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The Agency of Assemblages: Vibrant Matter by Jane Bennett

vibrant stoneThey are ‘alive’.

Bennett, Jane and Inc ebrary. Vibrant Matter. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010. pp vii-38.

In the first two chapters of her book Vibrant Matter, Bennett brings out a philosophy that challenges the traditional definition of matter as passive, inactive, and inert. That is to say substances and materials are lifeless. However,Bennett believes that everything is alive, interconnected. She emphasizes the active powers of materials, arguing that it play an essential role in the emergency of every events.

Most of time, we think of objects as stable and passive, and humans as the active subjects. We used to divide the world into dull matter and vibrant life. This dichotomy between matter and life causes us to ignore the vitality of matter and the lively powers of material formations. Bennett points out that in childhood, people used to believe that everything around them is animated. During her writing, she wants to recall such early perception of the world. According to her, substances aren’t simply alive in a mechanistic way, or infused with a transcendent spirit. They are alive in their complex interrelationships, trajectories, and propensities. Bennett shares Bruno Latour’s term ‘actant’, which is a source of action that can be either human or nonhuman.

She states that objects are alive because of they have efficacy. They are capable of making a difference, producing effects, altering the course of events. Bennett was inspired by Deleuze and Guattari experiment with the idea of a ‘material vitalism, according to which vitality is immanent in matter-energy. We know nothing about a body until we know what it can do. In other words, what its affects are, how they can or cannot enter into composition with other affects, with the affects of another body. Bennett aims to theorize an intrinsic vitality of materiality and to dissipate the binaries of life and matter, human and animal, organic and inorganic, in order to call attention to the material vitality.

The Force of Things

In the first chapter, Bennett seeks to highlight a positive, productive power of things, an active role of nonhuman materials in public life. Bennett insists that objects have ‘thing- power’, the curious ability of inanimate things to animate, to act, to produce effects dramatic and subtle. It is impossible for us to understand it systematically, because its unsettling experiences that show us how our environment is active and we aren’t dominated subjects. Bennett tells a story of her own experience that once she entered a room and saw a glove, some pollen, dead rat, a bottle cap and a stick. She couldn’t stop imagine the story behind this scene that caused by each individual objects. More important, this scene striked her with the awareness of the singularity of each one. Bennett caught a glimpse of an energetic vitality inside each of these things, things that she generally conceived as inert. She was surprised by the intrinsic power of these things. This vital materiality can never be thrown away. That is to say you will be affected by thing-power rising from any object, even a pile of trash.

Bennett also offers an example of gunpowder residue sample to illustrate that things can be an important intervener in an assemblage, making the difference. In this case, the gunpowder was the key evidence that can lead the judge to make a final decision.

Besides organic matter, Bennett mentions inorganic matter has magnificent vitality. For example, this water loops are caused by soliton, self- solitary wave that maintains its shape while it propagates at a constant velocity. Their self-organization is much more variable and creative than we’ve ever imagined.

Bennett also draws attention to a literary dramatization of the idea of impersonal life: to Odradek, Kafka’s short story. Odradek is a spool of thread who can run and laugh, animate wood exercise an impersonal form of vitality. He possess vital materiality and exhibits what Gilles Deleuze has described as the persistent ‘hint of the animate in plants, and of the vegetable in animals’. The distinction between life and matter becomes obscure and unessential. Organisms become a special, distributed forms of the common material, a particular continuity of water, rocks, minerals.etc.

Odradek_kafka-elena_villa_brayKafka’s Odradek

From this point of view, humans are composed of a complex web of active bodies and vital materials. Our power is a kind of thing-power. Therefore, humans aren’t autonomous or sovereign subjects.

Bennett gives voice to the vitality of materiality, in the process absolving matter from its long history of attachment to automatism or mechanism.Realizing the vitality of the impersonal life that surrounds and infuses us, will generate a more subtle awareness of the complicated web of dissonant connections between bodies, and will enable wiser interventions into that ecology.

The Agency of Assemblages

An actant never really acts alone. Its efficacy or agency always depends on the collaboration, cooperation, or interactive interference of many bodies and forces. Bennett tries to develop a theory of distributive agency by examining a real-life effect; a power blackout that affected 50 million people in North America in 2003. She offers an analysis of the electrical power grid as an agentic assemblage. There are two philosophical terms we need to understand, the affective bodies of Spinoza, and the notion of assemblage from Deleuze and Guattari.

