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Young man on beach with cell phoneIf we want to understand the kind of relations that occur when we use cell phones, the agencies that cell phones can have, and the hybridities they enable, one avenue toward this understanding is through Jane Bennett’s work on thing–power. Bennett (2010) admitted a debt to Bruno Latour’s research, especially his “attempt to develop a vocabulary that addresses multiple modes and degrees of effectivity, to begin to describe a more distributive agency” (pp. viii-ix). However, her work also stemmed from the vitalism of Henri Bergson and Hans Driesch and Deleuze and Guattari’s work on the power of networks. Bennett employed the concept of assemblages in order to understand the forces that objects have:

ad hoc groupings of diverse elements, of vibrant materials of all sorts. Assemblages are living, throbbing confederations that are able to function despite the persistent presence of energies that confound them from within. . . . And precisely because each member-actant maintains an energetic pulse slightly “off” from that of the assemblage, an assemblage is never a stolid block but an open-ended collective, a “non-totalizable” sum. (pp. 23-24)

In looking at the assemblages as a whole, Bennett could see the power that different things in the collective can generate. Her articulation of this vital force, this “effectivity,” is what she called “thing power,” “impersonal affect,” and “material vibrancy.” These concepts do not suggest a “spiritual supplement or ‘life force’ added to the matter said to house it,” Bennett argued, but a vitalism that equates “affect with materiality, rather than posit[s] a separate force that can enter and animate a physical body” (p. xiii).

Though all of the abovementioned terms are compelling, “thing–power” in particular gestures toward “the strange ability of ordinary, man-made items to exceed their status as objects and to manifest traces of independence or aliveness, constituting the outside of our own experience” (Bennett, 2010, p. 2). A wide range of everyday items can exceed their status as objects, too, as something like a cell phone can be both an important connection to a range of habits focused on maintaining business connections, but also a deeply personal object—one that we like to hold and want to have with us at all times. Cell phones exude a significant thing-power and can be powerful actants within their distributed networks.

Young man with cell phone

For younger students who use their cell phones as key literacy aids in family, social, and academic activities, they can be quite powerful things indeed. With the rise of applications for smartphone operating systems, many have come to depend on cell phones for directions, restaurant reviews, recreation, social networking, email, etc. It would be a futile effort to specify the exact thing-power of cell phones, simply because there are too many different assemblages in which people and cell phones are enmeshed. No two reactions or collectives of actors are precisely the same, as a narrative told by one person about the significance of her phone to her everyday habits and literacies is certainly going to differ from that told by another, especially as the roles phones play in each of our lives varies so widely. However, I do not mean to suggest that we are unable to identify trends within our experiences; we certainly can when enough experiences are viewed in aggregate. I hoped that the video project would bring out some of the more complex relations people have with their phones and allow us to peer into some of the black boxes people set up in their daily lives.