‘By chance’ or ‘in itself’: Automatos and The Problem of Material Agency

Coney Island Fireworks

Cross-posted to In the Middle: comment there or at the fb.

Here’s a draft of my paper for the New Chaucer Society, which I’ll be giving on Friday July 18th 11am session on “Ecomaterialism: Questions/Problems/Ideologies.” I have all of five minutes. Not 100% confident in what follows, but, here goes.

This paper, a shortened and somewhat rethought version of a paper I gave at Kalamazoo2014, implicitly responds to criticism of the “faith,” “mysticism,” and even “panpsychism” of the new materialisms. Now, that charge may be fair, depending on who we’re looking at or what we’re looking for. Here, for example, is William Connolly on “creativity” in The Fragility of Things: Self-Organizing Processes, Neoliberal Fantasies, and Democratic Activism:

Creative processes flow through and over us, and reflexivity doubles the creative adventure. Actions are thus not entirely controlled by preexisting intentions; rather the creative dimension helps to compose and refine intentions as they become consolidated in action. To articulate the creative dimension of freedom, then, is to insert a fundamental qualification or hesitation into the ideas of both the masterful agent and agency as the activation of intentions already there. The creative element is located somewhere between active and passive agency. When creative freedom is under way in an unsettled context we may find ourselves allowing or encouraging a new thought, desire, or strategy to crystallize out of the confusion and nest of proto-thoughts that precede it. An agent, individual or collective, can help to open the portals of creativity, but it cannot will that which is creative to come into being by intending the result before it arrives. Real creativity is thus tinged with uncertainty and mystery. (75)

I’m sympathetic to this. I get it, because it describes, especially, how writing works for me, and probably for you. Outline all you like, something new is going to happen when you’re trying to assemble your actual words. It does feel mysterious, but still, the language of “mystery” or of a “tinge” smacks of mysticism, at least for those who are sniffing it out.

My own hesitation, however, would be with the “proto-thought,” since that, catnip to the humanists, strikes me as just as mysterious, obscuring as it does the question of the location of thought or, especially, its presumptive non-materiality.

That is my angle, then: in the background of this piece, you might hear me throwing the “mysticism” charge back against the accusers, whose certainty in the difference between thinking human subjects/nonhuman objects strikes me as both an act of faith and an unwarranted limitation of their attention only to familiar scales of time and size.

Another caution: the 20-minute version at Kalamazoo had a lot of room for Aquinas and also, especially, to give queer theory its due in assailing the paternalism of an absolute split between agent and object. This paper, like the new materialisms in general, wouldn’t have been possible without Butler and Irigaray.

Here we go:


The word “agency” gets a lot of use from New Materialists; Jane Bennett talks about “material agency,” and Karen Barad about the “agential object.” A 9am session tomorrow will ask “Should We Believe in the Agential Object?” And so on. One of the key purposes in using this word “agency,” I think, is to counter the faith that humans, or maybe some animals, are the only agential objects. For the new materialists, nonhuman objects aren’t only mechanical; they might surprise; they might respond; to use Derrida’s terminology, they might even have an excessive “responsibility,” rather than just a limited, predictable reactivity; in short, they—and us too—might exhibit some kind of choice and creativity.

“Some kind,” which is, admittedly, a bit hand-wavey, but deliberately so, to mark the way that the word “agency” acknowledges that actors without obvious political power, without much obvious choice, without obvious importance, and even without deliberation or subjectivity, can still resist, fight back, or make something new. Where they might do something in ways that the dominant agent couldn’t have accounted for. Where we can recognize actors that we would otherwise not notice, to “provincialize the human” and its scales of attention.

Given the conference, of course I’m going to argue that medieval thought has something to offer these discussions. Which of course you already know. I’ll focus on something small: the difficulties Aristotle’s word “automatos” gave some his medieval Latin translators.

Aristotle uses automatos, among other places, in Metaphysics VII.7, where it’s one of his three categories of causation: natural, artistic—the word is techne—and automaton. Techne is a familiar kind of agency to the humanist: the “active principle” is in the “soul” of the artist. “Natural comings to be,” on the other hand, “are the comings to be of those things which come to be by nature.” The tight mechanicity of this obvious, almost hilarious circular reasoning may be why Aristotle provided for the third category of automatic causation.

Automatic causation appears when things are produced “without seeds,” like insects, which come spontaneously from mud or dung, or when things happen without deliberation or by accident. So we have at least two meanings of automaton here, both of which reserve an agency outside both human or quasi-human deliberation and outside the circular causality of nature.

In one meaning, automatic agency seems to be self-generated, like “natural things…whose matter can be moved even by itself.” This agency seems to come from nowhere because it originates in the thing itself—think for example of the auto in autobiography—so that agent and patient are the same thing. Alternately, automatic agency may be a kind of non-agential activity, with only patients and no agents, as when—to use Aristotle’s example—a patient gets healthy regardless of what the physician does.

Unsurprisingly, automatos troubled some of Aristotle’s medieval translators: Michael Scot and Roger Bacon render it as “per se” (cited from here, 134) through or by itself, and William of Moerbecke, at times, as “a casu,” by chance (here and HA, 130). Self-generated causation is an action whose cause cannot be disentangled from its effect. One analogue might be Anselm’s attempt in Cur Deus Homo to save God from being compelled by a motive (see note 1 here). For Anselm, “God does nothing of necessity,” not even to avoid dishonor, “since nothing whatever can coerce or restrain him in his action.” Here cause and effect form a neat little knot, immanent to and closed on itself.

By contrast, random causation, “a casu,” is a kind of atheistic but also nonmechanistic, nonsolipsistic account of agency. It might be as random as something that’s simply senseless, a thing that just happens. Just as well, random causation might preserve space for a surprise, the hap, the adventure arriving from some unidentifiable elsewhere. This is an agency means interrupting predictable causality to bring something new into being. It’s the agency that frees an origin from some already known end, or it’s an agency that piggy-backs on some deliberate intention.

This excessive or random causality may be the one way short of a divine fiat that agency can bring something new into being. More simply, it may be the only way agency can actually happen.

Thank you!