by Evan Edwards
On the night of Monday, April 3rd, a man stood in the middle of the intersection at Franklin and Columbia in Chapel Hill, NC. Within minutes, thousands of people poured out of bars, houses, apartments, fraternity and sorority homes, and who knows where else, barrelling down the largest streets in the town to join him. There’s a video that shows it happening in high speed. The University had just won the NCAA men’s basketball tournament which (if you don’t know) is a very big deal.
I grew up in North Carolina, and as the week drew closer to the game, I watched so many people that I know from Middle and High school making their way back to the state, just to be there if/when they pulled it off. If they couldn’t make it, many documented their excitement wherever they were, on social media, and sent messages and memes to one another as the game loomed closer, just brimming with enthusiasm. Although I never really got into sports, it was a bit moving to watch people get so very joyous about something when nearly everything else in the news is tinged with a kind of abysmal horror.
If you watch the video I linked to above, you notice that the frame shakes as it pans from side to side. Because we’re used to it, we can read this erratic movement as the work of a smartphone camera because professional cameras and drones aren’t this sloppy, and no one uses handheld video-cameras any more. In the shot, too, you see the arm of the man in the intersection upstretched in the first few frames, the luminous glow of his iPhone at its apex, almost giving him the look of an angler fish wandering the deep, or a single firefly waiting in a meadow. As the crowd rolls in, you can’t always make out the screen glow, but it’s clear that almost everyone in the crowd is either raising their phone up to take a picture, to record video, to go live, or to snapchat.
When I was younger, my friends and I did something similar to this. We would call each other during concerts, to leave voicemails or let them listen for a while if a song that meant something to both of us was being played. For me, it was a special way of using technology to deepen a personal friendship. This was before I was on Facebook (you had to have a college e-mail address to get an account when I was in High School), Myspace was not used for sharing things like this, and so the concert voice mail was, in some way, the most cutting edge social medium we had. It was extraordinary to wake up to a voicemail like that from a friend. Absolutely moving.
In Chapel Hill on the night of the NCAA championship, this logic was taken to the n-th degree. Not only could these people share this moment with their friends, nor was it just audio, but streaming, live, full color video freely available to everyone that each one of them knew. There was exuberance in it, and (setting aside all Black Mirror-esque critique) if each of the approximately 12,000 people who rushed the street got even ten “likes” for their photos, then just those people were a quarter-way to a million likes. But it wasn’t just them, a cascade of others shared these videos and others through the vast system of online connections and media. The viewership of this event easily numbers in the millions, and that is just the views associated with smartphone use.
When I called my friends in high school, the phone was successful at performing its function of disseminating information, but not as much as it could be. It’s deficiencies called for a better phone, one that had the capacity to share video to more people. That is, it called for one that was more fit to this niche of accommodating social media that we were slowly creating as a society. The phones on Franklin Street had evolved over the last ten years to fit this niche so well that to me, that evening, it seemed as much a gathering of people as a gathering of smartphones that wanted to be there, brought there by people.
* * *
Suspend with me, for a moment, as much as you can about your understanding of the concepts of life, will, agency, evolution, and machines. I mean, leave off thinking for just a minute that humans (or even living things) are the only objects in the universe that have will, that have agency, that can struggle to exist. In fact, even further, leave off thinking just for a second that matter is just “stuff” that is inert and passive unless moved by something vital. Suppose with me that matter is instead, as political theorist Jane Bennett puts it, “vibrant.”
In her latest book, Bennett tells us she plans to “turn the figures of ‘life’ and ‘matter’ around and around, worrying them until they start to seem strange,” disorienting our intuitive belief in the distinctions between humanity and the rest of the cosmos, culture and nature, freedom and necessity. By cultivating a sense of how matter has its own kind of vibrancy or vitality, one that is not so different from our own, Bennett aims to point us in the direction of a new affective relation to nature and matter that might be more in tune with the demands that ecology places on us. That is, she calls our attention to the way we are enmeshed in incredibly complex and dynamic sets of relations—human and otherwise—that include political systems; water cycles; electric currents; seasonal weather patterns; international financial markets; radioactive material decary; the long geological process of coal formation, extraction, and burning; electronics manufacturing, and so on. By showing how closely these systems work, and how complex their interactions are, Bennett makes the very distinction (“human” and “otherwise”) appear entirely arbitrary.
