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,

[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,

[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.,’”, @ekleinberg, (January 4, 2015),

[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,

[28] Physics commentary, Book II, Lesson 9. Latin available online the Dominican House of Studies: Priory of the Immaculate Conception,

[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,

[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.

‘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!

Two points: Digital Piers; Marsilius of Padua and the problem of “agency”

Ghada Amer at Cheim + Read


Two quick points:

ONE. First, if you’re a medievalist, particularly a digital humanities medievalist, and you’re not reading Angie Bennett Segler’s Material Piers blog, you’re making a terrible mistake.

Piers Plowman doesn’t get a lot of love around these parts. I’m not sure any of us here have ever taught it. For that reason, alone, you should be reading Material Piers. You know, to expiate our guilt. Or at least my guilt.

Here’s a sample:

At present, it’s relatively established that the Vernon [manuscript] cannot possibly  be dated to prior to 1395. Good, fine. No problem. That’s the fourteenth century. BUT, and for me this is a big “but,” the Vernon is SO MASSIVE that it seems pretty much insane to me to date it to any year.  The majority of the manuscript, along with its almost as large sister the Simeon, was copied by a single scribe!! A.I. Doyle estimates that even moving at his fastest he couldn’t have completed the pair of them in under  FOUR YEARS, and it may well have taken up to eight. On top of that, there is the lavish decoration scheme with borders, initials, gilding and two full cycles of miniatures. The idea that the manuscript was both started and completed in the fourteenth century borders on preposterous.

That, frankly, is why I prefer dating V to “ca. 1400.” Because the “circa” itself implies a possible range of time. And in the case of the Vernon, that range is incredibly important. But more than that, it acknowledges the imprecision in dating manuscripts altogether. “Ca. 1400″ allows us to think about the slipperiness of dating things belonging that far in the past and about the time it takes to hand-make a material-textual object, to bring it into being one folio, one line, one letter, one stroke at a time. So, unless a manuscript is clearly and definitively datable to a certain decade, I prefer to leave it with its ambiguous date.

And here’s a chart. which you can understand if you click through to the blog!

Why am I demanding that you read this Material Piers post in particular? Because it offers you the chance to do a bit of digital humanities work yourself. Read the post; lend a hand; and join me in swimming in a Piers-and-everything-else manuscript. I’ll be doing that myself this afternoon.

TWO. The various so-called “new” materialisms tend to use the word “agency” a lot without doing much to figure out what the word actually means. My second Kalamazoo2014 paper, on spontaneous generation and “automatic” agency, tried to get directly at the problem by arguing, ultimately, that only a random break with mechanical causality can be recognized as truly agential. My solution has the posthuman advantage of moving questions of agency away from rationality and anthropomorphism, thereby avoiding the implicit humanizing at the center of many discussions of agency. It also has the dubious — and predictable — advantage of discovering an aporia at the agency’s heart.

All this is by way of setting up a passage from Marsilius of Padua’s Defensor Pacis:

This term “ownership” is used to refer to the human will or freedom in itself with its organic executive or motive power unimpeded. For it is through these that we are capable of certain acts and their opposites. It is for this reason too that man alone among the animals is said to have ownership or control of his acts; this control belongs to him by nature, it is not acquired through an act of will or choice. (II.12.16, p. 193)

Adhuc dicitur nomen dominii de humana voluntate seu libertate secundum se, cum ipsius executiva seu motiva organica potestate non impedita. Hiis enim possumus in actus aliquos et ipsorum oppositos. Propter quod eciam dicitur homo inter animalium cetera suorum actuum habere dominium; quod siquidem a natura inest homini, non voluntarie seu eleccione quesitum. (MGH 271)

The origin of human agency (“ownership of control of his acts”) isn’t human agency itself. Rather, it’s inherent to humans, unchosen. Agency itself therefore is free from human choice at its root. Still, it’s determined, somehow, by “nature.” If the power of choice is instinctual, then it’s hard to imagine that humans have “complete freedom” (“libertas,” I think). This problem of the origin of agency is a problem, especially, for Marsilius, as he’s well-known for arguing that “the supreme power resides in the body of the citizens [and not the Church], who make the laws, and choose the form of government, etc [and that t]he prince rules by the authority of the whole body of citizens“: what is the origin of the people’s will?

