Ten Questions to Jane Bennett
Egill Sæbjörnsson

Drawing by Egill Sæbjörnsson

1. Egill Sæbjörnsson: Can we say that art is its own species, which might have co-existed with human-kind just like the dog was bred from the wolf?

Jane Bennett: I like the idea of art as a species, or, even better, art as a “vital force” that joins up with different earthly bodies at different times and places. So, art would have an existence that retains a moment of independence from the artist. Art as a force that sometimes joins up with the “creative genius” of, say, a da Vinci, but other times with the striped bodies of zebras, or the graceful curve of a plant stem as it reaches for the sun, or the striated layers of granite.

It’s also interesting to note that some people today challenge the idea that humans domesticated the wolf to produce the dog. They contend instead that it was the wolf, hanging around human garbage sites, who altered his/her own behavior (pace, taste) to become-dog. Some of these dogs liked to herd and thus helped to make possible a human economy of livestock. Based on this view, it was the wolf-dog that induced the human-animal to settle down and become agricultural. I suppose one could say, analogously, that art lured the artist into being.

 
2. Is art older than art history indicates? Is there art without humankind? Are worms artists? Are minerals artists?

The question “Are worms (or minerals) artists?” loses some of its sense once art is understood to be a lively, active force in the world, rather than a technique or talent of humans exclusively.  If art is defined primarily as a means to human ends or an expression of human selves (or not only those things), then it's more apt to say that worms and minerals and people can sometimes be co-actants with the force of art.
 

3. Could it be that art is partly controlling humans? Is the oil on the canvas controlling the artist just as much as the artist is controlling the oil?

Yes, it seems clear that when different combinations of materialities engage with each other (the oil, the artist-body, the canvas, the movements and sounds of each, etc.) the agency is distributed across the assemblage that forms. No one element is in "control," or if it is, it does not reign for long. I don’t know if the oil exerts more or less power over the resultant “work of art” than the artist does. It’s probably impossible to discern exactly the distribution of agency at work in any given instance. But it seems most reasonable to identify the collective, the assemblage, as the real locus of agency, rather than any individuated element therein.

 

4. Do you believe that our mind is not in the brain but extended to our whole body and perhaps to a certain extent into the whole body of the universe?                  

The question of the extensity (spatial boundary) of “mind” is an extraordinarily complicated one! I don’t think plants or artifacts have self-consciousness, though their materials may very well engage in internal feedback loops and intra-species forms of communication. There was just a New York Times piece on April 28, 2012 describing how “a pea plant subjected to drought conditions communicated its stress to other such plants, with which it shared its soil. In other words, through the roots, it relayed to its neighbors the biochemical message about the onset of drought, prompting them to react as though they, too, were in a similar predicament.”1

I am intrigued also by the direction that the theoretical archaeologist Lambros Malafouris is pursuing. In his article “Between brains, bodies and things: tectonoetic awareness and the extended self,” Malafouris focuses “on the complex interactions between brains, bodies and things,” and, drawing together “threads of evidence from archaeology, philosophy and neuroscience,” he presents “a view of selfhood as an extended and distributed phenomenon that is enacted across the skin barrier and which thus comprises both neural and extra-neural resources.”2 In another paper, he again argues that “contrary to what classical cognitive science believes and cognitive archaeology often implicitly reiterates, what is outside the head may not necessarily be outside the mind.”3

 

5. Is humankind one body, like the body of an individual is a housing complex for many dependent individuals called cells and bacterias?

I don’t tend to think of humanity as a single body or mega-organism; the image of a swarm of human-nonhuman assemblages (with variegated textures and powers and durations) works better to capture the messiness of things.

 

6. How do stones talk or—let’s say—express themselves?

Like me, a stone expresses itself by its characteristic pace, its distinctive shape and texture, and by the idiosyncratic or historically contingent ways it affects and is affected by other bodies. A stone's pace of change and movement is usually (except when it falls off a cliff and instantly smashes into bits) slower than that of a human body.  Stones can express themselves also by hitching their wagon (or allowing themselves to be hitched) to other bodies, like that of Egill Sæbjörnsson and his video projectors.

 

7. If one stone falls from a mountain top and hits another one on the head, is that communication?

Yes, I can see some good reasons to count it as a nonlinguistic form of communication—that designation would focus people's attention on the materiality of communication.

