Music: Austin City Limits 2008 (PBS): My Morning Jacket/Deathcab FC
Writing for clarity and an audience to which one is not accustomed is difficult. I also enjoy the challenge. I also enjoy jigsaw puzzles. I am completing a new, very difficult jigsaw puzzle on my coffee table this week, probably the next couple of weeks. It depicts a bunch of butterflies: one is blue. The rest of the butterflies are all variations of orange. 1000 pieces. Jesús has already discovered and chewed up two of those pieces. Completing the puzzle will thus lack the normal satisfaction of doing a puzzle, as two pieces will be missing. But I digress. On agency:
Agency is a concept that is generally understood as a capacity to act or cause change. The person who—or thing which—acts or causes change is termed an “agent.” In communication theory, agency is most commonly associated with people, as opposed to animals or things. To communicate, an agent must have the capacity, or agency, to do so. Consequently, most communication theories assume the existence of agency. Not all communication theories, however, require agency to be human in origin. Until the late twentieth century, agency was a relatively straightforward concept in communication studies. In light of human irrationality and evil in the past century, however, a number of scholars in the humanities have called many of our assumptions about human agency into question.
The notion of an “agent” and the capacity of “agency” are often confused or conflated with closely related, but nevertheless distinct, concepts. Chief among them are “the subject,” a philosophical concept that refers to a typical or “paradigm,” self-conscious human being, and “subjectivity,” a concept that refers to the conscious awareness of oneself as a subject.
Originally, being a subject meant that one was ruled by, or under the legal control of, a king or prince, but gradually the term came to denote one’s status as a citizen beholden to the laws of a given government or nation state (e.g., “Josh is a subject of the United States”). In philosophical circles, however, the subject has come to denote a perceiving human being who is conscious of him or herself as a human being. In this philosophical sense, the subject is discussed in relation to “the object,” which refers to that which is perceived by the subject, or alternately, that which the subject knows he or she is not. The philosophical distinction between the subject and object as categories, however, is not stable and the meaning can change from one context to the next. In psychoanalysis, for example, the subject denotes a self-conscious person, but the object denotes another person whom the subject loves, hates, is ambivalent about, and so on (e.g., the infant subject loves the maternal object, mother).
A subject who self-consciously acts our causes change is said to possess agency. Hence, a subject with agency is an agent. An agent does not necessarily need to be a subject, however, nor does a subject necessarily possess agency. To complicate matters, agency is often confused with the term “subjectivity” as well. Whereas the subject denotes a self-conscious person, subjectivity refers to consciousness of one’s perceptions as an individual or discrete subject. Consciousness of oneself as a discrete individual (subjectivity) does not mean that one has agency or is an agent. Only an awareness of one’s ability or capacity to act (subjectivity) imbues the subject with agency.
In sum: agency is the capacity to act; the agent is the source or location of agency; the subject is a self-conscious human being; and subjectivity is consciousness as a subject. All of these concepts are implicated in the idea of communication.
Agency and Modern Philosophy
Contemporary understandings of agency can be linked to eighteenth century Western thought, often termed “the Enlightenment.” Although Enlightenment thought is not easily summarized, key among its goals were the use of reason to improve society and understand the natural world. In Enlightenment thought we find agency and the subject tied together in complex ways. For example, just prior to the Enlightenment the philosopher Rene Descartes reasoned that absent any knowledge or sensory perception whatsoever, an individual could know one thing: it thinks, therefore it exists (this argument is known as “the cogito“). Insofar as thinking is a type of action, this “it” that thinks is an “agent,” but it is not necessarily a “subject.” The it or agent that thinks is not a subject until it is conscious of itself as an agent who thinks (subjectivity). The Enlightenment thinker Emmanuel Kant extended Descartes’ argument about this most basic kernel of knowledge-something exists that is thinking/acting, therefore agency and an agent exist. Yet self-conscious knowledge, he suggested, depends on exposure to the world outside our minds, or the empirical world. In other words, to be subjects we have to have sensory experience. Subjectivity, consequently, is wholly “in our heads,” but requires a confrontation with the external world. The resulting concept of the “transcendental subject” advanced by Kant consisted in the necessity of both a thinking thing independent of the outside world, and the necessity of that outside world to make the thinking thing conscious of itself (subjectivity). For Kant, all subsequent knowledge subsequent to fact of self-existence is impossible without sensory experience. The meaning of the external world, however, is entirely dependent on the way in which human mind works. This view implies that the paradigm, self-conscious human being, or subject, is destined to become an agent and, thus, harbors a incipient agency at birth.
