Does the Oyster Need “Agency”?

This week in oyster thinking, a chunk of a chapter for Book2.


In Descartes, Plato, Boethius, Ficino, in the whole of this tradition, the oyster occupies the zero point of animal existence. A life without motion, sentience, gender differentiation, without social relations, even to itself, a life indifferent to any sovereign incursion or biopolitical intervention, this is a living being far barer than any Agamben ever described. We might have called this way of existence a “threshhold of indistinction,” or a “zone” of “indifference” or “indetermination” or “undecidability,” “in which the words ‘life’ and ‘death’ had lost their meaning,”[1] were there a juridical exclusion, political danger, or trauma that could be described or recognized in oysterdom without insulting the dignity of Agamben’s own somber catalog of examples: Franciscans, Jesus, Auschwitz, and so on. But the oyster is not in any danger that it could attend to or worry about: it is just indifferent, to us, to itself, to anything, with only enough difference to give it the basic spatially and temporally bounded persistence that we call existence itself, which, of course, means a clearing bounded inescapably by its own nonexistence. This oystery “bare life” produces a version of the concept that we need not worry about, one that requires none of the counterhegemonic, paradoxic textual analysis or Messianic hopes that Agamben’s category demands, because oysters are naturally, inescapably “bare life,” and could never be otherwise. Amid the obvious ecological benefits of fostering shoals of oysters, what moral impediment could there be, then, to taking one or a dozen oystery lives out of these billions and swallowing them down?

The problem is in the preservation of the category of “bare life” itself, even with a being that suits the category so perfectly, because so long as this category is preserved, a space has been left open for innocent killing. The subpolitical, supposedly “natural” ostreum sacrum describes a zone that will inevitably encompass the homo sacer, any form of human and other life that is held to be relatively insensible to pain, stolid, unthinking, unreflective, nonindividual, swarming, and so on. This alone is sufficient reason for catalyzing what is by now a typical ecocritical, posthuman response of investing oysters and others with the qualities they would require for their protection. With some groups, people most obviously, this investment has the character of justice; with others, like oysters, it can just look silly. But in either case, working against the exclusive possession of “agency” requires recognizing that the distribution of the recognition of “agency” is a political problem. Limit cases might help us recognize this better than more “natural” agential groups, because limit cases require not simply applying, but rethinking, fundamental assumptions.

Twenty-first century critical theory has witnessed a systematic upending of what Freud identified as the progress of civilization, and, given the homologies he drew between so-called “primitive” cultures and childhood, the progress of adulthood itself. His essay on the Unconscious observes that we — by which he means adult, well-functioning humans, neither children nor primitives nor neurotics —once had extended the recognition of consciousness “to other human beings, to animals, plants, inanimate objects, and to the world at large”; today, in this case, meaning 1915 and its European geotemporal environs, “our critical judgment is already in doubt on the question of consciousness in animals; we refuse to admit in animals, and we regard the assumption of its existence in inanimate matter as mysticism.”[2] A hundred years later, we might say that the process is almost exactly reversed. In a representative essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Michael Marder rightly observes that “for scientists … the superiority of human intelligence over other primates is a mere hypothesis to be tested and subsequently verified or declined”;[3] even with their short lives, even with their asociality in relation to other members of their species, some octopuses express preferences for certain individuals and show a real knack for improvisational solutions to unfamiliar problems;[4] furthermore, as might be expected from the author of Plant-Thinking, Marder argues that tests for “problem solving, collaboration, and adaptation would need to be indexed to the appropriate environments and needs of each kind of organism, be it an underground labyrinth of mineral resources and moisture in the case of a tree or a complex network of social interactions holding the promise of positive reinforcement in the case of a human child.” The name of his article? “Smart as an Oak.” If apes and octopuses and oaks are not merely prey to ongoing and aimless chains of cause and effect, but also actors in their own right, then oysters might as well be also granted subjecthood, to rescue them too from the thoughtless good conscience of instrumental reason.

