The Agency Moment

choice

My favorite blog source, David Brooks, turns out to be an existentialist. Who would have thunk it? His column today (11//14/2014) is about finding agency, a fancy word for discovering and taking on a self, and acting from that center. The central theme in virtually all existentialist writing is agency although few of the existentialists use this word, for good reasons. Agency carries too many meanings. The simplest refers to any intentional act without reference to the cognitive source. Brooks, I think, is being more explicit, using agency to refer to acts coming from free choice: from the self to use a common, but confusing, metaphor, or the soul to use another similarly confusing metaphor. Agency has a particular meaning in management theory and refers to workers acting out of their own interests rather than that of their manager or principal.

Brooks writes about the novelist, George Eliot, who led an “emotionally needy” life, until, upon being spurned by one she hoped would develop an attachment to her, found her “self.”

After the years of disjointed neediness, the iron was beginning to enter her soul and she was capable of that completely justified assertion of her own dignity. You might say that this moment was Eliot’s agency moment, the moment when she stopped being blown about by her voids and weaknesses and began to live according to her own inner criteria, gradually developing a passionate and steady capacity to initiate action and drive her own life.

Brooks goes on to wrote of other examples of people who had such agency moments. But he generally finds its lack everywhere.

I’ve been thinking about moments of agency of this sort because often you see people who lack full agency. Sometimes you see lack of agency among the disadvantaged. Their lives can be so blown about by economic disruption, arbitrary bosses and general disorder that they lose faith in the idea that input leads to predictable output. You can offer job training programs, but they may not take full advantage because they don’t have confidence they can control their own destinies.…Among the privileged, especially the privileged young, you see people who have been raised to be approval-seeking machines. They act active, busy and sleepless, but inside they often feel passive and not in control. Their lives are directed by other people’s expectations, external criteria and definitions of success that don’t actually fit them.…So many people are struggling for agency. They are searching for the solid criteria that will help them make their own judgments. They are hoping to light an inner fire that will fuel relentless action in the same direction. (my emphasis)

I agree with his observation that our society is populated by inauthentic life, that is, life dictated by external forces of all kinds. More and more clearly for me, I see that way of Being as the fundamental problem lurking behind almost all of our dissatisfaction. Inauthentic existence is life without what Brooks is calling agency. Sartre refers to this mode of Being as “bad faith.” I also interpret this mode as “going along with the flow.” Our present society is dominated by an economic set of values, values that permeate all of the primary social institutions. It’s getting close to Thanksgiving and the evening news is already full of stories about the coming Black Friday sales craze. Money is everywhere in the news. With the recent election just over, the effect of huge spending sprees on the outcome is top news. The authenticity of any vote is highly questionable. Who pulled the lever, some “I” or some anonymous ad agency spending another anonymous billionaire’s lucre. Inauthenticity is everywhere.

On closer reading, he may not be an existentialist after all. In the bolded sentence, he refers to some free-standing criteria on which to make life choices. A true existentialist would never go there! There is no source of ignition out there. That’s the whole point. Free choice means just that, choice with no apparent source other than some “force” inside the body. Any action that can be explained by some rational argument is not an expression of existential agency. The only reason that ultimately grounds free acts is, “I did that because I did that.” There are two distinct “I”s here. The first one is the observable actor; the second is a mysterious metaphorical person hidden away in the body somewhere. Our materialist, essentialist history tends to equate the two. That’s the error Brooks makes here.

He often has the courage to raise questions about the condition of our society. I almost always resonate with his columns when he does this. But he mostly stops short of asking the important critical questions about why are we in such a state. I looked up his bona fides; his academic degree is history. As a columnist, as least as exhibited in the one I am writing about, he is being inauthentic. I am not making a value judgment here although I often do about the values I discover in his writings. It’s just a observation, the same as he is making, that most of our lives in America today are inauthentic, without agency. In his case, he is being swept along by social science, adopting its presuppositions without questioning them. Here, the presupposition is that external criteria exist which, if adopted, will flip inauthenticity over. Such criteria always exist. We follow them without thinking about them or owning them as ours. Cultural life is always only about following norms. Agency comes when we adopt some norm as our own, and that takes reflection and continuing commitment. Brooks makes it sound too easy. Exchanging an accepted, legitimate cultural norm for one that is legitimate only because “I say it is.” is full of anxiety and fear. But only such a move to authenticity is truly freeing, opening a path to one’s center and to the engine of a caring, satisfied, flourishing existence.

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