A recent post over at Larval Subjects calls for a more fully developed account of agency. This is something that is frequently called for — indeed, one could have a successful career as a participant in academic seminars if one criticized literally every author for not “leaving enough room for agency” or, if they try to “leave room,” for not giving a good enough account of it. Absolutely no one does agency right, which leads me to wonder if there is something about the concept of agency that leaves it, as it were, intrinsically “underdeveloped.”

Let’s think about what we associate with the concept of agency (or free will, or subjectivity, or whatever else we call this). If we reduce it to choosing between options or weighing “reasons,” it somehow seems impoverished, but we don’t want it to be sheer arbitrarity. I think that Jean-Luc Nancy heads in the right direction in The Experience of Freedom by introducing the concept of surprise. Free agency is that which takes us by surprise. If we developed a robust account of it, it would no longer be surprising. That also seems to me to be what’s at stake in Butler’s attempt to show how interpellation misfires, etc. — that subjects, once formed, and even in the process of their formation, can do surprising things.

Sinthome, in his post and in the comment thread, seems to have a very specific idea of “materialism” in mind — he says that many accounts of agency seem to fall back on a kind of creatio ex nihilo, which true materialism cannot countenance. I wonder if this particular idea of “materialism,” however, might be front-loading things and artificially generating the problem of “where” we can locate agency. Even though modern science does not present us with a universe where such is the case, I think that when many of us think “materialism,” they think of a universe fully saturated by mechanical laws of causation. In such a universe, there simply doesn’t seem to be “room” for agency — and so we’re caught between the impossible poles of either giving a “mechanical” account of agency (which is intrinsically contradictory) or renouncing one of the most fundamental experiences of human existence (i.e., that we are not “robots”).

Here again, Nancy’s idea of freedom as going all the way down seems to me to be a great way of getting past this impasse. In many ways, Nancy’s thought here is very similar to Whitehead’s, which of course was attempting to respond philosophically to the advent of relativity theory and quantum mechanics. If we reject the idea that the universe is saturated by mechanical laws of causation (or say that “Being is freedom,” that is, Being is surprising), the presenting problem disappears. “Agency” then becomes the particular surprising ways in which a being of a high level of complexity and self-reflexivity can and does act.

Zizek’s appropriation of the Lacanian “non-all” also heads in this direction, and he engages directly with science, such as his analysis of quantum mechanics in The Indivisible Remainder (recently reissued) and of cognitive science in Parallax View — the latter giving an impressive account of how human agency arises in the course of the evolution of consciousness.

Of course, none of these accounts can give a positive grounding for surprise or for the openness/non-saturation of the laws of causation — they all make an end run around this problem precisely by placing surprise at the foundation (this is perhaps less true in the case of Butler). It is a paradigm shift whose time has come, and seems to me to be consistently materialist — perhaps more consistently materialist, in that it does not impose the dogmatic frame of fully saturated causality on the data.

It is admittedly difficult to call Whitehead a materialist — I would be interested, however, to see how his system works if we cut away what he (unfortunately) named “God” — but both Nancy and Zizek at least profess to be materialists. There seem to be no a priori grounds for excluding them, unless the secret handshake to get into the materialist club is to implicitly believe in an outmoded model of the universe as a gigantic billiards table.

16 thoughts on ““Underdeveloped”

  1. Nice post, Adam. I’m still in the process of developing my thoughts on these issues, so I’m not entirely certain what I’m aiming at either. You write:

    It is admittedly difficult to call Whitehead a materialist — I would be interested, however, to see how his system works if we cut away what he (unfortunately) named “God” — but both Nancy and Zizek at least profess to be materialists. There seem to be no a priori grounds for excluding them, unless the secret handshake to get into the materialist club is to implicitly believe in an outmoded model of the universe as a gigantic billiards table.

    Just to clarify, I certainly don’t advocate a “billiard ball” model of materialism, and I’ve expended a great deal of effort trying to think the possibility of things such as emergent systems that would allow for a more nuanced, forgiving, and resolutely anti-reductivist material. Consequently, when I evoke the term materialism, I am not making any sort of call for a reduction to physics, neurology, biology, chemistry, etc. I think there is something irreducible in emergent systems and that they have to be approached in their own terms. For instance, I take it that a social system cannot be reduced to the human individuals that compose it, nor do I feel that language can be reduced to brain neurology. On the one hand, then, I use the term “materialism” as a synonym for an ontology of immanence, such that there are no agencies outside the world or universe, not subject to history, time, development, and so on. On the other hand, this desire to avoid vulgar (and I think facile) reductivism is what attracts me to relational thinkers such as Hegel, Deleuze, Whitehead, and so on. I don’t know what to make of Whitehead’s God talk and whether his references to God are similar to those of Spinoza. This isn’t really what interests me in Whitehead. Rather, I am instead interested in Whitehead’s accounts of process, relations, emergence, and his critique of misplaced concreteness and subject/predicate based metaphysics.