This gift of recognition, development of a new critical sensitivity, or misanthropocist mystification—depending on one’s own theoretical habits—would come to know that oysters and other supposedly “passive and inert”[5] things possess vibrancy, animacy, and “hidden volcanic depths.”[6] This faith, delusion, or attentiveness might be enough at least to make us hesitate before we put things to use. Some exemplary moments: Vinciane Despret’s What Would Animals Say if We Asked the Right Questions repeatedly recognizes that not instinct, but play, disappointment, and other “excessive” motives drive nonhuman behavior.[7] Steven Shaviro’s The Universe of Things speaks of the “liveliness of objects,” Latourian actants with “their own powers, their own innate tendencies.”[8] Karen Barad’s Meeting the Universe Halfway observes that “it takes a radical rethinking of agency to appreciate how lively even ‘dead matter’ can be.”[9] Medieval literary studies has joined in: like Susan Signe Morrison’s Literature of Waste begins its discussion of Beowulf by observing that “the dynamic agency of objects litters the literary canon, a repository of stuff and matter”[10]; J. Allan Mitchell’s Becoming Human: The Matter of the Medieval Child, speaks of a “miniature medieval horseman [that] possesses agency and autonomy no matter the environment in which it is placed”[11]; and Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman, shoves aside the unthinking pleonasm of “human agency” with conjunctions like “material agency” or “inhuman agency.”[12] All of this meets Jane Bennett’s call in Vibrant Matter for a “touch of anthropomorphism”[13] or what Steven Shaviro suggests as “a certain cautious anthropomorphism”[14] that would recognize the “creative agency” of earthworms, power grids, metals, garbage, and so on.

Shaviro rightly insists that this kind of work is ultimately needed not to extend anthropomorphism, but “to avoid” it. The development of critical sensitivity to agency in unexpected places must be recognized not as a delusion, but as a strategic decision made within an already existing assumption that things that are lively, vibrant, animated, and agential— things most like the abstract concept of “the human”—deserve protections and forms of political and moral recognition that mere objects do not possess. This is not enough, however. The point of “granting” things “agency” (and other associated qualities) is not to give these things this quality and then call it a day, but rather to break apart anthropomorphism from the inside. Designations and discoveries of “nonhuman agency” thus first, strategically endorse assumptions like those laid out in George Ripley’s fifteenth-century Compend of Alchemy, which explains that “Thinges ther be no mo / But kinde withe kynde in nomber two, / Male and female, agent and pacient,”[15] so that they can “rescue” objects from the disdained side of being a female, patient, object. But then they make these binaries strange, and, like any good posthumanist critique, dissolve our sedimented human certainties. When a speaker from the 2015 meeting of the American Historical Association observes “whenever I hear a student say that objects have agency, I say that I have a bridge that wants to sell itself to them,”[16] some might be emboldened to insist again on human difference, while others, through a “touch of anthropomorphism,” might draw the bridge into a circle of agency that nonetheless remains locked into a stubbornly anthropocentric orbit. Some might be led to wonder, however, whether we can in fact cordon human agency off so readily from the patently absurd “agency” of a bridge. Definitions of “agency” that explain it as belonging to beings “that can…direct [their] own activities”[17] and are “not purely governed by instinct”[18]; that are not “purposeless objects”;[19] that are “responsible for what they do”[20] obviously do nothing but exclude oysters, so immobile and so blameless; but they should make us wonder whether any act can be arrived at so neatly through self-governance. Not that this elaboration could have been handled in a tweet, but surely the supposedly agential anyone selling a bridge must do so with dead generations weighing on their brains like an incubus (wie ein Alp).[21] And Freud’s elaboration of the world-historical trajectory of critical knowledge in his essay on the Unconscious ends not with a lonely human clarity, in which we are the only conscious things, but rather, of course, with an uncovering of multiple agencies at work in us, which he admits could be understood at least partly as “a further expansion of…primitive animism.”[22] Once infected by the skepticism that attends any concerted attempt to explain any concept that otherwise goes without saying, “anthropomorphism” seems to have less to do with granting things “agency” and more to do with entangling a wider class of beings within our own uncertainties and suspicions.

