and -6s, some of these studies come from tests on prisoners, and others from tests on rats. I think when we are dealing with the violence of certain experimental knowledge we required to create a textual friction, something that slows us down and recognize the violence that comes from such tests. That this limited knowledge comes as part of the price of the lives and well-beings of other animals, and from the institutionalized slavery of the prison-industrial complex. The need for this textual friction is only truer for the reasons that Adrian cites.
Food, however, is also more than vital matter in "what we become" (as David Goodman's and other political ecologists' work demonstrates). It is a process by which certain things become nutritive substance for others, and in which relations between all of them get arranged in particular ways, for the benefit of some but not others. Our cultural practices and technologies of food production, distribution, and consumption, are also "players" that "enter into" what the world becomes. What we turn into "food" becomes vital matter for us; but the process of turning something into food is also a process of rearranging relations on a mass scale (since modern humans live on a mass scale) that alters food-making processes for all kinds of other things. There's a 'cosmopolitics' to all of that -- an ethical political ecology that I'm hoping to hear more about in upcoming chapters.

I think he has put it powerfully and profoundly here. This isn't just a question of eating other animals (though that is certainly a extremely important dimension of this discussion), but rather a question of enabling instrumentalizations that I already brought up. And this also is where the conservative nature of the examples weighs down the radical nature of the thought. All the discussions of food seem to center on a certain humanism (though maybe not an anthropocentrism), in which the major concerns are concerns on the vitality of human eaters. Or on the vibrant nature of already dead beings. What becomes skirted are those beings who became instruments to empower the assemblage of us as a human, but where themselves losers or victims in this instrumentality. These questions have to be confronted. I look forward to the rest of the book (particularly on the ending chapters where so much of these issues are going to have to rest).

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Bennett, Ch. 3, Edible Matter

This post is on chapter 3 of Vibrant Matter, "Edible Matter". If you are interested in seeing the post on chapter 2, click here.

Chapter three focuses on the issue of food. The question of food does not merely provide another example of how a view of vibrant matter could change and shape our personal and collective policy decisions, but also helps to think through the idea of assemblages. Remember, assemblages operate at many different levels of affective bodies, so not only is the individual human body capable of being a part of an assemblage, it itself is also an assemblage. Therefore, "[e]ating appears as a series of mutual transformations in which the border between inside and outside becomes blurry: my meal both is and is not mine; you both are and are not what you eat." (p. 49)
Bennett believes that taking food as an active, vibrant force with its own agency can begin to help us address or understand a few important policy questions. The first is the crisis of obesity in the US. When we look at the shift into eating more fats, more sugars and sweeteners, and more food in general, the usual response to talk about lack of will control or a lack of education. But Bennett wants to challenge the very idea that the human as an intentional subject is in control of what they eat. One of the ways she does this is to take seriously the phenomena that people experience with potato chips, in which it seems the eating of these chips occur without will or intentionality of the eater, as if the chips summon the eater on their own. Another food policy question she takes seriously is the role of certain nutrients (in particular she looks at Omega-3) has had some studies showing that it shapes moods and emotions. So, not only can food affect your health, it can only affect your emotional responses to the world around you. That food can shape your being, that it has an ontological character, is not a new thought (even if uncommon thought), and Bennett turns to Nietzsche and Thoreau in order to explore how these 19th century thinkers addressed the issue of food.
Nietzsche physiological philosophy is based strongly on what one digests. Nietzsche shows a frequent disdain for vegetarians and flatulence producing vegetables. Zarathustra talks about needing warrior food. Nietzsche also finds the rise of anti-Semites to be tied to the "too exclusive diet of newspapers, politics, beer, and Wagnerian music." (quoted p. 135, n. 25) From this we get the idea not just of certain foods producing certain styles and ways of being, but also an expansive understanding of diet. Not just traditional food (beer), but politics, information, and music all are parts of a digestive assemblage.
While Nietzsche remained mistrustful of vegetarianism, associating it with asceticism and priests, Henry David Thoreau embraced vegetarianism (well, sorta), and advocated it for how lively he felt. He was suspicious of the slime and rot of decaying flesh, and felt that 'animal food' did not sustain him. But his distaste of flesh's mortification was not some Platonism, for he loved berries of all sorts. Though, he felt they were best to be eaten freshly picked, and they went through a type of transformation when bought from the market.
Bennett moves from the food related theories of Nietzsche and Thoreau to the more contemporary case of Leon Kass and his book, The Hungry Soul. Kass is a former chair of Bush's committee on bio-ethics, and his work reflects a conservative and Christianist vitalism. For Kass, the nature of food reveals the natural hierarchy of existence. This hierarchy is not at all a surprising one, with it going from inorganic matter, to organic matter, to the human at the top. This occurs because organic matter is given an extra spark, an extra capacity which we call life. Humans have that as well, but they also are endowed with a soul, which makes them summit of existence. Bennett introduces Kass as a foil, as a way of distinguishing her work from a more traditional and conservative vitalist conception of the world.
Lastly, Bennett turns to the Slow Food Movement. She finds a lot of hope in Slow Food to bring together both 'foodies' and 'granolas', and to revitalize environmentalism. An environmentalism that finds joy in eating and cooking, and that is concerned with local productions and roots. In the end, her hesitation on the Slow Food Movement is that it doesn't go far enough, and doesn't seem to recognize the actant nature of food itself.

