Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (2010) by Jane Bennett received polemical mention in a Žižekian anthology I recently reviewed, and I wanted to take a closer look. Bennett’s work is an enthusiastic neo-vitalist ethical assertion of nonhuman agency and respect for material things. I’m generally sympathetic to such sentiments, but also responsive to criticisms of the neo-vitalist trend. Neo-vitalism does not crudely assert a life-force, but wants to break down boundaries between human and animal, organic and inorganic. Bennett sees this emphasis as standing in contrast to concern with subjectivity, the linguistic turn, and much classical philosophy. She is right up to a point, insofar as most of those pursuing the latter tend to neglect the former.
As usual, I find in Aristotle resources for simultaneously affirming both. Aristotle’s notion of materiality and material cause is broad enough to capture most, if not all, of Bennett’s concerns. Matter for Aristotle is always some particular, sensible matter that is deeply interwoven with form, and as such has its own rudimentary “ends”. I think on the one hand that all beings whatsoever deserve respect, but on the other that the possibility of dialogue with our fellow talking animals creates a whole host of more specialized responsibilities. From my perspective, neo-vitalism provides a valuable complement to more human-oriented hermeneutic and rationalist concerns. To an extent, each ought to inform the other.