Can a tsunami be a revolutionary activist? Should stones have a say in the way we live in the next century? Do trees have standing? After two thousand years of uncontested anthropocentrism – the belief that humanity is the center of existence – an insurgency is underway within Western philosophy. At stake is whether objects might also be subjects worthy of rights.
“My hunch is that the image of dead or thoroughly instrumentalized matter feeds human hubris and our earth destroying fantasies of conquest and consumption,” writes Jane Bennett in Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. “It does so by preventing us from detecting (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling) a fuller range of the nonhuman powers circulating around and within human bodies.”
Inspired by panpsychists like Freya Williams and Matthew Hall, Michel Serres’ call for a “natural contract” between humans and nonhuman beings, Ecuador’s extension of rights to nature, and new theories of “object-oriented ontology” developed by Bruno Latour, Graham Harman, and Timothy Morton, this battle of ideas is eerily reminiscent of the 16th century Copernican Revolution that overthrew geocentrism and displaced the Earth and humanity from the center of the universe … except this time around the political implications could be far more profound.
Just imagine a global Parliament of Things where the rights of stones, foxes and arctic ice are equally balanced against, and sometimes even take precedence over, those of humans … and where we vehemently debate: what is oil’s one demand?
In demanding a vote for objects, new materialists represent a counter-trend to the prefigurative and anti-representational politics espoused by occupiers in the fall of 2011. Rather than repudiating the concept of representational government, new materialists transform it by pushing political representation to the limits of intelligibility.
But to a skeptic, the new materialists’ conviction that things matter is only a belated intellectualization of the facts on the ground established long ago by advertisers. To a New York adman, the idea that objects call to us is a basic working assumption. It is his job to shape, articulate and amplify that call, to mobilize the “nonhuman powers” of the objects around us and to translate it into dollars spent.
From this perspective, what is “new” in new materialism is not that objects speak, but a broadening of what sorts of objects speak and an expansion of who can speak for them. Rocks, gutter trash, sheep tracks, bottle caps and bacteria – these scholars seek to animate the detritus and the uncounted objects of capitalism, the items never or no longer enchanted by the advertising machine. The key democratic thrust of object-oriented philosophy is to extend the right to speak to objects not backed by corporate sponsors: to open the democracy of objects to include the very poor. This is the real magic depicted in Miranda July’s book It Chooses You, where random objects in the local PennySaver become the guideposts of a sort of vision quest. With new allies to channel the expression of their powers, objects can say more than just “buy me.”
The world imagined by the new materialists is, quite simply, an enchanted world, one in which every item and atom has a voice, a power, a spell. And the question they raise is not only “what is oil’s one demand, what does oil say?” but also, “who will have the right to speak for oil?” Until now, the giant media companies have jealously guarded the skill of ventriloquizing objects’ voices and defining their desires. New materialism, at bottom, is a political call for each of us to be the interpreter and the champion of mute things – for each of us to speak for the political re-enchantment of the globe.