Okay, my commentary on this chapter will come shortly.

Some initial reflections on Bennett ch. 2

These reflections bounce off of what Adrian wrote, so make sure you have read him.

Like Adrian, I am uncomfortable with the ending of this chapter. I'm glad Bennett doesn't just dodge the issue of accountability, but she certainly doesn't try to provide a guideline for how one should act and respond toward catastrophes. Adrian argues that we need:
But we still need better, more reliable accounts of how things happen and where the gaps and disjunctures in systems of accountability occur. These are questions of design. We need to design better, more responsive and responsible systems.
And I certainly don't disagree. But it also seems to me that the radical implications of the agency of assemblages pushes back against this as the answer. Sure, we need better designs. And part of getting better designs means being honest how things interact, which means a reduction of morality and blaming and generally being a cop. But ultimately the fact that assemblages are (a) not only human or even necessary human and (b) "are not governed by any central head" (p. 24) means that these assemblages resist human design. Or, they have designs themselves. So, better designs are necessary, but designs also seem to indicate a certain predictive power, and a certain power of control that I think assemblages challenge. Think of Isabelle Stengers' distinction between a demonstration and an experiment. A demonstration is like Galileo dropping a hammer of the leaning tower. He knew what would happen, and was simply demonstrating it. On the other hand, look at the first atomic bomb explosion. They had a good idea of what would happen, but weren't entirely sure. There was a chance the explosion wouldn't stop, there was a chance nothing would happen, and everything in between. Assemblages, due to their constant mutual affectivity, are by their nature experiments and not demonstrations. So, the issue of better designs are only one part of the radical limitations to human planning that is raised by assemblages. I want to be clear, I'm not criticizing what Adrian said, I'm in agreement. I just felt someone reading his post might not feel how thinking from assemblages is a radical departure from normal thoughts of human agency.

Tomorrow I will deal with chapter 3, and no surprise I will be in agreement with Adrian on that chapter. I do want to say that I really appreciate Bennett as a writer. Her prose is dense, yet clear. Usually when we talk about a writer being dense we mean they are opaque, but that isn't what is going on with Bennett. Instead, she manages to condense complex ideas in relatively few sentences and paragraphs, but in still very clear ways. It is a delight as a reader, but a frustration as someone giving a precis.

Adrian on Bennett's chapters 2&3

Adrian beat me on posting this week, and already has his reflections up for this week's chapters. I will quote his post at length, but click the link to see the whole thing.

