The work of Jane Bennet

This post was contributed by Mayur Suresh, an Intern at the Birkbeck Institute of Social Research (BISR).

The BISR recently hosted a two-day event about the work of Jane Bennet (Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore) organised by Lisa Baraitser (Birkbeck, University of London) and Michael O’Rourke (Independent Colleges, Dublin).

The workshop held on 5 October 2013 around the work of Jane Bennet, was filled with phrases like “object oriented ontology” (OOO for short), “new materialisms”, and “speculative realism”. As a person who has studied law, a discipline obsessed with language and meaning, and whose theoretical approaches in his PhD involves thinking about language and forms of life, all of this was new to me. The idea that material objects could be alive or actively participate in everyday life, seemed like a distant idea.

Yet this is precisely what Jane Bennet’s work argues: that matter has vitality. Maybe the first step is to move away from thinking about language as the threshold of human life. Humans always act within a larger assemblage of other (non-human) bodies. But more than that, things and objects seem to act upon us in a number of ways, and matter acquires a kind of life-force of its own. Actions are not only constituted through forms of human sociality, but by the material bodies in the assemblages that we are a part of.

The workshop took Jane Bennet’s work in several directions. Lisa Baraister’s presentation explored the ways in which mothers experienced the different objects that they encountered in a city: taking their baby buggies through the gates in Underground stations, or navigating busy sidewalks. While some navigated the city with ease, others struggled to find their way in the narrow pathways that the city afforded. In her narrative, the city emerges as a living sieve, which hoarded the various objects that it wanted to keep.

Nigel Clark’s presentation was on the question of time in geography. Geographers and geologists had usually understood rocks, and minerals and the other things that go to make up the earth as usually being inert, unless there was some event like an earthquake or a volcanic eruption. He wondered what would happen if we began to see that minerals and rocks are do not merely sit inertly in the earth, but act over many millennia. Another presentation titled “JB” by Michael O’Rourke explored the theoretical linkages between Judith Butler and Jane Bennet (available here).

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