Object agency is a favourite topic of mine within archaeological and anthropological theory. As if the concept of agency of humans is not complex enough, we have to go and add into it the concept of non-human things having agency too. I’ve been having something of an ongoing argument with some anthropology colleges about how the study of material things, while all very well in itself, is meaningless if you can’t also analyse speech. Note that this theory taken to its logical conclusion would invalidate all of archaeology, and in fact any study of the past not based on texts, because people are not there to talk to.

Well, I have several problems with this stance, the first being that what people say and what they do are two very different things, and that what people say and what the listener hears are another different set of things. But secondly, and more importantly, a vast amount of action and being in the world does not involve language at all. So lots of the things that happen to us and around us are not the result of language, and by implication communication through a medium that we presume to be able to understand each other with. Here’s an example.

This morning, I go down to the basement of my apartment and put my laundry in the washing machine. Coming back half an hour later I find the washing machine has broken. I collect up my soaking wet clothes and head to the laundrette. I find a machine, put my clothes in it, set it going, sit down on the bench in front. Above me, a television is blaring out Mexican telenovellas, and just to the side of me two men chat in Spanish. I take out my eeepc and continue the reading I was doing in my apartment. After I while I am vaguely aware of the men no longer talking, and I get the feeling, though I’m not sure, that they are staring at my eeepc. After a while one of them gets out his cell phone and starts to listen to music on it, without using any headphones. The tinny music on the tiny speakers is extremely annoying, and I wonder if he’s doing some kind of techno-posing in response to my little laptop. The music keeps going, the telenovellas keep stretching, and the laundry is no-where near done. I can’t concentrate on my reading, start to get annoyed, but can’t leave because I need to sit with my washing.

Nobody has said anything but a lot is going on and only some of the entities doing things are humans. Agency is variously defined, but most usefully as the ability to cause an effect in the world on something else (a patient). In many formulations other definitions are added – the need for intentionality being a common one. But the problem with intentionality is, how do we know someone has an intention before they enact it? If all we see is the action we have no way of knowing if they intended to do it, or if it ‘just happened’. Does intentionality require choice? Once they enact an action, we can only see the action and can’t tell if there was a choice of another action. Overall, its best to leave intentionality out of it, as we have no way of knowing whether it exists or not.

So in the example above. The music on the cell phone was irritating the hell out of me. I think to myself, “That guy is trying to annoy me by standing right behind me playing that crappy music”. In this case, the guy is an agent because he’s causing an effect on me (pissing me off). But I have no idea if he is intending to act as an agent (by having the effect of pissing me off) or if its an unintentional consequence of the world being as it is (he happens to be playing music and it pisses me off). But he’s not the only thing having an effect on me and making me a patient. The telenovellas are also having an effect (they are also pissing me off and making me unable to concentrate). So the television is also acting as an agent, but can I say that the television is intentionally pissing me off? No, no more than I can tell the guy is – although I might be able to ask the guy and I couldn’t ask the TV, in the case that I don’t (and I don’t) there is no way to tell if either have intentionality. But both are very similar agents.

But then, what other agents are at play? Do I, at that moment, have agency, in the sense that I have an ability to act? Well my potentially for agency, to do something to make a change on the world – in this case on my own experience of the world – is restricted. My washing is in the machine, I can’t move away from it. So my washing also has agency over me, in that it restricts my ability to move away from the annoying music and telenovellas. But thinking about that music, where is it actually coming from? I’m blaming the guy, but actually its coming from the cell phone. The guy would not be able to be the agent he is (someone who pisses me off with crappy music) without the cell phone. He might very well be able to be another agent (say, someone who pisses me off by whistling), but not this particular form of agent. So, without the cell phone, the guy isn’t this kind of agent. Its the combination of the cell phone and the guy that makes the agency he is at this moment. Its not that the guy has agency through the object, its that the agent is a combination of guy and cell phone. But then, what about the TV? The TV was turned on by someone who liked telenovellas, who then walked off. (Or maybe by someone who knew how annoying telenovellas are and then ran away giggling – but we are leaving intentionality out of this.) Is the agent the combination of the TV and the person who turned it on? In this instance, we only have the TV, but this kind of example has also been referred to as extended agency – its only the person and the TV that have agency, even though they are separated in space and time. I don’t agree with this explanation though. In this moment the person who turned the TV on is no longer part of the equation. Its just the TV that has agency and is pissing me off.

But what does that say about the cell phone? The cell phone is the thing that is pissing me off – or more specifically, the music. What connection is there between the music and the guy? Well, one that I assume to exist because he’s holding it, but is that really the case? His agency went into turning the cell phone on – he is the agent, the cell phone is the patient. Then the cell phone caused the music to exist – the cell phone is the agent, the music is the patient. (By the way music is still a physical thing in case you were wondering, sound waves having a physical existence.) Then the music hit against my ear drums and pissed me off – the music is the agent and I am the patient. But I still blame the guy and whoever turned the TV on. Whatever happens, we humans can’t help bringing in intentionality, we can’t help blaming things on humans.

And here is the most interesting distinction that complicates discussions of agency – there is a difference between the debate about ‘how we interact with objects in the world in terms of their and our agency’ and ‘how we humans conceptualise the ability of things and objects to have agency’. In the latter, we act very strangely. For instance, I still blame the guy for pissing me off, even though its the music that annoys me and I have no way of knowing his intentions any more than I know the intentions of the television. But we humans also have an interesting way of interacting with objects that reveals something of our understanding of their agency. I swear at my eeepc and beg it not to die on me before I finish writing this. Little girls talk to their dolls the same way old ladies talk to their cats (animals being that wonderfully confusing category somewhere in-between humans and objects). A women wears her lucky knickers which will always make her pull when she goes out on the town. A guy told me the reason my car kept getting traffic tickets was because I hadn’t given it a name yet (I still refuse to. I still get lots of parking tickets). And that’s even before we get to the classical ethnographic subjects of totemism, art, fetishes, religious objects, magic and lucky charms.

The way we interact with the world around us depends on subtle combinations of the cultural and the physical. That the washing machine in my apartment was full of soapy water that wouldn’t drain and that the one in the laundrette was not, effected the interaction between patients and agents (them and me). That the television was situated right above my head and had flashing lights and loud music similarly affected the way I acted (that I couldn’t concentrate, and kept glancing up at it). That the bench in front of the washing machine had enough space for someone to stand behind me, but that he would be fairly close in doing so. But the physical alone doesn’t explain why I thought it necessary to stay near to my washing, why I didn’t ask the guy to turn the music off, why telenovellas are so annoying, why I cursed my stingy useless landlord so profusely, or why I wanted to have clean clothes in the first place. Its this combination, though, of cultural and physical, that we interact with unthinkingly and unconsciously, that makes the world as we experience it.

(Incidentally, when the anthropologist Alfred Gell formulated a lot of these arguments in a book called “Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory” – which he died before finishing – he used the example of the a soldier and a landmine, rather than a guy and a cell phone.)