This Year’s Idées Fixes

My reading orbits an accretion of preoccupations. So far, this year’s idées fixes are the influence of the East on Greco-Roman thought (and by extension, modern thought), Epicureanism, the neo-vitalist/transcendental materialist movement in contemporary philosophy, and asceticism. It may be that the interrelation between these themes are personal, but they appear deeply connected.

Following a question on Twitter I thought I’d compile a list of some of the texts that I’ve recently read and that I’ll be reading over the next few months. Please feel free to make further suggestions of titles that speak urgently to these concerns. These are all complementary to the Urtexts  of Epicurus, Lucretius, and Diogenes Laertius, and to this superb companion.

  • Jane Bennett – Vibrant Matter: a political ecology of things [PDF]
  • Pierre Hadot – Philosophy as a way of life
  • Jane Bennett – The Enchantment of Modern Life
  • Pierre Hadot – The Present Alone is Our Happiness
  • Alexander Nehamas – The Art of Living
  • David Jasper – The Sacred Desert
  • Pierre Hadot – The Veil of Isis
  • Randall Collins – The Sociology of Philosophers
  • David Jasper – The Sacred Body
  • Pierre Hadot – What is Ancient Philosophy?

The (Fractious) Kinship Between the Human and the Nonhuman

Thirty Pieces of Silver (1988-9) – Cornelia Parker

Vital materiality better captures an “alien” quality of our own flesh, and in so doing reminds humans of the very radical character of the (fractious) kinship between the human and the nonhuman. My flesh is populated and constituted by different swarms of foreigners. The crook of my elbow, for example, is a “special ecosystem, a bountiful home to no fewer than six tribes of bacteria. . . .They are helping to moisturise the skin by processing the raw fats it produces. . . .The bacteria in the human microbiome collectively possess at least 100 times as many genes as the mere 20,000 or so in the human genome.” The its outnumber the mes. In a world of vibratory matter, it is thus not enough to say that we are “embodied.” We are, rather, an array of bodies, many different kinds of them nested in a set of microbiomes. If more people marked this fact more of the time, if we were more attentive to the indispensable foreignness that we are, would we continue to produce and consume in the same violently reckless ways.

Jane Bennett
Vibrant Matter

A World of Lively Matter

Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991) – Cornelia Parker

A second advantage hinges on the inflection of matter as vibrant, vital, energetic, lively, quivering, vibratory, evanescent, and efflorescent (to recall some modifiers I have used throughout the book). In a world of lively matter, we see that biochemical and biochemical-social systems can sometimes unexpectedly bifurcate or choose developmental paths that could not have been foreseen, for they are governed by an emergent rather than a linear or deterministic causality. And once we see this, we will need an alternative to the idea of nature as blind mechanism. A vital materialism interrupts both the teleological organisms of some ecologists and the machine image of nature governing many of their opponents.

Jane Bennett
Vibrant Matter

I am a Material Configuration

Neither From Nor Towards (1992) - Cornelia Parker

Neither From Nor Towards (1992) – Cornelia Parker

I am a material configuration, the pigeons in the park are material compositions, the viruses, parasites, and heavy metals in my flesh and in pigeon flesh are materialities, as are neurochemicals, hurricane winds, E. coli, and the dust on the floor. Materiality is a rubric that tends to horizontalize the relations between humans, biota, and abiota. It draws human attention sideways, away from an ontologically ranked Great Chain of Being and toward a greater appreciation of the complex entanglements of humans and nonhumans. Here. the implicit moral imperative of Western thought -“Thou shall identify and defend what is special about Man”-loses some of its salience

Jane Bennett
Vibrant Matter