After Kant, the concept of the subject emerged as the relatively stable notion of a self-conscious agent. Consequently, in the mature subject agency was understood as the ability to cause change or act by making choices. In other words, the subject was believed to have agency because he or she could cause change by choosing among alternative actions. Insofar as choosing was key characteristic of the agency of the modern subject, Enlightenment thinkers associated agency with freedom, and by extension, individual autonomy: one became an autonomous subject by understanding and accepting his or her freedom, using reason to make choices.
Because of the influence of modern philosophy, agency became associated with self-transparency, self-knowledge, and rational choice-making. Because choice-making was understood as a component of human agency, today agency is often associated with matters of epistemology (how we come to knowledge), ethics (how we discern right from wrong), and politics (how to act collectively in the face of uncertain outcomes). In the social sciences, agency is also understood as a component of one’s self-perception as autonomous. Owing to these associations, in educational settings “giving agency” to students is often expressed as a goal of teaching: by working with students on their communication stills, it is thought, communication educators can help students to better realize their agency and become social, moral, and political actors in the public sphere and in private life.
The Posthumanist Critique of Agency
The Enlightenment view of agency and subjectivity is classically humanist, meaning that it is party to a larger perspective on the world termed humanism. In general, humanism is the view that human beings have a special status in the universe, a status that is superior to the supernatural or Divine on the one had, and a status that cannot be resigned to scientific naturalism or biologism on the other. It is commonly assumed the “humanist subject” is an autonomous, self-transparent, fully conscious agent who acts rationally by making choices. In the nineteenth century, this view of the subject and agency was challenged by a number of thinkers. For example, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche argued that humans were motivated by the “will to power” and made choices that were typically self-interested. Karl Marx argued that human choices were constrained by material circumstances and frequently animated by the interests of those in power (“ideology”). Sigmund Freud argued that the choices of human subjects were often irrational and motivated by unconscious desires. Together, the critiques of the Enlightenment agency advanced by Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud laid the groundwork for what would come to be known as “posthumanism,” a view that would rigorously dispute human subjectivity as the seat of agency.
Although difficult to define, posthumanism is the idea that human being is only one of many types of beings in the universe and, as such, has no special status or value (other than, of course, what human beings assign to themselves). More specifically, in the theoretical humanities posthumanism mounts a critique of the subject as self-transparent, autonomous, choice-making, and rational. Understandably, if the human subject is not characterized by these qualities, then the Enlightenment notion of human agency as rational choice-making is also questioned by posthumanism. Many twentieth century thinkers associated with posthumanism, such as Judith Butler, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Lacan, for example, would not deny that human agency consists of choices; they would question, however, the extent to which such choices were conscious or reasoned, arguing that they are constrained by larger forces such as language, ideology, social norms, the threat of imminent death, and so on.
The frequent rationale for questioning the fully-conscious, rational, choice-making capacity of human subjects concerns world wars, torture, genocide, and other atrocities caused by human beings. For example, although it is unquestionably the case that many Nazi war criminals made conscious decisions to do evil, it is also the case that many Nazi sympathizers aided and abetted such evil without consciously doing so. In the latter instance, the status of agency in the conduct of evil is unclear. Furthermore, insofar as human reason can be used toward evil ends (e.g., the rationally calculated extermination of millions of Jewish people during the second world war), posthumanism questions the value once afforded to reason by Enlightenment thinkers.
Because the problem of evil poses complex questions about the character of agency without any clear answers, posthumanist thinkers prefer to leave the status of the human subject open, as if the concept of the subject is a question itself, never to be fully answered. Agency after the posthumanist critique in the theoretical humanities is thus disassociated from full consciousness, choice-making, freedom, and autonomy, becoming a term for the capacity to act. The agent, in turn, can be anything that causes change or action.