For if true agency requires self-direction, and straightforward responsibility freed in some respect from instinct, then it requires something like a miracle. It ultimately requires an unmoved mover, or the surprise of something emerging ex nihilo, which is much the same thing. The eleventh-century Cur Deus Homo of Anselm of Canterbury provides one such picture of ultimate, pure agency when it asserts that “God does nothing of necessity, since nothing whatever can coerce or restrain him in his actions,” where, since even God’s necessity of avoiding dishonor comes “from himself and not from another,” it is “improper to call it necessity.”[23] That’s a high bar to clear. Another, more sublunary picture of agency, which likewise springs free of at least all apparent necessity, has the character what Badiou calls an “event,” because its “aleatory dimension” and “pure contingency” breaks the mechanistic progression of things to open a space for something truly new to emerge.[24] The event comes at or out of us through what William Connolly characterized as the “creative dimension of freedom,” in which improvisation surprises the performer, which makes agency possible by dividing it from the causal determinations of mere intention.[25] A real “agency,” if it must be free of causal chains, must therefore have an “automatic” character, in the densely meaningful sense of this Greek word as it was translated, with difficulty, by Latin medieval philosophers. Automatic entered Latin in the twelfth century, primarily through Aristotle’s efforts in his Metaphyics and Physics to distinguish between three kinds of causation: natural, artistic—the Greek is techne—and automaton. When it was not simply transliterated, it was rendered either “a casu”[26] [by chance], “per se vano”[27] [by itself, without purpose], “per se frustra”[28] [for no purpose in itself], or “per se”[29] [through itself], that is, in excess of the control of some external force. Read as a whole, automatic agency is unrecognizable, unconnected, unmotivated, useless, which is much the same as saying self-motivated, or up to its own, mysterious use. Since the irreducibly automatic character of authentic agency always slips its bonds to other actions, other things, other desires, who or what could have agency as such? Since no particular being could seem to possess it, in itself, “weaker” or nonsubjective notions of agency can be more readily defended, if much less easily identified, than those that rely on divisions between subject and object, cause and effect, self-motivated acts and those that are merely instinctual.

These are the concepts of agency that emerge out of feminist critique, in which agency is a kind of middle status of responsibility and possibility that must always be understood as operating in heterogeneous, not fully predictable fields of force.[30] Kathryn Abrams built on years of feminist work, particularly black feminism, to argue that the fantasy of the autonomous liberal humanist subject does anything but liberate women. The feminist struggle requires collective action. It requires abandoning the dream of going it alone, a dream that, at any rate, has always sustained itself by forgetting the “background labor” that fosters the self. It knows that the very sense of autonomy is itself a roadblock, since the autonomous self is a fetish to the degree that it believes its wants to be entirely its own. Feminist struggle requires not autonomy, but agency, which, without allowing women “to transcend…socially conditioned versions of self,” nonetheless allows them “greater room in which to affirm, reinterpret, resist, or partially replace them.”[31] In this formulation, “agency” is not opposed to passivity, but rather elbows out some wiggle room within a field of limited action and dependence to acknowledge how 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. Here, “agency” recognizes that things happen mostly not through breaks, but through nudges, where self-consciousness is never untangled from social consciousness and its constraining productivities; here, what counts as an effective subject can only be determined after the fact, to single out what amid a bounded phenomena swerved the neat line of causality. To all this, we can add Butler’s feminist critique of the presumption that doer must lie behind a deed, and Irigaray’s characterization of a feminine sexuality as a “ceaseless exchange of herself with the other without any possibility of identifying either,”[32] or we can return to the or the “agential realism” of Barad, in which “agency is not held, it is not a property of persons or things; rather, agency is an enactment, a matter of possibilities for reconfiguring entanglements.”[33] If, as Despret argues, “there is no agency that is not interagency,”[34] then there is no way to recognize the agency of the oyster without accounting for the field within which the agency operates, including the field of recognition itself.

