Readings, and Related Inspirations

Agency – The Necessary Illusion? – 8150


I am pretty sure I did a lot more staring at a wall and breathing out rather heavily than I did actually reading about agency this weekend. I’m glad I read Nedra Reynolds‘s article “Interrupting Our Way to Agency: Feminist Cultural Studies and Composition” (1998/2009) before I read Marilyn M. Cooper’s “Rhetorical Agency as Emergent and Enacted” (2011). Had I read them the other way around, I probably would have thrown down Reynolds and just shouted “COOPER DECREES THIS CANNOT BE!”

It took me a bit to come to the above conclusion however, and a lot of freaking out the guy next to me at the coffee shop as I voiced out-loud when I did and did not agree with Cooper.

In the following lines, I will attempt to encapsulate my thoughts on our two readings without falling down any rabbit-holes.

Beautiful Rabbit Hole - taken from

Beautiful Rabbit Hole – taken from

The Reynolds article features an argument centered around tactical rhetoric for marginal, subaltern and otherwise oppressed peoples (898), made up of “multiple and competing subjectivities while also allowing for the possibility of ‘resistance to ideological pressure'” (897). This, by general definition would allow for the existence of the subject. In this way, the subject acts consciously, and the agent possesses agency in using the interruption of the dominant hegemonic force as her lever.

Cooper however, explains somewhere near the beginning of her article, that “a workable theory of agency requires the death not only of the modernist subject but of the whole notion of the subject” (423). [Italics mine]. This took me a minute to wrap my head around, and I’m not sure I agree with her. While Reynolds begins her essay denying postmodernist and poststructuralist theories that suggest that subjects cannot ‘possess’ agency, Cooper claims that the subject is not even part of the equation here. She explains that freedom is not necessarily freedom from constraint, but conglomerations of decisions influenced from several dynamic angles, always moving and changing (440). At this point, I find my ideographical understanding of freedom to be disrupted, and am forced to rethink my notions of ‘freedom.’ If my choices are always already influenced before, during and after I act, perhaps Carolyn Miller IS correct when she “argues that it is agency that is a necessary illusion” (439).

Early on in the article, Cooper rejects the claim made by Rickert that “The subject is inescapably defined by an agonistic relation to the object/other” (423) claiming that “any theory of agency that depends upon a notion of the subject is thus hamstrung at the start, struggling with how to account for any action that is not either determined by or resistant to semiotic, social, political, and material others or orders” (423). According to this claim, Reynolds’s argument is thus ‘hamstrung from the start.’ This I can agree with, but not necessarily for the same reasons. Reynolds does not account for the dual agency involved in persuasion – she does not discuss the need for the dominant players in cultural discourse to have agency in their own reactions to the interruptions she deems important. It appears that if the dominant players simply reduce interruption to belches and farts, they are then rejecting the interruption-as-agency and thereby rejecting the subject interrupting. According to Cooper’s theories, Reynolds has succeeded in nothing in relying on interruption this way.

Cooper does make a curious turn in the later pages of her article. She appears to be content with replacing the subject with the agent (441). By this logic, subjects are necessarily static, and agents are necessarily dynamic. Since I have never thought of a subject as being static, I have a hard time understanding why this distinction is so necessary.

Another bit I take issue with is the fact that Cooper does not acknowledge the passing of time in questions of agency. Reynolds observes that in the case of an occurrence of interruption at a conference, “the results of the interruption were not immediate, but they have been productive” (901), while it does not appear that Cooper, in her theories of agency in persuasion working in multiple directions, has accounted for the change in agent/subject over time. I can’t help but think of the metaphor of seed planting as I think about time and agency.

Taken from

Taken from

What I wonder then, is how/where the passage of time might fit into the neurodynamic intentional arc featured in figure 2 on page 429 (I cannot seem to find an illustration online), which begins with short and long term goals, and moves around to learning. And while I pretty much shouted to the hills how I don’t really believe time to exist, this weekend someone reminded me that in physics, space and time are inextricably linked, so I am currently retracting my denial of time, and will revisit this issue at a later date.

I have plenty more to say, but I’m going to leave you with the above, and bring the rest of my thoughts to class. The moral of this story is that I’m learning that no one who theorizes about agency can seem to agree on what agency is, what it does, who can and cannot have it, or what it is for. Great googly.


2 thoughts on “Agency – The Necessary Illusion? – 8150

  1. What!?! You’re retracting your denial of time. It’s been such a hallmark of the course, though. 😉 Thanks for your thoughtful insights, Valerie!

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