Domestic Hub Conversation #2 The Agency Things: Petroleum and Water

Conversation Pit – in my garage with water filter and motorbikes


Maximum of four participants

Proposed date: an evening tba between 19 – 29 September

petroleum and water; this relationship may be articulated as two entities with whom our lives are closely tied – or – two valuable resources that we need to manage. Both statements extort us to act responsibly toward petroleum and water, however the dynamic at stake in each is significantly different. In the second and more familiar statement, we adopt the position of guardian and primary actor in an active/passive relationship. In contrast to this, the prior statement reflects thinking and language emerging in response to the acknowledgement that we now live in the Anthropocene, the geological era in which human activity has irreversibly changed the planet. It suggests a recalibration of human identity to a less anthropocentric role in which we interact with the autonomous agency of other entities.

Are these two modes of thought and identity roles mutually exclusive or might we usefully switch between two different perspectives as we negotiate ideas of ongoingness, sustainability and biospheric change?

Is it useful to consider alternative to our (Western/neo liberal/ Cartesian informed) attitude to the large portion of our biosphere that, for want of a better term, we call things (stuff, objects, inanimate matter)? Or does this introspection merely get in the way of the important task of getting on and managing things through the established systems?

It is telling that the word ‘thing’ appears to fill a gap in our language, operating as a proxy-term that stands in for those ‘objects’ and ‘materials’ we are not quite able to imagine as entities, beings or persons. We can acknowledge effects of things (carbon becomes coal, becomes carbon dioxide and energy), but we baulk at ascribing things agency as such.

While we can scientifically imagine a timeframe in which we can apprehend their action we fail to philosophically imagine this more-than-human scale activity as a mode of being.


Conversation Pit: The Agency Things: Petroleum and Water draws the thinking of Jane Bennett, articulated in her 2010 book Vibrant Materiality: A Political Ecology of Things.

In Vibrant Materiality Bennett sets out to “…think slowly an idea that runs fast through modern heads: the idea of matter as passive stuff, as raw, brute, or inert. This habit of parsing the world into dull matter (it, things) and vibrant life (us, beings) …. encourage us to ignore the vitality of matter and the lively powers of material formations, such as the way omega-3 fatty acids can alter human moods or the way our trash is not “away” in landfills but generating lively streams of chemicals and volatile winds of methane as we speak.”

“Why advocate the vitality of matter? Because my hunch is that the image of dead or thoroughly instrumentalized matter feeds human hubris and our earth-destroying fantasies of conquest and consumption. 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. These material powers, which can aid or destroy, enrich or disable, ennoble or degrade us, in any case call for our attentiveness, or even “respect” (provided that the term be stretched beyond its Kantian sense). The figure of an intrinsically inanimate matter may be one of the impediments to the emergence of more ecological and more materially sustainable modes of production and consumption.”

Bennet articulates this power in terms of agency, or effectivity in the world, and posits a form of shared or distributive agency. Bennett acknowledges that from a humanist standpoint…

“agency “involves not mere motion, but willed or intended motion, where motion can only be willed or intended by a subject.” (Mathews, For Love of Matter, 35.) A theory of distributive agency, in contrast, does not posit a subject as the root cause of an effect. There are instead always a swarm of vitalities at play. The task becomes to identify the contours of the swarm and the kind of relations that obtain between its bits. To figure the generative source of effects as a swarm is to see human intentions as always in competition and confederation with many other strivings, for an intention is like a pebble thrown into a pond, or an electrical current sent through a wire or neural network: it vibrates and merges with other currents, to affect and be affected. This understanding of agency does not deny the existence of that thrust called intentionality, but it does see it as less definitive of outcomes.”


Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (a John Hope Franklin Center Book) . Duke University Press. Kindle Edition.

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