Black Power as Thing Power: The Limits of Bennet’s Eco-Philosophy

Jane Bennet’s renowned book, “Vibrant Matter” puts the reader in contact and conversation with things. With a Frankensteinian echo, Bennet philosophically invites her reader’s to think through the notion that, “It’s alive.” In other words, Bennet attempts to challenge the normative discussion of philosophical materialist that looks to matter as an inert factor/function of life and seeks to argue for the vitality of the thing. The it is not simply a thing that is moved by persons, but the it reacts, enacts, and interacts with persons. In doing so, Bennet conceives of the idea of Thing-Power. Thing-Power is, “the curious ability of inanimate things to be animate, to act, to produce effects dramatic and sublime.”[1]

In an attempt to mobilize her thoughts, Bennett tells the reader a “speculative onto-story” of five things: a black plastic work glove, a mat of oak pollen, a dead rat, a plastic bottle cap, and a stick of wood. For Bennett, these five things mesh together to perform an assemblage of vital materiality. The assemblage comes together to form a connection of reactants that engage in-the-World with life.  Bennett writes, “When the materiality of the glove, the rat, the pollen, the cap and the stick start to shimmer and spark it was in part because of the contingent tableau that they formed with each other, with the street, with the weather that morning, with me.”[2] This tableau is the assemblage that connects and continues to connect nonhuman things with human persons. To Bennett, these things are not simply scattered across the street; these things are forming relationships, circulating and spreading information and possibilities to each other, with each other, and with Bennett herself. The way they do so is through conatus – a concept crucial to Bennett’s New Materialism. Conatus is the “active impulsion” or trending tendency to persist. This concept, initially articulated by the philosopher Baruch Spinoza, is important for Bennett’s conception of materiality. The work glove, the oak pollen, the dead rat, the plastic bottle cap, and the stick insist on persisting even as they begin to decay, even as they lose significance as human instruments. The power of the thing is the power to persist.

Whereas Bennett’s philosophical intervention is an important critique of old materialist discourse on matter, especially in the age of the Anthropocene, her new materialist philosophy of vital materiality still operates through a problematic that has plagued the “New World” since its inception. As Bennett witnesses this vitality, she is at awe by what she sees. However, what starts as a seeing turns into a gazing as Bennett, quoting Maurice Mearleau-Ponty says, “our gaze, prompted by the experience of our own body, will discover in all other ‘objects’ the miracle of expression.”[3] It is at this point that Bennett begins to raise eyebrows. Our gaze is prompted by the experience of our own body. If this is true, we cannot discuss Bennett’s seeing without an analytics of the white gaze. For Bennett’s white body positions, stations, and situates her seeing. Philosopher George Yancy in his book Black Bodies, White Gazes describes the white gaze as, “that performance of distortional seeing that evolves out of and inextricably linked to various raced and racist myths, white discursive practices, and centripetal processes of white systemic power and white solipsism.”[4] Bennnet’s gaze is not an objective gaze; Bennet’s gaze operates within an empirical lens that optically situates the thing in accordance to “various raced and racist myths, white discursive practices, and centripetal processes of white system power and white solipsism.”

There is no better portrayal of this specific “white discursive practice” than when blackness enters into Bennett’s eco-philosophy. The Black enters Bennett’s conversation only through a disavowal, a disavowal that showcases the full extent of white blindness that structures Bennett’s gaze. More to the point, Bennett’s eco-philosophy while challenging epistemic norms of traditional Western philosophy, sustains the epistemic norm of anti-blackness in traditional Western philosophy through her inability to grapple with the positionality of black life in an anti-Black World. When Bennett writes, “Not Flower Power, or Black Power, or Girl Power, but Thing Power,”[5] she disavows the intimate connection that has always already figured and positioned the Black as Thing. In fact, the notion of Blackness is inconceivable without this Thing-Ness. Blackness as a signifier for a specifically raced-and-marked-body does not exist without the historical-racial schema that positioned the Black as a sentient commodity to be stolen, shipped, processed and enslaved. The auction block is nothing other than the block where nonorganic life is sold as property to a property owner. The hood is nothing other than the space where nonorganic life breathes in industrial pollution, drinks led-contaminated water, sleeps with rabid rodents, lives to be killed “anywhere, anyhow” by and “from anything” for any reason. Until the World of anti-blackness is ended, Blackness will always exist as an “object among other objects.”[6]

Frantz Fanon, psychiatrist and philosopher, moments after encountering the white gaze and remarks from a child who utters, “Look! A Nigger!” muses on the situation and says, “Disoriented, incapable of confronting the Other, the white man, who had no scruples in imprisoning me, I transported myself on that particular day far, very far, from myself and gave myself up as an object.”[7] Here, one might desire to reach out to Fanon, to hold him, to form relation, to assure him that although the “individual” eyes that stare at his black body turn him into an object, he is not “actually an object.” However, this desire itself relies on liberal notions of individuality that treat the structural problem of anti-blackness as a problem of individual persons with “perverse views” versus a systemic issue crystallized into the fabric of the World. The Black body is positioned as thing, not because individual white bodies have calcified it, but because the brutal history of thingification has calcified it. Only an end to the World that made blackness equal to thingness can resolve this equation. Theorist, Fred Moten, reminds us that, “Things are in, but they do not have, a world, a place, but it is precisely both the specificity of having neither world nor place and the generality of not having that we explore at the nexus of openness and confinement, internment and flight.”[8] The homelessness of being a thing is a homelessness shared by the things Bennett discusses and the thing that Frantz Fanon embodies. What Bennett articulates from above as a Human/White/Universal standpoint, Frantz Fanon articulates from below as a Non-Human/Black/Incommunicable standpoint. These irreconcilable standpoints are attempted to be dealt with by New Materialist like Jane Bennet, but their inability to wrestle with Blackness creates scenarios that resurface epistemic violence onto new “things.”

