This is an essay that speaks to the to the issues posed in “Going Astray” and “Thought, Disability, and Refusal” with an explicit focus on the political framing of the assemblage of things. It is the third essay in a set of interventions on, for lack of a better word, straying. None of these things could not have been written without the assistance of several friends of mine, to whom I owe too much.
They know who they are.
The History of a Political Lens:
What is the epistemic expanse of sovereignty?
What can the administration of life account for?
These generic questions received a new articulation in the twentieth century and a refreshed framing in our own. Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter may uniquely encapsulate a crucial moment in the history of this mode of political thought. It speaks to various discourses that were vital to Anglo-American political-theoretical developments of this past decade: the manifestation of post-Guattarian political ecology, the re-emergence of Darwin, the post-human, and others. Central to Jane Bennett’s political objective is gesturing clearly to the act that decenters the human subject in the name of a more expansive, and thoroughly connected, understanding of ecological relations between actors in a network. Its rallying cry, on that front, is simple:
However, beneath this uniting image of abandoning the game of the human/non-human distinction is a new procedure of differentiation and accounting – one that is no less violent.
The goal of Bennett’s project is not merely an anti-anthropocentrism or just a thorough vanquishing of humanisms. Bennett puts her theory of vibrant materiality on the table as a force for liberation, but only liberates the administration of life. What Bennett opts to show, in a brief moment of practical theorizing, is how this new framework can aid in answering a set of “crazy” and “not-so-crazy” questions, such as: “Did the typical American diet play any role in engendering the widespread susceptibility to the propaganda leading up to the invasion of Iraq?” or, whether HIV mobilizes homophobia and the revival of evangelism (Bennett 2010, 107).
Far from being a strange misstep in an otherwise innocuous text, this practical moment effectively articulates the immediate connection between ontological inquiry and political programming. This project aims to show, through two vignettes in this materialist tradition, the intimate connection between these intellectual movements and the histories and subjugated knowledges of struggles that underwrite them. If there is a decentering of the human, it is only nominal. Examining Foucault’s reading of 60s American neoliberalism’s construction of human investment, human capital, and ability will show a series of parallels that exist between liberal economists like Gary Becker and the political ecology of Jane Bennett. Beyond that, her parliamentary of things deepens the exclusive inclusion that historically serves as the metaphysical foundation of the polis. Perhaps what Vibrant Matter provides its readers is a concise description of the contemporary crisis of cybernetic capital and its eugenic impulses.
There is a deep and historical relationship between materialist ontologies and political schemas of control. There is a quiet line of connection between the Epicurean tenor of Machiavelli’s Prince and the cybernetic hypotheses of the twentieth century. From these historic accounts of sovereignty to contemporary attempts to think ecologically, crises, informational gaps, and contingencies remain the central problem. In the third proposition of their “Treatise on Nomadology” in A Thousand Plateaus, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari attest that there “is a kind of science” that runs counter to the “legal” and “royal” conception. This “minor science” of the clinamen motions to the exteriority of the war machine, that which State scientific registers never have, but must appropriate. If one takes a closer look at this history of the interconnection of this “fluid” science, its clinamatic field, and the history of theories of state power, one finds that this subterranean epistemology has always lurked somewhere in formations of sovereignty and mechanisms of control that aim to preclude or control any event that could cause a rupture (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 361).
These political ontologies have always motioned to a battleground, to the “same war” that is always ongoing. There are those who attempt to cybernetically weave together the biopolitical fabric of capitalist modernity, in an attempt to dominate any crisis and establish a disposition that can, like a Go board, change its entire structure and bear down on the forces it cannot adequately integrate. Then there are those who tear, bit by bit, at this fabric, who learn that as the metropolis expands, as Empire strengthens its grip and dissipates across every expanse, so too does its various hideaways, glitches, exploits, and points of critical insufficiency. This history unfolds between forces that attempt to apprehend and dominate the seas of fortune and those who learn to swim within them. Both those laying out the fabric and those tearing at it require an intimate knowledge of its stitching.
