As we began discussing Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter today and I tried to articulate what I think she’s up to with her concept of “thing-power”, I made a surprising discovery. In approaching Bennett’s work I tried to argue that lurking in the background is the question of “what is a society?” (she is, after all, a political scientist at John Hopkins). I then argued that this question breaks down into four subordinate questions: 1) why do societies exemplify phenomena of pattern and regularity across time (the question of negentropy… This involved me standing on top of desks and violating the personal space of students to exemplify the negentropic relations that undergird social relations), 2) why do societies change when they do?, 3) what are societies composed of?, and 4) what is the “glue” that holds social relations together, preventing them from dissolving into entropic chaos. Deep questions!
To introduce the mysteriousness of these questions, I contrasted what I call the “anthropocentric, humanistic theory of society” (AHTS) with Bennett’s posthumanist theory of society. Under the AHTS, society is 1) composed of humans, and 2) held together by beliefs, ideologies, norms, laws, religions, governments, meanings, language, economy, governments, and real and possible sanctions (punishments, police, military, prisons, insane asylums, etc). Bennett, I argue, suggests that while humans and the cultural (all that’s listed in point 2) are certainly important components of societies, they are inadequate to account for 1) why societies hold together as they do, and 2) why they change when they do. Under Bennett’s model, we have to expand the AHTS, arguing that 1) societies are composed of humans and nonhumans (technologies, living entities [microbes, plants, animals, viruses, etc.], and non-living entities (rocks, rivers, mountain ranges, meteors, etc.). Only by taking into account the nonhumans that populate societies can we understand why 1) certain social relations persist despite the perpetual threat of entropic dissolution, and 2) why societies change when they do. This is the whole point of her concept of “thing-power”. Yeah, yeah, talking about nonhuman entities– especially non-living, nonhuman entities, raises the hair on the back of the neck of many (I’m looking at you McKenzie Wark!), but the point is that we need to develop a language and aesthetic sensibility that allows us to discern the agency of nonhumans in a way that isn’t reduced to our significations, meanings, power, uses, etc. I think that for Bennett this way of speaking is an “as if” way of talking. What’s at issue is developing a sensibility of, to use Adorno’s term, of “non-identity”, that refuses to reduce entities to our concepts, meanings, and uses that is attentive to how nonhumans contribute something aleatory and unexpected to our social relations.
At this point, I proceed to give a number of examples of social changes involving nonhumans to draw attention to this “thing-power”. In each example the point is to draw attention to the inadequacy of belief and the “the cultural” to account for these changes. I begin with Jared Diamond’s diabolical question “why did Eurasia manage to conquer the Americas, the Australian continent, and Africa and not the reverse?” This is such a great question because it backs the anthropocentric humanist into a corner. Working on the thesis that it is culture that binds society together and that societies are composed of humans, the anthropocentric humanist can only explain this inequality by suggesting either 1) a biological superiority of Eurasians over people from all of these other places (biological racism), or 2) that there was something superior in the culture of Eurasians, leading people from these other places to either a) be defeated by the Eurasians, or b) that the peoples of these other regions recognized the inherent superiority of Eurasian culture and therefore abandoned their own culture (cultural racism). In short, if one adopts the correlationist hypothesis they are inevitably led to racism when answering these questions (shades of Heidegger’s sendings of Being and the primacy of the Greco-German culture here).
Diamond, by contrast, begins from another position. He argues that 1) that all peoples, wherever they are from, are intellectually equal (proof of this is found in transplanting infants from one cultural milieu to another and seeing how they develop), and 2) that all peoples, everywhere, exploit and discover the available natural resources of their environment. With these two axioms it is no longer possible to cite superior biology and culture as an explanation of Eurasian triumph over other peoples. All that’s left at this point is differences in environment. I won’t ruin the story here– read Guns, Germs, and Steel or watch the documentary on Netflix –but Diamond masterfully shows how differences in environmental conditions granted the Eurasians a variety of advantages (at the level of microbes or germs in particular) that allowed them to conquer other peoples. It wasn’t that, for example, the Mayans were a bunch of dopes that were terrified by the guns of the 300 or so Spaniards that had entered their land– c’mon folks, were talking about tens and hundreds of thousands of indigenous people against a handful of Spaniards… Do you really think the power of Christianity, armor, guns, swords, and men on horses were enough to make them abandon their traditions of hundreds of years, that a prophecy that happened to find a resemblance was enough to make them submit to these smelly and coarse Europeans, really? –had superior germs. Mayans and other indigenous peoples began dropping like flies from European diseases (produced as a result of close proximity to the variety of domesticated animals in Europe) while the Spaniards were fine. Not only were Spaniards thereby able to kill off vast numbers of their opposition through biological warfare, but, as historian William McNeill notes in Plagues and Peoples, this must have registered to the indigenous populations and the Spaniards alike as the superiority of the European god over the indigenous Gods as neither population had an understanding of the mechanism of disease transmission. Here we have nonhumans (domesticated livestock in Europe and the microbes and immunities that arose as a result) presiding over substantial– and very sad –social transformation.
