RE: [xmca] agency as product?

From: Andy Blunden (
Date: Wed Nov 15 2006 - 01:54:58 PST


Rightly or wrongly, when I mention "postmodernists" in contrast to
structuralists, poststructuralists, third wave feminists (and
deconstructionists), I mean the kind of writers I don't bother to read in
detail let alone keep on my bookshelf, but the kind of ideas I am referring
to are talking about consumer choice (eg cable TV, customised mobile
phones, etc.) as allowing the person to "exercise agency" and the way
people can write their own biographies nowadays. I.e., reflecting popular
consciousness, uncritically. I think Eric was referring to this kind of
writing in some of his remarks. The other currents are the significant ones.

Althusser uses the term "agency" to mean agency in the sense that an
organism is the agent for the spread of an infectious disease. This is a
legitimate idea, but as I read him, this leaves no room for "agency" in the
sense I understand it - self-determination or sovereignty, that is, having
a critical voice in the social relations of which one is a part. I think
Althusser's line is deadly, but it raises a challenge which needs to be met.

Foucault is more ambiguous, but his most famous works have the same effect.
I understand that his later works depart form this, returning to a
philosophy of the subject, and there is room for agency in the normal sense
of the word in these later works. Lois McNay is my teacher on this
question. Read her, not me.

I found Chris Weedon's "Feminist Practice & Poststructuralist Theory" a
really good, readable and not-too-long introduction to the theory which
explains why agency is ruled out by poststructuralism from someone who
supports this position.

The collection "Feminist Contentions" has a fascinating debate between
Judith Butler and other third-wave feminists. In her first piece Butler
leaves no room for agency at all. When challenged by another writer, she
admits that deconstruction as a practice does in fact allow for agency by
*subverting* the narratives which otherwise entrap people. I would
recommend this book.

I think Dorothy Holland et al's "Identity and Agency in Cultural Worlds" is
a really fine book; the first article gives a theoretical overview which
would give you what you want from a CHAT perspective. She talks of a "third
way" between culturalism and constructivism. Kevin MacDonald's "Struggles
for Subjectivity" is interesting too.

Caroline Williams' "Contemporary French Philosophy. Modernity and the
Persistence of the Subject" is interesting from a completely different

he, he ... very few males writing on this subject. :-)


At 10:17 AM 15/11/2006 +0100, you wrote:
>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
> >Educatio_______________________________________________
> >xmca mailing list
> >
> >
>xmca mailing list
>xmca mailing list

  Andy Blunden : tel (H) +61 3 9380 9435, AIM
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