Thursday, August 9, 2012

Agency, Rhetoric, and Connectivism

In an earlier post, I discussed intentionality in the rhizome in response to some comments and questions from Frances Bell. Her questions revealed some significant gaps in my thinking which I'm still trying to fill, but the article Rhetorical Agency as Emergent and Enacted (CCC 62:3, Feb 2011) by Marilyn M. Cooper has brought me some clarity and direction, so I want to discuss the issue of agency a bit more.

First, I'm disappointed that I haven't thought more about agency. After all, the core idea behind rhetoric is that one can say or write things that have an effect on the beliefs and behaviors of others. As Cooper says in her article, our common conception of an agent is "one who through conscious intention or free will causes changes in the world" (421). Rhetoric makes little sense without the concomitant concept of agency. If our spoken and written words cannot cause change in the world, then why bother?

So, I have three questions to answer:
  1. What is agency for me?
  2. What does it have to do with Rhetoric?
  3. What does it have to do with Connectivism?
I'll try to start an answer to the first question in this post. Cooper defines agency as "an emergent property of embodied individuals … agency does not arise from conscious mental acts, though consciousness does play a role. Agency instead is based on individuals' lived knowledge that their actions are their own" (421). Her argument about agency rests on:
  1. complexity theory, which describes complex systems that self-organize through reiterative feedforward/feedback loops, reveal emergent characteristics not necessarily inherent in the individual parts of the system, and that change nonlinearly in a dance of perturbation and response as agents interact, and
  2. an enactive approach to the study of mind, "which combines neuroscience and phenomenology to develop understandings of cognitive processes and brain dynamics as embodied nonlinear self-organizing systems interacting with the surround" (421).
Agency for Cooper, then, seems to emerge as a property of the individual's complex interactions with its surround (Cooper's term, borrowed from Glen Mazis' Humans, Animals, Machines: Blurring Boundaries) and from the trajectory of the individual's struggle to create meaning, or self, out of these complex interactions. She quotes Walter Freeman (How Brains Make Up Their Minds, 2000): "This dynamic system is the self in each of us. It is the agency in charge, not our awareness, which is constantly trying to catch up with what we do" (428).

Just now, I want to say this more simply: agency for me is the ability to recognize a situation and to respond to it. When an amoeba swimming in a petri dish perceives that it has swum into a drop of acid and it turns about to swim the other way, then that amoeba exhibits agency. When a lymphocyte detects an invading pathogen in the body and destroys it, then that lymphocyte exhibits agency. When a virus protection program detects a virus in a bit of code in something I download and quarantines that code, then that virus protection program exhibits agency. When I detect a bit of knowledge about agency and learn it, then I exhibit agency. Our habitual recognitions and responses (interactions with our surround) form the trajectory of our agency.

This definition differs from the common definition above in a key way: for me and for Cooper, too, agency is not dependent upon "conscious intention or free will". In other words, it doesn't matter whether or not the amoeba, the lymphocyte, the virus protection program, or I am aware of making a choice or can choose to do other than we do. As Cooper says, "neither conscious intention nor free will—at least as we commonly think of them—is involved in acting or bringing about change" (421). I like this definition as it allows me to stitch agency into the heart of most every physical and chemical reaction, and I really like that animation of the Universe. It sings for me, and I can dance with it. Cooper, too, seems willing to extend agency far beyond the human. In one of her notes, she says that her definition of agency "holds not only for all animals but also for machines, plants, and material objects" (444). Indeed, the enactive approach to the study of mind that Cooper gleans from Walter Freeman's work says that much of the process of forming our intentions is nonconscious. "Both nonconscious and conscious processes contribute to intentional action, and agents are aware of only some of the processes as they take place. The part of the loop involving intent, action , and the creation of the meaning of sensory input is largely nonconscious, as is the resultant formation of memories and dispositions. Through these processes, the agent is provided with meaning for free" (429).

This definition of agency also differs from the common use of the term in its sense of causality: our agency and intentions do not necessarily lead to specific results, as reality teaches us regularly. Complexity theorists Maturana and Varela note that the interactions between an agent and its surround do "not determine what its effects are going to be … the changes that result from the interaction between the living being and its environment are brought about by the disturbing agent but determined by the structure of the disturbed system" (426; emphasis in the original). Agency, then, is seldom causal in a linear way. Rather, an agent perturbs its environment, and the resultant perturbation is seldom exactly what the agent intended.

So agency is a property that emerges from the history of an individual's interactions within its complex systems. (Again, agency is not a product of the conscious mind. Rather, our awareness of intention is quite often after the fact of agency: a rationalization that credits us for some action that went well or excuses us for some action that went awry. Of course, our own stories about our intentions and our perceptions of the consequences of our intentions feedback into and modify our agency; thus, our conscious intentions contribute to agency–becoming ingredients in the agency soup–but they do not originate it.) Agency is our habitual ways of being and acting with our surround–trajectories of mind/body, trajectories both conscious and nonconscious, trajectories that perturb and in turn are perturbed by the trajectories of other agents with whom we interact. Agency is the pattern and trajectory that our presence, or absence, creates within a complex system.

This was fun and quite educational for me, so I'll write more about the relevance of this concept of agency with Connectivism and rhetoric. Cooper makes some very useful points about agency and rhetoric that I'd like to explore.
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