Vibrancy and Productivist Violence
Bennett’s vital materialism proposes a solution to this conception of the subject that “does not have a stellar record of success in preventing human suffering or promoting human well-being”. This materialism decenters the unique human being in favor of promoting an “attentiveness to matter” that can “inspire a greater sense of the extent to which all bodies are kin in the sense of [being] inextricably enmeshed in a dense network of relations” (Bennett 2010, 13). But this anti-humanism meets its own internal limit rather quickly.
What makes one human, for Bennett, is its set of identified unique agentic capacities. It is the level and nature of its “vitality” that determines its placement in a hierarchy of the vibrant and complex. “By ‘vitality’ I mean the capacity of things” (Bennett 2010, viii). The hierarchy is effectively maintained in Vibrant Matter:
The titular function of these “channels of communication” will soon become clear. The only shift Bennett really proposes is an epistemic one with the goal of a broader conception of communication within the commonwealth. This conception of an actant or agent as a series of capacities and abilities is obviously not unique to this era of political ecology, and not even unique to political theory generally. However, this criticism should not be read as merely an assault on Bennett’s posthumanism, there is something far more crucial at work in assemblage theory more generally – something that speaks to a mode of production and an administering of life.
Actants, Human Capital, and the Regime of the Sensible
In Foucault’s 1978-1979 lecture series on post-war liberalism, The Birth of Biopolitics, he spends an extended period of time looking at the theory of “human capital” which he describes as representing two processes. The first process is the extension of economic analysis into “previously unexplored” domains. The second, on the basis of the first, is the process that provides a strictly economic interpretation of what was previously considered non-economic. Peculiar to neoliberal economics is this renewed focus on labor. “American neoliberals say this: It is strange that classical political economy has always solemnly declared that the production of goods depends on three factors—land, capital, and labor—while leaving the third unexplored” (Foucault 2004, 219). Human capital, clearly, is a “very illiquid asset” (Becker 1993, 91). There is also a long window of time, filled with innumerable variables, before a return on investment can even be meaningfully expected. This makes any given investment in human capital relatively difficult to make informed observations about.
There is an informational gap.
This entrance of economic interpretation into what was previously considered non-economic, coupled with a shift in risk analysis regarding human investment, also results in an alteration of the understanding of labor and the capital of the worker. This capital is “the set of all those physical and psychological factors which make someone able to earn this or that wage”. On the one side, labor comprises a capital which can be best understood in this liberal economic discourse as a series of skills, capacities, and abilities; “as they say: it is a ‘machine’” (Foucault 2004, 224). On the other side, there is an earnings stream or a set of wages. With this machinic conception of the worker’s skill deployed in neoliberal economics—which Foucault will describe as a return of the classical homo oeconomicus—comes a new kind of focus on the worker themselves. “In reality, this machine has a lifespan, a length of time in which it can be used, an obsolescence, and an aging” (Foucault 2004, 225).
The new figure of the neoliberal policymaker must be concerned with everything from the genetic makeup of a worker to the amount of time spent in their mother’s arms to the color of the classroom walls they were educated in – it is all valuable knowledge for the complicated and risk-heavy investment in refining and improving a given subject’s human capital (Foucault 2004, 229). Foucault notes this disturbing element in neoliberal economics: “we can see through anxieties, concerns, problems, and so on, the birth of something which, according to your point of view, could be interesting or disturbing” (Foucault 2004, 227).
This new approach to labor produces a new approach to risk. “[W]e can identify what individuals are at risk, and what the risks are of unions of individuals at risk producing an individual with a particular characteristic that makes him or her the carrier of a risk” (Foucault 2004, 228). For Foucault, the neoliberal government of risk is always searching to make new analytic alliances, to expand the communication of inputs that produce particular individuals with particular traits and modes of behavior.
The assemblage theorist’s and political ecologist’s call for an expanded communicative polity is not only entirely compatible with this form of sovereign extensionism but produced by it entirely. “This means we arrive at a whole environmental analysis, as the Americans say, of […] life which it will be possible to calculate, and to a certain extent quantify, or at any rate measure, in terms of the possibilities of investment in human capital” (Foucault 2004, 230). The interconnective nature of etiological pursuit is not a coincidence, it is entirely central to the eugenic impulse of neoliberalism. Foucault summarizes the danger this way:
This framework of human capital, which a series of capacities and abilities, turns homo oeconomicus into an “abilities-machine”. The eugenic biopolitical impulse that underwrites the process to refine and improve human capital is fundamental to the function of neoliberalism. The model of centering risk does not just preclude catastrophe, but it also lends flexibility to a given governmentality that needs to reorient itself around new conditions.