She explains what she means by ‘vital materialism’ of ‘vibrant matter’ by first considering the way that all human activity takes place within a nexus of other non-human, inorganic, and organic processes. She argues that the activity of these processes can’t be thought of simply as the result of mechanical and determinative causation, because their complexity (bordering on chaos) imbues them with elements of indeterminacy. This indeterminacy means that they may act in ways that display something like ‘selection.’1 We might conceive of things and their processes as being (to use a Kantian term) ‘purposive,’ or as acting as if they had intentions and purposes, even if to say that they really do would be overstepping the limits of human understanding. Humans act alongside, against, and in cooperation with these material processes, which either synergize our own intentions, contradict them, or otherwise. Bennett is careful not to say that ‘material’ objects are “agents,” but that they are “agentic.” That is, they have a “capacity” to act as if they were agents, in relation with other “agentic” entities, like humans.2
She warns us that in conceiving of our relation to these processes, she doesn’t mean that human activity is simply “conditioned” by them, nor that they are simply “structures” within which we operate: “the category of ‘structure’ is ultimately unable to give the force of things its due: a structure can act only negatively, as a constraint on human agency, or passively, as an enabling background or context for it.”3 Rather than matter and material processes being the inert, dead stage upon which human intentions are acted out, or the inert, recalcitrant stones against which the Sisyphean human will pushes, for Bennett all organic and inorganic matter might be conceived as having something like intentions, “life,” and/or purposiveness.
* * *
The example I give to my students when trying to explain this understanding of the “agentic” qualities of matter is Marx’s description of how Capital operates in the capitalist mode of production. Below is a diagram of this process:
The most important part of this diagram is the top flow-chart. It shows how money (a “capital”) is used to purchase labor (specifically “wage labor”) as well as raw materials, space, and equipment (the “means of production”). These two elements (“wage labor” and the “means of production”) are combined in the act of “production” and yield a vendible commodity, which is brought to the market to be sold for consumption in exchange for money (in the form of “revenue”). Revenue is composed of two elements: the initial capital invested, and a “profit.”
The nice thing about this mode of production is that it can be repeated (virtually) infinitely, insofar as at the end of the process, the initial capital is preserved and can be reinvested, undergoing the process again (and again) and producing more revenue. Because of the nature of competition, the capitalist mode of production must incorporate new technologies, labor power, and markets in order for the system to continue to return the initial capital and continue to produce a profit.
This all fits with Adam Smith’s definition of capital as “That part of a man's stock which he expects to afford him revenue.” For Smith, capital is any good that reproduces itself and creates revenue. What Marx does, in describing the capitalist mode of production, is show how capital achieves its goals. In order for capital to be what it is, it has to reproduce itself through its particular mode of commodity production, by bringing in novel raw materials, labor power, etc. and turning them into commodities. In other words, capital itself has a goal, or a kind of purposiveness, in which we participate. As Jason Moore puts it, capitalism is a way of “organizing nature,” insofar as the capitalist mode of production moves matter (raw materials, human life, etc.) around in order for capital to reproduce itself. It is, in this way, nearly a living system.
Now, you might say, “well if we stopped producing in this way, then this process would collapse.” And that’s completely right. But the same thing occurs in, say, mutualistic pollination networks in which certain animal species are specially evolved to pollinate specialized plant species.
In this article from 2011, the authors describe a close relationship between several bird species and the “New Zealand gloxinia, renowned for its brilliant orange flowers.” The gloxinia reproduces by using these bird species as pollinators, since they are specially evolved to eat the shrub’s nectar and transport its pollen. After the importation of invasive species (like house cats), the population of pollinator birds dropped significantly. As a result:
the flowering shrubs on the mainland produce smaller fruit and only 37 seeds per flower, compared with 232 seeds per flower for shrubs on the bird-friendly islands. Nearly 80 percent of flowers on the small islands showed evidence that birds had visited, whereas only 25 percent of mainland flowers did so. And although fully grown shrubs persist on the mainland in roughly similar numbers, there are less than half as many young plants sprouting up to replace them.
In other words, analogous to the effect of humans pulling out of the reproduction of commodity capitalism, when the pollinators stop pollinating, the plant’s process of reproduction completely collapses, killing it and any future iterations.
You might also object: “yes, but humans have the freedom to choose whether or not to stop producing this way, while the pollinators in question don’t.” This may very well be true, but it severely overestimates our capacity to influence large scale processes through an act of will. Even if it is the case that we could stop producing this way (if we wanted to), then we still have to consider the chances of this actually happening, which are slim to none. The sheer amount of international cooperation it would take under current conditions to cease global commodity production renders this possibility unthinkable. This mode of production is, at least in the short term, one that seems to be mutually beneficial to both capital and humanity. Like plants and pollinators, modern society has co-evolved with capital to the point that one cannot exist without the other. (As a side note, this isn’t to say that the current mode of production is right or just or good, only that there is a powerful analogy between biological systems and seemingly “anthropomorphic” or material systems like capitalism. This is also what Jason Moore means when he talks about our current geological epoch not as the ‘anthropocene,’ but the ‘capitalocene’)
Like Bennett, it seems to me that things that are otherwise than human can act purposively, and that non-“living” things (like capital) work more like those that are “living” than we give them credit for.4 With this model of matter in mind, we should return to this strange intimation I noted earlier about the gathering after the NCAA tournament which saw the mass not just as a gathering of people, but a gathering of smartphones.
