A recent post over at Larval Subjects calls for a more fully developed account of agency. This is something that is frequently called for — indeed, one could have a successful career as a participant in academic seminars if one criticized literally every author for not “leaving enough room for agency” or, if they try to “leave room,” for not giving a good enough account of it. Absolutely no one does agency right, which leads me to wonder if there is something about the concept of agency that leaves it, as it were, intrinsically “underdeveloped.”
Let’s think about what we associate with the concept of agency (or free will, or subjectivity, or whatever else we call this). If we reduce it to choosing between options or weighing “reasons,” it somehow seems impoverished, but we don’t want it to be sheer arbitrarity. I think that Jean-Luc Nancy heads in the right direction in The Experience of Freedom by introducing the concept of surprise. Free agency is that which takes us by surprise. If we developed a robust account of it, it would no longer be surprising. That also seems to me to be what’s at stake in Butler’s attempt to show how interpellation misfires, etc. — that subjects, once formed, and even in the process of their formation, can do surprising things.
Sinthome, in his post and in the comment thread, seems to have a very specific idea of “materialism” in mind — he says that many accounts of agency seem to fall back on a kind of creatio ex nihilo, which true materialism cannot countenance. I wonder if this particular idea of “materialism,” however, might be front-loading things and artificially generating the problem of “where” we can locate agency. Even though modern science does not present us with a universe where such is the case, I think that when many of us think “materialism,” they think of a universe fully saturated by mechanical laws of causation. In such a universe, there simply doesn’t seem to be “room” for agency — and so we’re caught between the impossible poles of either giving a “mechanical” account of agency (which is intrinsically contradictory) or renouncing one of the most fundamental experiences of human existence (i.e., that we are not “robots”).
Here again, Nancy’s idea of freedom as going all the way down seems to me to be a great way of getting past this impasse. In many ways, Nancy’s thought here is very similar to Whitehead’s, which of course was attempting to respond philosophically to the advent of relativity theory and quantum mechanics. If we reject the idea that the universe is saturated by mechanical laws of causation (or say that “Being is freedom,” that is, Being is surprising), the presenting problem disappears. “Agency” then becomes the particular surprising ways in which a being of a high level of complexity and self-reflexivity can and does act.
Zizek’s appropriation of the Lacanian “non-all” also heads in this direction, and he engages directly with science, such as his analysis of quantum mechanics in The Indivisible Remainder (recently reissued) and of cognitive science in Parallax View — the latter giving an impressive account of how human agency arises in the course of the evolution of consciousness.
Of course, none of these accounts can give a positive grounding for surprise or for the openness/non-saturation of the laws of causation — they all make an end run around this problem precisely by placing surprise at the foundation (this is perhaps less true in the case of Butler). It is a paradigm shift whose time has come, and seems to me to be consistently materialist — perhaps more consistently materialist, in that it does not impose the dogmatic frame of fully saturated causality on the data.
It is admittedly difficult to call Whitehead a materialist — I would be interested, however, to see how his system works if we cut away what he (unfortunately) named “God” — but both Nancy and Zizek at least profess to be materialists. There seem to be no a priori grounds for excluding them, unless the secret handshake to get into the materialist club is to implicitly believe in an outmoded model of the universe as a gigantic billiards table.