Rather than gifting oysters with a “touch of anthropomorphism,” we ourselves might instead catch a “touch of oystermorphism” by recognizing how much we have in common with their haplessness. We will get a more thoroughgoing posthumanism, one less invested in pride in our human capacity, if we put helplessness rather than agency at the heart of our analysis. If we start here, we will also do a better job of escaping the persistent liberal humanism underlying the assumptions that good political analysis, and even the identification of ethically relevant beings, requires “giving back” agency to those who lost it, and that recognizing this “agency” requires recognizing how these beings resist or otherwise break free of their circumstances.[35] Derrida questioned “whether what calls itself human has the right rigorously to attribute to man…what he refuses the animal, and whether he can ever possess the pure, rigorous, indivisible concept, as such, of that attribution.”[36] Agency and its associated qualities surely numbers among these shaky attributions. We can recall Kleist’s “On the Marionette Theater,” which imagines that as the self-consciousness of the best artists fades, their art reemerges in “a purity that has either no consciousness or consciousness without limit: either the jointed doll or the god,”[37] or, just as well, we might remember Tolstoy’s evacuation of agency in his account of Napoleon’s Russian campaign in his War and Peace: this is not a war of generals only, and certainly not of generals primarily, but of assemblages of terrain, appetites, masses of soldiers, and the flammability of a great wooden city in winter, where plans are always after the fact, and “everything is the result of numberless collisions of various wills.”[38] With all this in mind, we can attend better to our own secondariness; our not fully conscious belatedness in relation to our own situation; to the basic, inescapable vulnerability of existence. Ultimately, then, we may not need a touch of oysterpomorphism if we understand our own humanity correctly. A “touch of anthropomorphism” for oysters could just as well recognize their helplessness, their compulsions, their need to be somewhere, a need no mobility can elude. For whatever our pride in our freedom, all this is human too.

[1] Citations, respectively, from Giorgio Agamben, The Use of Bodies, trans. Adam Kotsko (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2016), 222; Use of Bodies, 22; Use of Bodies, 28; The Highest Poverty: Monastic Rules and Form-of-Life, trans. Adam Kotsko (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013), 26; Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), 164.

[2] Sigmund Freud, The Freud Reader, ed. Peter Gay (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1989), 575.

[3] Michael Marder, “Smart as an Oak?,” Los Angeles Review of Books: The Philosophical Salon, September 21, 2005, http://thephilosophicalsalon.com/smart-as-an-oak/.

[4] For a brief statement on the “scandal of the cephalopods,” Cary Wolfe, Before the Law: Humans and Other Animals in a Biopolitical Frame (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013), 71; two recent books on this “scandal”: Sy Montgomery, The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness (New York: Atria Books, 2016), and Peter Godfrey-Smith, Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016).

[5] Steven Shaviro, The Universe of Things (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 48.

[6] “Animacy” is the focus of Mel Y Chen, Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012). Volcanic depths is a favored metaphor of Graham Harman: see, inter alia, Towards Speculative Realism: Essays and Lectures (Winchester UK: Zero Books, 2010).

[7] Vinciane Despret, What Would Animals Say If We Asked the Right Questions?, trans. Brett Buchanan (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016); for an exemplary moment, 38–44.

[8] Shaviro, Universe of Things, 48.

[9] Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), 419 n27.

[10] Susan Signe Morrison, The Literature of Waste: Material Ecopoetics and Ethical Matter (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 125.

[11] J. Allan Mitchell, Becoming Human: The Matter of the Medieval Child (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 62.

[12] Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015).

[13] Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 99.

[14] Shaviro, Universe of Things, 61.