The resurfacing of epistemic violence is at the heart of George Yancy’s white gaze critique. When Yancy describes the white gaze as being characterized by “white solipsism,” he is attempting to speak to a form of empiricism that locks the World into the ways of white modes of being and knowing. White solipsism is a condition of epistemic blindness that forces one to believe that nothing exists beyond white ideals and the immediate white world. The way that Bennett imbues her object with white liberal ideals and mobilizes their voices as voices in conjunction with the system of white liberalism is indicative of the form of white solipsism that Yancy critiques. Bennett cannot see past this World, and cannot accept that Non-Human/Incommunicable standpoints might have a completely different system of being and knowing; or, in Frantz Fanon words, Bennett cannot see, “their metaphysics, or, less pretentiously, their customs and the sources on which they were based.”[9]

This is evident when Bennet discusses the thing-power of Gunpowder Reside in a courtroom. Bennett, telling the story of a time when she was on jury duty, describes the power of the Gunpowder to bring about a conviction of an attempted homicide trial in Baltimore. Calling the Gunpowder Residue from the shooting an “object/witness,” Bennett writes, “The object/witness had been dabbed on the accuser’s hand hours after the shooting and now offered to the jury its microscopic evidence that the hand had either fired a gun or been within three feet of a gun firing. Expert witnesses showed the sampler to the jury several times, and with each appearance it exercised more force, until it became vital to the verdict.”[10] The implication of this statement is that the object/witness, as an actant, in the trial has a vested interest in offering itself up to the jury in order to eventually convict or acquit. Bennett’s solipsism does not engage with the possibility that the “object/witness” may have an entirely different system of interest that does not include cycling more Baltimore city residents into America’s oppressive carceral system. Nor does Bennett seem to have any interest in interrogating the problems that rest in every attempt to impose a white system of values onto the “Other.” Whereas the implications of such an imposition may seem trivial when the “thing” in discussion is simply Gunpowder Residue, the implications are perhaps made clearer when one listens to the narratives shared by those bodies always already positioned as thing. Frantz Fanon writes, “The black man has no ontological resistance in the eyes of the white man. Overnight the Negro has been given two frames of reference within which he has had to place himself. His metaphysics, or, less pretentiously, his customs and the sources on which they were based, were wiped out because they were in conflict with a civilization that he did not know and that imposed itself on him.”[11] The inability of the thing to have “ontological resistance,” or resistance to the modes of being and knowing enforced as the “logical conclusions” of white empirics, is the inability of the Gunpowder Residue to resist being imbued with Bennet’s system of values. The Gunpowder Residue must then split itself in two as an object, in accordance to its own “metaphysics”, and a witness, in accordance to the metaphysics of Bennett. This is a resurfacing of epistemic violence insofar as Bennett denies the epistemic agency of the thing – even if she attempts to grant it “capacity to act.” This capacity to act, however, does not free the thing as much as it locks into new scenes of subjection. Looking at the way Bennett looks at the Thing while imbuing the Thing with Humanist values and juxtaposing this way of seeing with the objectification Frantz Fanon feels as a result of a similar gazing upon his Black body, we can see how Bennett’s inability to look to the historical-racial schema with rigor does not only recycle anti-Black modes of seeing, but recycles anti-Blackness itself.

The Black as the Non-Human/Black/Incommunicable exist at the nexus point of “openness and confinement, internment and flight” and it is from this nexus point that we have to begin to think our questions of thingliness if we want to avoid recycling historical violence. Any analysis of thingness in this anti-Black world that either decentralizes the Black or outright disavows the Black will enable this form of violence. Donna Haraway reminds us that, “It matters which stories tell stories, which concepts think concepts. Mathematically, visually, narratively, it matters which figures figure figures, which systems systematize system.”[12] And the Black, as that which exist liminally as the Non-Human, must be at the forefront of our New Materialist conversations. For, “The history of blackness is a testament to the fact that objects can and do resist”[13] and to think through that, is to think through what Fanon called, “The Fact of Blackness,” and to see the fact of blackness is to see that Black Power, is always already Thing Power and the history of blackness is nothing more than a testament to the fact and a resistance to the results.

[1] Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Duke University Press, 2009), 6.

[2] Ibid, 5

[3] Ibid, 5

[4] George Yancy, Black Bodies, White Gazes: The Continuing Significance of Race (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2008), xviii.

[5] Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, 6.

[6] Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (Grove press, 2008), 89.

[7] Ibid, 92

[8] Fred Moten, Blackness and Nothingness (Mysticism in the Flesh), South Atlantic Quarterly, vol. 112, 2013, 751, doi:10.1215/00382876-2345261.

[9] Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 90.

[10] Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, 9.

[11] Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 90.

[12] Donna J Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Duke University Press, 2016), 101.

[13] Fred Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (U of Minnesota Press, 2003), 1.