 

8. Given that everything on Earth comes out of magma, or that living creatures descend from inanimate materials, are humans walking and talking stones?

Yes.

 

9. Have stones affected the development of humans? How are they an important part of present-day life?

There was a whole age named after stones. Stones are slow and smooth and can fit nicely into human hands. People still get stoned, for good and ill.

 
10. What is intuition?

Perhaps intuition is one of the names we give to that peculiar mode of transmission between bodies, which can't be explained through any model that natural science currently offers.  If we think of that transmission as a communicative current that flows between bodies qua bodies, then "intuition" would name an individual human body's experience of that flow. The American poet Walt Whitman referred to this as an "electric swiftness" or "sympathy" between bodies; he meant to draw attention to the propensities or inclinations that some materials have for others.  In the Preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, he writes: "What is marvellous?  What is unlikely?  What is impossible or baseless or vague—after you have once just open'd the space of a peach-pit, and given audience to far and near, and to the sunset, and had all things enter with electric swiftness ...?"4

This interview was reprinted from STONES according to Egill Sæbjörnsson (2012) with permission of the authors

Author Bios:

Jane Bennett is professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University. She is one of the founders of the journal Theory & Event, and is currently the editor of Political Theory: An International Journal of Political Philosophy.  Professor Bennett specializes in political theory: ecological philosophy, American political thought, political rhetoric and persuasion, and contemporary social theory. She has been a Fellow at Oxford University (Keble College), Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities (University of London), and the Humanities Research Centre at Australian National University.

Her recent essays have appeared in Grain/Vapor/Ray (Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, 2014), A Feeling for ThingsConversations On and Around the Work of Jane Bennett (eds. Baraitser ad O'Rourke, Punctum Press, 2015), Evental Aesthetics (special issue on Vital Materialism), and The Nonhuman Turn (ed. Grusin, Minnesota Press 2015). She is the author ofVibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Duke, 2010); The Enchantment of Modern Life (Princeton 2001); Thoreau's Nature (Rowman Littlefield, 1994), and Unthinking Faith and Enlightenment, (NYU 1987).  She is currently working on a study of Walt Whitman and the political implications of his invocation of a network of personal, natural, and cosmic “sympathies." 

Egill Sæbjörnsson is a visual artist and musician born 1973 in Reykjavik. He has lived and worked in Berlin since 1999, and since 2007 also works in Rio de Janeiro. Sæbjörnsson’s installations, performances and music pieces have been shown at many acclaimed institutions such as The Museum for Contemporary Art at The Hamburger Bahnhof Berlin, Frankfurter Kunstverein, Kölnischer Kunstverein, Baryshnikov Art Center New York, PS1 MoMA, New York, Kiasma Helsinki, Museum of Contemporary Art Sydney, i8 Gallery Reykjavik, Hopstreet Brussels, Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin, Johann König, Berlin. In 2010 he was nominated for the Carnegie Art Awards.

Sæbjörnsson’s installations and performances often consist of animation- and video-projections onto daily objects, sculptural elements or the artist himself.  All artworks are descriptions or drawings/photographs of something in the world. Simultaneously they are a new independent part of the world, an extension. Sæbjörnsson sees art as a species walking with humans. Culture and nature has been united as inseparable phenomenons. Recently he has focused on the relationship between evolution and creativity, seeing creativity as an essential/unavoidable part of life. Creativity and the world within art—being that in films, poetry, music or even science—is a space that is free to everyone. It is like a gigantic “internet” accessible to everyone, and that has connected all humans as far back as can be seen.


Endnotes:

1 Marder, Michael. “If Pease Can Talk, Should We Eat Them?”, The New York Times 28.04.2012, New York, 2012

2 Malafouris, Lambros. “Between brains, bodies and things: tectonoetic awareness and the extended self,” Biological Sciences vol.363 no.1499, 12 June 2008, p. 1993.

3 Malafouris, Lambros. “Knapping intentions and the marks of the mental,” in The cognitive life of things: recasting the boundaries of the mind, Cambridge 2010, p. 15.

4 Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass and Other Writings, preface to the 1855 Edition, edited by Michael Moon, Norton Critical Edition, New York 2002, p. 621.