The question of agency is crucial for a practice of posthuman cohabitation. Who/what is in act? Who/what is (en)abled to act? Posthumanist re-elaboration of agency represents a decisive move away from humanist and liberal theories of social agency. In liberal ontologies, agency is understood as the capacity of an “I” to think and intervene in “it”, an external reality. In posthumanist and neomaterialist philosophies, agency is not correlated with a (human) subject, instead it is a property of matter, or, in the work of Barad, of materialisation. In posthumanism, agency is not ‘owned’, it is “differentially distributed” among myriads of entities, biotic and abiotic, animal, vegetal, inorganic (Bennett, 2011: 37-8). I will read this distribution of liveliness through Karen Barad’s posthumanist elaboration of agency as ‘intra-action’. In the second part of the section, i will see how agency has been critically conceptualised in the work of Michel Foucault. From this transversal reading will emerge a tension between modern and posthumanist ontologies.
In Barad’s agential realism,“‘things’ don’t pre-exist; they are agentially enacted and become determinately bounded and propertied within phenomena” (2007: 150). Boundaries are not determined in advance, “relata do not preexist relations; relata-within-phenomena emerge through specific intra-actions” (ibid.: 140). The notion of ‘intra-action’ counters the usual ‘interaction’ that implies first, bodies, and then, the relations between them. Instead it is through “intra-activity in its differential mattering” (ibid.: 140) that bodies assert their differences. In Barad’s radically relational ontology, mattering proceeds only through meeting. Through intra-action “matter comes to matter” (Barad, 2003), bodies are articulated through entangled practices of being and meaning.
Instead of objects or subjects, in Barad’s agential realism, the primary ontological units are phenomena: “the ontological inseparability/entanglement of intra-acting ‘agencies’” (2007: 139). These entanglements are enacted through ‘agential cuts’, which locally determine subjects and objects. Intra-actions play out “agential separability – the condition of exteriority-within-phenomena” [original emphasis] (2007: 140)1. Ontologically, agencies are entangled, but through agential intra-action of meaning-making (agential cuts), agencies become separable from each other. This is Barad’s onto-epistemic entanglement in which practices of meaning emerge through practices of being. Importantly, following quantum physics, space and time are implicated and re-constituted through these material performances. “Space, time, and matter are mutually constituted through the dynamics of iterative intra-activity” (ibid.: 181). ‘Spacetimemattering’ (ibid.) is thus an iterative performativity of mattering, meaning, spatialisation and temporalisation.
Agential cuts caused in intra-action “cut ‘things’ together and apart” (ibid.: 179). “Intra-actions always entail particular exclusions” (ibid.: 177), parts of phenomena are therefore locally ‘exterior’. This ‘excluded’ side of mattering is what constitutes “an open space of agency” (ibid.:179) and is the part of the phenomena that provides “the conditions of an open future” (ibid.:177), what might come to matter in future iterative intra-activity. As some things ‘come to matter’, others are excluded from mattering. This onto-epistemic process of inclusion/exclusion is crucial for posthumanist ethico-politics. How cuts are enacted is a question of ethics, as not all cuts produce the same consequences on bodies. Meaning is ontologically produced through agential cuts, but as i will try to demonstrate, this property of mattering can be co-opted within certain types of apparatus to empower some agencies at expense of others.
I will now extend Barad’s reading by focusing on the ‘excluded’ side of the cut, which i will interpret through notions of ‘withdrawal’ and ‘virtual’. In this, i will follow a recent re-reading of Martin Heidegger’s concept of withdrawal in the Object-Oriented Ontology of Graham Harman. For Heidegger, humans perceive reality in terms of “equipment”, “essentially something ‘in-order-to’” (Heidegger, in Harman, 2011: 38). Every object is a ‘reference’ or ‘assignment’ that allows us to do something. However at the same time, Heidegger asserted that no use or introspection can definitively exhaust the being of a tool or object. This sliding away of objects from phenomenal grasp is what Heidegger called ‘withdrawal’. Graham Harman, in the framework of his Object-Oriented Ontology, expands withdrawal into a posthumanist space by asserting that “[e]quipment is global; beings are tool-beings” (Harman, 2002: 36). This does not mean that all beings are instrument as ‘reference’ for humans, but that objects resist full access or ‘use’ by any object. “The sum total of events does not exhaust the reality of objects” (Harman, 2005: 79). Bodies are more than the sum of their relations, they cannot be reduced to their intra-actions. In other words, there are always more possibilities within a given body that are ever realised.
