Agency and Embodiment

If you’ve been following this blog over the last few months, you may justly be wondering if there is any unifying thread to what I post. The answer is: sort of. Clearly the vast majority involves “technology” in the broadest sense, but I would say that there are a few more specific unifying threads (in my mind at least). One of those threads will (hopefully) tie together the posts on embodiment, place, and the worlds’ fairs. How neatly I’m able to tie that thread remains to be seen.

My reading of Carrie Noland’s Agency and Embodiment contributes to this particular thread and I’ll be posting a few excerpts with minimal comment in the coming days (tumblr style). In this post, I’m picking out some portions from the Introduction that will give you a feel for her project and the approach she takes to it. I’m particularly sympathetic to the manner in which she forges a third way through certain perennially intractable oppositions.

One last note before the excerpts. There is also significant rhetorical variety among the sources that I cite on this blog. They range from straightforward, clear journalistic prose to more obscure, academic theoretical writing. Noland’s text veers toward the latter, but for someone dealing with theory in the French phenomenological tradition, she writes with surprising clarity. That said, this will not be everyone’s cup of tea, of course.

Here’s Noland’s statement of her thesis:

“If bodily motility is, as Henri Bergson once claimed, the single most important filtering device in the subject’s negotiations with the external world, then a theory of agency that places movement center stage is essential to understanding how human beings are embodied within — and impress themselves on — their worlds.

The hypothesis I advance in this book is that kinesthetic experience, produced by acts of embodied gesturing, places pressure on the conditioning a body receives, encouraging variations in performance that account for larger innovations in cultural practice that cannot otherwise be explained.”

She adds:

“In these pages I will speak of ‘variations in performance’ and not only instances of ‘resistance,’ in order to avoid the agonistic overtones of Michel Foucault’s highly influential but largely binary account of power, which reduces the field of cultural practices to techniques of ‘strict subjection.'”

In other words, the experience of having, or perhaps better, being a body creates the conditions for the possibility of agency within the fields that operate to constrain and form our subjectivity.

More from Noland:

“Kinesthetic sensations are a particular kind of affect belonging both to the body that precedes our subjectivity (narrowly construed) and the contingent, cumulative subjectivity our body allows us to build over time. Because these sensations are also preserved as memories, they help constitute the ’embodied history of the subject,’ a history stored in gestural ‘I can’s’ that determines in large part how that embodiment will continue to unfold. Kinesthesia allows us to correct recursively, refine, and experiment with the practices we have learned. The knowledge obtained through kinesthesia is thus constitutive of — not tangential to — the process of individuation.”

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