Friday 18 January 2013

A Defence of 'Agency' and Human Specificity

A nice post at Struggle Forever got me thinking.  Some of the below is directly related to it 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 and to attend to very important things in their specificity.  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 too 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.

We need to be aware that agency in politics has a very different status compared to agency in science and we shouldn't assume that what worked well in the latter is necessarily right for the former.  What was good for sociologists of science in Paris thirty years ago isn't necessarily good for us now.

This is in no way a defence of dualism.  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 - abstracting the abstraction.  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 (following Latour, etc.).

Such transformation isn't necessary and, in my view, it isn't even desirable.  Not any more.  Other conceptual vocabularies are possible.