Vibrant Matter

A Political Ecology of Things

Vibrant Matter

a John Hope Franklin Center Book

More about this series

Book Pages: 200 Illustrations: Published: January 2010

Author: Jane Bennett

Cultural Studies, Politics > Political Theory, Theory and Philosophy

In Vibrant Matter the political theorist Jane Bennett, renowned for her work on nature, ethics, and affect, shifts her focus from the human experience of things to things themselves. Bennett argues that political theory needs to do a better job of recognizing the active participation of nonhuman forces in events. Toward that end, she theorizes a “vital materiality” that runs through and across bodies, both human and nonhuman. Bennett explores how political analyses of public events might change were we to acknowledge that agency always emerges as the effect of ad hoc configurations of human and nonhuman forces. She suggests that recognizing that agency is distributed this way, and is not solely the province of humans, might spur the cultivation of a more responsible, ecologically sound politics: a politics less devoted to blaming and condemning individuals than to discerning the web of forces affecting situations and events.

Bennett examines the political and theoretical implications of vital materialism through extended discussions of commonplace things and physical phenomena including stem cells, fish oils, electricity, metal, and trash. She reflects on the vital power of material formations such as landfills, which generate lively streams of chemicals, and omega-3 fatty acids, which can transform brain chemistry and mood. Along the way, she engages with the concepts and claims of Spinoza, Nietzsche, Thoreau, Darwin, Adorno, and Deleuze, disclosing a long history of thinking about vibrant matter in Western philosophy, including attempts by Kant, Bergson, and the embryologist Hans Driesch to name the “vital force” inherent in material forms. Bennett concludes by sketching the contours of a “green materialist” ecophilosophy.


Vibrant Matter promises to invigorate ethical and political judgment by attuning us to the material world, to ourselves, in new ways. Bennett wisely encourages us to practice such judgments without the banisters of deadening binaries of subject-object and human-nonhuman. In this way, we are left with an exciting, but daunting challenge of living democratically as and amidst vital matter.” — Torrey Shanks, Theory & Event

Vibrant Matter takes us on a journey through the philosophical tradition of critical vitalism — or, in Bennett's terms, vital materialism — in order to help us recognize the profound yet delightful weirdness of being in a body that only seems to belong to us.”
— Natania Meeke and Antónia Szabari, Los Angeles Review of Books

Vibrant Matter will reward readers by opening many fields of inquiry that require responses. The reconceptualization of the material world that Vibrant Matter represents is a meaningful step in the direction of reformulating many of the debates within environmental philosophy that continue to retain the vestiges of overt dualism and its less obvious manifestation in the subject-object distinction.” — Bryan E. Bannon, Environmental Philosophy

“[An] eloquent, carefully reasoned book. . . . With Bennett’s keen insights, I believe I can now show students (and others, maybe even some colleagues) that, through the concept, the sensibility, the practice of vibrant materialities, people in all walks of life can see the sense in treating both nature and artifacts ‘more carefully, more strategically, more ecologically’ (p.18).” — Thomas Princen, Perspectives on Politics

“How elating I found reading Vibrant Matter, with its eloquent vision of an ethics of the nonhuman. Bennett argues for a perceptual style open to the appearance of thing-power: we who study the texts and objects of a remote age can get behind that, I think. Indeed, for those of us for whom time doesn't simply pass into lostness we are already behind it, still feeling the power of history's things, which didn't know they were supposed to be still. “ — Jeffrey J. Cohen, In the Middle blog

“Bennett’s is one of those books where, on finishing, you want to begin immediately again to experience the excitement and élan vital of eloquent, simple ideas presented in clear, concise and considered prose, wherein the presence of a generous, kind and unpretentious author speaks straight into your understanding. Vibrant Matter is fresh, alert, quiet and potent, a door opening in a stuffy room to let the outside in, which lets it speak so as to embolden us to breathe differently. It will redraw the boundaries of political thought; it’s already doing so. Read it.” — Mark Jackson, Emotion, Space and Society

