Agency is not to be owned; it is relational

This article was published in IntrepidEd News on 2 Feb 2023.

No one can tell from which infinitesimal traces things unfold, but it is certain it is not from chance— philosopher Jean Baudrillard

Ideas are alive, not static or perfect. They never take a definite form because they are like a stream with infinite tributaries. My thinking has changed so much over the years through having conversations, reading, bouncing ideas alone or with others, leaving some things behind, and picking them up later. Then once in a while, you come across something that changes everything. 

A couple of years ago, I wrote an article entitled Our job is to teach ourselves out of a job. I meant to draw a parallel between teaching and parenting: both should provide the care, love, and skills young persons will need to thrive as they cast off in the world with confidence and ability. I wanted to underscore that, as educators, our job is to prepare our students for life after they leave school, understanding that the learning that takes place today is a step toward the rest of life and not an end in itself. Just like a parent who raises a child so that they will be equipped in different ways to handle life’s twists and turns.

Then I spoke with Nora Bateson.

And I realized how misguided I had been. 

Maybe misguided is the wrong word. More like stuck in mechanistic thinking: “If I do a good job to prepare you well, then you will do just fine.” If… then… cause/effect. 

Nora Bateson asked me a simple question. So simple it is incredibly complex and infinitely layered: “How would things be different if you knew your children were never leaving?”

She remarked that in our society we often see separation as a finality, an accomplishment. In other words, we take pride in our children leaving home, doing wonderful things, FaceTiming every week, taking the plane to come over for Christmas, and isn’t it nice to have everyone here? Independence is something to strive for, we don’t want to rely on anyone, and we don’t want our children to rely on us. 

Even when we achieve a smooth and sustained separation, this is nothing but an illusion; there can be no separation. We are entanglements of our past, present, and future, the unfolding rhizomatic stories of our experiences woven with those of every person and thing that has played a part in these experiences and that also have experiences of their own. The confluence of experiences is the event[1] at the moment. These events carry the discoveries, broken hearts, impulsive decisions, and joys of those with whom we have interactions, or rather intra-actions.[2] They bring their experiences and we bring ours to this moment. Every event is the non-linear culmination of 13.8 billion years of entangled histories that come together in their moment and space, and then like that are gone but will resonate forever in other experiences. This is agency: the process of making a difference in an actor’s (actant’s?) experiences, according to philosopher Bruno Latour, or, put another way, the “possibilities for worldly re-configurings,” to quote feminist theorist Karen Barad.[3] Agency is not something we own, it is not an attribute: it is a relationship, it is an enactment.[4] Every person is part of the enactment of agency because every moment together is a relational event. 

The same goes for animals and plants. They too are the non-linear culmination of every story. They too are actors enacting agency.

The same goes for non-living things. They too are the non-linear culmination of every story. They too are actors enacting agency. 

What does this mean? Why do I move away from the idea that agency is something someone has that allows them to exercise freedom or alter an outcome? Why do I stress the relational process over individual ownership? Because agency doesn’t happen in a vacuum. We affect others (including non-human living and non-living entities) that respond to us, and in that response, others (including non-humans) affect us. The chair in which you just can’t get comfortable, or in which you get too comfortable and doze off on some days. The warm cup of coffee that tastes delicious and awakens you. The burn you felt when you poured boiling water on your finger. We are in a relationship with the world, as the world. 

We cannot affect something without there being something to affect. Hence the relationship. How we affect someone/thing depends on the context in which we find ourselves and the specificities of that person/thing at that moment. But they affect us too! We do not act independently! Hence the relational and the understanding that we and the someone/thing are simultaneously affected by everything else in the context. This is the assemblage, the configuration of everything that matters at the same time, without a center, swirling together.

This challenges the idea of cause/effect because there is no longer linearity in the swirl. More to the point, if agency is relational and if what is in between us matters, then this shifts how we inter/intra-act with the world. Agency isn’t owned, it’s shared when it is enacted through our inter/intra-actions. It’s not that you aren’t free, it’s not that you don’t have choice, it’s that the choices are possibilities within a certain context and when there is a shift in context, the possibilities are not the same and so your choices will be different. Relinquishing ownership of agency in favor of a relational process matters because it means we are in this together and if we decide we aren’t in this together (the exclusion), we must justify this decision and live with such a justification of choice. 

