Q. About Agency

On the Q. of agency, I'm not sure that I follow Benhabib's characterization of the cross-purposes (initially mistyped 'cross-porpoises') at which she locates postmodern and feminist theory. Or, to put it another way, I'm not sure that I buy into her account of postmodern nonagency, which seems - to me, anyway- at least a little reductive.

The passage I have in mind is on p.20, but I'll quote it: '[Quoting Flax] "Man is forever caught in the web of fictive meaning, in chains of signification, //in which the subject is merely another position in language.//" The subject thus dissolves into the chain of significations of which it was supposed to be the initiator. Along with this dissolution of the subject into yet "another position in language" disappear of course concepts of intentionality, accountability, self-reflexivity, and autonomy.' Is this really true? I.e. would even the strongest postmodern critic of traditional models of agency claim that self-reflexive desire for or autonomous action toward change 'have disappeared' (NB the incredulous tone of these questions was largely unintended, and they shouldn't be read as merely rhetorical - it may turn out that this 'really is true' and that even and especially the strongest postmodern critics of traditional models of agency would claim //just// these things, in which case I'm inviting you to tell me about them)?

It seems to me that the postmodern line would simply be that if by agency you mean any traditional notion of unalloyed and uninfluenced essential action, then no, you've been interpellated or narrativized even prenatally and can't reasonably be said to be either 'unalloyed' or 'uninfluenced.' But, assuming that Benhabib's intended female audience couldn't for instance vote, I //don't// think that the postmodern line would be that 'intentionality, accountability, self-reflexivity, and autonomy' were too far dissolved for any kind of suffragist movement to be set into motion. It might critique the //notion// of suffrage, and the //origins// of one's desire to gain it - e.g. 'Under what ideological conditions is voting even desirable? Only those in which educational institutions, family units, and political rhetoric supercharge the act with value' or 'Is your involvement in a suffragist movement really and uncomplicatedly //yours//, or is it under the joint-custody of the ideological institutions that informed you that voting was valuable, the ideological institutions that informed your gender identity, the ideological institutions that are already beginning to negotiate the politicization and enfranchisement of that gender identity, &c.' - but I don't think that it would critique political efficacy or action itself (I mean except in limit cases of sublimely complex systems too terrible and incomprehensible to change).

Or, succinctly now: it seems as if the postmodern line is just going to be that one's desire for change is already ideologically circumscribed, that the horizon of one's imagination for change is, in fact, already ideologically circumscribed, and so on. In light of the sort of benign universality that Althusser ascribes to ideology - and which benign universality Benhabib herself addresses: 'Surely, a subjectivity that would not be structured by language, by narrative and by the symbolic structures of narrative available in a culture is unthinkable. We tell of who we are, of the "I" that we are by means of a narrative. "I was born on such and such a date, as the daughter of such and such..." etc. These narratives are deeply colored by the codes of expectable and understandable biographies and identities in our cultures' (21) - such a claim (i.e. the 'ideological circumscription' claim at the beginning of this ¶) seems neither controversial nor paralyzing. Benhabib wants change? She can have it, and all she has to do is concede that her desire for it is not originary.

The moment when Benhabib laments that, on Butler's view, there's 'no self behind the mask' (22) (which, of course, insert long digressions on Daniel Dennet and Invasion of the Body Snatchers here) seems revealing in this context. Again she's reducing a position of complexity - people are accretions of identities which are themselves accretions of interpellated dispositions and desires - to a position of the simplest sort of agency panic, a 'no self behind the mask' strawman that is misrepresentatively (on my view at least) neutered of 'agency' and that unfairly and unproductively appeals to our deepest Cartesian biases about centered subjectivity. It just seems as if Benhabib is trying to force this ('Postmodern theorists problematize identity') = ('Postmodern agency, or lack thereof, is incompatible with political efficacy and change') equation, and doing so seems reductive and maybe unnecessary.

One section of Benhabib's argument that really works toward her credit, in light of all this, is the one about history, and the ways in which postmodern theory seeks to dismantle emancipatory, utopian metanarratives (presumably because they're just adding that many more layers to the forces that shape identity). If it's politically utile for feminism to interpellate feminists, and 'ideologically circumscribe' the hopes and desires of its subjects, and to do so w/o seeming as seedy and manipulative and Dr. Doomish as I may have just made it sound, then any postmodern screeds that are actively against just these sorts of histories, and that actively undermine agency as ideological, and that actively encourage feminists to second-guess the institutions that are interpellating them, //would// seem to be at a sort of cross-porpoises with feminist theory. I guess I just wonder how unsympathetic to historical 'change!' narratives and suspicious of the agency that would achieve them pomo theorists really are.

