Given the loathing people seem to have of vitalism and animism it’s likely that I will regret this post, but as I work through Bennett’s thought again with my students and encounter the metaphysics of indigenous Hawaiians as articulated by Marisol, I increasingly wonder whether I shouldn’t make room for a concept like “strategic vitalism” in my own thought. Like Gayatri Spivak’s concept of strategic essentialism, the concept of strategic vitalism is an “as if” way of talking. Just as strategic essentialism does not claim that there are national, ethnic, sexual, class, etc., essences (there aren’t), but nonetheless holds that it is productive to deploy such essences strategically for certain political aims, strategic vitalism would not make the claim that all beings (including non-living entities) are animals, but would hold that treating all beings as animals has certain positive political, ethical, and analytic effects. So what might these effects be?
The whole point revolves around the thesis that how we think and talk about the world has effects on how we relate to the world and other things. In developing her key concept of “thing-power”, Bennett remarks that she “…will feature the negative power or recalcitrance of things [their resistance]. But I will also seek to highlight a positive, productive power of their own. And, instead of focusing on collectives conceived primarily as conglomerates of human designs and practices (“discourse”), I will highly the active role of nonhuman materials in public life” (Vibrant Matter, 1 – 2). Bennett seeks to treat nonhumans, including non-living beings, as agencies (actants) in their own right, akin to animals.
In a recent comment over at Fractured Politics responding to a discussion Tim Morton’s The Ecological Thought, Marisol Bates gives us a sense of just what this vitalism might look like within the framework of indigenous Hawaiian metaphysics. As Marisol writes,
I want to push back a little on some of what Morton says. First, his denigration of “premodern thinking” wreaks of the civilized/uncivilized divide used by colonizers to suppress the colonized, including Native Hawaiians, my culture. If the ecological thought only emerges with modernity because the ecological crisis only becomes extant with modern capitalism and consumerism, that’s fine. If the idea is that “premodern thinking” is somehow inferior to modern thinking, however, then I have a problem. My people view themselves as the literal descendants of taro, rocks, volcanoes, land, the sea, the sky, etc.
I think this is a little rough on Morton as he’s responding to a very specific trend within ecological thought, but what I find interesting in Marisol’s remarks is her articulation of Hawaiian metaphysics. Within this Hawaiian metaphysics, humans are actual relatives of all sorts of nonhuman things, and, reciprocally, nonhumans would be relatives of humans. Implicit in this way of conceiving human-nonhuman relations– and Kris Coffield has made this point to me explicitly in email in discussions about what an object-oriented post-colonial theory might look like, just as Marisol has made this point explicitly here on the blog –is that these nonhumans are agencies or animals. In this world-scheme, they are not brute and passive bits of matter, but rather are “animals” in their own right.
Now, I think this way of thinking only takes on sense and significance when situated in terms of how Modernity conceives nonhuman entities. As Latour ceaselessly shows us, the Modernist framework bifurcates being into two non-related domains of Culture and Nature. Culture is conceived as the domain of agency, freedom, meaning, and norms, while Nature is conceived as the domain of passivity and mechanism. In this world-schema, matter is reduced to four things with respect to human beings: First, it is seen as essentially passive such that it has no capacity to act until it is acted upon by some outside force. Second, it is therefore reduced to what resists humans. Having no agency of its own, all it can do is thwart human projects or get in the way of those projects (I bump into a table in the middle of the night while staying in a hotel). Third, it is seen as a screen for the projection of human meanings and values. This was the great lesson of Feuerbach’s analysis of religion. Feuerbach taught us how to read the things of the world as alienated images of our own meanings. Where the “naive” relation to things takes their properties to be intrinsic features of that being, Feuerbach taught us how to see these things as vehicles or carriers of human meanings, such that the property comes from us, not from the thing of itself (and to repeat again, this is a style of critique that should not be abandoned). Thus, for example, the value of the dollar bill resides not in the paper or the ink, but arises from society. The paper and ink are just a carrier or vehicle of this meaning. Finally, fourth, things are seen as mediums for human aims and goals (i.e., they are tools). The toolness of the tool does not here reside in the matter itself, but rather arises from us.
Within the Modernist framework, then, agency really only issues from humans. At most, the things of the world are mere vehicles or carriers of human meanings, intentions, or aims. These things do not have any agency of their own. As I’ve already remarked, ways of thinking influence how we relate to the world. This is above all clear in a Modernist framework. Insofar as we see the nonhuman things of the world as passive matters without any agency of their own, insofar as we see them as screens and carriers of our intention, insofar as we see them as essential amoral, we need have little regard for these nonhumans. They are there for us to use as we will and we need not worry over this as these aren’t agencies, they have no feels, and they have no moral status.
Matters change significantly within a framework of strategic vitalism. Again, a strategic vitalism does not assert that nonhumans are literally animals, but suggests that there are benefits to thinking about the things of the world in animistic, vitalistic, and anthropomorphic terms. First, there are ethico-politico consequences that thinking in terms of strategic vitalism invite. Our attitudes towards animals and lumps of clay tend to be markedly different. Generally, so long as we’re not cruel bastards, we take a dim view of people that are needlessly cruel to animals. If we can help it we try not to step on insects. If we find a gecko in our house (a common occurrence where I live), we don’t smash it but gently lift it and carry it outside. If it’s tail falls off in this process we feel a bit of guilt and sadness. We do not smash the eggs of birds that we find in nests. We do not kick dogs or throw them across the room. And so on.