“Bennett’s proposals are innovative, and while in the end she may raise more questions than she can offer answers to, Vibrant Matter is a text ripe with possibilities. The strength of the work is its careful treatment of nonhumans as vital forces and the numerous examples employed to develop a political ecology of things.” — Katherine F. Chandler, Qui Parle

“Orienting us to re-encounter both nature and familiar objects as newly strange and pulsing with ‘thing-power,’ Bennett challenges our worn assumptions concerning the hierarchy between humans and things, the workings of causality, and our deep cultural attachment to matter and nature as inanimate. . . . Her book is surprising, refreshing, and troubling.” — Lori J. Marso, Political Theory

“Overall, I am attracted by the ideas Bennett presents. They lead to new ways of thinking about things and artifacts, and for those of us who are used to think about embodied interaction, user experience, etc. many of the ideas are not that far fetched. I am curious to see how this and similar new philosophical attempts will be translated into more concrete activities and approaches relevant for design. This new evolution of ideas concerned with the status of 'things' and of the material world is highly interesting and with Bennett's work we have another example of why we need it and how it could be used.” — Erik Stolterman, Transforming Grounds blog

“What Jane Bennett has delivered is the most precise and compelling account of a more than human politic sand why it matters. Vibrant Matters is the best argument to date of how materiality operates as a vital force, as much more than social construction or brute resistance or recalcitrance. In respecting the stuff of the world, in being attentive to it, Bennett has pushed political philosophy way beyond its comfort zone: something that was long overdue and from which there is no return.” — Gay Hawkins, Cultural Studies Review

“For the sake of assuaging harms already inflicted we have always cobbled together publics that deal with vibrant matters of floods, fires, earthquakes and so on. For the sake of preventing unseen future harms, Bennett’s book argues that we need to take a closer look at how we are embedded in a web of mutual affect that knows no bounds between living and nonliving, human and nonhuman. It is in this refreshingly naïve ‘no-holds-barred’ approach that Bennett’s work has much to offer for a reconsideration of our role as thinking, speaking humans in a cosmos of vibrant matter that we continually depoliticize even in our efforts to ‘protect’ and ‘save’ the earth . . . a highly recommended read.” — Stefan Morales, M/C Reviews

Vibrant Matter is a fascinating, lucid, and powerful book of political theory. By focusing on the ‘thing-side of affect,’ Jane Bennett seeks to broaden and transform our sense of care in relation to the world of humans, non-human life, and things. She calls us to consider a ‘parliament of things’ in ways that provoke our democratic imaginations and interrupt our anthropocentric hubris.” — Romand Coles, author of Beyond Gated Politics: Reflections for the Possibility of Democracy

Vibrant Matter represents the fruits of sustained scholarship of the highest order. As environmental, technological, and biomedical concerns force themselves onto worldly political agendas, the urgency and potency of this analysis must surely inform any rethinking of what political theory is about in the twenty-first century.” — Sarah Whatmore, coeditor of The Stuff of Politics: Technoscience, Democracy, and Public Life

“This manifesto for a new materialism is an invigorating breath of fresh air. Jane Bennett’s eloquent tribute to the vitality and volatility of things is just what we need to revive the humanities and to redraw the parameters of political thought.” — Rita Felski, author of Uses of Literature


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Jane Bennett is Professor of Political Theory and Chair of the Department of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University. She is the author of The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics and Thoreau’s Nature: Ethics, Politics, and the Wild, and an editor of The Politics of Moralizing and In the Nature of Things: Language, Politics, and the Environment.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Preface vii

Acknowledgments xxi

1. The Force of Things 1

2. The Agency of Assemblages 20

3. Edible Matter 39

4. A Life of Metal 52

5. Neither Vitalism nor Mechanism 62

6. Stem Cells and the Culture of Life 82

7. Political Ecologies 94

8. Vitality and Self-interest 110

Notes 123

Bibliography 157

Index 171
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4633-3 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4619-7
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