Affective bodies

Affective bodies mean associative bodies in the sense that each is continuously affecting and being affected by other bodies. The power of a body to affect other bodies includes a ‘corresponding and inseparable’ capacity to be affected. There are two equally actual powers, that of acting, and that of suffering action. Because the nature of the affective body is as being both affected and able to affect means it is neither subject nor object, but rather enters into relations with other affective bodies that form a mode.

All things are modes of a common substance. Every mode is itself an assemblage of many simple bodies. Both simple bodies and the complex modes have their own conatus. Bennett mentions Spinoza’s idea of conative bodies that striving to enhance their power by forming alliances with other bodies. This means that affective bodies enter in to relationships with other affective bodies in order to increase their power. The more complex bodies congregate, the better capacity they possess.

In the case of a complex body, conatus refers to the effort required to maintain the specific relation of movement and rest that obtains between its parts, a relation that defines the mode as what it is. The maintenance is continual invention because every mode must seek new encounters to creatively compensate for the affections it suffers. Bodies enhance their power in or as a mixed assemblage. So Bennett suggests that the concept of agency cannot be localized in human bodies but become distributed across varied field of matter.

3Greg Lynn’s Affective bodies

What Is an Assemblage?

In order to think these complex relations, we need to turn to Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of the assemblage. Bennett explains assemblages are ad hoc groupings of diverse elements, of vibrant materials of all sorts. Assemblages are not governed by any central head. No one materiality or type of material has sufficient capacity to determine consistently the impact of the group. The affects of an assemblage is not the sum of the forces of each materiality considered alone. Various affective bodies that come and work together. They form together and break apart for an open-ended change. They exist therefore for only particular times and places. The assemblage has certain vital effectivity called an agency of the assemblage.

Bennett goes on to give an example how assemblages function with a great blackout in August 2003. The electrical grid is understood as a massive mix of coal, electromagnetic fields, computer programs, profit motives, lifestyles, economic theory, etc. It is impossible to say exactly who or what ‘causes’ the blackout. The agency of assemblage is something distributed along a continuum extrudes from multiple actants from an electron flow to a member of Congress.

00223MVRDV’s Assemblage

Bennett introduces the concept of distributive agency, which “does not posit a subject as the root cause of an effect”.  This is distinguished from traditions that define agency as a moral capacity linked to “an advance plan or an intention”.  “There are instead always a swarm of vitalities at play.  The task becomes to identify the contours of the swarm, and the kind of relations that obtain between its bits… this understanding of agency does not deny the existence of intentionality, but it does see it as less definitive of outcomes.  It loosens the connections between efficacy and the moral subject, bringing efficacy closer to the idea of the power to make a difference that calls for a response”.

If we accepted the fact that we’re part of massive, complex assemblage, then we can never isolate any actor or thing as the ultimate cause of an event. What caused economic crisis in 2009 for example? Any attempt to locate a single cause immediately fails, and all of these elements are better conceived not as only causes but vibrant actants.


Agency can be understood by the Chinese notion of shi, originally from military strategy. Shi is the style, energy, propensity, trajectory or inherent to a specific arrangement of things. Shi, therefore, is not about any specific element, but rather the composition of forces, allied elements being able to move together. Shi of a milieu can be obvious and subtle. A coffee house is a mobile configuration of people, insects, air currents, sounds, chairs. Their shi might at one time consist in the mild and ephemeral effluence of good vibes, and at another in a more dramatic force capable of engendering a political movement.

In the final section, Bennett confronts head on that this notion of distributed agency, of the agency of assemblage, exists in tension with a desire to hold people accountable. Where energy speculators guilty for the blackout? The notion of a confederate agency does attenuate the blame game, but it does not thereby abandon the project of identifying the sources of harmful effects. To the contrary, such a notion broadens the range of places to look for sources.

I have some thoughts about architecture from Bennett’s idea. Architects always think embed ‘good’ architecture into the city can make an anticipated difference. However, they rely too much on their dominancy of architect and their prospection. The agency of urban assemblage has been underestimated. I beg OMA has a big attention to root their building into the context. There supposed to be 7 entries under CCTV tower connecting to surrounding but none of them is opened due to security issue. I am suggesting that considering city, material, light, air, politics, all as vibrant matter in our design.  So that we’re more open to their possibilities, more humble, more present, and more able to navigate stuff while remembering that we’re not in charge and we don’t know what will happen next.



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