This week I’ve been thinking a lot about human agency. I think it’s actually been on my mind since our reading of Sharon Crowley. As we read in her Composition in the University, Crowley questions agency in the composition classroom, arguing that composition is a disciplining course that forms students to fit the norms of the university. Agency, for Crowley, is very limited for students—especially in the comp classroom. And then we read Foucault, the theorist whom Crowley frequently evokes. His discussion of how power functions by institutional normalizations likewise makes me question the limitations and possibilities agency. And then there’s literary theory. For what seems like the entire semester, we’ve been reading much critical theory that calls agency into question (for example, Althusser, Zizek, Spivak, among others).
So what is agency? Is it a myth? An ideology? Or are there varying levels or degrees of agency? And what can explorations of digital rhetoric/writing tell us about agency?
Agency is something Sheridan, Ridolfo, and Michel address in their 2012 The Available Means of Persuasion. In his discussion of posthumanism, Porter also brings up agency (although more implicitly) in his 2003 and 2009 Computers and Composition articles. In a similar vein to that of Carolyn Miller’s 2007 Rhetoric Society Quarterly article, in this blog post I’d like to explore what digital rhetoric (online communication practices) can tell us about agency. Although I’m not offering any new insights into discussions that exist in current scholarship, I’m growing increasingly interested in researching this further. Perhaps, then, this is a springboard for future inquiry.
In her article, Miller succinctly categorizes the historical and current theoretical treatment of agency: “Traditional rhetoric presupposes—even celebrates—agency, as the power of the rhetor, of invention, of eloquence itself;poststructuralist rhetoric debunks agency as ‘ideology’…or ‘ontotheology…’” (142). Ultimately, Miller argues that agency should be reconsidered as a performance that “is generated through a process of mutual attribution between rhetor and audience” and that agency is “property of the rhetorical event, not of agents” (137). Drawing upon work in other fields, Miller argues that agency is a “necessary illusion”. However, locating agency as attribution, Miller argues that critical theory’s fixation on agency has been misplaced. “We should be concerned less about empowering subaltern subjects and more about enabling and encouraging attributions of agency to them by those with whom they interact—and accepting such attributions from them” (153, emphasis Miller’s). The process of attribution, Miller argues, is a human endeavor that involves moral judgments and human acknowledgment. Not a earth-shattering conclusion, but, importantly, it’s one made possible by theorizing the potentialities of digital technologies.
Sheridan, Ridolfo, and Michel place their discussion of agency with that of karios, describing the negotiation of each as “struggle.” They write, “our understanding of kairos and agency, then, references the ‘struggle’ of the prepared rhetor within complex and multifaceted contexts that are simultaneously material, discursive, social, cultural, and historical. This struggle calls for the prepared rhetor to be kairotically inventive” (11).
So, what does this say about agency? Can there really be such a thing as a “prepared” rhetor? A little later in the book, Sheridan, Ridolfo, and Michel revisit this problematic of agency. Similar to Miller, they recount two dominant views of agency: one, a naïve belief in autonomy and free will; and two, a postructualist account that claims all subjects are hailed by ideology and determined by discourse (103). Then, the spend time discussing a third, nascent view of agency by explaining Bruno Latour’s work. Explaining how nonhuman and human actors work in a complex network of contextual situations, Latour contends that morality cannot be accounted for by either of the two aforementioned views of agency. Summing up Latour, Sheridan, Ridolfo, and Michel write, “what works is something different from either individual will or discursive pressure: a network of human and nonhuman agents” (104). By recalling more work on Actor Network Theory, Sheridan, Ridolfo, and Michel state agency “exceeds the subject” and is “distributed across complex networks of human and nonhuman actors, including people, discourses, and technologies (106). However, they argue that agency doesn’t fully “evaporate,” as rhetors can still prepare, plan, choreograph, and anticipate how their rhetoric may be accepted, interpreted, used and (possibly) re-used. Thus, by education and practice, a rhetor can be kairotically “prepared” for the complexities of composing in varied discourses and media.
This is a lot to take in. It’s a position that seems to directly challenge much of the poststructualist theory I’ve encountered in literary theory and the postmodern readings we’ve had in 733. By turning our classroom efforts to public rhetoric, are we better able to allow students to have a greater sense of agency? Is that ever possible?
In short, I’m interested by the ways in which digital rhetoric can allow for re-theorization. For example, do theories of agency still hold up? What needs more attention? For me, asking these questions makes it exciting to do work in digital rhetoric.
Miller, C. (2007). What can automation tell us about agency? Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 37, 137-157.
Sheridan, D., Ridolfo, J., and Michel, A. (2012). The available means of persuasion: Mapping a theory and pedagogy of multimodal public rhetoric. Anderson, SC: Parlor Press.