I had thought that the point of political theory is to reflect on and improve real-world politics. This book presents political theory as something to be hung in a Tribeca loft and made the subject of bon mots - preferably borrowed from French literary theorists.
I was moved to read the book in the context of the March 2011 tsunami that struck the northern coast of Japan. I myself saw the devastation there during a subsequent visit, and, like many people here, have been wondering about what new direction Japan might take in light of it. A passage in the author's (JB's) preface looked promising: "Because politics is itself often construed as an exclusively human domain ... I will emphasize, even overemphasize the agentic contributions of nonhuman forces ... in an attempt to counter the narcissistic reflex of human language and thought. We need to cultivate a bit of anthropomorphism - the idea that human agency has some echoes in nonhuman nature - to counter the narcissism of humans in charge of the world" (@xvi).
This turned out to be the last page I flagged. Later on, JB asks exactly the question I had in mind: "What would happen to our thinking abut nature if we experienced materialities as actants [a term JB borrows from Bruno Latour, whose characteristic will-to-cleverness seems to inspire JB throughout], and how would the direction of public policy shift if it attended more carefully to their trajectories and powers?" (@62). The failure of the book is that no attempt is made to answer this second question.
As a philosophical rumination, the book does venture into some interesting territory. JB's discussion of a Kafka story I didn't know, "Cares of a Family Man" (Ch. 1) was surprising and delightful, and her analysis of the vitalisms of Henri Bersgon and Hans Driesch (Ch. 5) reminds the reader about forgotten theories that apparently were very popular in early 20th century America. Chapter 7 does contain some actual discussion of political theory, focusing on John Dewey and Jacques Rancière. But the closest JB comes to an application of her theme is to ask "what if" Rancière's theory of democracy as the "power [of people, who speak and deliberate] to disrupt" were opened up to include non-human and even inanimate agencies (a suggestion Rancière himself has negatived) (@106-108). Again, intriguing question - but no attempt made to answer it.
Unfortunately, these tidbits are embedded in a jargon-filled exposition that is constantly quoting French theorists like Latour, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, or else JB's Johns Hopkins colleague William Connolly, among a multitude of others. Even her discussion of Spinoza relies as much on interpretations of him by Deleuze and others as on her own. When she follows, throughout, D&G in using the word "assemblage" to refer to a mélange of animate beings, inanimate objects and materials, and reified abstractions (e.g. @ 25), it brings to mind the term's more usual context: a sticker on an art gallery wall. (Betraying a preference for literary theory over literature, JB ignores mid-20th Century French poet Francis Ponge, most famous for his many prose poems about the "vibrant" properties of things -- « Le savon [Soap] », « Le parti pris des choses [The Bias of Things] », etc. One might have expected more sympathy for such "bias," not only because of JB's Francophilia but since she herself is actually a "Chair," albeit of the Political Science Department at Johns Hopkins University.)
I suspect many fans of this book would have fallen for the Sokal Hoax. While I support the notion one needn't have a Ph.D. in science to be qualified to comment on science, this book is full of the loopy sorts of references that physicist Alan Sokal sneaked into a literary theory journal whose editors thought him serious. One example is a Deleuze quote referring to "two equally actual powers, that of acting, and that of suffering action, which vary inversely one to the other, but whose sum is both constant and constantly effective" (@21): work that out with a little high school calculus and you'll find that neither "power" can vary at all. Elsewhere she credits Deleuze & Guattari, in a work first published in France in 1980, with "anticipating more recent work in contemporary complexity theory, posit[ing] a mode of becoming that is both material and creative, rather than mechanical and equilibrium maintaining" (@60) To the extent this description can be connected to "contemporary complexity theory," only a time warp could allow a 1980 book to "anticipate" work in nonequilibrium thermodynamics done in the 1950s by the Belgium-based Nobelist Ilya Prigogine (unmentioned in this book). [POSTSCRIPT 2013/02/17: I should mention that "contemporary complexity theory" is an ambiguous reference. There's also the Santa Fe Institute vision of it, a/k/a the theory of "complex adaptive systems," which got its first funding from Citibank in the late 1980s. The SFI folks have a different emphasis from Prigogine, and rarely cite to papers from his school. However, both schools can lead to similar broad-brush conclusions, and popular writing -- unless by an SFI author, such as Eric Beinhocker, Brian Arthur, Stuart Kauffman, etc. -- rarely distinguishes between them. See, e.g., R. McIntosh et al., eds., "Complexity and Organization" (Routledge 2006), which freely moves between the two schools. JB's assertion in the text under review is so general and uninformative that it's hard to be certain which complexity theory she's talking about or in what sense it is being "anticipated"; but her references to "becoming" and denial of equilibrium echo Prigogine's themes. See, e.g., his 1980 popularization, "From Being to Becoming" (W.H. Freeman, pub.). Even in the alternative case, the SFI version of complexity theory rests on 1960s/70s chaos theory, discrete-time cellular automata (developed in the 1940s and first popularized by no later than 1970) and especially Charles Darwin's "The Origin of Species" (1859), so this would be tough to anticipate in 1980, too.] And while JB thrills at the "quivering" of "free atoms" in the interstices between crystalline domains in metals (@59), it never occurs to her that the atoms in the crystals themselves "quiver" too, as a college physics textbook will inform you.
One of the most striking and damning points about the book, especially considering how heavily reliant it is on Continental theory (though JB cites only to works in English translation), is the particular spin JB gives to the phrase "political ecology". Readers familiar with « écologie politique » will find that JB is referring to something entirely different. For JB, an "ecology" is "an interconnected series of parts, but not a fixed order of parts" (@97; BTW one is never told why it is a "series" rather than, say, an "ensemble"). A "political ecology" is not defined explicitly, but JB quotes with approval Latour's comment that "The most urgent concern for us today is to see how to fuse together humans and non-humans in the same hybrid forums and open, as fast as possible, this Parliament of things" (@104 & 150n23).
Contrast that silliness with the « écologie politique » developed since the 1960s by such Continental thinkers as Hans Jonas, Jürgen Habermas, André Gorz, Ivan Illich, Emmanuel Levinas and others, e.g. as lucidly summarized in Eva Sas's recent « Philosophie de l'écologie politique » (Les Petits Matins 2010). (Exactly zero of these authors are mentioned in JB's book.) According to Sas, this doctrine starts from environmental concerns but builds to a more general political philosophy based on the principles of responsibility, autonomy, solidarity and participative democracy. Agree or disagree, that's something you can sink your teeth into. Compared to Sas's book and those of the authors mentioned in it, JB's book is empty game-playing. Two stars, for being more like the facetious work of tipsy grad students than a serious one by the poli sci chairperson at a major university. Or so one would have hoped.