Any thoughts?

--Guattari Hero

I think you may be discounting the radicality of this passage: "Surely, a subjectivity that would not be structured by language, by narrative and by the symbolic structures of narrative available in a culture is unthinkable ... We can concede all that, but nevertheless we must still argue that we are not merely extensions of our histories" (20-1). I think B deserves props for this ambitious final caveat ("nevertheless..."). Say what you will about the position's incoherence or her frustrating rhetorical strategies (I think we would agree on both), but her attempt to complicate the "postmodern v. feminism" dichotomy is laudable. In many ways, her argument relies on recourse to "experience," a category which postmodern theorists in the Foucauldian/Althusserian tradition are quick to deprecate. B's appeal seems to me as follows. At the end of the day, *we* do not experience our own agency and subjectivity as "merely" an extension of our histories; rather, we experience some kernel of critical agency - e.g. in the aversion to postmodern accounts of interpellation that try to erase it - and that's enough for praxis. Such focalization of experience would even be compatible with the "strongest version" of the postmodern de-centering of subjectivity that you depict above (i.e. that "self-reflexive desire for or autonomous action toward change" are, in fact, gone). It doesn't matter how little face exists behind the mask if one's resistive compass comes in essentially visceral form. Perhaps experience - though the invocation of this term is itself (wide) open to critique - becomes the absolute void that can never be (re-)inscribed within meta-narratives of anything. I think that this speaks to your "attn. 3NT" post as well. When embodied in the Other standing before me, experience becomes the kind of radical alterity I've been expressing ambivalent hope for in class (this is Levinas's thesis, not mine). Even in the context of cultural homogenization and nearly-uniform ideologico-material conditions of production, experience (even if it's always-already mediated by ideology) is singular. This point is "obvious," in some sense, but amidst an increasingly economized social field and rampant neo-imperialism, I often think we might do well to revive it.

I think my sticking point still is that I can't imagine the pomo theorist (perhaps simply because I haven't read her) who would insinuate into even the deepest account of ideological mediation any claims about the 'experience' of nonagency. 'We may be mechanically determined, but agency is a rational precondition for the experience of things' (and its mirror corollary, 'We may be agentive, but strict causality is a rational precondition for the experience of things') is at least as old as the first Critique, and I don't think that any pomo theorists are engaging Kant with a strong 'I can //feel// the ideological forces guiding my feet, one in front of the other!' experience of nonagency, much less an 'I would like to vote, but I'll have to wait for ideological forces to remote control me to the suffragist rally before I can' critique of change. Rather, it seems to be 'You can experience the agency of change, and even achieve that change, but grant us that somewhere it's all mediated'--exactly the sort of 'have your agency and eat it too' antinomialism outlined above. 'I don't //feel// interpellated!' just doesn't seem like an argument that would phase Althusser, and it isn't an argument that's much phased you when Bumpkins has advanced it in class.

Anyway, this may all just be a function of my not having read the strongest of the strong pomo theorists, in which case point me to them.

--Guattari Hero

This hope for experience as a "radical alterity" reminds me of Hutcheon's analysis of the kind of postmodern literary work (informed by feminism) that sits on the borderline between fiction and personal history. Such works' emphasis on personal history (experience) and the politicization of the personal could grant a space for feminist (and postmodern) writing that doesn't just rely on parody. (This is all on pages 156-157, btw.) Even if the personal representation is inscribed by ideology, experience is, according to Hutcheon, singular...I'm really sort of repeating everything that 3NT and Hutcheon have stated, so hopefully I can think this out more later on the blog or in class.

Re: your point about my reaction to Bumpkins, the experience of agency in those moments when aversion erupts at the level of visceral intuition (I feel compelled to work in a Star Wars example; maybe when Han "has a bad feeling about this" in the trash compactor?) are ethically and politically indeterminate. Yes, Bumpkins could use much of my post above to legitimate his own position on ideology (or its lack), but such is the beauty of foundationless knowledge: the debate revolves not around adherence to apriori doctrine, but rather focuses on what comforts the most people in the most contexts. And on this score, I think that my position trumps Bumpkins - though not in a Q.E.D, categorical proof of everything kind of way; the conversation must go on.