MIGC 2020 Workshop
Thing's Matter: Vital Materialism and the Agency of the Nonhuman
Welcome to the digital companion to the Thing's Matter MIGC 2020 Workshop! For additional sources to accompany the workshop, click on your station's title below or browse through each station's section.
Materiality of Expression with Brandon
On Dr. Jane Bennett’s concept of ‘thing-power’ and the power of naivete:
“Thing-power materialism is a speculative onto-story, a rather presumptuous attempt to depict the nonhumanity that flows around but also through humans…. A materialism like mine… fleshes out an ontological imaginary of things and their powers. I argue that projecting a moment of ‘naive realism’ into one’s political theory may foster greater ethical appreciation of thing-power, an appreciation that I try, in a preliminary way, to tie to an ecological project of sustainability” (Bennett, “The Force of Things” 349).
“Thing-power materialism…. presumes that matter has an inclination to make connections and form networks of relations with varying degrees of stability. Here, then, is an affinity between thing-power materialism and ecological thinking: both advocate the cultivation of an enhanced sense of the extent to which all things are spun together in a dense web, and both warn of the self-destructive character of human actions that are reckless with regard to other notes of the web” (Bennet, “The Force of Things,” 354).
“My view is that while humans do indeed encounter things only in a mediated way, there nonetheless remains something to be said for the naivete of naïve realism. A moment of naivety is, I think, indispensable for any discernment of thing-power, if there is to be any chance of acknowledging the force of matter. A naïve realism…. allows nonhumanity to appear on the ethical radar screen” (Bennett, “The Force of Things” 357).
On Thoreau and The Wild
“Like Thoreau, I hope to enhance my receptivity to thing-power by writing about it, by giving an account of the thingness of things that might enable me to feel it more intensely. I pursue this project in the hope of fostering greater recognition of the agential powers of natural and artifactual things, greater awareness of the dense web of their connections with each other and with human bodies, and, finally, a more cautious, intelligent approach to our interventions in that ecology” (Bennett, “The Force of Things” 349).
“The thing-power materialism I am trying to develop draws from various sources. In the background is, again, Thoreau’s notion of the Wild, that is, his idea that there is an existence peculiar to a thing that is irreducible to the thing’s imbrication with human subjectivity. It is due to this otherness or wildness, says Thoreau, that things have the power to addle and rearrange thoughts and perceptions” (Bennett, “The Force of Things” 348).
“Trash, garbage, litter, dirt, debris, filth, refuse, detritus, rubbish, junk: materialities without their thing-power. A ‘materialistic’ way of life – insofar as it requires buying ever-increasing numbers of products purchased in ever-shorter cycles – thus displays an anti-materiality bias. In other words, the sheer volume of products, and the necessity of junking them to make room for new ones, devalues the thing. It disables and obscures thing-power…. There is a way, then, in which American materialism is antimateriality. Too much stuff in too quick succession equals the fast ride from object to trash” (Bennett, “The Force of Things” 350-1).
“Hylozoism: a doctrine held, especially by the early Greek philosophers, but also by the Jains of India, that all matter has life” (Bennett, “The Force of Things,” 351).
“Flower Power, Black Power, Girl Power. Thing Power: the curious ability of inanimate things to animate, to act, to produce effects dramatic and subtle” (Bennett, “The Force of Things” 351).
“The idea of agency as a continuum seems to be present in the notion of ‘deodand,’ a figure of English law from about 1200 until its abolishment in 1846. In cases of accidental death or serious injury to a human, the evil thing involved – they knife that pierced the flesh or the carriage that trampled the leg – became deodand or ‘that which must be given to God.’ Deodand, ‘suspended between human and thing,’ designated the instrument of death or destruction. In what can be seen as recognition of its peculiar kind of culpability, the deodand had to be surrendered to the Crown in order to be used (or sold) to compensate for the harm done by its movement or presence” (Bennett, “The Force of Things” 355).
On Vital materialism and Vibrant Matter
“By ‘vitality’ I mean the capacity of things – edibles, commodities, storms, metals – not only to impede or block the will and designs of humans but also to act as quasi-agents or forces with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own” (Bennett, Vibrant Matter viii).
“I will turn the figures of "life" and "matter" around and around, worrying them until they start to seem strange, in something like the way a common word when repeated can become a foreign, nonsense sound. In the space created by this estrangement, a vital materiality can start to take shape. Or, rather, it can take shape again, for a version of this idea already found expression in childhood experiences of a world populated by animate things rather than passive objects. I will try to reinvoke this viii pr
“Writing can be satisfying, definitely worth it, even if your audience is small. I wasn’t expecting the popularity that Vibrant Matter has enjoyed. It’s been great, especially because it’s put me into closer contact with many new people and disciplines — nonrepresentational geographers, artists, romanticists, botanists, art historians, medievalists” (Bennett, from Watson “Eco-Sensibilities – An Interview with Jane Bennett” 148).
