RE: [xmca] agency as product?

From: Renee (
Date: Wed Nov 15 2006 - 01:17:39 PST


Could you give an example please of gross misuse of the idea of agency by
postmodernists? I am trying to develop better understandings of various
approaches(post-modern, post-structural, neo-Marxist and of course CHAT)and
how they (might) provide analytical tools for social justice work, so it
would be interesting to see a (apparently?) critical view of one of them.


-----Original Message-----
From: [] On
Behalf Of Andy Blunden
Sent: Wednesday, November 15, 2006 9:37 AM
To: eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity
Subject: Re: [xmca] agency as product?

Well, I think that the recent articles by Anna Stetsenko and Stephen
Billett are testimony to the fact that there is a lot of interest in the
problem of agency in this milieu. "Volition", IMHO, only touches at the
margins of "agency", though that may well be exactly what Lara was really
asking about, as she raised it in the context of (child??) "development".

True, subversion of the very meaning of the word by Foucault, Althusser,
poststructuralism and third-wave feminism and gross misuse of the idea by
postmodernists and capitalist ideologues makes the water very murky. With
that I agree. But I don't believe that the word, which dates from the 17th
century, is a "weasel word", even if many a weasel word has been spoken
about agency. I think it is one of the central problems of our times. I
think there are definite historical reasons for the "founding fathers" to
have not concerned themselves with agency, but that is a question for
another time.

At 08:21 AM 15/11/2006 +0900, you wrote:
>Dear Lara:
>I think that the reason why it's hard to find anything (at least in the
>work of the founding fathers) on "agency" is that "agency" is something of
>a latter-day weasel-word.
>When Foucauldians use the word, they use it to claim that the persons we
>imagine are disempowered are really not so; this is part of their general
>argument that power is not something wielded by one class against another
>but rather a fine network of capillaries distributed throughout the social
>tissue, bringing nourishment as well as poison to every cell.
>When people in the travel business and the real estate trade use the word,
>they mean almost exactly the opposite; they mean that you, the client will
>make the decisions and they will slavishly carry out your every whim,
>albeit with greater knowledge and skill than you ever could on your own.
>When Eckert and McConnell-Ginet (and other feminist linguistic
>anthropologists) use the term, they mean something rather in between: men
>have power, but women have agency, where agency is the subsidiary power
>wielded by people who, because of the underlyin organized violence of
>society, must derive power through the manipulation of those who wield it
>more directly. That is why girls in high school are more concerned with
>"popularity" than boys.
>I think that the term Vygotsky used was "volition", and it's really a much
>better and more useful idea than "agency".
>As you suggest, it is in a very clear way a product of development. If we
>watch a child with a pencil we often notice that his movements are at
>first random, and then repeated, and then varied slightly to create a
>block of color.
>This block may turn into a long rectangle of color, but it is only when
>recognizeable shapes emerge (a snake, a sail, a tendril of smoke) that the
>child hits on the idea of deliberately drawing something.
>By moving the idea of the snake to the beginning of action (instead the
>end), the child inverts the cause of the action and its effect. Vygotsky
>would say a new relationship between psychological functions is created,
>by inverting the ratio of action/meaning to meaning/action.
>I think we can say in this instance that "volition" is created. But to
>call this "agency" rather confuses matters, no? To me "agency" suggests
>neither other-regulation nor self-regulation, but rather the regulation of
>other people and thus the negation of their volition.
>David Kellogg
>Seoul National University of
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