As I wrote last week, Thomas and I are trying to work up a paper on the rhetoric of object agency (preliminarily entitled ‘Do Things Act?’). Here are a few thoughts from the reading process:
Most reasonable and clearheaded account of object agency so far:
Lambros Malafouris’ work on nonhuman agency. He has co-edited a very useful volume (Material Agency: A Non-Anthropocentric Approach with Carl Knappett) in which he has a paper called At the Potter’s Wheel: An Argument for Material Agency, which provides a reasoned, well-argued and detailed argument for how agency “is a property or possession neither of humans nor of nonhumans. Agency is the relational and emergent product of material engagement.” And he summarises nicely why we struggle so much with the concept of agency:
“The constant errors in our agency judgements are simply the price we have to pay for being skillfully immersed in a physical world and at the same time of being able to experience this world from a subjective first-person perspective. It is the price of being human.”
The ultimate cause of action is, as he says, none of the supposed agents, but the flow of activity itself. My gut instincts agree very much with this.
My biggest concern with object agency so far:
But I can’t help but think about what comes after the ‘merger’ of man and materiality? Is there a different argument beyond pointing to flow, networks, complexity, emergence and process? My concern with object agency being used in a strategic way to confirm complexity is that is potentially leads to a stifled form of analysis, in which pointing to complexity becomes both the theoretical starting point and the analytical end point – similar to how social constructivism often worked in the 90s. It is (perhaps not yet, but on the horizon) a possible dead end. But I can’t make out what lies on the other side of it yet – my instincts tell me that it is something more experimental, possibly focused on building things rather than constructing waterproof arguments. As theory needs to move beyond pointing to the hybrid nature of everything, then the next step might be simply making things. Crazier stuff, really (see last point).
Book that made me think stuff even if it has shortcomings:
Jane Bennett‘s Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. I have encountered a lot of exasperation with and dismissal of Bennett’s work (just ask Thomas if you’re in the mood for a diatribe), but I quite like it. Vibrant Matter manages to get me excited about thinking about things, which I prefer any day to a solid but uninspiring correctness. Even if her book is sort of a hodgepodge of ANT and some Deleuzian ideas, it captures a vital and energetic concern with things, their weirdness, wonderfulness and ability to confound a lot of our knee jerk conceptions of ourselves and our relationship with the world around us. I thoroughly disagree with her call for a strategic anthropomorphism (I think we need to go the other way and ‘objectify/thingify’ us instead), but I appreciate the vitality she manages to infuse her text with.
Best books so far that explore a form of object agency in creative ways:
Ben Woodard’s Slime Dynamics and Thierry Bardini’s Junkware. Lovely and disturbing books. More on those coming soon. Cover of Slime Dynamics below.