Filing this one under “inspiration”
Slogans are important. They capture the imagination of the public and make the message of a movement easily transmittable. This is why I’ve adopted Struggle Forever! as the key idea and slogan for my philosophical/theoretical/practical approach to my practice in anthropology and more.
“Occupy” as a slogan was powerful. It caught attention rapidly and motivated people to do something. It’s as if people were asking “What can we do?” and, out of the mist, the answer came “Occupy!” Occupy parks, buildings, and other public spaces. Let them know that we’re here and we want to make a difference! Don’t leave until they listen. And listen they did, in some sense – occupy got the attention of the decision makers. Their response was predictable and brutal – kick them out! The problem with “Occupy!” is what do you do when the occupation is over? What do you do when the camps are established? What do you do when they come to kick you out? What do you do when the camps are torn down and security is increased around the public spaces that might attract occupiers? Of course, the “Occupy!” can continue as a metaphor – we occupy their minds in the way that we occupied their spaces. But as a metaphor, it loses some of its potency. Practically speaking, how does one occupy someone’s mind without also occupying some kind of space through which they move? So “Occupy!” ran its course – producing both positive and negative effects in its wake (as any movement would do).
What next? I like “Idle No More!” It resonates with Struggle Forever! in a way that “Occupy!” couldn’t quite achieve. “Occupy!” is an end – a goal to be achieved. “Idle No More!” is a process. The indigenous people who have taken it as their banner are effectively telling the world that they want to be part of the discussion, part of the work to make the world better. They’ve been idle – or at least they’ve been perceived as such – but they will be Idle No More! Struggle Forever! has the same basic principle. Utopia is not the goal, it’s the process of making the world better for everyone – a never ending process, a continual and continuous struggle. I’m not saying that Struggle Forever! is or should become the slogan for a movement – to me it is more of a philosophical and practical approach to social action than a movement. I’m saying that it has a natural affinity with movements like Idle No More! that seek to start a process.
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.
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.
The fundamental idea behind ontological constructivism is – as the name suggests – that reality itself is constructed. That is, reality itself is historical and contingent – could always have been and could always be otherwise. This is a key lesson, I think, of emerging evolutionary theory and post-quantum physics, but also of contemporary social theory with an ontological focus. In the social sciences, this marks a transition, I believe, from the ontological theories of the past which took reality to be given and concrete, and the epistemologically focused theories that treated reality as fundamentally off-limits.
Take the issue race, for example. For many in the social sciences today, race is a (powerful) illusion or (merely) a social construct. This suggests that there is a more real existence behind our conceptions of race that simply needs to be articulated in order to do away with the problems our racial categories have created. This is an epistemological constructivism that extends only to our conceptions about reality and not to reality itself. I would argue, instead, that race is a reality that has been created over hundreds of years through a process of material-semiotic assemblage – pulling together both material and symbolic factors to create a force that has very real social, physical, and emotional consequences for all humans.
To say that race is a reality is not a judgement. It is not to say that our racial categories are good or bad (or inevitable). It is only to indicate a starting point from which we can begin to think about ways of changing reality. In this case, transforming the reality of race will take a combination of conceptual work (i.e. education, marketing, institutional changes, etc.) and material work (i.e. dismantling the material constraints imposed on people based on physical racial indicators). Whether or not some concept of race will continue to be part of the new reality is not clear.
Struggle forever! is a social theory and socio-political agenda based on the premise of ontological constructivism. It does not indicate a particular form of reality that ought to be brought into existence. By definition, the struggle continues no matter what form reality takes because reality will always change and new issues will always emerge. Instead, it provides a way of thinking about struggle in a world where nothing is given, and there is no center or hierarchy of being. In such a world, struggle must always be collaborative and collective because the creation of reality is a negotiation betwen all of the different beings who must share it. Struggle forever! is about process rather than product – not utopia as a place (utopia is literally “no place”) but utopia as a method for making the world better for everyone.