Agency within the context of new materialism
Oct 23, 2019
In order to enable a basis for design to create a caring relationship to designed things, my claim is a re-evaluation of these very things and how we treat them. As such, I will introduce concepts such as agency and animism. I will argue, that such caring practices can be found both in practices of animism and in the idea of agency, as it has been re-conceptualized by new materialism.
Care and maintenance are important topics on their own, which shall be treated at another time. Animistic practice has the potential to introduce such caring practices on a material level as shown, for example, by Hari-Kuyō1, the festival of broken needles.
When working with animism there is generally a wide range of understandings of this concept. From my limited experience, animism in a eurocentric context is often connected to things being animated or alive. This is mostly a psychological point of view, in which being alive is attributed in regards to interaction patterns2. While this can be useful, I’d love to enrichen this discourse by an ontological approach to animism. While in a psychological approach, things are put on par with humans because of certain attributes, for example responding in a human-understandable way, animism levels the ontological hierarchy between human (subject) and thing (object) in the first place. Basically, things are treated as equals simply for existing. This is not completely right of course, but it can hold as an illustration of my intention for the moment. This is what I call an ontological approach to animism. In animism, things can possess personhood, which means, they are treated and related to like persons. This should not be confused with anthropomorphizing things. Attributing personhood is a way of relating to things that have social, ethical or legal implications. An interesting example in this regard is the granting of the legal rights of a person to the river Te Awa Tupua in New Zealand3. This acknowledgement changed the rivers status from a shared resource that needs to be managed to that of a person with the capabilities to sue others upon harm done to it. An important aspect of personhood is the concept of agency as the ability or capacity to act. This term was already heavily reflected in western theory, from humanism to post-humanism and lately in new materialism. An inquiry into new materialism is especially fruitful, since some of its approaches are very similar to some of that of animism, in regard to my attempt for an ontological approach.
New materialism is a collection of discourses, originating from a theoretical turn around 1990, away from a humanist tradition. These discourses seek “a repositioning of the human among nonhuman actants, they question the stability of an individuated, liberal subject, and they advocate a critical materialist attention to the global, distributed influences of late capitalism and climate change.”4 Basically, new materialism questions the human exceptionalism in the humanist tradition. Its origins surely lie in anti-humanism as well as posthumanism. I would argue that new materialism in theory equals what animism is in practice, as far as this comparison makes sense.
In or since humanism, agency is understood as the capacity to act, usually by a conscious subject. That means, this capacity was attributed to moving, thinking, planning and generally living beings. Agency was a “quality” mostly attributed to the Western subject. This reduced everything else, from universe to animals as well as non-western cultures, to kinds of machines or savageries upon which the human rational subject can act. Parts of this mechanical model of the world, underpinned humanisms and colonialisms wrong-doings, which led to the critiques formed in anti-humanism. Decades later, there still was a need to acknowledge that things do things, without falling into the anthropocentric pit. There have been attempts in posthumanism to reformulate the concept of agency. Wary of the human-centeredness of the term agency, Bruno Latour started to use the term actant, which means “something that acts or to which activity is granted by others. It implies no special motivation of human individual actors, nor of humans in general”5. Diana Coleman likewise instead used the terminology of “agentic agency”.
A few years onwards and coming back to new materialism, agency is one of the core terms in its theories, although with different applications in its various discourses. New materialist theorists, like Braidotti, Bennett and Barad revive or reread the philosophical tradition of vitalism, in which matter is not some passive substance. Matter is conceived as something with potential to self-organize and form associations with other material systems. It is this potential to do something, although void of our understanding of intention, that gives agency this relevance in new materialism. Braidotti even goes so far to use the term posthuman subjectivity and zoe, bare life, in her theories regarding matter6.
Jane Bennett’s approach in her book Vibrant Mater is of special interests in my attempt to legitimize animism, or as an application or research topic in design. In it, she talks of thing-power, and like other theorists of her branch, calls for a political treatment of matter and things.
“Thing-power gestures toward the strange ability of ordinary, man-made items to exceed their status as objects and to manifest traces of independence of aliveness, constituting the outside of our own experience”7
This is where we can find a connection to animism’s personhood. Both animism’s and new materialism’s ascription of either personhood or agency in matter or things enable a political perspective. It is a fundamental reevaluation of the ontology of things and how we treat them. I believe that this reevaluation can be very valuable, because it has implications on a human-understandable or -experienceable level. Unlike the hyper-object of the climate crisis, new materialism or animism enables humans and communities to have more respectful interactions with the environment, through the things around them.
I would love to end this text with the following question.
What is designs response to issues of care and maintenance to the things around us, if we consider said things to be ontologically on par with us?