But the problem is also general to agency and to human agency especially, perhaps the paragon and model of agency in any discussion of the term. The problem of agency intersects with a host of other problems, of materialism, humanism, racism, and indeed the history of antisemitism.1 It’s a problem whether we’re talking about rats or stones or garbage or the tedious Pauline differentiation between Christian spiritual reading and Jewish literal reading or, for that matter, the whole spirit versus matter binary that’s inherent to all considerations of agency. For any of these, the power of agency simply doesn’t seem to be reducible to any first cause. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be agency but rather the beginning of another mechanical chain.

In short, any clear claim to agency strikes me as unwarranted. And the same goes for any scorn of materialisms or posthumanisms because their “discovery” of agency in nonhuman objects.

It’s obviously ironic that I should end up so automatically in an identifiably deconstructive aporia. I’m very much back in Derrida’s critique of the “auto” of autobiography in, for example, The Animal that Therefore I am, where he does his Derridean thing with the “ipseity, indeed sui-referential egoity, auto-affection and automotion, autokinesis, [and] autonomy” (65) of the presumptive presence of the self-generated automatic I, and with the pretense of “auto-motricity, a spontaneity that is capable of movement, of organizing itself and affecting itself, marking, tracing, and affecting itself with traces of its self” (49). You can imagine what happens to agency when Derrida finishes with it.

Maybe commentators can suggest another way forward?

1 Or, for that matter, colonialism and its various justifications. See this new post from Corey Robin, on the dangers of presidential boredom, where he recalls Tocqueville’s enthusiasm for the Opium War: “So at last the mobility of Europe has come to grips with Chinese immobility!”

Day 12 – Tundale, Disputation Body and Worms, and Thacker


  1. I also provided links to some guidance on conference going: here is a good guide on how to write abstracts, how to identify conferences, and how to fund your conference travel and here’s one on the expectations for presentations in the humanities; I also forgot to share guidance on the length of the average dissertation.
  2. here’s a “storified” Twitter record of a materialism session from the Shakespeare Association of America, to give you a sense of the fun of conferences.
  3. links
    1. photo series of depressing zoo architecture, where the landscapes painted to satisfy the human viewers. Obviously, this can be critiqued as an example of the fantasy of the wild, but we can turn that same critique back around on the photos themselves, which are obviously framed to make us believe the animals are depressed.
    2. animal architecture, with an example of an Australian Bird with a keen eye for color and arrangement. The bird in this case is trying to attract a mate, but we of course are also delighted by the color. Desire and courtship are working across species lines, then, a point that would work well for papers looking to Chaucer’s Parliament.
    3. A Roman-Age mint has been turned up in England, complete with dog prints: here’s a bit of the world-without-us, Thacker’s third category of world. World-for-us is our world; world-in-itself is the world with humans subtracted; and the world-without-us is the world that’s still here with us but somehow impersonally so, as it’s not for us. Thacker takes this as horrific (setting up the Haraway vs. Thacker throwndown that would erupt later in our discussion), but we might also just take it as these dog prints and the stone, a whimsical element of surprise crosses into our world without becoming fully ours.
    4. For summer reading, I recommended [[[type|link[postId|1566575923[asin|022605750X[authorId|1203060269|this book on the oldest living things]]: here’s another example of a World-without-Us, but perhaps without Thacker’s horror. The issue of timescale and life of course intersects nicely with our Purgatorial Poetry.
    5. Bad Dogs, here, with the question of nonhuman responsibility. we connected this to a recent article in the NY Times Magazine on chimps suing their owners, which led to the less attractive flip side, which is that a chimp that can sue should also be a chimp that canbe sued
    6. Parrots, among other animals, seem to have names: now, whatever else the name is, it’s also, as Derrida reminds us often, a promise of death. The name can potentially outlive us, marking the place where we once were. Anyone who reflects on their own name and its use by others must know this. This depressing realization is also a way to overturn Heidegger’s distinction between human death and animal “perishing,” since the name also ‘grants’ (some) animals the same extrinsic relation to world that humans have: parrots and humans both, perhaps, are aware that the world will move on without them.
    7. I recommended people enjoy the Middle English Romance Database

After showing images from British Museum MS Add. 37049 and the Getty Tondale, we moved into 3 great presentations and also one sneak-preview of one of my Kzoo papers.