I am not suggesting here that with animals we should adopt an attitude of complete submission or indifference to our own aims. We should disinfect cooking surfaces. We should take the appropriate medicines when we grow ill. We should shoot the wolf if it is attacking us or our child. The point is that we tend to regard animals differently than we regard lumps of clay. As Mark Okrent argues in Rational Animals, we tend to take a dim view of unnecessary and cruel interventions in the teleology of other animals. Now if we extend this logic of animal ethics to our relations to all entities whether they are living or not, we likely get a very different way of relating to these things.
If I think of stones, mountains, streams, canyons, lakes, etc., as animals– and, as in the case of the vitalism Hawaiian metaphysics advocates, as relatives –it’s likely that we will treat these things with greater reverence and regard. Perhaps we will think twice about removing that mountain top, moving that stone, dumping dirt from mining operations in rivers, and so on. Perhaps we will take a more meditative approach to how we built our own dwellings, looking for more harmonious forms of building that mesh (a great Morton word) with the other things of the world. And perhaps we will do this for the same reason we don’t smash the gecko. We try to avoid destroying the gecko not because the gecko somehow contributes to the continuation of our way of life and existence, but because we see the gecko as being something like an “end in itself”, such that it is wrong to interfere in the gecko’s teleology or continued existence. It might be that in many cases destroying the nonhuman things of the world does nothing to undermine the continuance of our own existence, yet nonetheless we should seek to avoid doing such things because these things are ends in themselves.
This is life in the Wilderness or a democracy of being, and is what a cosmopolitics is all about. Wilderness does not entail surrendering ourselves to the aims of Yersinia pestis or allowing the great white shark to eat us. We always see these straw men evoked whenever these issues are discussed. But rather, like any genuine democracy, it means dialoguing with others, even the strange strangers of which Morton speaks in The Ecological Thought, and, through that dialogue forming collective forms of life that balance the ends of those living in the collective. Within the Modernist framework the strange strangers aren’t even invited to the discussion. The strange strangers are reduced to being vehicles or carriers for our interests in much the same way that a slave loses his agency and becomes a vehicle for his master’s aims and intentions.
This shift in thinking by strategic vitalism is underlined Marisol’s characterization of the strange strangers as relatives in the vitalistic Hawaiian metaphysics. We do not, of course, always like our relatives. Yet we nonetheless treat our relatives with a different kind of regard and reverence than we treat the stranger. Yet Marisol’s point is more interesting yet. In treating us as descendants of taro, volcanoes, rocks, land, sea, and sky the Hawaiian vitalistic metaphysics indiscerns the difference between humans and nonhumans, while also simultaneously emphasizing the manner in which we belong to and are produced by what I call “regimes of attraction” (cf. The Democracy of Objects chapter 5). On the one hand, this indiscerning between humans and nonhumans creates a common space where we begin to think of the strange strangers such as the volcano as like us and therefore worthy of our regard and appropriate comportment. On the other hand, this indiscerning draws our attention to how, just like grapes, we are of the soil, sea, and sky, or how these milieus cultivate us to the same degree that we cultivate them.
Finally, there are analytic benefits to strategic vitalism that are important for the nature of inquiry. Within the framework of Modernity there’s a tendency, as Adorno compellingly argues in Negative Dialectics for us to treat things as identical to our concept of these things. In and through the concept we believe ourselves to master the thing. What I think in the concept is what is in the thing. We can see this way of thinking, perhaps, among the executives and management of British Petroleum in the lead up to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. We can hear them thinking “we know the laws of physics, we know the mechanics of our tools, nothing can go wrong.” In thought, they thought, the thing itself is grasped and mastered. There is no withdrawal or excess within the things of which we might be unaware.
Mechanistic materialism that reduces matter to passivity is particularly susceptible to this way of thinking. Yet animals are always surprising. While I know much about my cats and cats in general, I am nonetheless perpetually surprised by their actions. There is always a dimension of opacity and mysteriousness to animals and persons (unless you’re a psychotic) that resists the mastery by our concepts. British Petroleum discovered that things– including their own equipment –are like animals in that they behave very differently and in surprising ways under these intense water pressures (had they bothered to listen to their engineers and workers they might not have encountered this problem… Every engineer knows that things never work out as described in the blueprints). Had the executives and management of BP approached the things of the world as animals they might have been more cautious as they would be sensitive to this surprising excess and power that resides within the things of the world.
In our analyses of the world about us, strategic vitalism has the benefit of rendering us sensitive to the surprising power of objects, that they can never be reduced to their behavior in this context. It invites us to always be on the lookout for the Lucretian swerve, taking care not to reduce things to our concept of things. As such, it helps to render us sensitive to the aleatory and to, paradoxically, anticipate the aleatory insofar as things always harbor hidden depths and powers that we can never fully master.