The following is a very short thing written for a panel discussion on posthuman conceptions of community at the university of manitoba, 3 feb 2016
In her book Vibrant Matter, Jane Bennett develops a theory of vital materialism that employs the Deleuzian notion of assemblages to conceptualize the diffuse set of actors (both “human” and not) that are involved in the enactment of any given phenomena. The goal, for Bennett, 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” (viii). For Bennett, the emphasis on a wider set of beings is meant to recontextualize human intentionality as just one of many actors behind the enactment of any given phenomena, such that “[t]he locus of agency is always a human-nonhuman work group” (xvii). While Bennett’s work aims to fulfill the noble posthuman project of “decentering the human”, her conception of agential heterogenetic assemblages, wherein “strong responsibility seems… to be empirically false” (37), could be understood to suggest an eerie and chaotic agential landscape wherein human intentionally is subsumed into a blur of nonhuman forces, and human responsibility gives way to a kind of agentive nihilism. While I don’t think this is actually Bennett’s intention, it is definitely something that anyone reading her work is going to have to contend with. So, in what follows, I’d like to talk a little bit about why certain aspects of Bennett’s otherwise compelling notion of vital materialism are so troubling, with a particular emphasis on her usage of heterogeneity as the basis for the assemblage.
The whole issue, as I see it, is summed up pretty cleanly when Bennett attempts to cash out her theory into a kind of ethics. She writes, “[p]erhaps the ethical responsibility of an individual human now resides in one’s response to the assemblages in which one finds oneself participating” (37). So rather than instilling a sense of responsibility toward one’s assembled community of human and non-human others, Bennett’s notion of the assemblage leaves the human actor observing his relationality to others only indirectly, while he vigilantly monitors his own participation in assemblages whose trajectory he appraises to be “likely to do harm” (37). What’s important to note is not only how this conception of agency leaves the human disconnected from what he would otherwise view as “his” actions, but, perhaps more fundamentally, the fact that, in a certain basic sense, it actually reaffirms the distinctly humanist ontological binary between human and nonhuman that Bennett is trying to distance herself from: The human is still figured as the starting point of inquiry, as he vigilantly calculates and reacts to his relationship to a heterogenetic assemblage from which he is implicitly uniquely capable of extricating himself.
While Bennett’s turn toward this residual humanism does read jarringly against the theoretical project of her work, my suspicion is that she is lead to this position on the basis of her heterogenetic account of the assemblage: because her notion of assemblages implicitly requires a set of ontologically distinct beings who then iteratively enact a “confederate agency” (37), Bennett’s vital materialism does not sufficiently problematize “the human” as a given point of departure: The heterogeneity of her assemblages in fact necessarily fixes the ontological status of “the human” as a discrete being before its inscription within the assemblage. Thus, the human subject remains the starting point of his own calculus, with all the anthropocentric and individualistic assumptions that the liberal humanist conception of “the human” entails, who then situates himself within an assemblage of others, who figure mostly as potential impediments to the enactment of his particular intentions. Granted, this is a decidedly uncharitable reading of Bennett’s theory, but without challenging the ontological primacy of the “human” being, she is left with no recourse to combat the inertial presence this humanistic anthropocentrism.
To remedy this, I advocate for what one could call “dynamic homogeneity” in assemblage thinking, or a conception of agency that not only directs its attention toward the assemblage, but actually takes the process of assembling itself to be ontologically primary.
Rather than conceiving of agency as a set of discrete phenomenal assemblages which are themselves constituted of similarly discrete, marginally interactive actors, dynamic homogeneity describes a singular, ongoing and indeterminate process through which ostensibly discrete beings (both human and not) are contingently assembled.
The benefit of this approach is that it effectively dissolves any hard or lasting boundary between the human and the assemblage, such that our human actor is freed from the illusion that he could ever truly choose not to participate in the assemblage with which he is inherently entangled: because his existence as such is necessarily contingent upon the singular, dynamic, and ontologically-primary process of assembly, he is also inherently and irrevocably tethered to the human and non-human community alongside whom and which he emerges. Thus, we are not so much focused on wether or not to participate in an assemblage that may be set up to cause harm, but rather how our own irrevocable participatory behaviour can be modified to encourage the flourishing of the whole ongoing assembling process. This is the basic move made by posthuman theorists such as Karen Barad, who argues, “There are no singular causes, And there are no individual agents of change. Responsibility is not ours alone. And yet our responsibility is greater than it would be if it were ours alone. Responsibility entails an ongoing responsiveness to the entanglements of self and other, here and there, now and then” (394). Like Bennett, Barad rejects the notion that responsibility is “ours alone”, but then goes on to suggest that, precisely because it is not ours alone, we are responsible not only to ourselves, but to our whole assembled community. By making the process of assembling ontologically primary, a dynamically homogenous account of vital materialism productively affirms our irrevocable participation in the world as an ongoing act of becoming, and emphasizes our responsibility to the community of others alongside whom we contingently emerge.