But I’ll have to write tomorrow at length about what we talked about: cows in Hell, worms and their character, the peculiar character of the ‘tomb verses’ in the “Disputation,” and the horrific lack of concordance between punishment/reward and the human world. Especially thrilling: imagining how Haraway would handle Thacker’s material, or, why does this all have to be so horrific? Why can’t we make friends with our worms, anyhow?

Our presentations on Tundale, Thacker, and the “Disputation Between the Body and Worms” covered some of the following:
Tundale and the World-without-us: purgatorial poems tend to feature catalogs, of punishments, of sinners, of places. Here’s an abundance that alienates, surely a concretized version of the cosmic horror of Thacker’s world-without-us. See also the total lack of correspondence between punishment and sinner: certainly, the punishment has an analogical relationship, but it always seems excessive in relationship to the actual, mortal sin, which is a much smaller thing than eternity. We also considered Satan, the “big bad” here as in Dante, but, as in Dante, also immobilized, fixed at the bottom, and thus a superhuman figure that is, in his way, as trapped as any human. Somehow this is quite the opposite of comforting.

While Thacker concentrates on a set of “weird” literature, his schema can also help unpack the Volsung saga. We have three varieties of Black Metal, with the one simply a heretical, Satanic inversion, the second a mythological pagan multiplicity, and the third something far more inhuman. In the Volsung saga, we see the theological give way immediately to the mythological which then, in turn, gives way to a kind of cosmic pessimism. We also played with the nonrepresentational quality of music, something that Thacker oddly didn’t exploit in his discussion of Black Metal (which instead concentrated on the lyrical content). Conversation turned to the way that humanity works, granted from outside as a kind of ‘reverse’ exorcism, with humanity just as much a possession as its demonic reversal. Finally, we pushed back briefly on Thacker’s reading of Inferno, as his typology of demons moves, oddly, and without acknowledgement, backwards through Dante, starting with Satan, then the masses of demons, and then the ‘climatic’ demons of the lustful.

Finally, on the Disputation, a didactic debate poem, instruction for novices, which swings between horror of death and the promise of wiping the slate clean. We reviewed the cultural history of worms, ranging from the renewable Phoenix and its worm-like larval stage to Christ as worm to the worms of our own bodies, spontaneously generated from flesh we thought our own. Apparently some medieval people wore worms as a cure for the plague. Now, the worms, in this erotic assault, refashion the human body in its own image, by making the soft and shifting body into a hard set of bones, without any vanity or decoration.

Conversation after the presentations turned on Thacker vs. Haraway (whose When Species Meet we had read in part earlier in the semester): what does Haraway’s political optimism and feminism do with Thacker’s (unmarked) masculine pessimism? What happens if we don’t start by assuming that the human has separate boundaries from its “environment,” as Thacker does? How does Haraway help us understand what it means — as in the “Disputation” — to make “friends” with one’s worms, given that this friendship must be temporary (the worms are there only so long as the body has flesh to eat, the body is there only until the resurrection takes its bones, which means the worms will leave first).

And what happens to the “Disputation” if we read this poem in the long tradition of Lady Philosophers disputing with men? Where’s the “Lady Philosophy” here?

We returned, at last, to the question of the cow in “Tundale,” which its TEAMS editor thinks is just hilarious. But no.

“When he on the brygge was,
The cow wold not forthur pas.
He saw the bestys in the lake
Draw nerre the brygge her pray to take.
That cow had ner fall over that tyde
And Tundale on that todur syde.”

We noted the cow’s terror, and how the cow just disappears after Tundale’s down his penance. Has the cow been punished for having been stolen? Is the cow a demon in the form of a cow? What do we do with the pure terror, unredeemable, of the cow, completely outside the economy of purgatory?

Day 11 – Marx, Material Agency, and Albina and Her Sisters

The big question for today was “agency.” How can nonhuman materials be said to have it, and how can humans be said to have it? When posthumanism gives agency to the former, it tends to leave it intact in humans; when it takes agency away from humans, it tends to believe that it’s “reducing” humans to the supposedly dull status of material.

To start, we spent perhaps an hour on a few pages from Marx’s German Ideology, observing how his purported materialism fell prey to his humanism, and, to a lesser extent, to his inability to rethink gender. Overall, Marx’s project is to enable humans to take control of the train of history, though it often seems that he’s merely enabling us to be aware of its destination. In such a case, where nothing really can be changed, what does awareness matter?