From here I move into a discussion of the impact of the Black Plague on the development of capitalism, the Protestant reformation, and the rise of democracy and the Enlightenment in Europe (why did these cultural changes happen at these particular times… Hint: it had something to do with the failure of the Church to prevent the plague and the creation of a scarcity of labor that allowed surviving peasants to accumulate wealth in contrast to the nobles). Why did the sexual revolution occur in the 1960s? (Hint: it had something to do with the pill and cheaply available automobiles that created “mobile bedrooms” away from the prying eyes of regulatory parents). What role did the camera and television play in the Civil Rights movement? Why did the feminist revolution occur almost 20 years to the day after the end of WWII (Hint: it has something to do with women entering the factory during the war and then being kicked out by husbands returning with war trauma or PTSS and alcoholism). This is all bread and butter OOO stuff that all the dopes that engage in critical theory, deconstruction, and ideology analysis tend to ignore because they treat things as “commodities” to be decoded.
And then finally I end with a discussion of the current debates in education surrounding the failure of our schools, discussing the difference between the Boomer generation raised in a print culture (that incidentally is designing the education curriculum) and the new generation that’s develops within the framework of New Media (internet, television, film, video games, etc). I begin with emphasizing the plasticity of the brain and then proceed to a discussion of how the brain becomes structured differently in oral culture, print culture, and the culture of new media, i.e., how the structures of cognition themselves are very different in each of these cultures. Here my discussion is replete with tacit references to Walter Ong, Plato’s cranky Phaedrus (“those damned kids these days, they don’t remember anything because writing remembers for them!”), Friedrich Kittler and his claims about new media and print technologies like the typewriter, Benedict Anderson and his claims about how print media make Nation possible, Vernant’s claims about how writing fundamentally changed the nature of Law, McLuhan’s claims about the impact of media technologies, and so on.
Using Plato’s crochety Phaedrus as the paradigm case, I then argue that those that develop within the regime of attraction defined by New Media are not less intelligent, but differently intelligent (recall that Plato, like Grandpa from The Simpsons is all like “get off my lawn” and “you kids these days” because writing is somehow corrupting culture (if I hear one more Heideggerian-Gadamerian bitch about the decline of culture because kids don’t read texts in a “rich and historically informed” way I swear I’ll throw the collected works of Plato at them… Don’t you assholes read, didn’t you ever read Derrida’s Pharmekon essay… I’m looking at you Benard Stiegler). In other words, just as we hear American “statesmen” like George W. Bush and Obama wax profound about the decline of the youth today, we hear the same thing about the decline of kids in relation to New Media. Personally I find these students quite brilliant as I see what they create in their video games, their music, online, etc., and therefore wonder if our “educational crisis” has more to do with a conflict of cultures (brains developed in print culture versus brains that develop in New Media environments) than a decline of intelligent. Do we really need to know how to use the slide rule when we have calculators on our Smart Phones (nod to Andy Clark here).
But I digress. What really surprised me in this whole [enthusiastic] discussion was the way some of my students balked at the plasticity of mind hypothesis. I have only encountered this sort of resistance when placing different religions on a flat and even plane, suggesting that perhaps Christianity enjoys no superiority over, say, the Aztecs (after all, the world’s still here so that sacrifice must have been effective… Yes, propter hoc, that’s the point). You would think that I was killing kittens and eating babies by suggesting that intelligence is not a fixed quotient, that the brain is a “muscle”, and that you make yourself by, following Malabou, by how and what you think. “No, damn it, my brain and body are fixed!”
And I think, at the core of the day, this gets to the heart of the matter. We would like to think that our brains are fixed operating systems, because, in this way, we absolve ourselves of responsibility. If my brain and body are fixed operating systems like Windows or OS, then our potential is already pre-defined. My incapacity to dance, play a musical instrument, to read and understand Leibniz, to do mathematics, to change society, to do the Tour de France (that example came up in one class), to write well, etc., are a result not of me, but of the pre-wired operating system with which I’m born. These are, we say, my natural limitations. “I can’t help feeling this way.” “I just think this way.” What’s truly terrifying is the notion that our “operating systems” are plastic or that the way we use them changes them. Plasticity is terrifying because now learning– whether in the realm of athletics, art, or knowledge –becomes our personal responsibility. As the Stoics argued, I have power over my desire, I can choose my desire, meaning that there’s a real sense in which I can make myself. That’s frightening because, as Sartre noted, it leaves no refuge for excuse. We’ve always already chosen our facticity and to allow our facticity to affect ourselves in this way. Indeed, political cowardice always consists in the belief that other alternatives are impossible, that the stars cannot be re-written.
Daniel Dennett remarks, in Freedom Evolves, that the real dividing line isn’t between free will and determinism, but between those that believe they have free will and those that don’t believe they have free will. Those that believe they have free will will contest the stars and try and will therefore be free. Those that believe they aren’t free won’t try. Because I believe I can’t dance or play a musical instrument, I don’t try to dance or learn a musical instrument and I therefore end up with no rhythm nor music. Is it because I can’t or because I don’t try. I’m not suggest that were I to try I would become Jimmy Hendrix or Fred Astaire. Nothing is guaranteed. Revolution can fail. But if I don’t even bother to try I won’t even be a mediocre dancer and musician, nor will I even produce moderate political change. My entire life– as a mediocre performer academic performer between the first and tenth grade, as a person that failed a year of High School, as a drop out and druggy for a time –has been a testament to this truth.