Everyone/thing enacts agency because everything impacts affect.[5] Everyone/thing makes a difference in others’ experiences and plays a role in the scene, influencing ever so greatly or slightly the unfolding of events. Whether you are reading these words on a laptop or a phone plays a role in your experience with the meaning you make. Whether you are in a place that is brightly lit or dark, whether it’s warm or just right, whether your clothes are snug or just a little itchy, whether the clock reads that it’s too late or too early to be up, whether the font is optimally chosen for your eyes, for your preferences. Whether… and everywhere in between. All of these relational conditions enact agency because they play a part in the unfolding of the event. Change any one of them and you won’t have the same experience.

Provocatively[6] put, agency is not voice and choice. Voice and choice are voice and choice. Agency is not the freedom to act. Freedom to act is the freedom to act. When we say we give learners voice and choice or freedom, we are admitting that we have taken agency (if understood in these terms) away and that it is our privilege to give back. What does that say about our system? What does that say about the power relations present? To paraphrase Paulo Freire, be weary of the gift that comes from the hand of the oppressor. Voice and choice in this sense aren’t really much voice or choice; they are voice and choice within the constraints we set, between the walls we have built. We see this as empowerment—which also suggests that we have taken power away. 

It’s not the teachers’ fault. They want to loosen the reins, they want to care for the children’s selves. Teachers are part of a system and themselves have to operate within constraints. The system is the constraint.

Agency is not “owned” by anyone or anything because that would signify separation from context. They could just take their agency elsewhere, walk off with it, keeping agency in their pocket and bringing it out when they felt like it. Agency is objectified, independent of its owner, able to be gifted and passed around, consumed even. It is a phenomenon of the in-between precisely because it is relational. Agency is the enactment between us, it is how we resonate and reverberate with one another; we make a difference in each other’s experiences. Agency is a process enacted at the instant moment of intra-action between two actors and then re-enacted in the new moment based on reconfigurations within new events (and assemblages) that unfold. This process leaves a mark on the actor, which is the difference that agency has made in the actor’s experience. The actor carries that mark—however large or small—with them forever. That mark may or may not be a memory. It is, however, the re-configuration of possibilities based on the unfoldings that took place. This explains why agency needs relationships because it needs unfoldings between actors. Not in a cause-and-effect manner, but rather re-configurations of possibilities between the different actors (human and non-human). How can we have agency by ourselves and not take into account all that took place to create these conditions in the now?

I know! This will make many feel uncomfortable because we’re so used to thinking that we own agency. But, again, you can’t walk off with agency in your pocket and go use it somewhere else all the same. Agency is not independent of context. Context matters. Relationships matter. The two are inseparable. 

Agency is about leaving our mark. We need someone/thing to leave our mark on. That is what is relational. That is why we don’t own it. We enact it.

Why do I write about agency as a relationship? Why do I risk upsetting those readers who see agency as something that is owned or given? Agency is a word that pops up in many educational contexts and I don’t mean to offend. I am not replacing human agency with something else. By positioning agency as relational, I am adding to the list of what can enact agency. It is not revolutionary, in fact, it is, in Latour’s words, banal: “its very banality makes it an ideal candidate to replace the fuss and bother of the subject-object opposition.[7]

Because when the locus of agency is owned by the individual, we create boundaries of separation, legitimizing the individual as an independent entity, and reinforcing the nature/culture binary that is a construct of the Humanist traditions. By exposing agency as a relational event, as an enactment in the in-between, we embrace Quantum field theory, which suggests that beings are indeterminate and extend over different spaces and times. We also connect with the ancient wisdom of interbe(com)ing. We eschew the binaries that divide. We become response-able.[8]

You may feel uncomfortable right now and reject this notion of agency. I am not asking you to eschew your views. I am asking you to sit with the discomfort and the possibilities of what could be if we embraced agency as a process of enactment that makes a difference in an actor’s experiences. 

