After a brief discussion with Phillip and Levi (see my original post, Phillip’s response, and Levi’s response), I’ve realized that I prefer a broken down conception of agency – the concept broken into its constituent parts – rather than the concept of agency itself. I prefer this analytically because I think that the word “agency” – like “culture” – carries too many connotations to make it really useful to me as an anthropologist, and also because there is a history behind the word agency that I don’t want to undo and would rather instead leave it for those who find some value in it. So I’m tempted once again to abandon discussing “agency” in favor of the alternative concepts that I feel are its constituents. I’m hesitant, though, for reasons I’ll explain below.
In my previous post, I broke the concept into three components – intentionality, efficacy, and desire. I’d like to revise that somewhat and break it down into two concepts – efficacy and desire (Levi uses “self-direction” instead of desire to avoid vitalism, but I have no qualm with vitalism, so I’ll stick with desire for now). Desire is end-directedness or goal orientation – teleology. I would and have argued that desire is something that all beings posses in different forms – some because of a conscious purpose, others as a result of their material qualities and the universal forces (gravity, strong and weak atomic, and electro-magnetic) which they enact. However, Phillip argues that there is good reason to limit desire (and thus agency) to a characteristic of conscious beings. It’s a valid point, and one I’m not going to argue. It might even be more analytically effective to reserve desire for conscious beings and have some other category of teleology for non-conscious or semi-conscious beings. It doesn’t actually concern me much because what I’m really interested in is the idea of efficacy.
Efficacy is the ability of a being to alter and affect others, and thus to shape the world around itself (though always limited by and negotiating with the efficacy of others around it). It’s through efficacy, with or without desire, that the world is shaped, and I disagree with Phillip that a thoroughly dualist natural scientist would see the same woods I did without some conception of efficacy and flat-ontology. What I saw on my walk was a landscape thoroughly ungrounded in any kind of determination, lacking any “master signifier” or “grand narrative”, heading towards no collective telos, and devoid of any essence or transcendent purpose. A “dark ecology” to borrow Tim Morton’s phrase, but also one full of possibilities – it doesn’t have to be this way or any way in particular, the world itself can always be otherwise.
And this is why I am hesitant to give up discussing agency – if only to be provocative. One of my key goals in investigating agency is to break down the structure/agency dichotomy. This is because I think the concept of deterministic structure is too strong and the concept of agency too weak to make a practical difference – to really make people think they can do something about their situation. All too often structural forces are taken to be absolute (almost ahistorical in some analyses) and totalizing. Agency is then taken as a certain capacity to navigate within those structures, but not to change them. This leads, in my opinion, to inaction and despair. What can you do in the face of (big C) Capitalism? What’s the use of trying if all of our efforts to resist can be totalized by Capitalist ideology? Agency as efficacy, and structure as agency, instead gives us a starting position from which the world could actually be otherwise – but we have to struggle to make it so. No longer must we simply navigate within, but the act of navigation itself transforms the structures around us and creates a different world. This is the goal of redefining agency, in my opinion.