A brief inventory of the scope of Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things is enough to make any skeptic of academia rife with bemused questions of rationale. Dead rats, creative worms, and the overlooked agency of Pop-tarts? What’s next, this skeptic might wonder, a political ecology of dryer lint and toenails? Despite my willingness to drink this particular brand of Kool-Aid, I’ll admit that Bennett does indeed make sweeping, bold claims, among them the concluding credo that “encounters with lively matter can chasten [our] fantasies of human mastery, highlight the common materiality of all that is, expose a wider distribution of agency, and reshape the self and its interests.” For Bennett, a belief in the vibrancy of matter is a political act and no mere intellectual exercise; its potential for application outside of disciplinary constraints—indeed, outside of the classroom or university altogether—abounds. What is missing from her brief study of “thing-power” is just this application, as she notes “that more needs to be said to specify the normative implications of a vital materialism in specific contexts.” Literature, it seems to me, is just one such context that deserves this unique type of study.
The Book of John Mandeville, a fantastical travel narrative written around 1350, is full of vibrant matters and questions of agenic capacities. Interestingly enough, the thematic commonalities between The Book of John Mandeville and Bennett’s Vibrant Matter don’t end there. Like Vibrant Matter, The Book of John Mandeville, as Iain Macleod Higgins notes in his introduction, is at times boring, insightful, iconoclastic, and tedious. With its lack of plot, meandering narratives, and bouts of biblical cataloguing, it’s sure to disappoint the most sophisticated of casual readers. However, its lack of conventionality can be rewritten as a strength: Not only do its seemingly non-sequitorial episodes beg for critical attention, its patchwork-like qualities make the text itself an example of the type of nonlinear assemblage Bennett describes in her chapter on “Edible Matter.”
The true diamond that the Mandeville author describes as growing “without any shaping of a human hand” possesses a more life-like appearance than do traditional inanimate objects. These “good diamonds… grow together male and female,” feed, and reproduce. A true diamond can also provide aid to its human counterparts, giving “to its bearer boldness and high spirits” as well as an immunity to “bad dreams and fantasies and [the] illusion of evil spirits.” However, it is important to note that the pure capacity of the diamonds in and of themselves is paramount to the Mandeville author. Not only does the author mention these properties first, he makes a point of stressing their independence from humankind. Giving the diamonds these properties of life opens the door to a different relationship to animate and inanimate, and the type of anthropomorphism that can, as Jane Bennett notes, “counter the narcissism of humans in charge of the world.” Perhaps it is not only possible to view these diamonds as growing “without any shaping of a human hand” but also as beings with their own agendas, goals, and desires.
A similarly unique landscape flourishing without the intervention of humankind presents itself later in the text as the narrator discusses a dangerous sea in Prester John’s land. This sea comprised of “adamant stone” with the “property of drawing iron to it” expresses Jane Bennett’s notion of “matter as an active principle” and “not so brute after all.” Moreover, this place wherein “the decay that was in the ships grows the great abundance of these shrubs and thorns and brambles and grass” represents the vital materialist belief in “one matter-energy” inhabiting human and nonhuman bodies alike. As if to spite their manmade existence, these ships return to their primordial matter and there erupt the strange fruit of decay.
As we are continually reminded by reading such pre-modern texts, the medieval treatment of the written word allows for much more variegation than our current concept of literature allows. This “active recombination” of words, ideas, fables, and genres that Higgins describes in his introduction to The Books of John Mandeville makes it an ideal source of vibrant matter in form as well as content. Perhaps alongside looking at the vibrant matter of “things” in this text, we can also see the text itself like a nonlinear assemblage wherein the impact of the various authors, influences, ideology, historical context, and whims of the parchment and quill “cannot be grasped at a glance.” It seems to me that there could be no “specific context” better suited to the study of matter and assemblage than this.