“And do you know what “the world” is to me? Shall I show it to you in my mirror? This world: a monster of energy, without beginning, without end; a firm, iron magnitude of force that does not grow bigger or smaller, that does not expend itself but only transforms itself; as a whole, of unalterable size, a household without expenses or losses, but likewise without increase or income; enclosed by “nothingness” as by a boundary; not something blurry or wasted, not something endlessly extended, but set in a definite space as a definite force, and not a space that might be “empty” here or there, but rather as force throughout, as a play of forces and waves of forces, at the same time one and many, increasing here and at the same time decreasing there; a sea of forces flowing and rushing together, eternally changing, eternally flooding back, with tremendous years of recurrence, with an ebb and a flood of its forms; out of the simplest forms striving toward the most complex, out of the stillest, most rigid, coldest forms striving toward the hottest, most turbulent, most self-contradictory, and then again returning home to the simple out of this abundance, out of the play of contradictions back to the joy of concord, still affirming itself in this uniformity of its courses and its years, blessing itself as that which must return eternally...
(Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power)
In her book Vibrant Matter, Jane Bennett suggests that (re)considering the vitality of nonhuman matter might lead to increased moral responsibility.
She invites us to start by placing more attention in our surroundings. Henry David Thoreau believed a goal in life was to be able to 'be surprised by what we see'. Bennett suggests we 'take time to linger in those moments during which we are fascinated by objects', to take 'a more careful attentiveness to the out-side'.
Bennett invites us (humans) to reconsider our common materiality with the nonhuman, the reconsider the moral imperative of Western thought, the primacy of Man. This is not to say that we should de-value human life, rather that we 'chasten [our] fantasies of human mastery'.
She suggests it might be useful to cultivate a 'capacity for naivete', to allow ourselves to become 'temporarily infected by discredited philosophies of nature'. I am reminded of Martin Heidegger's 'openness to the mystery', his call to consider the 'heritage of marginal practices'.
[There are] various assemblages and individuals, each of which groups together an infinity of particles entering an infinity of more or less interconnected relations.
(Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus)
Bennett's philosophy leads us to re-consider the distribution of agency and responsibility. If all material has vitality, can humans be held fully responsible for what happens? Bennett follows Bruno Latour in suggesting not; there is no subject and no object, no actions, only events:
I never act; I am always slightly surprised by what I do. That which acts through me is also surprised by what I do, by the chance to mutate, to change, and to bifurcate.
It might be difficult to subscribe to this view and its logical consequences. What might be more palatable is the view that the world is hugely complex, that there are multiple unintended consequences for every action, and that it is difficult to ascribe effects to causes and intentions.
What is more, there may well be large number of nonhuman as well as human 'actants' involved in any event. Perhaps the best we can hope for is to re-trace events to their origin(s), and ascribe partial responsibility, given the intentions involved in said origins.
This outlook may lead to reduced personal responsibility and accountability. But hesitating to lay the whole of the blame for events with individuals may result in deeper interrogation into the sources and intentions surrounding events. It may also lead to us becoming more responsible for understanding the moral implications of the assemblages we take part in, becoming more accountable to the world around us. As Bennett concludes:
It is ultimately a matter of political judgment what is more needed today: should we acknowledge the distributive quality of agency to address the power of human-nonhuman assemblages and to resist a politics of blame? Or should we persist with a strategic understatement of material agency in the hopes of enhancing the accountability of specific humans?
This question may be asked of agency, regardless of our views about material vitality. We can ask the question of ourselves and of the institutions we are part of.
Bennett invites us to tread lightly outside our comfort zones. She invites us to take a step beyond ourselves, beyond the human, to being-for the whole of the world we live in, of which humans are an important, but ultimately only a small, part.