Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Some initial reflections on Bennett ch. 2

These reflections bounce off of what Adrian wrote, so make sure you have read him.

Like Adrian, I am uncomfortable with the ending of this chapter. I'm glad Bennett doesn't just dodge the issue of accountability, but she certainly doesn't try to provide a guideline for how one should act and respond toward catastrophes. Adrian argues that we need:
But we still need better, more reliable accounts of how things happen and where the gaps and disjunctures in systems of accountability occur. These are questions of design. We need to design better, more responsive and responsible systems.
And I certainly don't disagree. But it also seems to me that the radical implications of the agency of assemblages pushes back against this as the answer. Sure, we need better designs. And part of getting better designs means being honest how things interact, which means a reduction of morality and blaming and generally being a cop. But ultimately the fact that assemblages are (a) not only human or even necessary human and (b) "are not governed by any central head" (p. 24) means that these assemblages resist human design. Or, they have designs themselves. So, better designs are necessary, but designs also seem to indicate a certain predictive power, and a certain power of control that I think assemblages challenge. Think of Isabelle Stengers' distinction between a demonstration and an experiment. A demonstration is like Galileo dropping a hammer of the leaning tower. He knew what would happen, and was simply demonstrating it. On the other hand, look at the first atomic bomb explosion. They had a good idea of what would happen, but weren't entirely sure. There was a chance the explosion wouldn't stop, there was a chance nothing would happen, and everything in between. Assemblages, due to their constant mutual affectivity, are by their nature experiments and not demonstrations. So, the issue of better designs are only one part of the radical limitations to human planning that is raised by assemblages. I want to be clear, I'm not criticizing what Adrian said, I'm in agreement. I just felt someone reading his post might not feel how thinking from assemblages is a radical departure from normal thoughts of human agency.

Tomorrow I will deal with chapter 3, and no surprise I will be in agreement with Adrian on that chapter. I do want to say that I really appreciate Bennett as a writer. Her prose is dense, yet clear. Usually when we talk about a writer being dense we mean they are opaque, but that isn't what is going on with Bennett. Instead, she manages to condense complex ideas in relatively few sentences and paragraphs, but in still very clear ways. It is a delight as a reader, but a frustration as someone giving a precis.


ai said...

Hi Scu - I agree that a more complex understanding of the assemblage, with its many interacting human and nonhuman components (sorry for using such mechanistic language, but it's just shorthand), is preferable to one that keeps the humans completely separate from the nonhumans in our analysis.

Just a minor clarification on my use of the term 'design' (which I probably should have made clear in my post): I'm aware that "design" is a term that may imply control, prediction, and a top-down approach to things, but I was thinking more specifically of all the work done in eco-design, i.e. the work of people like Bill McDonough (Cradle to Cradle), Ian McHarg (Design with Nature), Janine Benyus (Biomimicry), John & Nancy Todd, et al. - a notion of design as fitting into natural processes and working with them rather than controlling them.


Richard Smyth said...

I think she *does* offer a guideline for how one should act and respond toward catastrophes. With a greater understanding of the complexity involved in such phenomena, we can recognize the limitations of a simplified narrative ("Though it would give me pleasure to assert that deregulation and corporate greed are the real culprits in the ..." p. 37) and the need for a "hesitant attitude toward assigning singular blame..." (p. 38). I think the way she closes her chapter recognizes such complexity--there is no one answer to how we should respond: it depends on the circumstances and upon how our own "conatus" motivates us to act...