Proving One’s Ability: On the Polis and Capacity
Bennett seeks a way to articulate what a political act could look like within this new framework of complex vibrant agents. In order to begin to lay out her politics in a world where material itself is viewed as lively, she begins with a description of Darwin’s study of worms, in order to establish what she calls small agencies. Through the lens of these small agencies, a swarm of “’talented’ vibrant materialities” comes into frame. This necessary connection, this world-producing entity, can now be shown as efficacious and productive. Beyond that, resonances (mimicries) can be found, with just a hint of anthropomorphizing, between different modes of organization. Working with a combination of Dewey’s definition of the public space and Latour’s description of a network of actors, the political assemblage starts to come together. Now what is needed is a definition of a political act. Here, she turns to Rancière.
Bennett uses Rancière’s account of the gatherings at the Aventine to discuss the way in which the regime of the sensible is repartitioned. When the plebs arrive, they do what is “unthinkable”:
Bennett refers to this moment as a repartitioning of the regime of the sensible. An act which she rightfully doubts is exclusive to human agents. The problem here is multilayered. The first is a small problem resulting from the use of the notion of the “pleb” in Bennett and Rancière. Rancière, like Foucault, seeks to give an account of plebs that have a resonance throughout history. Foucault, in fact, spoke of the figure of the pleb when he was interviewed by Rancière and others in 1977. “There is certainly no such thing as ‘the’ plebs; rather there is, as it were, a certain plebian quality or aspect” (Foucault 1980, 138).
This cannot be reduced to a simple historical problem for Bennett, the deeper issue is what is at stake in the actual content of Bennett’s political philosophy. In Rancière, these beings of “no account” are engaged in the “staging of a non-existent right” in order to show that they speak “like patricians” (Rancière 1999, 25). However, in this political ecology, this theatrical tale is generalized and raised to a point of entry into the polis. The plebians repartitioned the regime of the sensible only when they found and articulated that “they too” can replicate the empty political gestures of the very class that oppresses them. The pleb is not a notion that can be enlisted for this project or redefined as another possible source for sovereign information-gathering. It works to destitute that apparatus entirely. The measure of the pleb is a “counter-stroke”; it is “that which responds to every advance of power by a move of disengagement” (Foucault 1980, 138).
The plebian intensity is one of flight, not of bourgeois gestural replication or representation. This is where Bennett’s operational anthropocentric concessions begin to flood back with a dangerous weight. A politics predicated on perpetually establishing a “deliberative competence”, in the name of revealing “isomorphisms” through mimetic gestures, is entirely congruous with the political logic of the eugenicist.
This is where the relation between agentic capacity and human capital can finally be articulated. To put it simply, if the theory of human capital makes what was once considered non-economic a space for economic inquiry and biopolitical intervention, this theory of vibrancy replicates this with regard to the polis and the structure of democratic right and deliberation. From this vantage point, Bennett’s model of democracy is immediately founded on a biopolitical circumscription. It is no surprise, then, that the questions her proposed epistemic shift are meant to help answer are thoroughly biopolitical, we will now return to them:
Vibrant Matter’s unique position in assemblage theory is found in this political content. It provides a conception of the political subject that corresponds directly to the society of control, where all are dividual, in a continuous network, and are always “subjects at risk” given what they interact with in a complex assemblage of actants (Deleuze 1992, 7).
Crises, Fortune, and the Fabric of Control
Machiavelli’s The Prince is primarily concerned with risk, the informational expanse, and contingency. It participates in discourses of governance that faded in and out of significance in Europe through to the nineteenth century. Its publication was followed by a near-immediate reevaluation by its readers. The earliest notable condemnations came from “Catholic milieus”, such as Ambrogio Politi’s Discussions of books Christians must detest and, the more notable, Anti-Machiavel by Innocent Gentillet (Foucault 2007, 90). What makes these early condemnations so fascinating is not simply their attestations of Machiavelli’s atheism, but the criticism of his engagement with those masters “of ignorance”, the atomists. Machiavelli is said to believe that “the course of the sun, the moon, the stars, the […] springtime, summer, autumn, and winter, the political government of men, the production that the earth makes of fruits […] all this comes by encounter and adventure” (Gentillet 2018, 197).