    I suppose you’re right that it is easy to claim that an account of agency is underdeveloped. Given your remarks in this post, it looks like I’m not doing a very good job articulating what I’m trying to get at, so I appreciate the nudge you’re giving me here as a prod to better formulate my worries. On the one hand, I am responding to what I see as reductivist tendencies in some variants of continental theory that reduce the agent to a prop for ideology, a formation of power, and so on. On the other hand, my difficulty with Zizek is not the claim that there is something creative in agency that cannot be deduced from what I called “scene” in the post you’re responding to here– I would be committed to that thesis as well –but rather that he seems to reduce the subject to a void or nothing, leaving no room for the cultivation of a self and identity. From your descriptions– and from what I gather about her more recent work –Butler would here come a bit closer to what I’m looking for. Also, some elements of the late Foucault, beginning with the second volume of the history of sexuality where we get all that stuff about folding, get closer to what I’m looking for. Here, also, I think Badiou’s subject of a truth procedure fairs better than Zizek as we do get a subject that progressively determines and creates itself as a result of its procedure (something like what Whitehead would call a “superject”). I have next to no familiarity with Nancy, so I’ll have to look into some of the references you provide here when I get the chance.

    As an aside, I have no deep commitments to Whitehead. I’ve only just begun reading him again after many years as a result of Shaviro’s promptings (if you haven’t gotten the chance, his posts are well worth the read). I find his thought very beautiful and fascinating, but I can’t say I know where I stand with respect to it. I tend to go through phases where I spend a good deal of time reading any thinker that develops a robust relational ontology. Thus, for instance, I’ve spent a good deal of time with Hegel’s Logic, Peirce’s various semiotic writings (his collected works sit atop my shelf), Marx’s Capital, Luhmann’s systems theory, Deleuze’s various works, Levi-Strauss, Heidegger’s middle priod works, Foucault’s work, Lacan, Derrida’s earlier works, etc., etc., etc. The red thread that runs throughout all these orientations is a relational approach to the phenomena they’re investigating. Basically, then, I’ve struggled to find a vocabulary in which I might express a vague intuition I have about the nature of being.

  2. The remarks about billiards weren’t directed specifically toward you — I was probably thinking of a comment thread over at Kugelmass’s where he seemed to be equating materialism with reductionism. But he is not alone in such sentiments!

    In general, anyone advocating a non-reductivist materialism seems to have an uphill battle in store — constantly facing things like “But that isn’t really materialist, is it?”

  3. A great post, and involving issues that I am trying to work through.

    Whitehead is relevant, here, as you suggest, because he accepts scientific accounts, and rejects Cartesian dualism, and yet tries to include a margin for “agency” at the same time. He does this through a kind of double causality, in that every event/occasion/entity has both an “efficient cause” (which is scientific or mechanistic causality) and a “final cause” (which is how the entity “subjectively” responds to the elements that it causally inherits from the past). Despite the Aristotelian terminology, Whitehead’s argument is closer, I think, to the double causality (freedom/determination) in Kant. But Whitehead, as I have been trying to work out in my own writing, is “naturalizing” Kant’s appeal to the noumenal in a weird way. Though he uses anthropomorphic terminology, he is very serious about insisting that the margin of indeterminacy which is where he would locate “agency” as the manner in which an entity “entertains” or responds to its causal inheritance applies just as much to an electron, a rock, or a tree, as it does to a human being. The structure, with its margin for indeterminacy or agency, is the same in all these cases; it is just that, for a rock or a tree, the amount of activity in this margin is “negligable,” whereas for a human being it is much greater.

    As for Whitehead’s notion of God — that is opening an entire other can of worms. I find Whitehead’s God quite interesting, and I think there are structural reasons he needs it in his system — and part of this has to do with guaranteeing what I am calling the margin of agency — but I am still struggling to work all this out, so I don’t have a coherent sense yet of how it might affect the argument.

  4. I’m struck by how your reflections here on materialism resonate with my own posts of late about creativity & love. I’m struck even more by the fact that your reflections are far and away more clear than mine.

  5. I think you’re wholly correct about much bad materialism (which is secretly Cartesian, maintaining the mental so as to be able to insist that it doesn’t exist). I was thinking about some similar ideas in relation to Marx for a paper I was writing about Lenin’s idea of political agency (contrasting the sort of “surprise” – though I didn’t use that word – that you get in Lenin with the idea of agency as novelty that Arendt talks about). I think Marx’s materialism, precisely because it isn’t reductive, is another good starting point for thinking about agency.

  6. I have from time to time toyed with making the strident claim that Jean-Luc Nancy is the truest philosophical heir of Marx. (But I feel somewhat unmotivated to back that up, since I seem to be one of the five people in the world who care about Nancy.)

  7. I don’t know what to make of it in detail, but it’s pretty much amazing at every level. I can’t believe there’s one book in which we get an exhaustive account of “touch” in the Western tradition — and an account of Derrida’s dream that he kissed Jean-Luc Nancy.

  8. That is the good thing about that book.

    In the reading group where we read it (I didn’t, I didn’t want to splash the cash), I think everyone disliked it. But they probably disliked De Anima more.

  9. Adam, I think you are right that “agency” becomes stale, or “impoverished” if it is simply identified with arbitration…My question, though, is how yours or Nancy’s “freedom” is not reducible to mere arbitration (deciding between options, and choosing the best course of action); or, how exactly are you defining freedom (sorry if this seems pedantic–I haven’t read Nancy)?

    I’m just trying to follow, here. Is the kind of freedom you are describing a creation ex nihilo (or at least analogous to it), over against the mechanical universe of causation? What is it about causation that poses the threat to agency for you? Is it simply its mechanicity? If so, do you think that Thomas Aquinas’ construal of causality (which diverges fairly widely from the Aristotelian view) also reduces to such mechanicity? (sorry for so many damn questions)

    I think that there is a way of viewing agency within a universe (I refuse to say “worldview”) of serial (or instrumental) causality that still preserves a “free will”…there have simply been so many who have obscured this way that it hides behind a dark cloud.

  10. One way in which my account of agency isn’t reduced to arbitration or choice between options is that I’m not especially inclined to identify agency with willful intentionality. I don’t have a definition of freedom, but this kind of freedom is not something that humans have as opposed to everything else — human freedom would be a particular subspecies of the freedom that pervades Being. So I’m saying that the universe isn’t one of saturated mechanical causation.

    I don’t know enough Aquinas to resond adequately to your second paragraph, other than to say that the emphasis is on mechanical causation. Obviously a universe totally free of any kind of causation makes no sense.

  11. If freedom pervades all of Being, then do you think you might say that an agent (or “subject”?) does not ever fully determine an object, but is only fully an agent upon an object as it is simultaneously acted upon (in some sense) by that same object?…or, that free agency happens in between subject and object?…is this at all right? If so, this would be quite the opposite of a creatio ex nihilo (and it would also point to some sort of causation–though in order to avoid a fatalism or determinism, there would need to be some sort of will involved here…to have no deliberation or arbitration seems to make as little sense as a universe without any kind of causation).

    Again, sorry for all the questions (and thanks for the answers), I’m just trying to work some of this stuff out, right now, too. Thanks.

  12. Adam, I think you are right that “agency” becomes stale, or “impoverished” if it is simply identified with arbitration

    This is, of course, the standard criticism of the standard interpretation of Hobbes’ account of choice. (You’ve got your desires, and eventually one wins out, and hey, that’s the one you choose—one can see something not entirely dissimilar in the Laws.)

    You know who have done a lot of thinking about agency, is many analytic philosophers. No lie.

  13. Indeed Ben. Isn’t these whole debate rehearsed again and again in their discussion of Freedom versus Determinism at great detail and at often withering levels of complexity.

    I remember from my (undergrad) course in this just how far this particular rabbit hole goes. And it goes wayyyy down.

  14. Well, you don’t need to get into determinism and whatnot to have the agency debate. Velleman has an article about compatibilism but on the whole it doesn’t figure in his philosophy, and I’m not sure that Bratman or Frankfurt has ever discussed it in any sort of detail. There’s an essay by some guy called Hobart called “Free Will As Involving Determination and Inconceivable Without It”, which sort of lays out the basic idea of what sort of thing a non-homuncular agent might be, but you don’t need to have much of an opinion about that stuff to talk about agency (I think, anyway).

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