Once again, our text knows the absolute best way to make us feel horrible about the various contexts in which we live. How do they contextualize the concept of agency?
“None of us is in control of the social spaces that we inhabit; nor are we completely in control of the subject positions that we occupy…there are some even more obvious limits to one’s agency…”
We then follow a diatribe on power, its mechanisms, and the structures that generate such power . For example, in the United States, we are formally governed in the style of constitutional republic, with three branches of government, and we elect our leaders to the legislative and executive branches, who appoint the members of the judicial branches (a complete oversimplification, I know). Though we are not in a legal sense, a democracy, we like to think that in the U.S., the right to vote, among many other rights, is “a feature of our great democracy” as we might hear from the pundits.
But is this really what we all imagine what we think of “agency” and “freedom”? Nealon and Giroux make note that “different forms of power require different responses”, which could lend a clue as to the current polarization of politics in the United States. Is this state of affairs, where our electoral options limited, socioeconomic status being vastly unequal, what you all, what I, want from our lives? Are we consenting to our nation’s electoral politics, or are we being coerced? As with many things in the 21st century, the answer to that last question is incredibly subjective.
One question our text puts forth, is perhaps agency is an illusion! Can we, human beings as subject to our environments and diverse contexts, really change anything at all? Are we more than the norms? Yet, they circle back around to a more optimistic view, rejecting such determinism.
I think the largest point we should take away from this last chapter is that we should be skeptical of who call themselves “free”, and why they say so. Many low-income whites vote for Republicans year after year (in a state of false consciousness I believe) and think themselves free people voting for representatives who will promote that freedom. No wonder such rampant xenophobia runs through the GOP! Their definition of freedom relies on that rhetoric being an objective truth.
But all this theoretical and abstract reflection on agency accomplishes very little if we do not put it to good use, regardless of whether or not we turn out to be entirely subject to our environments. Marx certainly believed that the working class, given enough time and organization, could manifest their collective agency to overthrow their oppressors. As he says,
“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”
I really like the video on pragmatism, the “myth” of the American dream, and one pragmatist philosopher’s reflections on the value of the American dream. In a way, Rorty articulates what we’ve suggested throughout: sometimes, abstract ideas / ideals serve as a sort of directive influence: ideas of hope, freedom, progress. Sure, these things can be illusory, and of course they are everywhere imperfectly embodied. But rather than drag the concept down to its less convincing evidence, it is, in some sense, important to uphold certain illusory truths as a way to direct and channel human action. Of course, this can be done for horrific ends, as when the eugenics movement at end of the nineteenth century pursued ideals of purity in a campaign of sterilization that would eventually lead to extermination as Hitler and others tried to embody this questionable ideals. I guess the point is that ideals much always be questioned, and must always be contextualized in relation to the materials effect produced in the real world. But such ideals remain endurable and transcendent.
I’m glad you noted that our authors do end on a slightly more optimistic note: it’s all about what they call “contextual creativity” as we navigate text and world alike. I hope this book has made us all a bit more in tune with those contexts that are so often obscured.