Foucault argues that an entire sub-genre within the history of literature dedicated to the “conducting of conduct” can be made of the specifically anti-Machiavellian writings. What Foucault sees in Machiavelli, and the subsequent discourses he produced, is not just a doctrine of the preservation of the state, but also something entirely different. A debate on the “art of government” is conducted through him. Machiavelli’s Prince is an early testament to the value of governmental flexibility and fluidity. While there may not be an explicit form of governmentality proposed by Machiavelli, the disposition of the prince—and the way in which they must conduct themselves in order to conduct the conduct of others—establishes, quite clearly, the problem of crisis, contingency, and the kinetics of control.
The very grounds for his condemnation in the sixteenth century are what make him a valuable theorist of sovereign power and schematics of control. What Machiavelli attempts to do is provide an account of an unknowable gap between sovereign action and the world of things. The Prince is not primarily, as it is generally considered, a text about the expendability of an moral foundation in political deliberation. Nor is it simply an initial articulation of ideological critique.
It is about strategic flexibility. From this point of view, Machiavelli’s principle of fortune, far from a handwaving motion about the unknowability of future circumstances, is the foundation of his entire theory of sovereign conduct. The very existence of the wind of fortune is what necessitates a certain plasticity on the part of the prince. A networked understanding of the interplay of things sits at the heart of Machiavelli’s work. In this way, the distance that the anti-Machiavellians put between themselves and Machiavelli closes.
Machiavelli compares fortune to “those dangerous rivers that, when they become enraged, flood the plains, […] move earth from one place and deposit it in another” (Machiavelli 2019, 83). The connection between political turbulence and the fluidity and violence of the ocean manifests all across political literature. Fortune favors those who are swift and flexible. The success of any given prince is determined by their ability to swiftly “conform with the conditions in which they operate” (Machiavelli 2019, 83). Fortune is generally favorable towards “who are impetuous than those who are calculating” (Machiavelli 2019, 85). It all comes down to an ability for swift, and often complete, reorientation..
Bennett’s call for an expanded view in governmental deliberation is another moment in the search for a sovereign thread that can weave together “the sun, the moon, the stars, […] plants, [and] living creatures” (Gentillet 2018, 197). It is also another echo in the history of political theorizing that attempts to speak to the crucial value of flexibility and restructuring. It does so in the name of security. It attempts to weave a fabric of control across the social field. These are, in part, attempts at giving an account of how to understand the gap in any given field of information, bodies, motions, or possible events.
Tearing at the Fabric
There is, in this same history, a litany of shrouded figures who navigate through these schemas of sovereign and biopolitical control. Rather than technocratically attempting to apprehend and account for the gap between technology and social totality, the “revolutionary lives in the gap” (Deleuze 1990, 49). There is no doubt that, as the highway is built, the schema of control within the metropolis deepens. “The desert cannot grow anymore: it is everywhere. But it can still deepen” (The Invisible Committee 2004, 3).
However, among those who “get organized” are those who know that, as the network of highways expands, so does the network of hideaways. In the course of their archival work on lettres de cachet in the transitionary years of the Ancien Regime, Arlettte Farge and Michel Foucault came across the figure of the “scoundrel” who was found all over the files but never explicitly defined in any concise criminological manner:
These documents in the archives of Bastille reveal both an extrajudicial obsession and a nocturnal force of resistance that knows precisely how to exploit the critical insufficiencies of capital’s expansionary tendency in the city.
The Invisible Committee speaks to, and in the voice of, the shrouded figures who the bourgeois are indeed often “persuaded” represent the entirety of the people. The metropolis is a “flow of beings and things, a current that runs through fiber-optic networks, through high-speed train lines, satellites, and surveillance cameras, making sure this world keeps running straight to its ruin” (Invisible Committee 2009, 58). When The Invisible Committee finally attests that their readers must “Make the most of every crisis”, they recall and participate in this battle defined by the minor science of the swerve. Tiqqun and The Invisible Committee each put forward a strategic stance predicated on a crisis of presence, one that can be exploited.
