Jane Bennett is careful to distinguish her notion of “thing-power” from Hent de Vries’s “the absolute” (3). She acknowledges their apparent similarity (both concern liberating things from objectivity), but insists that “thing-power” departs from “the absolute” in a fundamental way: it does not privilege “intelligibility” (3). “The absolute” is a rare liberation from objectivity that depends on the limits of intelligence (the thing’s being beyond the confinement of subject’s intelligent grasp). De Vries’s notion of “the absolute” triumphs the occasional thing, but consistently “give[s] priority to humans as knowing bodies” (for their intelligence, or perhaps its limits, decides who escapes objectivity) (3). Bennett’s particular word choice, “priority,” suggests the hierarchal order of human and non-human, intelligent and unintelligent, things.
This hierarchy, or its criterion, was a source of contention just a few weeks ago in Michael Berube’s lecture at the College of Charleston, “Life as Jamie Knows It.” Berube voiced his discontent with cognitive intelligence as the criterion for value judgments. He cited the tactics of the early animal rights movement, which used such standards (if only for demonstrative purposes) to value gifted animals over mentally disabled humans. Such a maneuver just tantalizes anthropocentrics (Humans must always reign superior! But what makes them superior, if not their intelligence?). Bennett’s “thing-power” discourages such hierarchies by using a different criterion for value judgments: “conatus” (the indiscriminate empowerment of being). The universality of Bennett’s criterion ensures that “the status of the shared materiality of all things is elevated” (13). Could it be that materialists “distribute value more generously” than humanists (13)?