Review of Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things
Vibrant Matter attempts two projects: a philosophical project—to think matter slowly, to think it so slowly that it becomes strange, and strangely vibrant—and a political project—“most ambitiously,” to make possible ‘more intelligent and sustainable engagements’ with this vibrant matter (viii)” (Van Wyk, Alan R. “What Matters Now? Review of Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things” pp. 130).
“Within this ontology of vibrancy, the massive North America blackout of 2003 is seen to have arisen not from any single cause, but from a swarm of actants: from the molecular structure of
electricity and wires, the ‘decisions’ of the electrical grid’s mechanical infrastructure, and the multiple and multiplying effects of temperature, to human consumption and decision making, the motivation of corporate profit, and the activation of a political will” (Van Wyk, Alan R. “What Matters Now? Review of Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things” pp. 133).
“She begins by distancing the politics of vibrant matter from "environmentalism," to the extent that environmentalism, she argues, determines nature as the passive object of human intervention. The politics of vibrant matter, vital materialism, will include nature as a subject of politics, where human and non-human bodies are recognized as political actants (112). This is to propose a politics that rests on an "ontological field without any unequivocal demarcations between human, animal, vegetable, or mineral. All forces and flows (materialities) are or can become lively, affective, and signaling" (117). This is, in other words, a politics of creativity, of activity, of becoming, filled with bodies that are congealed force, and agents that only function within this field of this congealing, creative force. It is, if not a culture of life, then a politics of life, that ends, in a final post-secular twist, with a newly proposed Nicene Creed for vital materialists: a creed of belief in matter and force, of heterogeneity and difference, of human and non-human bodies working together, and the transformative power of encounters with vibrant matter to broaden the scope of our political interests to include the salvation of the world” (Van Wyk, Alan R. "What matters now? Review of Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things" 135).
Bennett, Jane. “The Force of Things – Steps toward an Ecology of Matter.” Political Theory, June 2004. pp. 347-72.
Bennett J (2010) Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke University Press.
Van Wyk, Alan R. "What matters now?" Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and
Social Philosophy, vol. 8, no. 2, 2012, p. 130+. Gale Academic OneFile, https://link-gale-
com.ezproxy.lib.uwm.edu/apps/doc/A327236257/AONE?u=milwaukee&sid=AONE&xid=5c4163ad. Accessed 11 Feb. 2020.
Watson, Janell., and Jane Bennett. "Eco-sensibilities: An Interview with Jane Bennett." Minnesota Review 81.1 (2013): 147-58. Web.
Waste-Purington Pavers and Purington Blocks in Lake Michigan with Joni
Easily recognizable pale yellow or “cream” colored bricks are the reason why Milwaukee is nicknamed “The Cream City." However, these aren’t the only bricks that are a part of the city’s historical infrastructure. Purington Pavers, classic red bricks produced in Galesburg, IL have been found on Milwaukee’s lakefront, with a large concentration present on the north end of Bradford beach. Though it is not uncommon for industrial waste like broken concrete and bricks to be either dumped into rivers and lakes or to be repurposed as part of the lake shore to prevent erosion, it is unclear how the Purington bricks arrived at Bradford Beach. The bricks were manufactured in large quantities in the late 1800s and used around the country, though much usage is concentrated in Chicago and the Midwest. Various cities in Illinois have paid attention to the history of their brick production. In Evansville, Purington Pavers were covered with asphalt in the 1960s. However, the city restored the brick roads in the early 21st century by digging up the asphalt. Is it possible that there are Purington Pavers beneath some of Milwaukee’s streets? Or were they removed and discarded into the lake, only to be washed up over time?
The cycle of waste production and salvage is constant in and around urban areas. Each construction project results in a clean-up project, or a waste mitigation project. Though it is unclear how the Purington Pavers got to Milwaukee, they are sought after for their historical value. After salvaging both a Purington Paver and a Purington Block out of Lake Michigan myself, I began to think about the history of these discarded bricks. I use them in my apartment as bookends. Each weighing nine pounds, they keep things where I need them, and I got them free of charge on afternoons spent outside.