Tiqqun, in The Cybernetic Hypothesis, attests to the “heterogenous” and clinamatic nature of “the invisible revolts” that are inherent to forms-of-life that are incompatible with Empire. These revolts are “as heterogeneous as desires” and cannot form a closed totality or a unified multitude (Tiqqun 2020, 131). Forms-of-life that are incompatible with the operations of Empire are, for Tiqqun, to be understood in terms of the clinamen. “This taste, this clinamen, can either be warded off or embraced” (Tiqqun 2010, 20).
Tiqqun proposes a mode of “diffuse guerrilla” resistance. The metropolis, cloaked in a cybernetic fabric of control, constantly multiplies the possibility for the slightest possible deviation. For Tiqqun (and the Invisible Committee), any of these deviations can and must be exploited. Citing T. E. Lawrence’s description of guerrilla warfare—though channeling Epicurus—Tiqqun argues that this diffuse rebel must use “the smallest force in the quickest time at the farthest place”. Any advancement made by cybernetic capital must, for Tiqqun, be met with a revolt that is “invisible only to the extent that it attains its objective, which is to ‘deny the adversary an objective’” (Tiqqun 2020, 137). The diffuse guerrilla must be deceptive, it must deny the very communicative pathway that Bennett is attempting to extend to policymakers and the police.
The diffuse guerilla is defined by two gestures in the face of cybernetic control. The first is a self-disruption. The second is more difficult, a self-emptying refusal. “I reserve myself. Beyond. Elsewhere. Short circuit and disconnection” (Tiqqun 2020, 136). The kinetics of the cybernetic order meets the disruptive kenotic gesture of a messianic politics. Tiqqun also suggests the development of a series of slowdown tactics. For this mode of resistance does not simply attack Empire in its being, but in its process. They, like Foucault, reject the Marxist criticism of Luddist sabotage and see it as a deliberate “act of slowing down the flows of commodities and persons, which is done in anticipation of the central characteristic of cybernetic capitalism”: movement (Tiqqun 2020, 146). For them, what must be sought are different rhythms.
The quiet discordance beneath the metropolis becomes an ally in the search for different forms-of-life that perpetually disrupt the busy rhythm of contemporary capitalism, where everyone is in a hurry to go absolutely nowhere.
Crisis, as Machiavelli’s words on flexibility show, also provides plenty of opportunity to the state. Continual restructuring, in the name of an always-ongoing and always-coming crisis, serves to strengthen the forces of domination in the present and preclude any generative crises that would gesture towards insurrection or expose the task to bring about the real exception. It must be understood as an entity of war.
An Always Ongoing Battle
Vibrant Matter, far from being merely the encapsulation of a new series of discourses birthed from the French 70s, participates in a long tradition of political materialisms that attempt to provide an account of what is considered unaccounted for in politics, in the name of controlling the play of events and crises. These crises, these changes in fortune, have long established an (always ephemeral) ontological ground of struggle between dominant forces and the vanquished.
The turbulent waters of fortune and the uncertainty inherent within systems of biopolitical management in the Metropolis are where those in revolt are positioned. “Given that the oceanic difference of the Metropolis expands through complexity, exploits must exist throughout it” (Culp 2022, 71). Tiqqun’s diffuse guerrilla and Foucault’s scoundrel each make uncertainty their terrain.
This mode of resistance is one that can turn the ephemeral glitch, a frame in time, into a protracted ground of struggle and opposition. Over this specter of crisis, a battle is always being fought. It is also over this “gap” that Bennett attests democracies must shift their focus and alter their conception of the political subject, and why Machiavelli tells Lorenzo de’ Medici of the importance to be able to abandon all current strategy at any given moment.
It is within this gap that the potentiality of the Imaginary Party resides.
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 A good Foucauldian should know just how historically flawed it is to conflate mimesis with isonomia or the isomorphic generally (for more, See: The Order of Things).
 Foucault provides a description Guillaume La Perriere, who opposes Machiavelli’s focus on the principality with a “government of ‘things’” (Foucault 2007, 96). What is at issue in this project is whether Machiavelli already has an account of these relational entities, these “things”.
 Jacques Rancière, for example, describes the entire project of Platonism, from Gorgias to Laws, as an “anti-maritime polemic” (Rancière 1995, 1).