Q&A with Jane Bennett

Jane Bennett is Andrew W. Mellon Professor of the Humanities at Johns Hopkins University and author of Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, also published by Duke University Press.

In her newest book, Influx and Efflux: Writing Up with Walt Whitman, she explores the question of human agency amidst a world teeming with powerful nonhuman influences, drawing upon Whitman, Thoreau, Caillois, Whitehead, and other poetic writers to link a non-anthropocentric model of self to a democratic pluralism and a syntax and style of writing appropriate to the entangled world in which we live.

Your book Vibrant Matter introduced so many of us to new materialist theory—the idea that we as humans are deeply engaged with a more-than-human material world. How does Influx and Efflux relate to the questions you took up in that book?

Vibrant Matter honed in on vital forces overlooked by a picture of the world as divided naturally into passive-reactive objects and active-creative subjects, and it figured the human being as one lively element among others within the complex ecology of human-nonhuman assemblages. It trained a cyclops eye on the liveliness of the ordinary nonhuman entities and processes by which we live—think, for example, of the powerful lure of certain objects and possessions, or of the effects of pesticides or pharmaceuticals on health, or of how you follow the lead of your materials as you cook, draw, garden.

In highlighting a more-than-human vitality, and in pitching its analysis at the grand, even cosmic level of “matter,” Vibrant Matter also cast shade on some other important efforts. These efforts include those defending humanism as an indispensable tradition of inquiry in the face of attacks against it as economically useless; or those exposing structures of (gendered, racialized, capitalist) injustice; or those in search of a philosophy of human agency that accounts for both its assemblage-quality and its capacity to add something qualitatively new to the world.

Influx and Efflux speaks to these previously shaded efforts, especially that last one. It returns to the matter of human subjectivity. What models of self and efficacy make sense within a non-anthropocentric ontology? What kinds of “I” and “we” can act effectively, and live well, alongside so many other lively bodies and forces? How to affirm the strange bubbling up of “individuality” within a world of vibrant matter? To pursue these tasks, I use Walt Whitman’s American poetry as my guide. I seek help also from other poetic voices unafraid to name, ride, and “write up” whatever laudable possibilities circulate quietly, even in dark times.

The book’s title references Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” in which the ocean’s flowing in and out refers to everyday movements in which outside influences enter bodies, infuse and confuse their organization, and then exit, themselves having been transformed into something new. Why did you choose to think with the phrase “influx and efflux” for this book?

I am drawn to pictures of the world that emphasize the role of becoming while also thinking about how entities (knots and clots) form in the process. One of the ways to do the latter is to acknowledge the configuring power of metamorphosis—to include within one’s “structural analysis” the arrangements made by rhythms of self-alteration (“influx and efflux”). It is notable also that Whitman’s phrase describes a process operative both in the ocean and in the “I.” The self that emerges in Leaves of Grass is the product of a process that repeats across human-nonhuman borders:

Sea of stretch’d groundswells,
Sea breathing broad and convulsive breaths,
Sea of the brine of life and of unshovell’d yet always-ready graves,
Howler and scooper of storms, capricious and dainty sea,
I am integral with you, I too am of one phase and of all phases.
Partaker of influx and efflux I.

—Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself” (Section 22)

You write about Whitman’s approach to the power of sympathy as a physical force: he saw his poetry as generating a cloud of possibility for abolitionist thought by highlighting the linked value of every body-soul, rather than directly engaging with the racialized violence of slavery in a way that might make people defensive. What might poetry have to offer for us in the polarized and tense political moment we are in right now?

There are loud voices in American politics today avowing hate, racism, guns, patriarchy, xenophobia, greed, extreme inequality, and authoritarian rule. For them, sympathy and empathy are but expressions of weakness. They deny not only their entanglements with other people but also their profound susceptibility to nonhuman forces—preferring to believe that climate change or a viral pandemic is a hoax propagated on behalf of the weak.

