Felicity J. Colman
There is no singular sense of the notion of 'agency' for new materialist positions, however we can identify a common sense of the notion of agency; as something that refers to the relationality of the political cultural position that and by which matter and things are defined, distributed, and organised – by their relationality to other matter and things; and which do not have a pre-existing ontology. For Feminist new materialist thinkers, agency is the core question, as Iris van der Tuin asks: "Where is the space for, and place of, the agency of women in a patriarchal system?" (2014, p. 28). The feminist practitioner is one who points towards how matter and things can be imagined; in new forms, or in ways that are different to the patriarchal structures of the world, through a focus on the agency that engenders other ways of being.
Agency is a core term used in new materialist theory, but different theorists put the notion to work in a myriad of ways. Rosi Braidotti refers to agency as synonymous with 'political subjectivity' in terms of her call for the creation of new forms of ethical agency (Braidotti, 2012, p. 31-5). Karen Barad stresses the non-human aspect of agency; insisting that agency is understood as 'an enactment.' Barad's theory is one that describes the physics of the observation of a world where: "Agential intra-actions are causal enactments." (2007, p. 176) For Barad, 'agency' is not an attribute of something or someone; rather it is the process of cause and effect in "enactment" (p. 214): "Agency is 'doing' or 'being' in its intra-activity. It is the enactment of iterative changes to particular practices – interative reconfigurings of topological manifolds of spacetimematter relations – through the dynamics of intra-activity." (p. 178). Like Braidotti, Barad's position also argues that in and through the entanglements of matter, agency also refers us to the "possibilities for worldly re-configurings" (Barad, 2012, p. 55).
For Barad, 'agency' is fundamentally a political concept. She begins her 2007 book Meeting the Universe Halfway by recounting the story of the Danish Physicist Niels Bohr's work on quantum physics and complementarity, with an anecdote about Bohr's position in 1941, as a physicist of Jewish ancestry, working in Nazi-occupied Denmark (2007, p. 3). Barad outlines an empirical approach to agency with its "intra-actions" of matter (p. 140). In her opening, she states: "Matter and meaning are not separate elements." (p. 3) With each intra-action, and the entanglement of matter and meaning, their "constitutive exclusions" (p. 389) exclude any notion of "causality" (p. 140), so that the "apparatuses of bodily production are intra-acting with and mutually constituting one another" (p. 389). In the terms of this constitution, Barad presents a metaphysics of "agential realism" (see also: Agential Cut entry in the almanac). The quantum entanglements that Barad describes as "an assemblage of individual events, entities, and sets of practices" are productive of "the relational ontology of agential realism" (Barad, 2007, p. 389). 'Enactment' is the key word in relation to the Baradian sense of agency. It also resonates with Donna Haraway and Judith Butler's respective uses of the term, in relation to epistemology and performativity; the non-human, and 'intentionality' (Barad, p. 214).
In New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics (2010), the co-edited volume of essays by Diana Coole and Samantha Frost, despite the subtitle, agency is not a focus. Barad is not indexed, and only Barad's essay from the Feminist journal Signs (2003) is in the bibliography. Coole and Frost point out in their introduction that their collection of new materialist essays is concerned with what they term new materialisms [plural] that: "are at the forefront of current thinking about matter […] What is at stake here is nothing less than a challenge to some of the most basic assumptions that have underpinned the modern world, including its normative sense of the human and its beliefs about human agency, but also regarding its material practices such as the ways we labor on, exploit, and interact with nature" (Coole and Frost, 2010, p. 3-4). Coole and Frost's conception of 'agency' and 'materiality' is developed, as they lay it out, as a counter to Enlightenment ideals about the human capacity to attain a mastery over nature. Coole and Frost describe the inherited concept of 'materiality' as arising from Descartes's seventeenth century definition of it as a "corporeal substance", that was employed by European developments of Euclidean geometry and Newtonian physics (p. 7). These approaches to the measurement of nature as "quantifiable" lead to the modern sense of human agency; where humans hold a sense of "mastery", and are "rational, self-aware, free, and self-moving agents" (p. 8). Conceptually and practically humans dominate nature in this modernist trajectory of the history of how human agency over matter has been conceived. Coole and Frost point out that it is important to understand this western basis of a normative sense of human agency as a way of figuring what they term as "alternative" propositions new materialists are offering to this position (p. 8). Following van der Tuin's genealogical model (2014) I would want to add to this observation that this use of "alternative" must be carefully considered, so as to avoid a structuring framework for figuring what agency might be; so that new materialisms are not thought of as simply another link in the chain of post-structuralist theories (van der Tuin, p. 28).