In her book The Ethics of Waste, Gay Hawkins explains, “As much as putting out the garbage may feel like one of the most ordinary and tedious aspects of everyday life, it is a cultural performance, an organized sequence of material practices that deploys certain technologies, bodily techniques, and assumptions. And in this performance waste matter is both defined and removed; a sense of order is established and a particular subject is made. Waste, then, isn’t a fixed category of things; it is an effect of classification and relations” (1-2) In digging through the waste on Lake Michigan’s shoreline, I am performing the re-definition of a small amount of both industrial waste, and the wastes of history. In “On the Concept of History,” Walter Benjamin describes a metaphorical pile of rubble upon which the “angel of history” gazes before being swept up in the storm of progress. The angel “would like to pause for a moment...to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed” (Benjamin). Likewise, I am interested in the physical rubble that permeates the space around me; rubble that is now part of the ecosystem of the lake while simultaneously part of Milwaukee’s industrial history. My fascination with these objects is based in both their vibrancy and their history—their status as waste and their status as collectible. How have the materials from roughly 250 miles away in Galesburg used to make the bricks, including “a mixture of clay, shale, sand, and "flux" ...'a mixture of substances that promotes fusion at high temperatures’” (“History”) affecting the lake’s ecosystem? How do the bricks break down if they do? What agency do these bricks have as part of the ecosystem of the lake?
Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Duke University Press, 2010.
Benjamin, Walter. “On the Concept of History”. Walter Benjamin Archive Online. https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/benjamin/1940/history.htm
Garner, Dave & Bailey Johnston. “Purington Pavers”. National Public Radio, 2019. https://www.wvik.org/post/purington-pavers
“Galeburg's Purington Brick Yards”. Burlington Route Historical Society, 2020. http://www.burlingtonroute.org/Qrailroad/misc/purington_brick_yards.php
Gina Duwe. “$2.3 Million Project Restoring Bricks Evansville's Main Street.” Janesville Gazette (Janesville, WI), 2007, pp. Janesville Gazette (Janesville, WI), Sept 29, 2007.
Hawkins, Gay. The Ethics of Waste: How We Relate to Rubbish. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2006.
“History of Purington Pavers”. Antique Brick Wearhouse, 2020. https://www.antiquebrickwarehouse.com/pages/history-of-purington-pavers
“Purington Brick History”. Gavin Historical Bricks, 2019. https://www.historicalbricks.com/resources/brick-history/
“Purington Brick Yards”. Knox County Historical Sites, Inc. http://www.kville.org/kchistory/index.html
“Back in the 1980s, you may recall, the specter of fouled beaches was one of America’s most frequently recurring collective nightmares. The jersey Shore was awash with IV bags and used Syringes. New York’s garbage barge haunted the world, trailing windblown flotsam in its wake . . . But beautification, it seems, can be deceiving. Although many American beaches—especially those that generate tourism revenues—are in fact a whole lot cleaner these days than they used to be, the oceans are another matter. . . . Yet since the mid-1800s, not only has the volume of New York household refuse grown, to four million tons a year; its chemistry has changed. Depending on where they sample, oceanographers have found that between 60 and 95 percent of today's marine debris—the preferred bureaucratic term for flotsam and jetsam—is made of plastic. Despite the Ocean Dumping Reform Act, according to a 2004 EPA report, the United States still releases more than 850 billion gallons of untreated sewage and storm runoff every year, and in that sewage are what the Environmental Protection Agency charmingly calls ‘floatables’—buoyant, synthetic things: Q-tips, condoms, dental floss, tampon applicators.” (Hohn 89-90)
“What should we value in a place? Beauty, Emerson said, for in the ‘immortal’ beauty of nature a sensitive poet might perceive the discreet but harmonizing designs of ‘the mind of God.’ And the organ with which both beauty and Divinity could best be perceived was, for Emerson, the eye. ‘The eye,’ he wrote, is the best of artists.’ Herein, I would suggest lies on of the seeds of our present confusion. Beauty, like beautification can be deceiving . . . How we imagine a place determines how we value it, and how we value a place determines how we allocate our tax dollars or charitable donations—what actions we choose to take, which places we choose to save, and what it means to save them. Is beautification tantamount to salvation? Sometimes, perhaps, but not always. And in the information age, which is also the age of images, and the age of public relations, and therefore the age of make believe—when beautification can be deceiving . . . our eyes alone are not enough” (Hohn 136-137).
The Rubber Duck
“Let’s draw a bath. Let’s set a rubber duck afloat. Look at it wobbling there. What misanthrope, what dam, drizzly November of a sourpuss, upon beholding a rubber duck a lot, does not feel a Crayola ray of sunlight brightening his gloomy heart? Graphically, the rubber duck’s closest relative is not a bird or a toy but the yellow happy face of Wal-Mart commercials . . . Their value is wholly symbolic. They are not so much rubber ducks as plastic representations of rubber ducks. They are creatures of the lab, chimeras synthesized from whimsy and desire in the petri dish of commerce” (47-48).