While I like the notion of "distributive agency" (see my previous post), which Chapter Two ("The Agency of Assemblages") develops further, and while I think there's much to be gained from a more complete actant-assemblage analysis of the 2003 power blackout (the focus of the chapter), I'm not sure that this chapter's conclusions about moral and political judgment advance us much beyond what has already been said elsewhere about the blackout, or about analogous events. One could, for instance, do a similar analysis of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and be left with little indication of how such spills could be averted in the future.Bennett writes:"In a world of distributed agency, a hesitant attitude toward assigning singular blame becomes a presumptive virtue. Of course, sometimes moral outrage [...] is indispensable [. . .] but a politics devoted too exclusively to moral condemnation and not enough to a cultivated discernment of the web of agentic capacities can do little good. [. . .]"It is ultimately a matter of political judgment what is more needed today: should we acknowledge the distributive quality of agency to address the power of human-nonhuman assemblages and to resist a politics of blame? Or should we persist with a strategic understatement of material agency in the hopes of enhancing the accountability of specific humans?"This is an important question, and Bennett's hesitation from answering it, coupled with the hinted preference for the first option over the second, can be taken as a way of keeping the ball in motion rather than letting it land, perhaps prematurely. If one is looking for an accounting and assessment of the blackout that would help us prevent similar events, or that would redistribute risk and/or justice in one way or another, the chapter does not provide that. Bennett is right: we do live in a complex socio-natural world, one in which the assignment of blame is rarely simple. The blackout is a perfect example of that, while the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is perhaps a better example of blameworthy behavior by those who cut corners for profit. But we still need better, more reliable accounts of how things happen and where the gaps and disjunctures in systems of accountability occur. These are questions of design. We need to design better, more responsive and responsible systems.In its concluding notes on the Slow Food movement, the next chapter, on "Edible Matter," shows us one very promising direction for doing that -- a social movement appealing, with some success, to diverse constituencies in order to bring together and act on concerns for "ecological sustainability, cultural specificity, nutritional economy, aesthetic pleasure, and the skills needed to make meals from scratch." Environmentalists, except perhaps for a few die-hard skeptics, would largely agree with a positive assessment of that movement. The chapter as a whole, however, with its accounts of Nietzsche's and Thoreau's reflections on food, provides good illustrations, but not advancements, of the book's thesis about vital materiality. Food, in Bennett's account, is "an actant in an agentic assemblage that includes among its members my metabolism, cognition, and moral sensibility"; it is "a self-altering, dissipative materiality" and "a player" that "enters into what we become."Food, however, is also more than vital matter in "what we become" (as David Goodman's and other political ecologists' work demonstrates). It is a process by which certain things become nutritive substance for others, and in which relations between all of them get arranged in particular ways, for the benefit of some but not others. Our cultural practices and technologies of food production, distribution, and consumption, are also "players" that "enter into" what the world becomes. What we turn into "food" becomes vital matter for us; but the process of turning something into food is also a process of rearranging relations on a mass scale (since modern humans live on a mass scale) that alters food-making processes for all kinds of other things. There's a 'cosmopolitics' to all of that -- an ethical political ecology that I'm hoping to hear more about in upcoming chapters.

Bennett, Ch. 2, The Agency of Assemblages

The reading group on Bennett's Vibrant Matter continues. For seeing what has already been produced, see this post over at Philosophy in a Time of Error. This blog will be the central hub for discussions this week relating to chapters 2&3. Please drop me an email if you write anything on Bennett this week. I will take up chapter 2 on this post, and then chapter 3 is following post.