[15] Cited in Hans Kurath and Sherman M. Kuhn, ““pācient(e” 2d.” Middle English Dictionary, Jan 31, 2017,  http://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/m/mec/med-idx?type=id&id=MED32142

[16] Ethan Kleinberg, “#AHA2015 #s214 BK: ‘whenever I Hear a Student Say That Objects Have Agency I Say That I Have a Bridge Who Wants to Sell Itself to Them.,’” twitter.com, @ekleinberg, (January 4, 2015), https://twitter.com/ekleinberg/status/551826354866757633.

[17] Helen Steward, “Animal Agency,” Inquiry 52, no. 3 (2009): 226.

[18] Chris Pearson, “Dogs, History, and Agency,” History and Theory 52 (2013): 135.

[19] Ibid., 129.

[20] Ralf Stoeker, quoted in Chris Pearson, “History and Animal Agencies,” in The Oxford Handbook of Animal Studies, ed. Linda Kalof (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 247.

[21] “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker, 2nd ed. (New York: Norton, 1978), 595; translation modified slightly.

[22] Freud, The Freud Reader, 577.

[23] “Why God became Man,” II.v, in Eugene Rathbone Fairweather, ed., A Scholastic Miscellany: Anselm to Ockham (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1981), 150.

[24] Alain Badiou, Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, trans. Ray Brassier (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), 4.

[25] William E. Connolly, The Fragility of Things: Self-Organizing Processes, Neoliberal Fantasies, and Democratic Activism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013), 75.

[26] Gudrun Vuillemin-Diem, ed., Metaphysica, Lib. I-XIV. Recensio et Translatio Guillelmi de Moerbeka, 2 vols. (Leiden: Brill, 1995), VII.

[27] Metaphysics commentary Book VII, Lesson 6; Latin available online through the Dominican House of Studies: Priory of the Immaculate Conception, http://dhspriory.org/thomas/Metaphysics7.htm#6

[28] Physics commentary, Book II, Lesson 9. Latin available online the Dominican House of Studies: Priory of the Immaculate Conception, http://dhspriory.org/thomas/Physics2.htm#9

[29] Cited in Maaike van der Lugt, Le ver, le démon et la Vierge: Les théories médiévales de la génération extraordinaire. Une étude sur les rapports entre théologie, philosophie naturelle et médecine (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2004), 134.

[30] Catriona Mackenzie and Natalie Stoljar, eds., Relational Autonomy: Feminist Perspectives on Autonomy, Agency, and the Social Self (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), and, further back, Bronwyn Davies, “The Concept of Agency: A Feminist Poststructuralist Analysis,” Social Analysis: The International Journal of Social and Cultural Practice 30 (1991): 42–53, both cited hundreds of times, although rarely or never by speculative realists.

[31] Kathryn Abrams, “From Autonomy to Agency: Feminist Perspectives on Self-Direction,” William & Mary Law Review 40, no. 3 (1999): 825.

[32] Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter, with Carolyn Burke (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), 31.

[33] Rick Dolphijn and Iris van der Tuin, “Interview with Karen Barad,” in New Materialism: Interviews and Cartographies (Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press, 2012), 54.

[34] Vinciane Despret, “From Secret Agents to Interagency,” History and Theory 52 (2013): 44.

[35] Walter Johnson, “On Agency,” Journal of Social History 37, no. 1 (2003): 113–24; see also his reaffirmation of these ideas in “To Remake the World: Slavery, Racial Capitalism, and Justice,” Boston Review, October 26, 2016, https://bostonreview.net/race/walter-johnson-slavery-human-rights-racial-capitalism.

[36] Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, ed. Marie-Louise Mallet, trans. David Wills (Fordham University Press, 2008), 135.

[37] Heinrich von Kleist, “On the Marionette Theater,” trans. Thomas G. Neumiller, The Drama Review 16, no. 3 (1972): 22–26. [nb – REQUIRE CORRECT TRANSLATION or DO IT YOURSELF]: “Reinsten…der entweder gar keins, oder ein unendliches Bewußtsein hat, d. h. in dem Gliedermann, oder in dem Gott.”

[38] Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Vintage Books, 2007), 709.

Advertisements