Hohn, Donavan. Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea & of the Beachcombers, Oceanograp hers, Environmentalists & Fools Including the Author Who Went in Search of Them. Penguin, 2011.
Lithium, Eco-mediation, and Invisible Data with Janelle
Quotes and takeaways from research on the intersection of infrastructure, digital technology, electronics, and the climate crisis through the lens of lithium and invisible data.
Our laptops, electric scooters and vehicles, watches, medical devices, and countless other devices use lithium batteries.
Shannon Mattern in Code + Clay, Data + Dirt reminds us of the wires that shape our daily lives, which we have hidden in our floors, walls, and crawlspaces. Moreover, every email, video, electronic appliance, video game, video stream, requires energy.
"Here's Where the Juice that Powers Batteries Comes From"
"How It's Made: Lithium Ion Batteries"
Burrington, Ingrid. "The Environmental Toll of a Netflix Binge." The Atlantic, Dec 16, 2019. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/12/there-are-no-clean-clouds/420744/
Crawford, Kate and Vladen Joler. "Anatomy of an AI System." SHARE Lab, 2018, https://anatomyof.ai/.
Cubitt, Sean. Finite Media: Environmental Implications of Digital Technologies. Duke UP, 2016.
Mattern, Shannon. Code and Clay, Data and Dirt: Five Thousand Years of Urban Media. Duke UP, 2017.
Abjection: Animal approaches to waste as a threat to symbolic boundaries with Emily
“The human subject separates itself from the non-human animal, and its cultures from the cultures of animals, in order to define itself as civilized and exceptional—a specially created being with language. The animal is the ultimate ‘other’ that enables the human and its symbolic order of law and language to come into being” (Creed and Hoorn 92).
“In an anthropomorphic discourse, the animal is not so much a subject in its own right, but a representation of abjection designed to produce its imaginary opposite—the ‘human.’ Female artists undertaking their journey into the night, represent themselves and the animal as a way of undoing form” (Creed and Hoorn 101).
“It is the lowly but metamorphosing and transformative nature of [women and animal] bodies and lives that in the end offers resilience, resistance and a degree of hope” (Creed and Hoorn 102).
Creed, Barbara, and Jeanette Hoorn. “Animals, Art, Abjection.” Abject Visions: Powers of Horror in Art and Visual Culture, by Rina Arya and Nicholas Chare, Manchester University Press, 2016, pp. 90–104.
Recently, Brandon (Henry) mentioned that in his hometown an unwanted object left on the side of the road is almost always taken. It reminded me of something we all inherently know. We know if we put something on the side of the road, somebody somewhere will take it. These somebodies and their somewheres are part of an economy of free. They participate in a subterranean economy that begins where our general understanding of the economy ends—the side of the road, the dumpster, the dump.
We can think about this space in a number of ways. We can think about the free economy in terms of aesthetic maintenance. Emily (Vavra) mentioned CRTs (Cathode-Ray Tube) TVs in our discussions. These TVs, outdated for a decade, are cherished by gamers who play older games (particularly Super Smash Bros. Melee on the Nintendo Gamecube).
We can think about the free economy in terms of political ideology. "Freeganism," a political phenomenon of the early-to-mid 2000s that expressed anti-capitalism through participation in the economy of free. Freegans are most notorious as "dumpster divers."
Finally, we can think about the economy of free in terms of labor and value. The economy of free can be what Kathleen Millar calls "a form of living" (10). Millar discusses the catadores ("pickers") of Brazil who collect and sell recyclables. She moves beyond common perceptions that these workers are the discarded people of capital. She writes "if catadores are superfluous to capital accumulation, then it becomes impossible to ask how the materials they collect are tied into a 200-billion-dollar global recycling industry" (8). She looks at the forms of life the catadores create through their work. Millar is focused on "how catadores engage with and experience the materiality of garbage" (194).
The economy does not end at the side of the road. In a sense, it is just beginning. Materials continue to have life, to have value, and to have relationships with humans.
Barnard, Alex. Freegans: Diving into the Wealth of Food Waste in America. University of Minnesota Press, 2016.
Millar, Kathleen. Reclaiming the Discarded: Life and Labor in Rio's Garbage Dumps. Duke University Press, 2018.
Roberson, Aldi. "The Last Scan: Inside the Desperate Fight to Keep Old TVs Alive." The Verge. 6 Feb. 2018. https://www.theverge.com/2018/2/6/16973914/tvs-crt-restoration-led-gaming-vintage