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the meager agency of human individuals

Our culture has a broad understanding of free will. It’s based upon religion, cultural values, and our lived experience of decision-making. At the same time, we all know that a newborn left alone in the wilderness cannot survive. A toddler cannot survive alone. Indeed so few of us can survive alone, even as adults, that we have multiple genres that relate the struggles of trying to do so. Needless to say(?), staying alive is a necessary condition for having agency.

We all recognize our interdependency and that we are “social” animals. Here is where philosophy, religion, and ideology step in to explain away that interdependency, to make it a secondary quality, to frame it as a “choice” of free will. We often ignore language in such formulations. Of course no individual human would have symbolic behavior without learning it from a community. We deeply rely upon symbolic behavior to make sense of the world, even when we aren’t trying to share that sense with others. But the integral, necessary role of symbolic behavior in our agency means that our will is always already distributed.

In a fundamental and significant way, we are not individual, atomized humans. We, by which I mean the conscious attentive process parsing these words, cannot exist inside one human body alone. The postmodern theoretical tradition, now old hat to anyone with a humanities degree, focused its interest on the overdetermination of agency by ideological structures. I think there’s always been a misreading there. Not so much in the foundational texts but how they’ve been promulgated. It’s not that individuals had a free will that was overcome by the state. It’s not that the state invented the notion of agency at some historical moment and organized humans around it (though we can describe specific agential roles that were developed and deployed over time).

Maybe this is obvious to you, but it is far from obvious to the culture at large. Indeed I’d argue that our current cultural-political struggles occur because of a crucial misunderstanding of this fact. You’d have to laugh if you weren’t crying. We can (and do) look at our ideological foes to whom we ascribe certain qualities and about whom we make certain judgments. But this isn’t about them (or us) as individuals, but as populations. The focus should be on the mechanisms (the networks/assemblages) that compose and modulate those populations. We can think of these mechanisms as Althusserian ISAs, but I don’t think that’s abstract enough (sadly). If I write out my moral, ethical, affective, and political investments, I can only name constructions that have arisen through the distributed cognitive processes that begin with symbolic behavior. Maybe I/we could say that family obligations are more fundamentally mammalian (and thus pre-symbolic, at least from a linguistic sense), but could I really make that argument for adult children?

The first thing we can learn from all this is that there is no “outside.” Human cognition and agency relies upon interdependency, upon networks and assemblages of humans and nonhumans. We can extricate ourselves from a particular pattern of thoughts, values, and behaviors, but only through our attention to a different assemblage. Whatever judgments we might make of our cultural-political foes, they are in the same ontological condition as us. To resolve our differences we might seek some third assemblage, network, rhetorical ecology where we can negotiate.

I realize this is all very abstract, but we can think about this in terms of current struggles over the pandemic. There are those who participate in a population that understands the Latourian trials of strength that solidify scientific claims and accept the recommendations of social distancing and mask wearing. They will also take the vaccine when it becomes available. Alternately there are those in a population that is suspicious of scientific processes and doubts mask-wearing, vaccines, and even the virus itself. Part of that population is a tendency to accept various theories/conspiracies about why the government and media are making these scientific recommendations. Part of this population rejects science on one or more religious grounds. And there is a population that rejects this public health recommendations on political grounds. They are refusing to respect the state’s recommendations/requirements (depending on where they live). You all know this stuff.

This conceptual argument here is that individuals don’t make these decisions alone. Their participation in a population gives them an identity, a community, and a set of capacities. It’s not enough to try to convince people, to educate or “life the veil” or reveal false consciousness. Instead, what is required is a disruption of existing assemblages and the creation of opportunities whereby people join new populations. At one point, we could have looked to or hoped for a broader polis in which these populations all willingly participated, but that polis never really existed. Past imaginings of such democratic public spheres have always excluded many humans (women, people of color, etc.). Who knows if the current assemblages could have become partner to a fully enfranchised public sphere.

There aren’t any easy solutions here (of course), but I think this kind of conceptual approach–drawing on posthumanism, actor-network theory, assemblage theory, etc.–provides a better explanation of the ontological situation in which we find ourselves, one which creates opportunities for more effective strategies moving forward.

One reply on “the meager agency of human individuals”

What you say in this post is somewhat foreshadowed by Hans Kelsen, as in the following quote:

“Justice is primarily a possible, but not a necessary, quality of a social order regulating the mutual relations of men. Only secondarily is it a virtue of man, since a man is just, if his behavior conforms to the norms of a social order supposed to be just. But what does it really mean to say that a social order is just? It means that this order regulates the behavior of men in a way satisfactory to all men, that is to say, so that all men find their happiness in it. The longing for justice is men’s eternal longing for happiness. It is happiness that men cannot find alone, as an isolated individual, and hence seeks in society. Justice is social happiness. It is happiness guaranteed by a social order.”
— Hans Kelsen

Regarding the question of agency, the state, and the individual, he makes the remark (in his classic treatise ‘Pure Theory of Law’) that a community cannot act except through an organ.

also, typo: ‘life the veil’ s/b ‘lift the veil’


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