Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Most Important Things

I recently received a Hallmark card in the mail that said "The most important things in life are not things." The card basically was telling me that people are more important than mere 'things'. This sentiment rubs completely against the book I just finished reading, the political theorist Jane Bennett's Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things.

Bennett suggests that all things are, well, things, and that far from this being a reductive or depressing situation, this in fact should open the way for new ways of being—even new ways of being mindful. Acknowledged and accepted as things, we might then engage more ethically and thoughtfully with other things...even things that escape our human scale, or slip away from consciousness.

The most important thing is to accept that we are things—and so is everything else. All things are things; and it might help us to act accordingly. Don DeLillo reflects on a similar idea in his most recent novel Point Omega: "Think of it. We pass completely out of being. Stones. Unless stones have being. Unless there’s some profoundly mystical shift that places being in a stone" (73).

As a retort to DeLillo, Bennett might propose that it is not a "mystical shift" that places "being in a stone"—rather, a vibrant thingliness infiltrates people as much as stones, and it is from this 'lower' level of shared being that we might rethink things—from stones to other creatures, from living trees to trashy litter. Bennett terms this philosophy "vital materialism," and it is a call "to consult nonhumans more closely…to listen and respond more carefully to their outbreaks, objects, testimonies, and propositions” (108).