Monday, May 17, 2010

Matter Happens

There’s some fascinating critical work being done right now on matter and materiality, much of it resonant with ecology (rock, water, waste, pollution), and with weather, which, at least since Lucretius, is a matter of matter. The latest is Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter: Bennett adopts Bruno Latour’s term “actant” to designate any thing which “by virtue of its particular location in an assemblage and the fortuity of being in the right place at the right time, makes the difference, makes things happen, becomes the decisive force catalyzing an event.” Her example is a Gunpowder Residue Sampler, which she calls an “object/witness” in a homicide trial; she cites an older legal example as well, the “deodand.” Bennett departs from relatively straightforward instances like these to argue that what she calls “vibrant matter” behaves as actant in other, less obvious ways. She describes the assemblage (after Deleuze and Guattari) involved in the massive blackout that struck Canada and the United States in August of 2003:

To the vital materialist, the electrical grid is better understood as a volatile mix of coal, sweat, electromagnetic fields, computer programs, electron streams, profit motives, heat, lifestyles, nuclear fuel, plastic, fantasies of mastery, static, legislation, water, economic theory, wire, and wood—to name just some of the actants.
She notes that, assemblages being what they are—“uneven topographies,” “non-totalizable sum[s]”—no person, organization, object, or event may be held solely responsible for the blackout, an admission that resonates with last week’s Congressional hearings on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, an event (materially) resembling the blackout in a number of ways. British Petroleum’s various attempts to stem the spill have in turn been frustrated by material conditions a mile below the surface of the ocean, as well as the chemical properties of oil, water, concrete, etc. The event is riddled with unknowns, from the cause of the initial explosion to the volume of the spill, and as with the blackout, “no one” is to blame amid an assemblage of human, organizational, economic, legal, and material loci. One is reminded, as well, of Hurricane Katrina, an event that comes to seem less and less a “natural” disaster as it recedes into the past. The thing is, weather is not a thing, and indeed Bennett notes early in her study that one problem with the “thing” is its “latent individualism,” whereas “vibrant matter,” the actant, “never really acts alone.” Not only is weather not “individual” (even singular events like hurricanes—with names like “Katrina” and “Ivan”—cannot properly be called individuals) but it is not material in the manner of rock or metal. Weather is “matter-flow” or “matter-movement,” Deleuze and Guattari’s terms, or as Michel Serres writes (after Lucretius), weather is matter’s turbulence. We are more used to granting weather the role of actant. Weather happens, precipitating all manner of events: abundance and scarcity, flood, drought, fire, and killing frost. Which may be another way of saying that “matter happens”—but this is not Donald Rumsfeld’s “stuff happens.” On the contrary, for Bennett, granting that matter can act is a matter of ethics. So while it is essential to discern the historical and economic undercurrents of those horrific days in New Orleans in September of 2005, we would be wise not to forget that hurricanes are weather events, or better, assemblages of weather (or matter), history, economics, psychology, and infrastructure, to name only a few.