Thursday, June 14, 2012

Agency, Ontology and the Specter of Rube Goldberg

In the course of the recent dust-up over ‘flat’ ethics Levi Bryant brings up the issue of agency, and properly so. To this end he quotes a passage from Michel Serres, The Parasite, a text I’ve not read (thus leaving me without context for the passage). Here it is:
A ball is not an ordinary object, for it is what it is only if a subject holds it. Over there, on the ground, it is nothing; it is stupid; it has no meaning, no function, and no value. Ball isn’t played alone. Those who do, those who hog the ball, are bad players and are soon excluded from the game. They are said to be selfish. The collective game doesn’t need persons, people out for themselves. Let us consider the one who holds it. If he makes it move around him, he is awkward, a bad player. The ball isn’t there for the body; the exact contrary is true: the body is the object of the ball; the subject moves around this sun. Skill with the ball is recognized in the player who follows the ball and serves it instead of making it follow him and using it. It is the subject of the body, subject of bodies, and like a subject of subjects. Playing is nothing else but making oneself the attribute of the ball as a substance. The laws are written for it, defined relative to it, and we bend to these laws. Skill with the ball supposes a Ptolemaic revolution of which few theoreticians are capable, since they are accustomed to being subjects in a Copernican world where objects are slaves. (225 – 226)
Bryant glosses it thus:
What Alex [Reid] and Serres remind us is that we’re never strictly the origin of our own actions, but that often we’re the object of the agency of nonhumans such as the soccer ball. If this point is so crucial and deserves to be the starting point of discussion on these issues, then this is because it significantly complicates our notion of agency and just who and what counts as an agent.
And a bit later:
Second, as Serres’ example of the soccer ball as a subject where humans are quasi-objects for it–where the soccer ball is the seat of agency and the players are patients; in part, anyway–suggests, we need to develop an adequate notion of agency. What sorts of agency are there? What agency do we have?
My initial reaction, I’m sad, and perhaps a bit ashamed, to say, was out of an old TV commercial: Where’s the beef?

In what interesting sense is the ball doing all that? We can say that the ball is an agent, we can agree with one another to talk in that way, and to extend such talk all the way to Alpha Centauri, but what do we thus accomplish? We can say that a dog’s tail is actually a fifth leg, but that doesn’t make it so.

I fear that proceeding along these lines is likely to lead to a Rube Goldberggian disparity between means and ends, an elaborate technical apparatus to perform a simple task. Mastery of the philosophical apparatus may bring intellectual satisfaction of a kind, but it won’t yield much insight into the world.

* * * * *

Let us reconsider Serres’ passage. He contrasts the ball “over there, on the ground” with the (same) ball in a subject’s hand, presumably a player. The former “is nothing”. It is the latter that “is not an ordinary object”. There’s nothing said about the stupid on-the-ground ball sending thought beams to the player: Pick me up, hold me.

No, it is the player who picks up the ball, who is the agent. But not just one player. We have a group of players, two teams. We have a collective, a little society if you will. This is, of course, Latour’s theme and his territory, though he learned some of his craft from Serres. Soccer is a game, played according to certain rules. The rules are made by humans for humans, not by balls for balls.
Though here I am reminded of Tom Hanks, in Cast Away, who spends five years talking with Wilson, a volleyball. Of course Hanks is on a deserted island and Wilson is all the society he’s got. But it IS society, a collective.
To be sure, the players must be exquisitely attentive to the physical characteristics of the ball. One must learn to work WITH the ball rather than against it, as a musician must learn to work with the instrument, not against it: “Skill with the ball is recognized in the player who follows the ball and serves it instead of making it follow him and using it.” In playing the game the humans give up many options for action and thought, bringing themselves much closer to the conditions of the ball than they are while, say, cruising the philosophy blogosphere or meeting with an investment advisor. But it’s not at all clear to me that that amounts to “making oneself the attribute of the ball as a substance.” And in any event it is the player making him or herself the attribute of the ball, not the ball annexing the player, or even politely inviting, come, let us play.

