For my monograph, I have selected Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter: A political ecology of things (2009) from Duke UP (complete preface available here).
Working in argumentative forms which run parallel to Latour’s Politics of Nature and Guattari’s Three Ecologies, Bennett argues (and here I must oversimplify) for a “vitality”-centered view of materiality which gives non-human objects agency (similarly to theories such as Actor Network Theory or Activity Theory) in order to recontextualize organizations, institutions, and political society through material forces “with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own,” which the author considers to be a “political project” which encourages “intelligent and sustainable engagement with vibrant matter and lively things” (viii).
There are some challenges to using such a text “as research.” First, inherent in a “political project” is the implication of bias. Second, very little of the research contained within contains a consistent or coherent experimental or synthetic method. By example, an early passage helpfully labelled “A Note on Methodology” contains nothing a researcher would traditionally recognize as “methodological,” with the exception of claims that the author will employ a method of “demystification” (xiii-xv) for the material practices of knowledge. What Bennett provides, in a sense, is the connection of the mystic illuminated Human Being with the mammalian Homo Sapien Sapiens – a “touch of anthropomorphism” (99) which parallels natural and cultural forms in order to demonstrate that our own agency is precisely as suspect as “vibrant materials'” agency would be – unless we are able as thinkers to synthesize the two.
On reading deeply into this text – my gut sank as I realized that (for my limited purposes here) Bennett’s work was not precisely helpful. Exploring why, however, might be informative.
Last week I expressed a concern that this might prove off-track or tangential. I wanted to study Bennett because I believe that austerity contexts for humanities graduate research really deal with the agency of money in the process of meaning-making, and the rhetorical agency of things as more valued in research production than ideas. As such, it’s easier to obtain research support to generate products, viable prototypes, than it is to generate data – and much of Bennett’s work helps contextualize a theoretical ground for why that has been the case in the past, and why the future of discourse on such research might be not to ascend the “thing,” but to equalize the Cartesian intellectual subject by bringing the researcher down to the level of the political/ecological context of material production.
If this all sounds too heady, I’m struggling to make Bennett applicable. Out of intellectual honesty, I want to keep it in to consider the challenges Bennett offers to traditional research paradigms, but the empiricist in me fears the consequences of a methods-and-methodology-free practice of research – which is essentially what Bennett’s political practice ends up being. However, there might be some ways to apply this to the graduate student struggle for research relevancy. More work is necessary.