It seems as though every time I’m walking in the woods, I start thinking about the concept of agency and how it pertains to non-humans. This is because, when I’m in the woods, what I notice most is the way that different beings – trees, plants, rocks, animals, wind, water, humans, etc. – shape the landscape. It becomes apparent that there is no natural state for this landscape – no essential character and no end towards which it is striving. Instead, it is a continual negotiation of all of these beings, each with their own individual strivings and desires, and each attempting to shape the landscape in its own way and running up against the attempts of others to do the same. Furthermore, the landscape is a palimpsest upon which these beings make their mark – always writing upon a surface that has already been inscribed.
This is why I think that the concept of agency – if we are to really unpack the term, which itself is only an abstraction – has (at least) three components: intentionality and efficacy, and both are driven by desire (see more here and here). Intentionality is and the capacity to choose from among many different options for achieving that desire. Efficacy is the ability to alter and affect others – to shape the world around us in order to achieve our desires. Intentionality without efficacy is merely navigation. Efficacy without intentionality is merely random chance.
These components are found in different quantities and qualities in different beings, and this is what gives rise to different kinds of agency. Humans, for example, have an abundance of both intentionality – we pride ourselves on our free will and adaptability – and efficacy – we shape the world to our needs more than any other creature. And it’s easy for most to see how we can extend this to animals, and maybe even plants. It requires us to simply recognize that plants and animals are not automatons following some predefined program. Certainly, their intentionality and efficacy are limited when compared to ours, but they are not non-existent.
The real challenge comes when we think about the agency of non-living beings like rocks, electrical grids, neutrinos, and so on. It’s difficult to imagine how, without any semblance of consciousness, these beings could have any kind of intentionality. I think, however, that we can talk about intentionality in a different way with these objects. Intentionality, at its base, is simply movement. Whether I’m navigating a trail, a river, a city street, or a social system, I am simply moving towards the position I desire (the end of the trail, the take-out point of the river, the restaurant down the street, or a well-paying job with benefits) with some kind of intention. In that sense, objects such as rocks have a very limited form of intentionality linked to their physical properties and the universal forces that act upon them. There is a sense in which the rock desires the ground. Lift it up, release it, and it falls. Depending on its size and weight and the speed it is able to acheive before reaching the ground, it may have a tremendous amount of efficacy (think of meteorites). Thus it shapes the world, but its only end is to achieve unity between its center of gravity and that of the Earth (or whatever other body it might be plunging towards), and it is impeded by the surface of the Earth and the others that inhabit it. In the woods, the scene is less dramatic – erosion wears away the soil beneath a boulder causing the boulder to roll downhill trampling plants and animals as it goes, possibly landing in a stream where it diverts the flow of water.
This is how we can think of the rock having a kind of agency – though not the same kind of agency that humans possess – and the same can be said for other inanimate objectss as well. Their intentionality is often limited, but their efficacy can be tremendous. Thinking of agency in this way is useful for many reasons, in my opinion. For one, it helps to clarify the structure/agency dichotomy. If agency is intentionality and efficacy, then structure can be seen as a kind of agency itself rather than merely the opposition to agency or a kind of determinancy. Thus, the dichotomy breaks down and what we call structure is really the negotiation of multiple competing and cooperating agencies negotiating a space with one another – just as the landscape I encounter in the woods is the product of many different beings working to create a space for themselves. In addition, it helps to understand what must be done to resist those structural forces that we find opressive. If agency is only intentionality, then the only thing we can do is to navigate within those oppressive forces and find a relatively peaceful and equitable way of living within their boundaries. If, however, we think of those forces as agencies we have to negotiate with, but that are subject to our own abilities to alter and affect, then we can start thinking about ways to reconstruct the world in a more peaceful, equitable, and sustainable way.