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Agency, Efficacy, and Intentionality

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.

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  1. Philip C wrote:

    Nice post, it got me thinking. Some of the below is directly related to the above and then I go off into some general wanderings:

    “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.”

    There’s another way of looking at this which is to say that, yes, structure and agency are two different kinds of causal efficacy – so in that they are of the same kind. Their opposition is only a division within a unity. But the point is that they still delineate a difference. Now, I have no particular fondness for the agency/structure opposition. I think it’s a tired abstraction that is actually quite useless. But nevertheless I’m resistant to this continual immolation of ‘agency’ in the name of ‘flat ontology’ or whatever you want to call it.

    Establishing a common vocabulary for human and non-human things and holding them to common metaphysical standards instead of having one rule for one and another for the other is a worthy goal. I fully accept that the difference between humans and rocks is no more ontologically profound than the difference between rocks and clouds and that all things have their own emergent, irreducible and end-oriented but nevertheless speculative, risky telos. Man is not made in God’s image. We are wholly natural beings, just like everything else.

    But still, using the term ‘agency’ to apply to any and all kinds of causal efficacy does violence to what that word has traditionally meant – and that meaning still means something. What Latour, Callon et al. did in the early 1980s was to bracket any and all forms of causal efficacy under the title ‘agency’. They did this for analytical reasons, because differences in causal efficacy weren’t interesting to them; they did this for polemical reasons, because it pissed people off and got them noticed; and they did it for philosophical reasons, because it allowed them to get away from the bifurcation of nature. However, there is nothing utterly essential about ‘agency’ in all of this. The redefinition of agency was one way that they could do these things but it’s perfectly possible to retain their insights and follow their lead without turning all forms of causal efficacy into ‘agency’.

    And that is what I think we should do: retain a concept of consciousness, retain a concept of intentionality as it pertains to animals with highly complex nervous systems. I suggest this not because I think that reality is made up of humans on the one hand and things on the other but because talking about a pluriverse still requires the ability to distinguish between things. Just because the difference between humans and other things is one difference among many, not a primordial ontological transcendence, doesn’t mean that we can slash and burn all the vocabulary we have for talking about the particularities of human existence – and there are such things. While I agree that we do need to transform our conceptual vocabularies in order to avoid bifurcating nature we still need our conceptual vocabularies to be able to make meaningful distinctions between different sorts of things and to discuss the particularities of those things – humans included. More and more I’m convinced that ‘agency’ is too fundamental a concept to give away. We can retain the insights of Latour et al. without trashing the concepts that they do. We can trash other concepts by over-generalising them, but agency is especially important.

    The thing that people forget about ‘agency’ is that Latour, etc. were originally taking on the ideologies of science, which were flawed because they granted scientists far too *much* agency. There was no real danger that scientists would forget that they had agency, intentionality and all these things just because a few French academics wrote some books bracketing that concept out of the equation. However, since ANT, etc. is no longer confined to science we have to be careful because the political arena, in particular, is utterly unlike the scientific one. In politics human agency is *not* assured. People are *not* universally acknowledged to be capable of intentional political action. In fact, half of political struggle is just convincing people that another world is possible, that they don’t have to just go along with things as they are.

    What was good for sociologists of science in Paris thirty years ago isn’t necessarily good for us now. We can retain ontological pluralism, flat ontology and so on without eliminating the specificities of human existence. That is the proper task, in my view. There is nothing especially profound in wondering whether or not non-human things have agency or intentionality. You’re really just expanding these terms to encompass more and more kinds of causal efficacy. A thoroughly dualist, scientific realist biologist could wander through the woods and wonder much the same as you in terms of the evolution of all the things in there without transforming ‘agency’ or ‘intentionality’ in the way that you have.

    Such transformation isn’t necessary and, in my view, it isn’t even desirable. Not any more.

    Friday, January 18, 2013 at 12:48 pm | Permalink
  2. Thanks for the comment, Phillip, and all of your points are well taken.

    I don’t mean to undo the history of the concept of agency nor do I wish to erase our ability to differentiate between different kinds of beings. In fact, the heterogeneity of being – the many different ways that beings can and do exist – is essential for me. The goal here is to expand upon our conception of agency – not simply to extend it to non-human beings, but to make it more useful both analytically, philosophically, and practically. “Agency” itself seems far too abstract and carries a lot of different meanings to be really very useful to me. This is why I’ve unpacked it to talk about “intentionality” and “efficacy,” which I see as two fundamental aspects of the concept of agency. Each on their own is more concrete and valuable than simple “agency”, and together they make for a more robust conception of agency that allows for different kinds of agency depending on the differing qualities and quantities of each aspect. I’ve been tempted in the past to jettison the term “agency” altogether and simply talk about efficacy, which is the most important aspect (intentionality, in some sense, is efficacy – we cannot navigate the world without altering it). However, I’m reluctant to do so precisely because of the history of the term and its relation to the concept of “structure.”

    The issue of consciousness that you raise seems more related to the issue of desire that I mention here. I added that at the last minute without really thinking through all of the implications, but I sense that there’s something important there. Perhaps, actually, “intetionality” is the same as desire, and the third thing – which I call intentionality here – is something like movement. The question, I guess, is whether desire requires consciousness, and I think that’s a valid point. But again, can we be open to different kinds of desire – the desire of the rock to reach the ground is definitely different than the desire of a person to go to buy a cheeseburger. Does it water down the concept too much to speak this way? Perhaps – I’m open to discussion on this point.

    Additionally, and I think this gets to your point about political agency, I think that agency – or efficacy or intentionality – is something that beings do rather than a quality that they possess. I think that limiting agency to conscious intentionality does harm to the task of “convincing people that another world is possible, that they don’t have to just go along with things as they are.” If agency is taken to mean simply “free choice” – which is the meaning its association with “intentionality” tends to inspire (as opposed to a meaning more closely aligned with causal efficacy) – then we have to ask what choices we have and where they come from, and this is where “structure” enters the equation. We have choices within the bounds of a set of determining forces – freedom versus determination, structure versus agency. If we take agency to mean something more akin to efficacy, on the other hand, it not only breaks down the structure/agency dichotomy (and the nature/culture dichotomy, and many others), it makes those structural forces suddenly appear more malleable and less deterministic. They are, nevertheless, forces with which we must negotiate – shaping them and being shaped by them at the same time. So the value of the structure/agency dichotomy – the opposition to methodological individualism – is maintained, but the dismal philosophies of overdetermination are set aside in favor of a more optimistic and empowering view of agency.

    That’s a brief, and somewhat rambling response – I hope it makes some sense. Suffice to say that I think the reformulation of the concept of agency is precisely what is needed now to empower humans and also overcome the bifurcation of nature.

    Friday, January 18, 2013 at 4:24 pm | Permalink
  3. Philip wrote:

    Hi Jeremy. Thanks for your kind response!

    It seems like we’re mostly on the same page after all. I suppose my comment wasn’t just about your use of ‘agency’, it was a more general musing. I agree that the term should be disaggregated and that too much stock is put in it as a signifier. Anyway, I’m glad that it’s stoked some discussion.

    I’ve written a little more here:

    Monday, January 21, 2013 at 10:49 am | Permalink

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  1. What Makes a Difference? | Struggle Forever! on Monday, August 26, 2013 at 10:31 am

    […] is the efficacy aspect of agency. Does it make a difference? If it exists, it does, and therefore it has some kind of efficacy and […]

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