Withdrawal gains depth through Deleuze’s notion of the virtual. The consonance between two concepts is charted by Levi Bryant, who interprets Harman’s withdrawal in terms of ‘virtual proper being’ (2011). I see virtual differently from Bryant, but he paved the way for this conceptual intra-action. For Deleuze, virtual is the structuring of “singularities (unactualised tendencies) and what he calls affects (unactualised capacities to affect and be affected” (De Landa, 2002: 63). Importantly, in Deleuze, virtual is a real dimension of the body, “the virtual must be defined as strictly a part of the real object” (Deleuze, in Bryant, 2011: 96). Virtual is the potential for action, a structuring of agentic capacities that can be realised in encounter with other bodies. Virtuality can thus be envisaged as a “space of possibilities” (De Landa, 2006: 29), a field of virtual trajectories that a body can potentially actualise or perform. Departing from Deleuze, i will take virtual not to be a property of the individual, but of the phenomenon, a performance of intra-active dynamics. In the context of agential intra-action, virtual is an intra-bodily possibility space that remains excluded in the agential cut. Here i will be even more specific. Possible is not the same as virtual. Possible refers to the capacities of the phenomenon that are known, whereas virtual is that which is unknown but real. This distinction is important in the context of apparatus-assemblage dynamics (see 2.3.).
The notion of withdrawal/virtualisation is in line with Barad’s reading that exclusions performed by agential cuts hold ‘conditions of an open future’. What i wish to add, with Deleuze and Harman, is that withdrawal/virtualisation is an agential performance of matter, as much as mattering. Virtual is not merely a passive side of phenomenon that is “excluded from mattering”. Dynamics of intra-action brings matter to matter and matter withdraws from mattering, it virtualises. The autonomy of bodies is also connected to withdrawal, to what remains outside of the scope of mattering. A flat ontology should not forget the excluded side of the cut, because, in some contexts, this may amount to forgetting the minorities secluded by agential cuts. Therefore, a posthumanist elaboration of agency stands for intra-action through which matter (‘congealing of agency’), meaning, and withdrawal are asserted.
At this point i will try to situate this posthumanist understanding of agency within the social context of modernity. To do so, i will read how agency relates to the notion of ‘power’ in the work of Michel Foucault. In this i am following the example of Rosi Braidotti, who engages with Foucault’s bio-power in her critical posthumanist project2. Foucault’s understanding of power is rich and complex, but i am taking its first systematic exposition in the History of Sexuality Vol. 1: Will to Knowledge (1978). In the section of the book titled ‘Method’, Foucault outlines a number of ‘propositions’ on power. First, power “is not something that is acquired, seized, or shared, something that one holds on to or allows to slip away: power is exercised from innumerable points, in the interplay of nonegalitarian and mobile relations” (ibid.: 77). Power is ‘impersonal’ or ‘subjectless’, power relations are “both intentional and nonsubjective” (ibid. :78). There might be “strategies” or “calculations” that some bodies may perform but ultimately power is never the “choice or decision of an individual subject” (ibid.). In other words, power is always a relation by which some bodies act upon others, but it implies that the bodies acted upon are able to be affected3:
Where there is power, there is resistance, and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power. …. But this does not mean that they are only a reaction or rebound, forming with respect to the basic domination an underside that is in the end always passive, doomed to perpetual defeat. (Foucault, 1978: 78-79)
Power cannot unilaterally capture a body’s agency, power is in a double articulation with resistance. Were power to fully take over a body and annihilate resistance, there would be no relation whatsoever. What is crucial here is that resistance is not a ‘consequence’, answer or ‘reaction’ to power. “Power comes from below” (ibid.: 68), or, in Deleuze’s commentary on Foucault, “resistance comes first” [original emphasis] (Deleuze, 1988: 89). I believe this resistance can be related to withdrawal, the virtual side of each phenomenon, the unactualised surplus that has not and cannot be absorbed by power. The virtual is the internal-exterior to what the power ‘sees’.
The analytics of power emerges in Foucault’s investigation of the disciplinary regimes in modern Europe, especially in the context of how sexuality has been controlled. Although this may seem like a humanist topic, what is at stake in this analysis has consequences for extra-human bodies. Modern disciplinary operations of power mark a new regime, that of biopolitics, power over life: “the ancient right to take life or let live was replaced by a power to foster life or disallow it to the point of death” [original emphasis] (Foucault, 1978: 111). Biopolitics are techniques of ‘administration’ of life through procedures that aim to “qualify, measure, appraise, and hierarchise” (ibid.: 116) the bodies. Foucault in his writings is concerned with how biopolitics inscribes human bodies. Following an ecofeminist analysis, regimes of power over life extend to extra-human bodies. In an important sense, historically, regimes of bio-power begin by taking power over animal and vegetal bodies, an argument that has been made by Giorgio Agamben (1998). As bio-power targets life itself, the objective of resistance becomes “the ‘right’ to life” (Foucault, 1978: 116-7). “Life becomes resistance to power” (Deleuze, 1988: 92). Foucault’s analysis of the rise of bio-politics provides an insight that biopolitics is only possible because life is already power, a capacity to resist and persevere. By capturing portions of life into relations of power, biopolitics harnesses the immanent agency of life and streamlines it for instrumental purposes. However, power relations are fundamentally apparatus intra-actions, power regimes are able to capture only the actual and the possible, whilst withdrawn parts of the phenomenon harbour other futures. This brings us to another of Foucault’s points. Power relations exist only where there is a degree of freedom. “Power is exercised only over free subjects, and only insofar as they are free”, otherwise “power would be equivalent to a physical determination” (Foucault, 1982: 221). This indicates the edge of bio-power and the beginning of what we can call bio-control. If we assume that power is a relation between subjects, then it is clear that the power relations of humans with animals and other non-human bodies are always relations of domination. Or at least that is what they intend to be.
