agency A term referring to the role of the human actor as individual or group in directing or effectively intervening in the course of history. Liberal humanism sees the individual or subject as unified and self-determining. It therefore ascribes agency to this subject as a more or less unrestricted actor in shaping her/his own life and a more general social destiny. Marxism and other theories recognizing the influence of social and economic determinations beyond the individual offer a more qualified and complex view. 'Men make their own history,' Karl Marx famously declared, but 'do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves'. For Marx, the working class was denied agency and would only assume its role as actor in the world through the revolutionary transformation of economic and social relations inspired by class consciousness.
Critics of this view, within Marxism and poststructuralism,
see it as no more than a postponement of the humanist ideal. Non-humanist positions,
developed for example by Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault, appear to deny
agency altogether. For Foucault, for example, power
is omnipresent and though exercised with aims and objectives has no presiding
'headquarters, no specific source in the decisions of groups or individuals
(1979: 94-5). As Anthony Giddens comments, 'Foucault's history tends to have
no active subjects at all. It is history with the agency removed' (1987: 98).
For some, the anti-humanism of poststructuralism comes unnervingly close to a belief such as Margaret Thatcher's that 'there is no such thing as society': a view which surrenders agency to market forces. Nevertheless, poststructuralist arguments have challenged the traditional Marxist emphasis upon class and party as the agencies of radical change and significantly influenced models of the operation of power and ideology. They have proved relevant if problematic, too, for feminist and other oppositional theories interested in the strategies which would render women and other subjugated peoples the 'subjects' (i.e. agents) of their own rather than the 'objects' of an imposed history. Debating the implications of poststructuralist theory for political action, Michele Barrett highlights the problem posed by deconstruction: 'Feminists recognise that the "naming" of women and men occurs within an opposition that one would want to challenge and transform, yet political silencing can follow from rejecting these categories altogether' (1991: 166). To deconstruct existing relations of power, she implies, threatens to deconstruct the concept of agency itself and thus to undermine any counter-strategy.
Contributions to a 'post-Marxist' theory of
agency which have absorbed the lessons of poststructuralist critique have been
associated with thinkers such as Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe and Stuart Hall.
As described by Lawrence Grossberg, Hall offers, 'a non-essentialist theory
of agency'. He proposes 'a fragmented, decentred human agent, an agent who is
both "subject-ed" by power and capable of acting against those powers'.
'It is a position,' Grossberg adds, 'of theoretical anti-humanism and political
humanism, for without an articulated subject capable of acting, no resistance
is possible' (Morley and Chen [eds] 1996: 156-7).
See also identity; ideology critique. [from: Brooker, 1999]