Coole and Frost cite Jane Bennett's 2001 book The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics, where Bennett describes agency as something that non-human things hold, including food, rubbish, and the electricity grid. Coole and Frost note that according to Bennett's thesis, these non-human things defy the Enlightenment sense of 'human will' with their own forms of 'efficacy'. These are questions of value in relation to agency and they are what new materialist thinkers problematize in reminding the user of an agential force in terms of its relational power (see Springgay & Truman's engagement of the Baradian in relation to agential methods, 2018, p. 138; and (see also AAA entry in the almanac).
Diana Coole's essay, "The Inertia of Matter and the Generativity of Flesh" (2010) continues the themes in the Coole and Frost co-authored introduction of New Materialisms, where agency and matter are implicit in each other. Coole refers to the use of "human agents" who use "passive stuff" of "inert matter [that is] inherently devoid of agency or meaning" (p. 93), and asks, "is it not possible to imagine matter differently: as perhaps a lively materiality that is self-transformative and already saturated with agentic capacities and existential significance that are typically located in a separate, idea, and subjectivist realm?" (Coole, 2010, p. 92) The 'existential' that Coole invokes here is that of Merleau-Ponty, and she does not cite or refer to Barad. Coole presents a sense of agency that is fundamentally at odds with the sense that Barad presents. Coole writes that "Empiricism, Merleau-Ponty complains, robs sense experience of all mystery by reducing it to physico-chemical processes and causal relationships of stimulus and response" (p. 93). Coole states that she sees Merleau-Ponty's aim "is to explain a generative, self-transformative, and creative materiality without relying on any metaphysical invocation of mysterious, immaterial forces or agencies" (p. 93) – the latter term we can see in Diana Coole's work. The existentialist hapticity of Merleau-Ponty, as identified in Coole, is not addressing, nor the same as the Baradian agential.
Bruno Latour's notion of Actor Network Theory [ANT] refers to a notion of "distributed agency" that sees actors – human and nonhuman – as unfixed, and emerging from agential fields, that have a "networked intentionality" (Latour, 1993, p. 261); but the network in Latourian terms avoids the problem of patriarchal power as its own agential network in its situating of the relational.
Presenting a criticism of new materialism (and thus acknowledging it as a disciplinary field), Peter Wolfendale in his book, Object-Oriented Philosophy: The Noumenon's New Clothes (2014) argues his claim that "The OOO/ANT/NM axis [thus] solves the pressing political problem of cultivating collective agency by dissolving it." (p. 383).Wolfendale's reading of the three movements [OOO= Object-Oriented-Ontology; ANT= Actor Network Theory; NM= New Materialism] as "insisting that everything that exists is an actant" (2014, p. 381) collapses the distinctions between the positions and their respective approaches to matter. Wolfendale's focus of discussion is not NM here, and his position is too hasty in dismissing the details of what a materialist reading of the transformative agency of something actually seeks to expound.
It is of significance to note the variations in terms of different technical senses of agency, and the meanings that it is given when put to work in theories and in practices. These variations in use give rise to the questions: How can we use the notion of agency in political terms if the consideration of an assemblage is a unit of discreet materials? How does the concept of political need to be refigured if everything is relational? One such question – Do or can theories of agency have an ethical position in relation to the industrialization of memory? – is how I want to close this entry.
