The Material World

December 14th, 2017

The Material World

In her book Vibrant Matter, political scientist Jane Bennett proposes that matter — all matter, including but not limited to “edibles, commodities, storms, metals” — is vital rather than inert. By vitality, she is not referring to an animating spirit or soul but to the capacity of things to work with or against the will of humans and to “act as quasi agents or forces with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own.” In other words, all objects are “actants,” sources of action. This is a view of the world she terms “vital materialism,” and this world is composed solely of verbs, not nouns.

The river pours from the towering glacial peak, silty with iridescence, tumbling and leaping over itself in grand bursts. Our trail runs through this river. We need to make it to the other side. We remove boots, remove sweaty, days-old socks with sighs, wiggle blanched toes in the mid morning sun, blaring down on the rock-strewn river bed. Everything is bright, and fast, except for the mountain, which is the glowing embodiment of patience. There is nothing, it seems to say, but time.

This verb-laden world has several implications for environmentalism. Environmentalism posits the non-human world as “the environment,” the substrate for human culture. Vital materialism says that drawing the line between non-human actants and human actants is an exercise in futility. “If environmentalists are selves who live on earth, vital materialists are selves who live as earth.”

That first touch of the icy water always prompts a shriek. It rises, unbidden, from the tiny capillaries on the tips of your toes, up your bruised shins, your aching quadriceps, through your belly to your craning neck to the tips of your teeth: aaaaaaay! A more honest sound there never was.

Environmentalism calls for the protection and management of ecosystems. Vital materialism suggests that the task is to engage more strategically and empathetically with the materiality of the world that is us. The difference is not simply semantic, but calls for alternate forms of encounter, affinity, and awareness.

A first step, tentative as a toddler. Then the next step, and the next, shaky, arms akimbo, stiff-frozen toes seeking a hold on slippery rocks as the current pounds your shins, then your thighs. There is nothing, absolutely nothing at this moment, but the river and the sun. You exist only as a small primal will to survive. You exist more fully only in the minds and hearts of your new friends on the riverbank, cheering you on with quiet intensity.  

The first big shift of a vital materialist environmentalism is that the hierarchical world becomes horizontal. The Great Chain of Being that we are all indoctrinated with from any number of pop cultural and academic angles falls with a thunk from its towering heights, laid on its side. “I am a material configuration, the pigeons in the park are material compositions, the viruses, parasites, and heavy metals in my flesh and in pigeon flesh are materialities, as are neurochemicals, hurricane winds, E. coli, and the dust on the floor.”

You made it to the other side and into the dense, woven green of the forest. The calm dampness is thicker than the hot air by the river. Feeling dazzled by the contrast, you allow your mind to roam while your legs carry you up a soft, ruddy trail.

Second, the future is not linear, but is based on a set of unscripted actions. Nature is no longer deterministic, but is governed by an emergent causality. Nature is a process. According to this logic, dramatic pronouncements about “the end of nature” are rendered meaningless.

One step, then another, then another. Pause, breathe. One step, then another. The mountain is measured in the steps of its climber.

Third, and perhaps most mind-bendingly, it means that our conception of “self” as a separate, willful entity is replaced by the notion of an “impure, human-nonhuman assemblage.” Our bodies are ecologies, not objects. For example, according to a recent New York Times article by Nicholas Wade, the crook of our elbows is host to  “a special ecosystem, a bountiful home to no fewer than six tribes of bacteria … helping to moisturize the skin by processing the raw fats it produces.” Our bodies are not our own. This reality, while difficult to grock, changes a traditional view of self interest, extending its boundaries to encompass what was formerly known as “the environment.”

In the high alpine wildflower meadow, names fail. There are so many forms and they all speak in different tongues, from pale curvaceous yellow to bold spiky magenta, coy lime green to regal, rugged violet: a cacophony. Sit down in this meadow, get your bearings — or lose them. Flat on your back. Sky a dense, impossible blue strewn with jocular clouds. Bobbing over you, compassionate waves of cream-colored lilies. Above them, boughs of the tall fir dip, rustle, rise. You are motionless, alert, the movement all around you seeping into your sun-warm skin.  

This non-hierarchical, process-based, seamless world is the world that Signal Fire participants encounter and reckon with. The same world exists in our day-to-day, predominantly urban lives, but our data-addled brains generally flunk at comprehending or acting on the ideas of vital materialism in an urban context.

In 2014, Signal Fire will embark on a series of trips that celebrates wolves and their remaining habitat. Wolves were once common in North America but due to decades of extermination programs to accommodate the livestock industry, wolves in the lower 48 now occupy less than five percent of their historic habitat. As keystone predators, wolves play a vital role in regulating prey populations like deer and elk, and in so doing benefit a host of species. In forcing elk to move more, for example, wolves have been found to increase streamside vegetation and, along with it, beaver and songbird populations.

On June 7, 2013,  the Obama administration announced plans to strip Endangered Species Act protections from gray wolves across most of the lower 48 states. This plan would be catastrophic for wolves and is being fought by many activists and activist groups.

What would this effort to save the remaining wolves look like according to vital materialism? It would begin with the awareness that our own human desire to eat cows (a desire which fuels the livestock industry), does not trump the right of wolves to exist. The hierarchical becomes horizontal — our human desires are no more important than the wolves’ (or the cows’, for that matter). Following that, we would need to recognize that removing wolves’ protections will have unexpected consequences for wolf habitat. Since nature is an unscripted process, even the best science cannot fully predict the consequences of de-listing wolves. Finally, since we, nor wolves, are isolated things, but ever-changing collections of things, our own preservation is intricately interwoven with the preservation of wolves. The goal is the same as any environmentalist’s, but it is undergirded with a wider-ranging and more deeply personal logic.

To think about the wolf as an actant, to think about the mites in her fur, the bacteria in her stomach, as actants, takes a little bit of time and lot of courageous contact with world. As Spinoza writes in his Short Treatise II, “It is never we who affirm or deny something of a thing; it is the thing itself that affirms or denies something of itself in us.” In visiting the home of the wolves, we seek to be affirmed by the wolves’ home, and to have the wild pieces of ourselves recognized and strengthened by the dialogue.

I can’t wait to find this time and enter into that space with next years’ artists and activists in the places where the conglomeration of entities we call “wolf” calls home.