How would things be different if you knew nothing could ever be separate?

Agency is the entanglement of space and time and matter.[9] Your present—the moment now—, the past, and the future enact agency because they play a part in your experience and in meaning-making: the marks of events gone and those to come enact agency as they shape your thoughts and feelings—conscious and unconscious—and your worldview. This is the unfolding rhizomatic story. This collapses our notion of time because the past will influence the future, or as William Faulkner wrote, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Jean-Paul Sartre wrote that we are condemned to be free but when everything has agency, we find liberation. Liberation from seeing ourselves as change-making actors who carry responsibility for making a better world. How arrogant! Who are we to sit outside the world and think we can change it? Are we gods? We are in the world, we are with the world, the worlds even, for there are many. We are response-able, not responsible. We respond to the events that are unfolding at this moment. How we respond is our ethics. Our ethics appreciate that we will not always get everything right because the worlds are too complex to make decisions based on reason and information. Homo economicus was stillborn. 

Liberation comes at a price; our egos. If everyone/thing enacts agency and we respond to events, to the network of connections between us, then we exist, nay, we become, in the in-between. We become [with/in] the event, not separate from it.

Everything is entangled, no linearity of time in a space where we no longer seek cause and effect because we abandon our belief that we are gods who can change the world. We no longer look for the culprits behind what has happened because we understand that in complexity there is no culprit, only emergence. Hence why we can no more change the world than we can influence the weather.

This is not nihilism! This is not a call to give up because none of it matters! That too would be separation, mechanistic thinking. We are in the assemblage, we are entangled in the worlds and thus our responses resonate fractally. We matter more than we think because we are not separate from our worlds. What we do matters, but not because we are engineers tinkering around with the world machine. What we do matters because we are in the world ocean, one drop of water among all the others, indistinguishable from all the others, but nonetheless a drop. Where does the drop begin and where does it end?

When we appreciate that agency is not owned but enacted, and re-enacted every moment; when we notice that agency leaves indelible marks in the emergence of new events that agency enacts anew, we acquire an ability to respond—a response-ability—based on our ethics. What kinds of marks do we want to leave on these worlds? 

When agency is the in-between, we tend to our relationships because we become through our relationships, not separate from them. We no longer seek to prepare our children or our students to succeed independently because we know that we (or rather the agency) have left marks, making a difference in their past, present, and future. They will forever carry the mark that we have left with them so that their past (what is now the now) will become part of their present and their future. Spacetime was never linear.

So perhaps there is another way to pose Nora’s question, another way to hold us to our ethics and to acknowledge the marks we leave on the world (and therefore others). Another way that considers that there can never be separation and that the past, present, and future are entangled. 

“How would things be different if you knew you(r mark) would never leave your children?”


↑1The event is based on the relational ontology that entities, individuals, and their attributes come into being through their dynamic relationships, and do not pre-exist this relationship. This means that we are the constant iteration and reiteration of relational becomings.
↑2Intra-action, by Karen Barad’s definition, is the mutual constitution of entangled agencies.
↑3Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway, p. 55.
↑4Barad specifies, “Agency is about changing possibilities of change entailed in reconfiguring material-discursive apparatuses of bodily production, including the boundary articulations and exclusions that are marked by those practices in the enactment of a causal structure, p. 178.
↑5Affect conceptualizes feelings as relational rather than discretely owned by individually bounded bodies. Affect replaces mind/body, self/other binaries by entangling actors within fields of experiences. We both contribute to the sensations through our relationships and intra-actions.
↑6In its etymological sense, that is, to produce voices. Giving individuals a voice is different from producing voices. Agency as a relational enactment is the abundance that provides for the production of voices rather than agency as ownership, which is an approach of scarcity.
↑7Bruno Latour, Politics of Nature, p. 79.
↑8That is, able to respond to what unfolds in the in-between rather than act as if we were outside of the situation, able to manipulate the machine that is determined reality.
↑9Or as Barad writes, spacetimematter.

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