Against the New Vitalism.

Recent attempts to rehabilitate vitalism, despite claims to be radically ecological, are an example of how fascism re-appropriates the past in an attempt to colonise the future.

Words are material; they matter. Words are material that matter.1 “Words,” Virginia Woolf reminds us, are “stored with meanings, with memories.”2 Words are historical, and words are relational. Words are living, and words are alive. This is important.

Can we say, then, that texts, too, are living? What happens when a theorist—a person who looks at the world and wants to understand—records, with ink and tree-pulp, the ways in which moments in history begin to coalesce and flow together? In 1939 Walter Benjamin—German, Jewish, in exile—sat down to write about Baudelaire and Proust. A few months later, having been arrested whilst trying to escape to the US, Benjamin took morphine, preferring death to what awaited him in the concentration camps of occupied Europe. Perhaps inevitably, then, On Some Motifs in Baudelaire is in some ways an attempt to make sense of what Benjamin would call the now by reading, care-fully, the then. It is a text that bears witness; a text that looks back at what then was recent history and asks, how did we get here? So what do we do with a text like this, 80 years old; how do we respond to it—and how does it respond to us, and to the now of now? Karen Embry has argued beautifully that Benjamin’s texts are never quite finished; that he purposefully mobilises his final sentences in order to disrupt the sense of closure, of compartmentalisation, offering instead an openness—the ever now.3 In this way, Benjamin’s story is not complete, and never will be, for as long as we bear witness to his witnessing. Words are living, and words are alive.

And so, as he reflects on Baudelaire, Benjamin traces the ways in which fascism was seeded, and took root, and grew in the cultural imaginaries of Western Europe—for fascism, as we know, is a totalising force, asserting itself not only through outright physical violence, but through cultural and ideological shifts that work, ultimately, to pre-emptively justify the violence to come. One of the seeds Benjamin identifies is Lebensphilosophie (vitalism):4 both directly, in its “[making] common cause with Fascism,”5 and more broadly, through the ways in which it discounts any thinking of social relations in favour of “poetry, preferably nature, and… the age of myths.”6 The role of mythos and poetics in the construction of the Third Reich and other European fascisms has long been a field of study: Mark Antliff’s text Avant-Garde Fascism7 is a salutary example.8 And vitalism, too, dealt in mythopoiesis. György Lukács quotes Ludwig Klages, beloved by National Socialists, insisting that “the law of intellect secedes from the rhythm of cosmic life”.9 And then, later, you have Martin Heidegger, whose inaugural address as Rector of Freiburg University was delivered in 1933, 26 days after he joined the Nazi party. In the address, entitled ‘Die Selbstbehauptung der deutschen Universität’ (‘The Self-assertion of the German University’), Heidegger said:

Geist ist [ein] ursprünglich gestimmte, wissende Entschlossenheit zum Wesen des Seins. Und die geistige Welt eines Volkes ist nicht der Überbau einer Kultur, sowenig wie das Zeughaus für verwendbare Kenntnisse und Werte, sondern sie ist die Macht der tiefsten Bewahrung seiner erd- und bluthaften Kräfte als Macht der innersten Erregung und weitesten Erschütterung seines Daseins. Eine geistige Welt allein verbürgt dem Volke die Größe.

(Spirit is [an] originally-attuned, knowing adherence to the essence of beings. And the spiritual world of a people is not the superstructure of culture, any more than is the armoury of useful knowledge and values. Rather, it is the force of the deepest reserves of those earth- and blood-bound powers as the force of the innermost excitement and broadest shocks of the being of Being. A spiritual world alone can establish the authentic strength of the people.)

We can see, in this excerpt, an echo and a development of the mythopoetic ideas of Lebensphilosophie, coupled with an attempt to ‘radicalise’ Marxism: the positing of some deep, trans-temporal/ahistorical force or power that is more authentic, more real than the humanistic ‘superstructures’ of culture and knowledge resonates strongly with aspects of Klages; while the appropriation of Marxist terms (“superstructure”) works to trivialise social relations in the face of this authentic force. Even the direct location of this force as being bound by “earth and blood”—blood and soil—echoes the title of Klages’ 1913 text Man and Earth. As Peter Staudenmaier has pointed out, both Klages and Heidegger were foundational thinkers in the formation of “the ‘Green Wing’ of the Nazi Party”, and thus are also crucial to understanding what he calls “actually existing ecofascism”—those strains of environmental thought that represent “ideological continuities and… political genealogies” connecting the history of fascism to “the present social and ecological crisis.” We might note, as well, the ways in which, historically, Europe sounds the call to authenticity, and settler-colonial North America takes it up as a project of world-making, not only through state mechanisms, but through cultural ones, too. See, for example, the ways in which the US ‘farm-to-table’ restaurant movement10 works to reinforce John Locke’s colonial proclamation that, in “mixing their labour with” the land, white settlers “thereby [make] it [their] property;” and how, relatedly, popular commercial DNA testing uses the language of science to assuage settler guilt and help them re-assert their ‘rights’ to the land they occupy.This world-making project sediments into a sort of Eurocentric onto-epistemology—a way of knowing and being—that informs and underpins US cultural activity, including on the left; this then reproduces itself in British discourse, both through US hegemony and through our own deep imbrication in the settler-colonial project. We have no choice but to respond.

Given these continuities and genealogies, what might it mean to ‘resurrect’ vitalism, in 2019? On New Year’s Day, Commune, a putatively “revolutionary” US magazine, published a self-proclaimed ‘manifesto’. Entitled ‘Life Finds A Way’, the piece purports to be written by a group called the Vitalist International. Locating itself, despite its claims to internationalism, firmly within the cultural mythos of White Occupied America (the positing of a 200 year old “era of revolutions”; the casual appropriation of the Lakota resistance maxim mni wiconi as simply one in a continuous line of ready-to-consume “slogans”), the piece names itself “a provocation”. Another recent, Britain-focused piece of aestheticised politics which styled itself as a ‘provocation’ was Paul Kingsnorth’s ecofascist clarion call ‘Elysium Found’, now erased from the internet. (See the radical collective Out of the Woods and Joe Kennedy’s piece for New Socialist for incisive critiques of Kingsnorth’s thought.) Both fail to answer the fundamental question to which all political manifestos must respond: a provocation towards what?

The answer—or non-answer, as we might more accurately refer to it—lies in the group’s name: in their deployment of vitalism, they appeal precisely to the apolitical, anti-cultural, ahistorical strains of thought previously enunciated by Klages and Heidegger. Locating this new vitalism conceptually “between the Olympics and the counterculture”, and physically “in the woods, at punk shows, at the beach, in dance parties, in the black bloc,” the centrality of particular kinds of life should be plain. One might consider who can’t be at these dance parties, be in these black blocs, these circle pits, these woodsy retreats? Who has access to these things—and who doesn’t? Whom, we could ask, is missing from this picture? The possible responses are many: the elderly, children; those with caring responsibilities, with physical or other disabilities; those who can’t risk putting themselves into the hands of racist, murderous police; those who cannot access transport in order to get to the woods or to the protest; those for whom the violence of the black bloc or the punk show threatens to reactivate old traumas—and, without doubt, so many more.

One might also wonder, in the context of North America—and echoing Indigenous critiques of the Occupy movement—on whose territories all of these dance parties and woodland utopias are occurring, and whether or not the vitalists would hold that such considerations represent a “numbing” and unwelcome intrusion of humanism, of culture, of history. Taken together, the whole thing adds up to a flattening philosophy that, in refusing to acknowledge that social relations are a part of relational thinking, tends towards a sort of cult of youth, of health, of bodily power; one that implicitly upholds and supports only the “correct” bodies, those bodies that are compliant with the demands of capital, and thus do not interrupt the smooth flow of the vitalist ideology.12 The vitalists talk about “the human body,” as though the human body is only one thing. They talk about “the depravity of the desert,” as though the desert can, itself, be morally corrupt. They take, or claim to take, a position on life wherein the central settler-subject is figured as the giver of that life, breathing it into things. They talk, repeatedly, about the “certainty of experience”, the “reception of death against the privation of finitude”, the “struggle of life” in which “finitude is the precondition of… power”. And what is this if not the Heideggerian being-towards-death, the self-overcoming of the Nietzschean Übermensch—the fin de siècle notion of individual heroism and transcendent violence? (It is notable, given Georges Sorel’s proto-anarchofascist insistence on violence as something creative and transformative,13 that the manifesto enjoins us to “share vitalist experiments—whether by way of plagiarism, mail, scandal, or a fist fight.”)

There’s a flattening here, then—but there is also a misanthropy. What does it mean to denounce humanism en bloc as “catastrophic” (as certain neo-vitalists did in response to my initial critique of this manifesto on Twitter), as though humans are entirely undifferentiated by the distribution and consumption of resources and “cheap nature”? What does it mean to disavow the human in an age where many, still, have to fight to be fully recognised as such? (It was, let’s not forget, as recent as 1992 when Australian courts overturned the doctrine of terra nullius, which had stated that the Australian continent was effectively un-peopled prior to European colonisation.) What does it mean to summarily dismiss a humanist tradition that includes such liberatory thinkers as Paolo Freire, Aimé Césaire, and Es’kia Mphahlele? What does it mean to publish a manifesto littered with sneering references to modernity and mediation—“screens loom[ing] large”—in, perhaps, what Benjamin would have called an attempt “to lay hold of the ‘true’ experience as opposed to the kind that manifests itself in the standardised, denatured life of the civilised masses”?14 What does it mean to take ordinary life—the plurivocal, ordinary, everyday activities of people—as an object of derision, a subject of reaction? How can one claim to have constructed an innovative and radical left politic on these stale, exclusionary bases? And what can it mean to do all this from a position of performative ‘immediacy’, wilful ignorance? Even Heidegger, that quintessential ecological anti-humanist, positioned his critique of humanist thought firmly within a critical tradition, demonstrating (like Jacques Derrida after him) the ways in which the objectives of philosophy are perpetually undermined, circumvented, and hindered by the very processes of doing philosophy. And later, the French thinker Gilles Deleuze would playfully problematise the philosophical boundaries between the schools of ‘vitalism’ and ‘empiricism’, dismantling the binary and showing how things are constituted by the fundamental interplay of difference and repetition, the movement of the virtual to the actual, the continual and conditioned processes of differentiation and individuation according to specific contexts.15 Critical context, then, is crucial when we are handling concepts with real histories and material impacts. If we are going to think ecologically, we must also attend to ecologies of ideas: what do they do? What are their consequences, their functions? How are they mobilised, and towards what? What possibilities do they open up, and what do they close down? Approached without this attention, an accidental ecofascism is all too possible.

An example of this slippage in practice can be found in the overlapping fields of Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO) and ‘vital-‘ or ‘new materialism’. Take for example this unfortunate passage from Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter:

… that June morning, thing-power rose from a pile of trash. Not Flower Power or Black Power or Girl Power, but Thing-Power: the curious ability of inanimate things to animate, to act, to produce effects dramatic and subtle.16

This assertion, which works to belittle and diminish both feminist and Black liberatory movements, and which goes so far as to (apparently unfavourably) compare Black people with “things,” is an example of what Nikki Sullivan has called “white optics”.17 ‘New materialism’, Sullivan argues, wants to claim that it offers us a means of thinking becoming as “always-already inter-/intra-relational,”18 whilst failing to note—or, perhaps, to realise—that it “functions in and through the rearticulation of a culture/matter split.”19 Ultimately, as Sullivan observes, the ‘new materialism’ relies on the “appropriation of both the (bad) feminist other [or Black, or any other so-called ‘cultural’ identity that resists the flattening binary of human/nonhuman], and the (good) non- human other” as a means of ordering and classifying the world towards certain ends20—a process that, as Flavia Dzodan has noted, serves and re-asserts colonial power. White optics indeed: a line of thought that creates a flattened image of the monolithic ‘human’, and then works to performatively disavow it. Humanity, in these discourses, is always the white settler-subject: the consumer, the polluter, the extractor; the creator of an ‘inauthentic’ culture that is both reviled and mobilised by those doing the reviling. Attempting to escape this contradiction, vitalists and new materialists alike must posit a more authentic realm of individual entities that, in their withdrawnness, resist the relational assimilation of culture. It is not in their interest to consider differences within the category of ‘human’. In a Heideggerian move, social relations are trivial, irrelevant: what matters (what is material) are categories of being.

We can find similar implications in the work of Graham Harman, the innovator of OOO, who has been keen to “defend… individual entities” from the threat of assimilation posed by process-relational philosophies,21 calling for “a renewed philosophy of self-contained entities.”22 As I have written elsewhere,23 OOO has to posit this self-containedness in order to account for the difference of things, but, in so doing, it is incapable of offering any deep account of relationality. Relations, for Harman, are necessarily assimilative, a threat to individual identities. This is, perhaps accidentally, extremely close to fascist critiques of multiculturalism, which insist that all difference will necessarily be flattened or threatened by any relational proximity. What does it mean for Harman, like Bennett, and like our neo-vitalists, to rely on this undifferentiated notion of the ‘human’? What are the politics implicit in the assertion that individual actors, rather than collective or cultural activity, are what is material, what matters? What kind of power is Bennett’s thing-power, and what does it mean that she posits it, in its elevation of bottle-caps and so on, as adjacent, perhaps even superior to Black Power? Is this racism, or a failure of care? Does this distinction even matter, on the plane of the material? Words matter; words are historical, relational. Words have consequences. And the ‘new materialist’ depiction of a central (seemingly human) subject, defining and limiting all entities solely by its relation to them, echoes, profoundly, the neo-vitalist position. Combine this with the ersatz-Nietzschean angry-young-man positing of a certain reactionary anti-culture (“punk shows… dance parties… the black bloc”) in which the vitalists inhere, at the specific exclusion of others, and we have the makings of a philosophy that strives to overcome its own humanity; to become vital; that valorised, authentic, non-human other, powering the flows of life and of history.

Vital, meaning ‘alive’. Vital, meaning ‘essential’. Vital, meaning ‘all-important’.

There is revolutionary potential, undoubtedly, in the aliveness of things. As a leftist, an ecologist, and as a process-relational philosopher, I am committed to this. But the vitalist notion of the central philosopher-subject, breathing life into things by recognising their aliveness, in a sort of Lockean gesture of alienating ownership, actually closes off this revolutionary potential by reducing all things to facets of “experience”. I want to suggest, instead, that we emerge into not a compartmentalised world of spuriously defined, albeit ‘vibrant’ or ‘vital’, matter orbiting a perceiving subject, but a rich, dynamic, and decentralised world in which all things, human and otherwise, are actively participant in multiple relations, none of which serve to diminish, limit, or exhaust potentiality. It is understandable to want to step outside of Enlightenment conceptions of reason and its limiting notions of ‘the human’, but we have to be aware that this has also, historically, been an aim of fascism. We can only temper this by an awareness that we Europeans, we colonisers, settlers, self-elevated neutral subjects—we cannot now, having made a dreadful mess of things, decide to extricate ourselves from humanity; rather, the challenge is, as Césaire has said, “to live a true humanism—a humanism made to the measure of the world.

What would it take to respond to Césaire’s challenge? Rather than appealing to, and rejecting, some flattened Enlightenment definition of human being, we could try to learn from cultures where the Enlightenment, though violent, never quite took such a totalising hold. A serious, sincere, respectful, and deep engagement with Indigenous philosophies,24 one that goes beyond the appropriative ‘development’ of ‘protest slogans’, might offer Western thinkers and radicals ways of getting beyond Enlightenment worldviews without having to repurpose tired and tainted lines of thought that are, ultimately, useful to the very politics of supremacy we claim to stand against. Rather than following the colonial impulse to innovate, to ‘break new ground,’ to taxonomically classify everything, even our forms of resistance, with insistent labels, we could listen, we could de-centre ourselves: we could learn. As Zoe Todd has observed, too many of the Eurosphere’s revelatory “aha moments” are simply European articulations of “what many an Indigenous thinker around the world could have told you for millennia.”25 The ‘new ground’ the vitalists claim is not new at all. It is, as we have seen, ground in which actually existing fascism is rooted—ground which is not unspoilt, but is itself a construct, an attempt to retcon some sort of pre-Enlightenment way of knowing out of Romantic and Idealist principles. Fascism has always re-appropriated the past in its attempt to colonise the future. The ‘Vitalist Manifesto’ is, sadly, just one among many of these colonising gestures.

In a coming Political Ecologies piece, I will write more about how my formulation of a ‘process Marxism’ might offer us a specifically leftist way to think through some of these issues without appropriation, and without assimilation or individualism—a way, that is, to think aliveness without vitality. For now, though, let me close—but, like Benjamin, not finish or complete—by stating, again that words are historical, material, relational. They are how we connect and cohere; they are our inheritance and our legacy. They matter. We should use them carefully.

  1. Josie Michelle, Wilful Love (On creating a feminist ethic of love in a patriarchal culture of abuse.), unpublished MA thesis, Centre for Women’s Studies, University of York, 2017, p.22 

  2. Virginia Woolf, ‘Craftsmanship’, in The Death of the Moth and Other Essays (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1961), p.174 

  3. Karen Embry, ‘Late Sentences, Last Words: How Benjamin’s Texts End’, in Symposium, Vol. 65, No. 1, 44–62, 2011 

  4. Lebensphilosophie is a German word that, like so many words, is difficult to translate; literally, it means ‘philosophy of life’; my choice of ‘vitalism’ represents a more situated translation into not just English, but the context of Anglophone philosophy. 

  5. Walter Benjamin, ‘On Some Motifs in Baudelaire’, in Illuminations, translated by Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken, 2007), p.243 

  6. ibid. p.243 

  7. Mark Antliff, Avant-Garde Fascism: The Mobilization of Myth, Art, and Culture in France, 1909–1939 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007) 

  8. See also: Zeev Sternhell, The Birth of Fascist Ideology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994); Mark Neocleous, ‘Long live death! Fascism, resurrection, immortality’, in Journal of Political Ideologies, 10:1 (2005), 31-49 

  9. György Lukacs, Peter Palmer (trans.), The Destruction of Reason (London: Merlin Press, 1981), pp.523-4 

  10. This is an excellent piece that engages broadly with what it means to operate a prestigious restaurant on occupied and deeply unequal territory: “Whose land is this? Who’s invited? Who can afford to eat here?” 

  11. John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, 1698, §25-28 

  12. It was notable that, when I critiqued this article on Twitter, many of the dissenting responses I received used metaphors of bodily weakness or decrepitude: “anaemic”, “weak”, “dusty”… 

  13. See Ishay Landa, The Apprentice’s Sorcerer: Liberal Tradition and Fascism (Boston: Brill, 2010), p. 208; Zeev Sternhell, ‘The Anti-Materialist Revision of Marxism as an Aspect of the Rise of Fascist Ideology’, in Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 22, No. 3 (Jul., 1987), pp. 379-400 

  14. Benjamin, p.242 

  15. See Gilles Deleuze, Paul Patton (trans.), Difference and Repetition (London: Continuum, 2004) 

  16. Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), p.6 

  17. Nikki Sullivan, ‘The somatechnics of perception and the matter of the non/human: A critical response to the new materialism’, in European Journal of Women’s Studies 19(3), 2012, pp. 299–313, p.303 

  18. ibid. p.310 

  19. ibid. 

  20. ibid. 

  21. Graham Harman, ‘Whitehead and Schools X, Y, and Z’, in Nicholas Gaskill and Nocek, A.J. (eds), The Lure of Whitehead (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), pp. 231 - 248, p. 232 

  22. ibid. p.246 

  23. Josie Michelle, Constant Inconstance: Towards an account of the metaxú in process-relational philosophy, unpublished MA(Hons) dissertation, University of Dundee: 2015, pp.13-6 

  24. For a few examples among many, see: David C Posthumus, All My Relatives: Exploring Lakota Ontology, Belief, and Ritual (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2018); the work of Zoe Todd; Carl Mika, Indigenous Education and the Metaphysics of Presence: A Worlded Philosophy (London: Routledge, 2017). 

  25. Zoe Todd, ‘An Indigenous Feminist’s Take On The Ontological Turn: ‘Ontology’ Is Just Another Word For Colonialism’, in Journal of Historical Sociology Vol. 29 No. 1, March 2016, pp.4-22