Vibrant Matter & the Subject-Object relationship

If we incorporated a Vibrant Materialist worldview which takes in consideration the active participation of Things in the everyday life of humans, what type of relationships would such perspective problematise? I recently picked up a copy of Jane Bennett’s book Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology Of Things in which she discusses the affects and interventions of Objects upon human life, and how treating these Objects as actants, instead of passive inert matter, might change ecological and political thought. A particular aspect however, which has really struck a chord with me, is how in developing such a relationship with Objects, instead of banishing them into passivity, might transform the foundation necessary within ecological and political thought: that is the bond between humanity and the matter that composes us and our surroundings. She writes:

If matter itself is lively, then not only is the difference between subjects and objects minimized, but the status of the shared materiality of all things is elevated, All bodies become more than mere objects, as the thing-powers of resistance and protean agency are brought into sharper relief.

What this quote points towards is that in accepting that the body is a conglomeration of elements working on their own behalf, is to accept that one is an ever-changing composition of nonhuman entities that blur the proper distinction necessary for the Subject to be foregrounded. For what Bennett proposes is to start considering that many things which appear whole are indeed such a conglomeration of macro and micro efforts. Take as an example the micro efforts of the microbiota within certain parts of the body, such as the gut, which aid in digestion and metabolism, the latter being necessary functions for life, which as a result have a decisive impact on, for example, the macro effect and consequent actions of a healthy individual. For if these microorganisms seized their activity, or be neutralised by outside contagion, or if a person stopped eating, both distinct entities would surely not be able to survive.

Such symbioses, implies, or as we claimed, what it problematises, is the relationship between the Subject and the Object, to the extent that it suggests its dissolution. For the boundary between who decides what action is taken to who’s benefit becomes blurred, and such a boundary is critical for the Subject-Object relationship, because it is such distinction that defines the borders of authority, for in the moment the Object becomes Thing, becomes actant and responsive, it is abstracted by its foreignness and distorts its position within the imposed hierarchy. A person may feel superior to someone else due to their capacity of immediately applying their will upon the latter, objectifying them, however if one considers that others have a will of their own, then the relationship becomes horizontal and the hierarchy dissolves. In spite of this, how might this work in a relationship with inert matter? As an example, who is the actant within the action of standing up? If it were not for the horizontality between mind, muscle, and bone, such a simple action would not be accomplished. In this dynamic, the mind acts as impulse, the muscle as tension, and the bone as support, each becoming agency through the limits of their potentialities. For it is important to emphasise that even Tension, in the case of muscle, or Rigidity, in the case of bones, are themselves actions as long as they supply a dynamic intervention within a system of material relationships. And it is through this process that these parts become Things distorting the line between Subject and Object.

The critical point to be made here is that such an intervention within the Subject-Object relationship does not nullify the importance of human life.  For humanity is indeed more capable than, for example a pebble, could ever be. Bennett herself makes it a point to remind her readers that to treat Objects as Vibrant Matter is not to dispose of the idea that human life is precious. In the same chapter she writes that

…vital materialists do not claim that there are no differences between humans and bones, only that there is no necessity to describe their differences in a way that places humans at the ontological center or hierarchical apex.

And it is this ‘centre’-ness which can point us towards the constitutive nature of the Subject-Object relationship. For a centre is a point on a plane composed by relative coordinates created out of the abstraction which is geometry. A middle point is a symbol of signification, embedded within a structure of significance, which in its interaction with matter, extracts distinctive features off a surface or geographical position, and defines them according the rules of its system. Therefore, it is not to reduce life to Vibrant Matter that may encourage the injustice of objectification –for in developing a democratic relationship with mundane matter is also beneficial for consequent complex interactions– but to reduce oneself and others to abstraction, diluting ones value in favour of a system of coordinates dictated by a metaphysics that might hinder presence.

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