Such views have faced a direct, forceful, and high-intensity counter-response—by a militantly pro-democratic opposition to entrenched structures of privilege and domination. I applaud the Left’s use of outrage, revulsion, and militancy in the effort to counter right-wing attitudes, judgments, and actions. Influx & Efflux, however, takes another tactic—it leans into other moods and it relies more upon indirect powers, including wonder at the vitality of matter and a protean attraction to the bodies and things one regularly encounters. It seeks to harness the power of wonder and those vague, ahuman affections (“sympathies”) on behalf of a decent, egalitarian, and ecological public culture. I think that neglect of the energy of protean sympathies has made its own contribution to the rise of the cruel, authoritarian, and earth-destroying politics we currently endure.

It’s not that positive moods and indirect influences should replace the critical orientations and more express forms of opposition practiced by the Left; they are offered instead as a political supplement to them. The rhetorical groove of the book is less calling out and more calling toward, but I don’t think that renders it depoliticized, especially if “political” denotes that which is capable of inducing societal transformation. There is a form of political efficacy that relies upon direct action and intense affect, but there is also a form proceeding by subtle influence and gentler sensitivities—by a force that is only apparently “weak.”

Your own doodles appear on the book’s cover as well as throughout the manuscript. How should readers approach these doodles? What is their relationship to the written text?

People exist and subsist on many planes or registers at once—the conceptual and the spatial, the shaped and the vague, the static and the vibratory, the everyday and the cosmic. Each plane intersects with the others in experience, such that “experience” is itself an overrich mix of impressions, tempos, feelings, and moods. In short, life is complicated. Or, as Paul Klee put it, “It is not easy to orient yourself in a whole that is made up of parts belonging to different dimensions.”

The doodles—as lines and shapes on their way to elsewhere (Klee says they are “out for a walk”)—express, perhaps, one of the many non-linguistic registers of experience. The peculiar experience of agency that comes to the fore while doodling—an “I” that is carried along by a creative process that would not be the same without me and yet carries on whether I am there or not—is one theme of the book. The doodles speak without words to what the process-forward philosophy of the book also tries to pronounce.

One of the questions you explore in your work is what it looks like to write in a non-anthropocentric way. How do you include the more-than-human in your writing practice?

Simply naming and describing the presence of the not-quite human in any given field of perception, conception, reception, or deception is a start. Work to undo the learned tendency to overlook those aspects of one’s encounters that are not apparently useful for pragmatic action. Another tactic is to pay close attention to the verbs you speak—do they insinuate that the humans on the scene have more power or control of the action than they really do? The book experiments with using “middle-voiced” verbs as a way to “write up” a multi-specied kind of agency. Even though the “middle voice” is not marked formally in English (as it is in classical Greek and Sanskrit), it is still present in certain ways of speaking. It designates performances undertaken within an ongoing field of activities, rather than decisions of subjects who enter a field either to do something (the active voice) or to be acted upon (the passive voice). For example, the verbs “to partake,” “to inaugurate,” “to inflect,” and “to attest to” express an efficacy that both receives and twists, an efficacy that no singlet could own.

One of your chapters takes up Thoreau’s attempt to filter the influence of humans out of his life, but maximize the influx of the not-quite-human sparks of the Wild. Is there anything Thoreau might offer for those of us who are spending this springtime physically isolated from other humans?

Yes, lots. Get outside, even around the block. Make good advantage of the official (coronavirus pandemic) directive to avoid people, to eschew anthropocentrism. Now you can notice the intensive swarms of otherwise insignificant things in your immediate vicinity. This practice of attention may slowly expand (even cosmic-ize!) your perspective. You too are, when all is said and done, a minuscule bundle of energies in a cosmic swirl. The news, social media, the internet, and your conventional frame of mind/body all focus relentlessly on the social, political, economic, human-historical dimensions of your existence. But your being is also elsewhere, in excess of those planes or dimensions. You are other-than-human and more than conventional too: you live via and are impressed by a virtual realm that is real even if not expressly overt. Inhabit that more fully.

Read the introduction to Influx and Efflux free online and save 30% when you use coupon code E20BNNTT.

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