The passages in question were:

“Man can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals a soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organization. By producing their means of subsistence men are indirectly producing their own material life.” (Man kann die Menschen durch das Bewußtsein, durch die Religion, durch was man sonst will, von den Tieren unterscheiden. Sie selbst fangen an, sich von den Tieren zu unterscheiden, sobald sie anfangen, ihre Lebensmittel zu produzieren, ein Schritt, der durch ihre körperliche Organisation bedingt ist. Indem die Menschen ihre Lebensmittel produzieren, produzieren sie indirekt ihr materielles Leben selbst.)

Marx might justly have added “and by extension, their mental life, only delusionally distinguishable from their material life.”

We observed that the “distinguish” changes its meaning from one sentence to the next: in the first, it’s arbitrary (“man can be distinguished”); in the second, it’s a self-distinguishing, which is either a conscious classification, or a fully material classification, whereby humans emerge as the one animal that produces “its own means of subsistence.” We immediately argued Marx into the ground on this point: what about bees? What about the animals in Kohn’s //How Forests Think//, which move about the Amazon rain forest as various trees fruit in sequence, followed in turn by their predators? And where does this leave room, if any, for consciousness? Marx seems to be in line with Gregory of Nyssa/William of St Thierry/Aquinas on the physical/material foundation of humanity (i.e., as they argue, if humans had no hands, they would become indistinguishable from any other animal).

We also looked at the beginning of human consciousness/society in relation to nature. At first, “it is mere herd-consciousness, and at this point man is only distinguished from sheep by the fact that with him consciousness takes the place of instinct or that his instinct is a conscious one. This sheep-like or tribal consciousness receives its further development and extension through increased productivity, the increase of needs, and, what is fundamental to both of these, the increase of population.” (Dieser Anfang ist so tierisch wie das gesellschaftliche Leben dieser Stufe selbst, er ist bloßes Herdenbewußtsein, und der Mensch unterscheidet sich hier vom Hammel nur dadurch, daß sein Bewußtsein ihm die Stelle des Instinkts vertritt, oder daß sein Instinkt ein bewußter ist. Dieses Hammel- oder Stammbewußtsein erhält seine weitere Entwicklung und Ausbildung durch die gesteigerte Produktivität, die Vermehrung der Bedürfnisse und die Beiden zum Grunde liegende Vermehrung der Bevölkerung.)

What is a “conscious instinct”? In what sense can this be called “conscious”? Is consciousness, we suggested, like the doubling back on material production that sees humans producing their own subsistence? That is, consciousness is the production of new or continued thought out of the material of sensation? Even so, how can Marx, if he can at all, distinguish consciousness from this material productivity? Then, of course, there’s theHammel- oder Stammbewußtsein (wether [rather than “sheep,” I think] or tribal consciousness).

Marx here is trying to find the beginning of humans, because he’s committed to tracking human history. This fundamental idealist position of humans, which causes him to single humans out among other species, is his fundamental error. It also leads him, interestingly, to keep offering new “real” beginnings of the human. This self-aware instinct, perhaps, or perhaps in the division of labor, which either follows from “the division of labor in the sexual act” (die ursprünglich nichts war als die Teilung der Arbeit im Geschlechtsakt), or from “that division of labor which then develops spontaneously or ‘naturally’ by virtue of natural predisposition (e.g., physical strength)” (dann Teilung der Arbeit, die sich vermöge der natürlichenAnlage (z.B. Körperkraft)…von selbst oder “naturwüchsig” macht), which then leads to the “true” division of labor “when a division of material and mental labor appears” (Die Teilung der Arbeit wird erst wirklich Teilung von dem Augenblicke an, wo eine Teilung der materiellen und geistigen Arbeit eintritt). But remember Marx’s key argument against the German Idealists: this division is only delusional.

In another sense, human difference is nothing but a delusion of consciousness’s independence of the material relations that produce it. At least on the basis of these passages, a thoroughgoing Marxism, far more thorough than his own, is a fully material nonhumanism. The only questions are how any kind of agency remains possible and whether, by extension, anything could be said to be autonomous.

