Sunday, October 16, 2011

We asked for workers, but human beings came instead.

Agency is a tricky word. It is, in shorthand, the ability to be an agent. Of change, of value, of worth, even of identity. Choice writ large, intentionality writ small.

Agency is a tricky minefield. If one understates it, one takes away the ability of people to represent themselves. For example, think of an oft-used fragment such as "The oppressed....". The use of the passive form of the adjective might indicate that those identified as "oppressed" have nothing to do within this narrative except be elected to the position of the oppressed. They function as markers rather than human beings. Think of the way Africans function within the social imaginary; as "the exploited", "the stateless", "the war-torn". However, if one overstates it, then there is the risk of according more charge to individuality and individual ability than the social condition allows to any one individual or group of individuals. Think of the form of the narrative that we know as everyday heroism, the exception that valorizes the agentive single-minded, individual, who "beats" the odds to make his/her way in the world (The American Dream of course feeds on this genre).

So how about we work with a compromised form of the word? Think of an agent who is never completely agentive. First tentative way out of the problem.

The second issue is of course, as always, the question of writing. A narrative that goes back and forth, and can never make up its mind, is not as compelling as a nicely stated, well chosen "argument". And argue I must. Back to square one. So then what form of argument do I choose? In talking about the condition of call center workers, who do we care more about? The condition or the workers?

In the middle of all this pontification, I do know that I cannot stomach writing about the "social condition" and "compulsions" of call center workers as if each one does not wake up everyday and live this social condition...and think about it. Yes, I know, awfully unfashionable and unsophisticated. But I'm trying to think through the body. And the body as we know is often the most compelling compulsion of all. As in the Max Frisch quote that is the title of this post, they are workers, and they are human. And I need to think about unpacking the humaneness of the human. Or my own for that matter.

In case you are wondering where all this is going, I am trying to not write about agency. And it's hard. And yes, I know this is all rather obvious. But I have to write it out. Why? Because. We'll leave the rest for another caffeinated night.

(And of course I completely forgot to mention that which began this thought. Sometimes, we have a strange form of agency when we affect people without knowing that we do. And it isn't always good. It leaves one with a distasteful sense of power.)

Marx, as usual, will have the last word.

"Society does not consist of individuals, but expresses the sum of interrelations, the relations within which these individuals stand." (Grundrisse)

No comments: