Why Vibrant Matter Might Matter to a Designer

Image: Ed Yourdon, https://farm8.staticflickr.com/7158/6627984187_44b61a283b_b.jpg

Image: Ed Yourdon, https://farm8.staticflickr.com/7158/6627984187_44b61a283b_b.jpg

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MAIM Course Director Dr. Jamie Brassett shares some thoughts and possibilities on how Jane Bennett’s book ‘Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things’ might relate to design practice, touching upon arguments of Form following Function to emergent and experimental/experiential activities.

I’m in the middle of reading Jane Bennett’s (2010) book Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Duke UP). A colleague remarked that she’d read and enjoyed it, but failed to see how she as a designer might do anything with it. While I recognised her being provocative I rose to the challenge and after a little thought came up with the two following possibilities…


(1) A Rejection of Hylomorphism

Gilbert Simondon, philosopher of technology, raged against hylomorphism; as have many others. Hylomorphism is the doctrine of matter as inert, lumpen that can only be if someone with a nonmaterial, vital force forms it into things. Simondon found this everyday version of the divine right of kings to be problematic. When the exceptionalism of humans is rejected, and creative life is shown to be an emergent property of all matter in relationship to itself under different conditions, then it has to be recognised that other things (animals, insects, ant hills, traffic jams, coal seams, electricity grids, and so on) will have their emergent vitality too. In Bennett’s words, all matter is vibrant.


With the rejection of the hierarchical power over matter – the Earth, earth, all the creatures and stuff therein and without – given to Man (by God) & exercised in the act of actively forming inert matter, comes the need to conduct design differently. Designing is no longer the earthly form of a divine forming of inert matter. Form and Function are no longer the guiding principles of designing: however one organises which one follows or leads the other. The vibrancy of matter, its tendency to express its agency & its self-organising abilities as a distributed emergence, means that designing becomes a new practice. Designing becomes an activity that participates in the flow of matter-energy, feels how this flow, these flows are rippling and attracts, diverts or combines (repels, blocks or dissolves) them into different things. As such designing becomes an ethics (or ethology). Designers make interventions in the living material relationships of things as they develop their becoming. These relationships between things, of matter, are also that which constructs designers, and us all. What we (might) become, and what everything (might) become is what designing deals with everyday.


(2) “Never interpret: experience, experiment!” (Deleuze)

The emphasis of a non-hylomorphic, emergent designing highlights it as a vibrant, materialist process. This also removes the shackles of problem solving from the processes of designing. Outside of the constraints of a model (of Form Following Function, or whatever), or of transcendent principles and positions (A God-like Designer Forming Matter), we have to find our constraints for designing elsewhere. In the rethinking of matter-life-energy redistribution that Bennett provides is a different way of constraining creativity. (A constraint-free creative process is chaotic dissolution.) The constraints are generated through the acts of creativity themselves; rules emerge from the activities; and the activities change the rules. This is at once liberatory and vertiginous in the becoming-infinite of possibilities that come up. It should make of designing a much more experimental, experiential activity, less programmatic or tethered.


When designing becomes vectorial (launched from a point and defining its own operational space) rather than teleological (aimed at a problem-space in order to find a solution) it is the material reality of the specific milieu that drives the possibilities of forming, functioning and material choice. Experiment & experience should be the watchwords of all creativity.


I emailed my colleague these thoughts on my way home that evening. There may be more & if there are I’ll share them. She hasn’t yet got back to me, but I’m hoping she will.




Bennett, J. (2010) Vibrant Matter. A Political Ecology of Things, Durham & London, Duke University Press


Crawford, H. (2015 forthcoming) Thinking Hot: Gilles Deleuze, Lars Spuybroek and Non-Human Design, in Betti Marenko and Jamie Brassett (eds.) Deleuze and Design, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press


Deleuze, G. (1995) Breaking Things Open Breaking Words Open, in Negotiations 1972-1990, New York, Columbia University Press, pp.83-93


Hayward, M. & Geoghegan, B.D. (2013) Introduction: Catching Up With Simondon, in SubStance, vol.41 no.3 (issue 129), pp.3-15


Simondon, G. (1992) The Genesis of the Individual, in Jonathan Crary and Sanford Kwinter (eds.), Incorporations, New York, Zone Books, pp.297-319