The last passage was on the question of nature of consciousness, unique to humans because of their relation to other humans through language, which is, however, nothing but one expression of practical material consciousness. Animals, he says, has no relations (because they have no language?? no need for language?): Für das Tier existiert sein Verhältnis zu andern nicht als Verhältnis (“For the animal, its relation to others does not exist as a relation”). This is pure nonsense, a difference without a difference except for its shaky position atop Marx’s unexamined humanism. It reads, as we observed, like Levinas’s unfortunate statements about Bobby the Dog, the “Last Kantean in Nazi Germany,” but unconscious for all that.
Then there’s the origin of consciousness, which is “from the very beginning a social product” or, wait, no, it is “at first, of course, merely consciousness concerning the immediate sensuous environment,” which is, AT THE SAME TIME, “consciousness of nature,” apprehended as “completely alien, all-powerful, and unassailable,” to which we relate (!) in a “purely animal” way, “overawed like beasts,” a “purely animal consciousness of nature (natural religion)” (Das Bewußtsein ist natürlich zuerst bloß Bewußtsein über die nächste sinnliche Umgebung und Bewußtsein des bornierten Zusammenhanges mit andern Personen und Dingen außer dem sich bewußt werdenden Individuum; es ist zu gleicher Zeit Bewußtsein der Natur, die den Menschen anfangs als eine durchaus fremde, allmächtige und unangreifbare Macht gegenübertritt, zu der sich die Menschen rein tierisch verhalten, von der sie sich imponieren lassen wie das Vieh; und also ein rein tierisches Bewußtsein der Natur (Naturreligion).)

This is of course absolute nonsense, pure symptomatic humanism, but still interesting because of its inherent materialism, present here almost despite Marx. It’s also interesting because of the multiple (false?) starts. I also advised my students to look for their wallets whenever they read “of course” or, for that matter, “complex” (and as one of them quipped, “see also ‘radical'”).

More tomorrow on Albina and Her Sisters, and also on Serpil Oppermann! have to run! If you’d like to read ahead, in French, start here; or, in English, here.

Jeffrey Cohen’s reading of Albina and her sisters is deservedly the standard one. To establish a normative origin for Britain, Brutus arrives to put down the disruptive and excessive energies of queer female rule. He literally overwrites Albina’s name: Albion becomes Britain, and the island’s proper history begins.

I’ve argued otherwise: not that the Albina story is so excessively unnormal, but rather that’s it’s PERFECTLY normative and somehow weirder for all that.
After all, Albina lays claim to the island, bestows her name on it, and declares that these actions will memorialize the sisters forever in Albion. Her speech is a charter identifying the land with a noble and self-perpetuating lineage…; nothing, barring of course the gender and gianthood of Albina and her children, is abnormal about eponymous identification with a land or claims that attempt to undercut other claims by declaring temporal priority. The sisters’ reproduction is also normative (or the normative in drag), because its outcome is a lineage, of sorts, one traceable directly to a founder and connected via that founder to a particular piece of land.
And we see that Jean de Wavrin intensifies this “monstrous normativity” of the Albina story by having not only Albina breed incestuously, but also her father, who produces Albina by marrying his first cousin. Here is this aristocratic desire to resist dilutive, exogamous pressures by keeping the lineage “in the family,” and here it is, undisguised and monstrous, when Albina and her sisters kill their husbands rather than let their preeminent nobility be corrupted by breeding with a lesser line. We can connect this, of course, to the various aristocratic stories of magical or animal origins for lineages (classically, the Lusignans and the Melusine and Swan Knight stories), which frees this line from having to be mingled with other, merely mundane families.

Of course, the Jean de Wavrin needs to be read and taught more because of its queer fantasy of an Amazonian empire, which I don’t believe I’ve ever encountered anywhere else. It does remind me, however, of Aelred of Rievaulx and Jean de Meun’s fantasies of what would happen if animals had reason, that is, we have in both cases the dominant group knowing that if it relaxed its dominance for a moment, it would be dead. In other words, It’s a recognition of what’s normally implicit, that normative gender is gender war.

But we also can work with the Albina story on the question of agency and materialism. After all, it’s MEAT that makes them lusty. And it’s perhaps Albina’s own large size that suits her — or compels her — to be such a leader. Or killer. And then we have a meditation on precisely this point in Jean de Wavrin, where Albina’s father explains that thought the stars might have influenced Albina to be a certain way, she could still resist it because she has “free will” (“vous possessez franche liberte“); and yet the father weeps forever at having lost nearly all his daughters. With affect like this, and with nobility seemingly rooted in the body, and with the body so medicalized, which is surely an ecocritical insight, where is the room for free will? The Albina story may offer no more room for free will than Marx.