In a later formulation, Foucault speaks about power as “action upon action of others” (1982: 791). This can be read as a body being constrained to do something it otherwise would not, a doing-against. ‘Action upon action’ can also be understood as an expression of a generative ‘action with action’, bodies doing things they otherwise could not, a doing-with. Power also has a productive aspect of empowerment. These are the two dimensions of power: “Power is negative (potestas) in that it prohibits and constrains. It is also positive (potentia) in that it empowers and enables” (Braidotti, 2002: 21). Analytically, these two different notions of power refer to two different modes of intra-action. In one, subjects capture agency and channel it into domination. The other one refers to intra-actions in which possibilities of bodies are increased. These two modes of power are modes of intra-actions that are constitutive of a number of social practices. Power relations do not confute the logic of intra-action, they just formalise it into repetitive patterns that produce determinate consequences.
Returning to biopolitics―power over life―a posthumanist ontology may provide a transversal reading that may allow for creative intra-actions. If we follow the posthumanist explanation of agency, we will see that life is not the same as power. Life is, according to Agamben, first and foremost a philosophical term that in Aristotle becomes the foundation of politics (2015: 195-6). Ancient Greeks had two words for life, as bios or zoè:
zoè, which expressed the simple fact of living common to all living beings (animals, men, or gods), and bios, which indicated the form or way of living proper to an individual or a group. (Agamben, 1998: 1)
Specifically, bios is the life of a ‘political animal’, of the citizen. Zoè is “bare life”, excluded from polis and captured by sovereign power (ibid.: 9). The distinction between the two is operated by Aristotle by separating ‘vegetative life’ or ‘nutritive soul’ from the capacity of ‘reason’, the latter being available only to the ‘political animal’, the citizen (Agamben, 2015: 201-2). At the same time, nutritive life is recognised as the ‘foundation’ and ‘motor’ of biopolitics, because there would be no life without nutrition and reproduction. But this ‘simple life’ is separate from reason, and therefore excluded from the city and from the human (ibid.: 205). Life as zoè can thus be dominated, but not negotiated politically, which pertains only to bios. This dualist ontology at the heart of biopolitics is still present in current political and economic practices, but it must be overcome for a more-than-human justice to be asserted. Agamben works towards this with the notion of ‘form-of-life’, where its form cannot be separated from ‘bare life’, but he stays in the realm of the human. Posthumanism operates in a continuum of a broader solidarity, and life itself is re-examined even beyond vegetative life.
It must be insisted that ‘life’ in a biopolitical regime does not comprehend the full capacities of material agentiality. Life is an arbitrary marker that biopolitical regimes institute as their zone of operation, but the capacity of matter to ‘come to matter’ is an infinitely broader realm:
Birth and death are not the sole prerogative of the animate world. “Inanimate” beings also have finite lives. “Particles can be born and particles can die”, explains one physicist. (Barad, 2012b: 9)
Here goes one of the deepest boundary-making projects of modernity, the distinction between life and non-life. Capacities of matter occupy both zoè and bios, and traverse across non-bios/non-zoè, materiality of life is the agential potential of the world to keep spacetimemattering.
Posthumanist notion of agency thus only partially corresponds to what biopolitical regimes of power capture. However, a critical posthumanism must recognise that vast portions of agentiality of matter are being appropriated by these very regimes. Ontologically speaking, Barad is right to say that agency “never ends. It can never ‘run out’” (2007: 177). However, i think that this is different from stating that “possibilities aren’t narrowed in their realization” (ibid.). When the second assertion is contextualised in specific power apparatuses, we can see that the possibilities of specific agencies can be narrowed. Distributions of power are entangled with the ways that intra-actions determine im/possibilities. How the conditions of possibilities of mattering are enacted is what i will try to explicate with two modes of material-discursive performative dynamics: apparatus and assemblage.
- Agential cut is performed by “the larger material arrangement” (ibid.;140), or ‘apparatus’, the concept which Karen Barad elaborates by diffracting Niels Bohr’s philosophy-physics and Michel Foucault’s notion of dispositif.
- In Order of Things (1970), in his critique of humanism, Foucault prefigures the ‘death of Man’. Braidotti claims that this marks an important step towards critical posthumanism (2013: 23), explicitly deeming Foucault to be a “neo-materialist” (in Dolphijn & van der Tuin, 2012: 20).
- Power relation in Foucault could be read through the notion of affect, which, in DG’s re-reading of Spinoza, stands for “capacities to affect and be affected” of individual bodies (1987: 261).