The Agency of Things

of things sml

The Agency of Things

Water, soil, rock, a tree, a chicken, a cat, some wheat, some excrement, a plastic bottle, a river. Our relationships with these things may be articulated as resources and waste that we need to manage but also as entities with whom our lives are intertwined. Both statements extort us to act responsibly toward these things, however the dynamic at stake in each is significantly different. In the first and more familiar statement, we adopt the position of guardian and primary actor in an active/passive relationship. In contrast to this, the second statement reflects emerging thinking and language elicited by the realisation that human activity has irreversibly changed the planet. It suggests a recalibration of human identity to a less anthropocentric role in which we interact with the autonomous agency of other entities, of things.

Our language, the vehicle of our thinking, falters here; It is telling that the word ‘thing’ appears to fill a gap in English language, operating as a proxy-term that stands in for those ‘objects’ and ‘materials’ we are not quite able to imagine as entities, beings or persons. We can acknowledge effects of things (carbon becomes coal, becomes carbon dioxide and energy, a cow eats, farts and produces carbon dioxide and milk), but we baulk at ascribing things agency as such. While we can scientifically imagine a timeframe in which we can apprehend their action we fail to philosophically imagine this more-than-human scale activity as a mode of being.