Serres ends his sally by observing: “Skill with the ball supposes a Ptolemaic revolution of which few theoreticians are capable . . .” I really have no idea how many theoreticians play or have played a creditable game of soccer, though I believe that Richard Feynman was a good bongo player and that Gerald Edelman is a decent fiddler. But one doesn’t play soccer, the bongos, or the fiddle with theory; one plays them with the body. In the best of circumstances one doesn’t think at all, much less theorize, one just acts, and does so in concert with others.

If one is going to theorize soccer, theorize the whole game, not just the relationship between the ball and a player. If one’s out to complicate our notions of agency there’s more to be gained by thinking about interactions among the players than by promoting the ball to agent first class. In the case of any given goal one may be able to determine whose foot was last on a goal, but is that player the only one responsible for the goal? Hardly. It’s a team effort, as the cliché goes. And when a player’s “in the zone” and thus completely absorbed into the field of play, is that player then an agent? If not, then what is the source of her actions? The ball, other players, the grass, the goal, the sun the moon the stars?

Soccer is a micro-world, a society within a society, where life is lived according to different rules. Why do we create such micro-worlds? What meaning do they have for us? What role do they play in our collectives? I fear for a philosophy that rushes to confer agency on the soccer ball before raising these other questions.

* * * * *

Bryant also discusses the Serres passage in an older post, which comes closer to the mark:
The point has never been that objects have some sort of mysterious intentionality or self-directedness like animals and human objects, but that objects bend, as Serres puts it, our intentions in ways that can’t be strictly attributed to us. They are participants, not mere recipients, in our action. But that is not all. As the ball flies up and down the field in both its aleatory fashion and as a result of the actions of the soccer players, it brings the soccer players together in constantly shifting configurations or relations with one another. The ball is a key “player”– pardon the pun –in why people come to relate in this way rather than that way at each point in the game. This is why the ball is no less a quasi-subject than a quasi-object. This is why the ball is no less a quasi-subject than a quasi-object. The point here is that so long as we reduce the ball to a mere social construction, so long as we treat it as a mere screen for human and social intentions, we miss a big part of the story as to why the players are brought together in the way they are and why their relations constantly shift.
There, in that last sentence, Bryant mentions the WHY of the game. But, still, he says nothing about it. No hint of homo ludens there.

I have an older post in which I raise the subject of human sociality, of assimilating objects into the collective, though the dreaded issue of animism: “What does it mean to treat a tree or an ax as a social being? It means, I suggest, that you treat them as animate and hence must pay proper respect to their spirits.”

1 comment:

  1. Started to read around this slowly. it's like pulling teeth and I suspect a fair amount has to do with contemporary academic identity rather than anything else. Earlier post of Levi Bryant's

    "For example, a theorist might endlessly discuss how signifiers structure reality without examining the differences that nonhuman entities contribute to the world. Under this model, things become passive matters awaiting inscriptions, and do no inscribing or contribute no differences of their own. This, I believe, has been the dominant way of thinking over the last forty years."

    I don't think this is true or if it is done retrospectively.

    I like looking at hairy thing's man like ape etc.

    Yes you can point and spot loads of retro humanist generalization in our long history of discussing and debating these creatures but at the end of the day I think that what makes the running and where the motivation for our chatter about such things comes from is the shock of encounter with such creatures and the naive observations that result. Bugger me these things look uncannily familiar, w.t.f. is going on. (or the medieval equivalent of surprise).

    Despite what religious, philosophical etc retrospective gloss we may wish to put on it to sell to a particular group, its the thing and the surprise of initial encounter that causes us to discuss, debate and disagree about it.

    The shock and surprise of encounter, it makes us tell tales many of them are indeed tall ones but the fact we engage in such monkey business retrospectively does not suggest that it is not the object that causes all the chatter. At least its what I think.

    Encounter, the surprise of something new we do not understand and observation are key.