'Agential memory' appears across a number of theoretical positions.The notion of memory has multiple facets. Critical anthropological and cultural theory addresses the location of memory; the artefactual evidence, the stories, sites, and resonances where memory is to be located – in a photograph, a remnant of fabric, a building, a landscape, a site. But these forms of locational memory require narrativisation to enliven them for the contemporary participant; otherwise they remain mute. If only the walls could speak, is the common phrase, willing an animism; sentience to the non-human, but in order to retrieve the past-human activity, memory is coupled with agency. In new materialism, memory is a concept to be grasped diffractively in order to enable a more complex; realistically productive mapping of the relational nature of the matter, or things under discussion, and their political positioning. Tim Ingold argues: "things are active not because they are imbued with agency but because of ways in which they are caught up in these currents of the lifeworld. The properties of materials, then, are not fixed attributes of matter but are processual and relational. To describe these properties means telling their stories." (Ingold, 2007, p. 1). Extending Ingold's position, Stacey Alaimo cautions against just telling the story of a thing, rather to consider the story in relation to our own ethical entanglement and agency – i.e. to our involvement in the constitution of something (see Alaimo, 2014, p. 194-95). Referring to Barad, Alaimo notes: "We are always on the 'hook' – on innumerable hooks – ethically speaking, always caught up in and responsible for material intra-actions" (2014, p. 195). This is how agency is positioned within feminist new materialist positions, not just as a methodological critical tool that acknowledges its own self-telling or performing, but as an ethical modality by and with which practitioners can be attendant to the political generated by the entanglement of matter.
SYNONYM: power, instrumentality, entanglement, matter, actant
ANTONYM: impotence, oppression, causality
HYPERNYM: ethics, politics, new materialism, assemblage, information
HYPONYM: matter, object, thing, body, infrastructure, informatics
Alaimo, Stacy (2014). Oceanic Origins, Plastic Activism, and New Materialism at Sea. Material ecocriticism, Iovino, S., & Oppermann, S. (Eds.). Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press: 186-203.
Barad, Karen (2003) Posthuman performativity: Towards an Understanding of How Matter comes to Matter. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society (28: 3): 801-33.
Barad, Karen (2007) Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning, Durham: Duke University Press.
Bennett, Jane (2001) The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Coole, Diana (2010) The Inertia of Matter and the Generativity of Flesh, New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics, D. Coole and S.Frost (Eds.) Duke University Press: 92-115.
Coole, Diana, and Frost, Samantha (2010). Introducing the new materialisms, New materialisms: Ontology, agency, and politics, Duke University Press:1-43.
Ingold, Tim (2007). Materials against materiality. Archaeological Dialogues, 14: 1-16.
Spriggay, Stepahnie & Truman, Sarah E. (2018) Walking Methodologies in a More-Than-Human World: WalkingLab. London and New York: Routledge.
Tamboukou, Maria (2018) The joy of learning: Feminist materialist pedagogies and the freedom of education, Educational Philosophy and Theory, 50:9, 868-877, DOI: 10.1080/00131857.2017.1396213
Wolfendale, Peter (2014) Object-Oriented Philosophy: The Noumenon's New Clothes, Lulu Press.
Van der Tuin, Iris (2014). Generational feminism: New materialist introduction to a generative approach. London: Lexington Books.
COST Action IS1307 New Materialism: Networking European Scholarship on 'How Matter Comes to Matter'.
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With the changing of societies on local, national and international scales owing to economic, ecological, political and technological developments and crises, a reorganized academic landscape can be observed to be emerging. Scholarship strives to become increasingly interdisciplinary in order to grasp and examine the unfolding complexity of ongoing ecological, socio-cultural and politico-economic changes. Additionally, academics forge... Read more or find out Who's Who
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Working Groups focus on four key areas of research
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Genealogies of New Materialisms; examines and intervenes in canonization processes by compiling a web-based bibliography, coordinating the OST 068/13 8 EN... Read more
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New Materialisms on the Crossroads of the Natural and Human Sciences; seeks to develop new materialisms at the boundaries of the human and natural sciences. The group focuses on how European new materialisms can rework the ‘Two Cultures' gap... Read more
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New Materialisms Embracing the Creative Arts; brings together European researchers, artists, museum professionals, and other activists with a keen interest in the material... Read more
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New Materialisms Tackling Economical and Identity – Political Crises and Organizational Experiments... Read more
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New Materialism —
Networking European Scholarship on 'How matter comes to matter’
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