The Social of Nature

I’ve been following an interesting discussion of Facebook where Levi Bryant says that the way to eliminate essentialism is not to erase “nature” and make everything “cultural”, but rather to embrace “nature” and queer it. The discussion is largely conceptual and not worth rehashing here, but it did remind me of an issue I’ve been thinking a lot of lately. As a cultural anthropologist who works extensively with natural scientists, I walk this tight-rope a lot. We are continually trying to insert or tack on what is generally referred to as “the human dimensions” to environmental science projects. This is how it was with the invasive species project that I was working on and this is how it has been with many of the projects on which I and my cohort have been involved. “The human dimension” is secondary and often perfunctory rather than integrated and systematic. Nevertheless, we continue to try, going to great lengths to fully integrate our research with that of natural scientists.

What I’ve noticed recently, though, is that, in this process, there is often the adoption of concepts and methods from the natural sciences by social scientists – perhaps as a way to appease the natural scientists and “speak their language.” For example, we take on concepts like “resilience” and “complex adaptive systems” in order to frame our investigations of socio-cultural phenomena in a way that scientists will appreciate and understand. There’s nothing wrong with that – it facilitates communication and the concepts are not necessarily wrongly applied. And yet, it does lead to a kind of naturalization of social phenomena. We end up looking for the ways that societies function in naturalistic ways – the ways they are “resilient” or “adaptive”. These approaches, while perhaps accurate and valuable in a certain way, also tend to obscure important aspects of social relations such as power and the processes of social construction. In that sense, going too far down this path of appeasing the scientific crowd can severely limit our own approach to understanding and addressing social issues. This is perhaps why so much environmental social science seems so limited or ineffective – because we so dramatically reduce the parameters with which we are dealing that the products of our research become compromised.

That’s not to say that I want to stop incorporating ecological concepts into the social sciences, but what I would like to see more of, I think, is the socialization of the natural sciences. That is, I would like the natural sciences to accept and incorporate concepts from the social sciences and apply them to their ecologies. Ecologies are, at base, societies – collections of different materials and organisms attempting to coexist in a given space. And the ways that they attempt to coexist – the negotiations that occur between populations in a space – often look very much like the attempts of humans to coexist in a given space. Note here that this is not an attempt to say that “nature is culture”  in the sense of subverting the non-human and material world to a world of humans and signs, it’s just to say that the material processes by which ecologies are composed are very social. As a result, it might be worth looking at power dynamics between different populations or even within a population. It might be useful to view ecological processes as practices of social construction (in the material-semiotic sense and not in the exclusively conceptual sense that “social construction” is often taken).

At present, we have a largely ineffectual and poorly integrated “human dimension” tacked on to natural science projects (often as an afterthought), and I would say this is largely because of the unidirectional and uneven flow of concepts from the natural sciences to the social sciences. I think equalizing that conceptual flow is the only way to actually integrate the two approaches to create an effective science of environmental concerns. How to do this without alienating the natural scientists (who already feel themselves under constant threat of attack) is another question, which I’m still working to understand.

Agency and Efficacy Revisited

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.

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.

Agency and Efficacy

Last night I was doing some reading and watching for the upcoming UMD Anthropology Theory Discussion Group session on materiality, embodiment, and non-human agency.  I was thinking about this concept of agency that’s so important to my work and to the work of others who have inspired me – Latour, Stengers, Bennett, Bryant, etc.  First of all, there is the question of intentionality, a characteristic that is often taken to be synonymous with agency.  Intentionality is the ability to choose one mode of action over another – free will, as it were.  It is this ability, we as inheritors of a Judeo-Christian tradition tend to believe, that makes us unique among other beings.  The ability to choose prevents us from being determined by any other being, whether God, Nature, genes, social structure, etc.  In our modern, scientific mindset (which nonetheless contains elements of Judeo-Christian theology), the boundaries of intentionality have blurred extensively to the point where some animals and even plants or fungi can, depending on the circumstances and who you’re talking to, be considered to have a degree of intentionality.  But is intentionality really what generates agency?  Is it really what prevents determinism?  I and those I mention above would argue that it is not.  Instead of intentionality (or in addition to it, maybe) we consider efficacy to be the more important characteristic that signifies agency.

I like this term efficacy.  As Stengers points out in Capitalist Sorcery, it has this connotation with magical arts – the power of words, rituals, and things to alter and affect the world.  In fact, I like it better than agency itself because it’s a more descriptive term – “agency” itself doesn’t mean much without other words such as “intentionality” or “efficacy” to lend it signification.  Furthermore, it bypasses the structure-agency debate.  While I think it’s important to engage such debates (and, therefore, continue to push the term “agency” to its limits), there are times when bypassing the debate is easier.  Why, then, is efficacy the key rather than intentionality?  Because intentionality is not necessarily required to escape the trap of determination.  In fact, intentionality, I would argue, is really just a form of efficacy.  One can act in a non-deterministic way without intending to do so.  What matters is the way that we adjust and adjust to the other beings around us.  It’s this process of co-construction that exists in every interrelation that produces complexity, unpredictability, and novelty – not necessarily the intentional process of choosing one mode of action over another.

So if efficacy is the condition that we’re interested in, then what we’re confronted with in terms of analysis is a mesh of interconnection, and co-construction by various efficacious beings or agents.  Nothing can be reduced to anything else, but no thing is alone and unaffected by others.  Structure is agency.  It shapes and is shaped by us as we move through its dark and twisted passageways.  And there is no singular power, no encompassing being under which all of it can be totalized.  In each heterogeneous and monstrous interrelation, there is a capacity for difference and unpredictability simply because the interactions are never unilateral, but always co-constructed.  It’s this kind of analysis that these new (ontological constructivist) theories seek to explore, and I believe they are far more efficacious than those that rely on a structure-agency dichotomy.