In the opening pages of Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Jane Bennett puts her finger on what I would call the central materialist aspiration of my own onticology. Bennett writes,
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 (nonhuman) bodies? By “vitality” I mean the capacity of things– edibles, commodities, storms, metals –not only impede or block the will and designs of humans but also to act as quasi agents or forces with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own. My aspiration is to articulate a vibrant materiality that runs alongside and inside humans to see how analyses of political events might change if we gave the force of things more due. How, for example, would patterns 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 public health if eating was understood as an encounter between various and variagated bodies, some of them mine, most of them not, and none of which always gets the upper hand? What issues would surround stem cell research in the absence of the assumption that the only source of vitality in matter is a soul or spirit? 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”?
The term is Bruno Latour’s: an actant is a source of action that can be either 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. It is "any entity that modifies another entity in a trial," something whose "competence is deduced from [its] performance" rather than posited in advance of the action. (viii)
It could be said that there are roughly two types of materialism. There is, on the one hand, that materialism that sees “…matter as a passive stuff, as raw, brute, or inner” (vii). Conceived in this way, manner is purely passive and is thought in a matter akin to the relationship between wax and a signet ring. Here the wax, of course, is matter. The question is what is the signet ring? In this kind of materialism the answer is always the same: human intentionality and activity. Whether in the form of human concepts, language, signs, labor, etc., matter is seen as a passive stuff that merely receives the impress of the human. At most matter is treated as that which resists the human will to impress our form upon it. Matter is denied any agency of its own. Matter instead dumbly awaits our impress of form. Whenever we speak with Hegel of “objective spirit” or “externalized spirit” or with Marx of matter as “dead labor” we are implicitly endorsing this sort of materialism.
Of course, it is clear that this isn’t a materialism at all, but rather a crypto-idealism. If this is a crypto-materialism, then this is because it treats externalized human thought in matter as the only thing that is relevant. The matter is treated as if it were only a medium, a vehicle, carrying human concepts and intentions. Here our mode of analysis is one in which all of nature is but a reflection, a mirror, of us. We call ourselves materialists because we don’t merely analyzes concepts and thoughts after the manner of Hegel and Kant, but instead analyze institutions, practices, and “material conditions”. Yet oddly, in this “materialism”, we treat all of nature as an externalized reflection of our own aims, intentions, concepts, meanings, etc. In this “materialism”, the human somehow remains the central reference point and matter is like a canvas upon which humans externalize their own intentions. Lucretius would spin in his grave were it not for the fact that he’s dead and his consciousness has expired.
By contrast, the sort of materialism that Bennett argues for and which I advocate in my onticology treats nonhuman entities as full-blown actants or actors. Here nonhuman entities are never merely wax for human intentions and aims, but are rather actors in their own right irreducible to human intention. They are not passive stuff awaiting human imprint, but rather act in ways that exceed and condition human aims. They do not merely resist human intentions, blocking our goals and aims, but unfold in their own animated ways. Consider two ways of talking about cows. The crypto-idealist materialist would talk about the history of cows as one in which humans domesticated cows, clearing land and raising them so as to provide a reliable food source that allowed human populations to increase. This is not untrue, but is only part of the story. The onticologist, by contrast, would talk about how cows enlisted humans, domesticated humans, in their age old war against forests and their predators. Remember that from an evolutionary perspective, the only relevant thing is the manner in which different organisms devise strategies that enhance their possibilities of reproduction. Viewed through this lens, it is equally valid to say that cows exploited human desires for fat, compelling us to clear forests and protect them from predators, enhancing their reproductive possibilities. But domestication doesn’t end here. It is not simply that cows domesticated us in the sense of leading us to develop a set of practices such as raising cows and clearing forests so they would have more grazing land. No, the conspiracy of cows against humanity go far deeper. It is likely that cows also introduced extreme selective pressure on human populations dependent on cows for food, weeding out those members of our species that couldn’t tolerate high-beef diets and selecting for those that could. It’s likely that in many human populations cows changed our very genetics. As Scu has argued, we are addicted to meat. This addiction, in part, was carefully cultivated by cows themselves.
Note well, I am not saying this is good or that this morally justifies our ugly and ecological destructive treatment of livestock. I am saying that there are a variety of different teleologies involved in the evolution of cows. Some involved human aims. Others involved nonhumans such as chickens, cows, pigs, lamb, etc. The same could equally be argued for various grasses such as wheat, as well as a variety of other plants upon which we’re deeply dependent. And, I would argue, the same would be true of technologies, social groups, and texts.
At this point, sociology becomes, as Latour has noted in Reassembling the Social and elsewhere, entirely different. If it is true that the world of actants includes both humans and nonhumans, we can no longer assume, in the manner in the crypto-idealist materialists, that sociology is exclusively the domain of humans. There will never be a society composed just of humans because humans always dwell among a variety of different agencies including humans but also including all sorts of nonhumans. These nonhumans are never just wax for human intentions, but introduce all sorts of differences of their own that are irreducible to human intentions. We thus get an asymmetry. Following Whitehead there will be many societies that don’t involve humans at all. Such is true of the chemical processes taking place on Jupiter, or, until more recently, the sociology of coral reefs. By contrast, there will, at other times, be societies that include humans such as cities, while nonetheless containing many actants or actors of a nonhuman variety besides. Any social analysis that does not take these other actors into account is doomed to be horribly distorted and misguided. The question, then, for the vibrant materialist and onticologist will always be “what does it do?” The refusal will be any form of analysis that reduces nonhuman actants to mere wax for human intentions. There lies the fundamental dividing line.
As we watch the nuclear meltdown at the Fukishima power plant, here are some questions we might ask: What difference does an earthquake make? What difference does a tsunami make? What differences do nuclear power plants make? What do all of these things do in their specific affective circumstances? The point is not to deny the role of things such as capital, capitalism, and interests, but to understand these things as genuine actors in these societies or assemblages of association. For example, what new possibilities arise as a result of people’s encounters with all these agencies? So long as we remain at the level of the signifier, concepts, meanings, this level of analysis remains entirely invisible. We miss both opportunity and the manner in which all sorts of nonhuman agencies, all sorts of agencies that can’t be reduced to human intentions, condition us. The point is not to denigrate humans, but to see humans among other beings. If you don’t make this move your “materialism” has the flavor of a monotheistic narrative that continues to see persons as the sovereigns and lords of being. It’s difficult to see how such a position could possibly be materialist regardless of how much one insists that it is. A word does not a materialism or realism make.