Despite its title, this chapter is primarily about rethinking the notion of agency, and more than anything else that is what holds this chapter together. In order to understand this different notion of agency, we'll have to understand two philosophical terms: The first, the affective bodies of Spinoza, and the second the notion of assemblage from Deleuze and Guattari.
Understanding the affective body seems, at first gloss, to be a rather easy concept to understand. It is any body that is capable of affecting another body. Of course, the affective body is also a body that is capable of being affected upon. Because the nature of the affective body is as being both affected and able to affect means it is neither subject nor object, but rather enters into relations with other affective bodies that form a mode (there is no way in this understanding to conceive of an affective body in a vacuum). Now, it is important to remember the discussion of conatus from chapter one (see pp. 2-3, plus the interesting footnotes). Every affective body, which also means every level of these plural affective bodies, has its own conatus. And what these bodies all strive for (in their own different ways) is the enactment of their own power (Spinoza calls this joy, but this word is missing from Bennett's vocabulary). This means that affective bodies enter into alliances and relationships with other affective bodies in order to increase their power. In order to think these complex relations, we need to turn to Deleuze and Guattari's notion of the assemblage (agencement). Bennett's short, four paragraph long section on "What is an Assemblage" should almost be quoted in toto (and What Is An Assemblage would be a great title for a book). Bennett explains: "Assemblages are ad hoc groupings of diverse elements, of vibrant materials of all sorts." (p. 23) She then goes on to continue to explain their external and internal structure in several clear, concise, and dense sentences. For our purposes, assemblages are composed of various affective bodies that come and work together. They form together and break apart. They exist therefore for only particular times and places, that do not necessarily entail the same finitude as their component parts. Their structure resembles a dialogic structure from Bakhtin, except for the fact that assemblages do not exist exclusively or even necessarily of human components (which might also be true of certain readings of Bakhtin).
Bennett goes on to give a political and policy-oriented example how assemblages function with a great blackout in August 2003. The section does lend itself to summary, so I suggest just reading the narrative itself.
After the explicating the blackout, Bennett goes on to distinguish the assemblage from a repressive structure on a willing or self-intentional subject. To explain, it is not uncommon for people to accept that a material non-human object can change the actions of a human. But what is usually understood by this point is that these material structures or systems limit human agency, it is seldom understood as these structures having agency themselves. To give a personal examples, I have one of those desks where you have to open the center drawer in order to open the three draws on the side of the desk. Every time I go to take things out or put things into these draws the desk and I engage in this little dance. Now, one way to understand this is that the desk is a mute object merely reducing my agency of opening up the drawers in any damn order I please. Another way to understand it though it is to see how everything changes. What books and papers get put where (in drawers or on the top of the desk or stacked next to me on the floor) have shifted due to this interaction. This changes the way I interact with materials, find them, draw connections in my work. All of this means that a particular writing and research assemblage including books, shelves, drawers, me, papers, surfaces, all get changed. The desk actively produces a different writing assemblage of which I am only one component of.
Bennett then takes up the three traditional criteria to determine agency: efficacy, trajectory, causality. Bennett doesn't set out to argue for different terms to understand agency, but rather seeks for us to understand these terms outside of intentionality. Efficacy comes to be seen as a swarm of different actants, trajectory comes to take on a derridian notion of messianicity, and causality comes to mean something emergent and fractal.
Agency of assemblages can be perhaps understood by the Chinese notion of shi. Shi comes originally from military strategy (which doesn't surprise me at all. If you want to hear people talk in terms of swarms and emergence and fractals talk to some military think tank types), and it is "the style, energy, propensity, trajectory, or elan inherent to a specific arrangement of things". (p. 35) Shi, therefore, is not about any specific element, but rather the composition of forces, allied elements being able to move together.
In the final section of the chapter Bennett confronts head on that this notion of distributed agency, of the agency of assemblage, exists in tension with a desire to hold people accountable. Where energy speculators guilty for the blackout? Are BP and the MMS guilty for the current oil spill? Bennett doesn't give a definitive answers, but at least raises directly the question. If we take seriously that agency lies in assemblages rather than intentional human subjects, holding people accountable makes very little sense. And moreover, such morality plays can help hide to us proper policy solutions to problems. On the other hand, she admits that outrage and shock are frequently the proper and just response to situations. So, this chapter ends with a sort of stutter, a sort of stammer. I don't think this stammer will satisfy, but I am at least sympathetic to it.

To see my commentary on this chapter, click here.