Agency in Rhetorical Studies
Owing to the Enlightenment legacy of agency, scholars who study persuasive speaking and writing (“rhetoric”) have traditionally taken the Enlightenment subject for granted. Since the days of Plato, Aristotle, and the ancient Greeks before the common era, rhetoricians understood the persuasive process to involve a speaker or writer who consciously developed his or her rhetoric by making conscious choices. A persuader would select a topic, then proceed to outline his or her essay or speech, selecting some arguments and ignoring others. The rhetor would choose the appropriate language and tone of her address, analyze her intended audience to help her adapt to their expectations, and so on. These assumptions about the persuader tend to assume a self-transparent, autonomous subject.
In the twentieth century, however, the influence of Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud on rhetorical studies began to shift focus from the agency of the rhetor to the active understanding of audiences (a psychological move). The work of Kenneth Burke was particularly influential in this regard. Burke argued that persuasion was not the result of arguments offered by a rhetor, but rather, the result of “identification,” or the ability of persuader and persuadee to understand each other as sharing a common identity in some fundamental way (“consubstantiality”). Diane Davis has even suggested that Burke’s redefinition of persuasion leads us to the domain of the unconscious and the possibility that persuasion is akin to hypnosis. If this is the case, then agency in persuasive encounter is difficult to locate in any one individual, as it is a shared, unconscious, and dynamic relation between two or more people.
Because of the posthumanist critique of human subjectivity, one finds a variety of positions on the concept of agency among rhetorical scholars. There is no consensus among them about what agency means; some would even dispute this summary. Crudely, these positions can be reduced to three: (a) rhetoricians who continue to defend the Enlightenment subject and agency as conscious-choice making (humanistic agency) ; (b) rhetoricians who understand agency as a complex negotiation of conscious intent and structural limitation (dialectical agency); and (c) rhetoricians who narrowly define agency as a capacity to act, and the subject as an open question (posthumanist agency).
Agency in Social Science
Among social scientific scholars in communication studies, the concept of agency has been less controversial and the literature is decidedly larger in volume and scope. In various theories of communication from a scientific standpoint, agency is assumed to be the capacity to act and is usually associated with human subjects, as the preponderance of studies of communication concern humans. Owing to centuries-old discussions in modern philosophy discussed above, much of the work in social scientific communication theory associates agency with autonomy. More specifically, agency in communication theory can be traced to social scientific studies that investigate individuals’ self-perceptions of autonomy, control, and free choice in respect to a number of cognate concepts, including Piaget’s investigations of “agency,” Bandura’s studies on the “locus of control,” and various explorations of “attributional” or “explanatory style.” These and similar studies, in turn, are indebted to classical investigations by Brehm on “reactance” and Goffman’s theory of “facework”: Brehm’s work investigated how subjects reacted to perceptions of constraint, and Goffman’s focused on the ways in which subjects tend to work to preserve perceptions of autonomy and respect for others.
Closely related to common understandings of agency in social science is the concept of “power,” and a number of studies in the area of social and management psychology have focused on how various power structures (social, cultural, economic, relational, and so on) influences one’s perception of agency and autonomy in interpersonal dynamics. This research overlaps with scholarship conducted in organizational communication studies. Because organizational environments often foreground a tension between the human subject and the housing institution, agency has been a fecund topic of discussion and debate: to what degree do organizational norms constrain the agency of the individual? To what degree do organizational structures empower an employee? Actor Network theory has been particularly influential among organizational scholars in answering these and related questions.
Finally, owing to the powerful role of non-human structures organizations, it stands to reason that the agency of non-human things is an important dynamic worthy of study. Although the idea of non-human agency has been operative of the fields of linguistics and sociology for decades, it has only become a topic of concern in organizational communication studies in the twenty first century. In this respect, François Cooren and others have argued that non-human agencies, especially what he terms “textual agencies,” are crucial for understanding organizational cultures.
Actor-Network Theory, Axiology, Facework Theories, Ideology, Postmodern Theory, Poststructuralism, Power and Power Relations, Relational Control Theory, Spectatorship
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