* * *
Now, I don’t mean to say that this wasn’t a gathering of people, and I acknowledge that perhaps the most powerful factor in making this event occur was these people’s desire to be with one another after their team did what they thought to be extraordinary. Of course the phones weren’t actively egging the mob on, of course the phones couldn’t have gotten there without the human actors, of course this whole event could be explained without reference to the agency of inanimate objects.
But maybe that doesn’t actually tell the whole story. Allyce Najimy, senior associate director at the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University in Boston, notes that we already readily acknowledge that many non-human factors play into a sports gathering like this, factors such as “the adrenaline, the alcohol that's often being consumed.” These substances (which can also both be conceived of as having a sort of drive to be produced5) are as important to the coming-into-being of the celebration as the individual wills of the human participants. That is, this gathering would not have occurred in this way (or perhaps at all) if alcohol and adrenaline weren’t coursing through so many of these people’s bodies. Like these organic substances, the presence of smartphones also works alongside the actions of the human beings involved. People act differently in front of cameras, and act differently towards other people when they are on their phones, and in a mass of twelve thousand people, “the adrenaline, the alcohol” and the effects of phones can radically shift the already potent effect of what psychologist Rick Grieve calls “bracket morality.”
By “bracket morality,” Grieve means a whole host of effects that stem from the belief that “during a game athletes [and fans] will do things to win that they wouldn't necessarily do outside of the game.” He links this temporary morality to the strong, mentally beneficial effects of team identification, in which the thought “is akin to ‘I have a group of friends who are like me because we root for the same team—that gives me a network of valued connections.’” He doesn’t mean to denigrate this model of identity formation, but just to show how it is operative in a society where social relations are increasingly abstract and transient.
When the capacities of smartphones—with their highly evolved ability to convey shared experiences with a vast network of (strongly needed) social relations and render us highly visible—mixed with those of the other non-human elements (such as adrenaline and alcohol) on the evening of the championship, the imperative was clear: “pics or it didn’t happen.” In other words, bring your phone to take a video, take a picture, or stream the event, or else “nothing will have taken place except, perhaps, a constellation.” Photos prove to the subject that they participated in significant moments, and to their viewers that the moment was lit, and that they should have been there.
* * *
There’s a way that owning a smartphone has become almost necessary in our social relations. They fit a niche that was opened perhaps by the rapid acceleration of globalization and productive powers in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, and the accompanying loss of ground that nearly twenty years of global military conflict has effected on all parts of the globe. The way that they fit this niche so perfectly, and call for even more specialized applications and technology to keep pace with modern life, bears a striking resemblance to natural processes of specialization.
Like capital and certain flowers, smartphone technology couldn’t (at least for now) exist on its own, but it certainly carries a kind of drive to reproduce itself. Phone manufacturers facilitate this reproduction because it is financially beneficial to them (smartphone sale growth hovered around 4% all through last year, even as the rest of the economy grew at less than 2%) and we encourage this reproduction through our consumer habits to fit the niche described above. Like bees, who in the early cretaceous were lured into a coevolutionary journey by flowering plants, we seem to be currently involved with what we believe to be a mutually beneficial coexistence with our phones. Like these clever insects, who found out how to take full advantage of the resources they came upon, we take mobile and other technologies and allow them to grow, expand, become more precise, more effective. We are the pollinators of technology, and until we begin to think of it (in the form of smartphones, etc.) as having a real efficacy, a real active power in our world, we are only seeing a small fraction of our relations to the cosmos.
1) Darwin’s description of natural ‘selection’ in chapter 4 of On The Origin is an example of what I mean by ‘selection’
2) Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter. pg. 9
3) Bennett. pg. 29
4) One last objection should be considered here, before moving on, about how ‘natural’ pollination systems involve flowers that could conceivably evolve to reproduce without their pollinators after a period of natural selection, and how this isn’t the case with productive processes. Notice, however, that certain parts of the production process are already happening more automatically, governed by (exponentially) increasingly complex algorithms.
5) If you don’t think that alcohol, and marijuana, have something like intention in their reproductive strategies, consider checking out the chapter on intoxicants in Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire.