digital rhetoric

agency and apprehension

One of my continuing favorite intellectual moves is to consider the history of concepts through etymology. Perhaps this seems pedantic, but to me it is a reminder of the materiality of language. The nexus of apprehend, apprehension, and apprehensive send me off in this regard. As we know apprehend references both physically and mentally grasping something (the physical came first, btw). It has a particular legal suggestion (e.g. "criminals were apprehended today"). As we move toward apprehension and apprehensive we get an increasing sense of a third definition that has to do with anticipation, particularly anticipating with fear or dread (though that meaning also appears for apprehend). There’s a suggestion of a kind of reaching out perhaps, but certainly a cautious reaching.

I’ve often thought of the word apprehension in the relationship between distributed cognitive processes, our experience of consciousness, and the subjectivities we inhabit. This was something that came up in a conversation I had with Gardner Campbell the other day. So all this is an attempt to get some better language around what I was trying to communicate about agency.

There’s a networked flow of cognitive processes. Some of it is technological in the conventional sense: flows of binary data along fiber optics, CPUs, magnetic storage, wireless access, and so on. There’s the larger cultural-material network, physical spaces embedded with information, ideology, and so on. There are other people and groups of people. And there are our own bodies, which interface with these networks, sending information coursing through us.

Out of this continual state, a thought emerges into consciousness. We generally apprehend that thought in language, though sometimes words fail us. However thoughts also strike us affectively, with force. This is also apprehension, to varying degrees, as we grasp the aporia, the ineffability, of thought.

Consciousness can be abstractly separated from the network of distributed cognition, but it is better understood as part of the cognitive network. Every actor in the network performs its mediations. If we find information, force, and will as different aspects of the same process, the these mediations are also mechanisms that shape force.

In short, agency lies everywhere, with every actor. Of course that’s what makes it agency, right? If we couldn’t pass along our agency to others in the network then it wouldn’t amount to much. Practice zazen meditation and you’ll quickly realize your thoughts are not you. Still there is an eye/I that is watching thoughts.

So I suppose you could imagine consciousness strictly as a theater, but
that wouldn’t make much sense to me. It makes more sense to me that
consciousness performs cognitive functions, pertaining to symbolic
behavior I would imagine. As such, it has its role in the network of
agency. So does our subjectivity, which apprehends our thoughts,
pinning them against a cultural-ideological grid, and communicates
apprehension to the conscious about the things we think. Again, this is

only a partial apprehension.

In the end, the process of apprehension, with its partiality and affective excesses, both communicates the force of agency and opens the possibility for new agencies, new dimensions of force, at every node along the network.

Perhaps post-humanist descriptions of agency cause apprehension (or stronger negative emotions) for you. I have always figured that no one’s description of agency or free will can alter whatever my consciousness is. It might alter my understanding of my consciousness, but no philosophical argument can take away agency if it exists or give it to me if it does not. So all we’re really after is a good description of agency that, if possible, improves our ability to act individually and collectively.