Presidential panel: Theorizing human agency and the self

— Martin Collins —

For the 2017 annual meeting of the Society for History of Technology, I organized and moderated a “presidential roundtable” on “Theorizing human agency and the self: What Does/Can History of Technology Contribute to the Humanities?” As discussants the panel included Katherine Boyce-Jacino (Johns Hopkins); Christopher Otter (Ohio State); Amy Slaton (Drexel); Projit Mukharji (University of Pennsylvania); and Adelheid Voskuhl (University of Pennsylvania). Our basic framework set three reference points:

  • The rise of materiality as methodology has (dramatically) expanded the number and type of agencies and their interrelation in making social/cultural orders. Yet, materiality, in turn, has (re)problematized the human – what it is and how it operates – particularly as considered against the long Western presumption of an Enlightenment self and self-defined actor. This, of course, is the tension at the core of prevailing interpretive frameworks – say, especially Foucault and Latour – in which a post-human stance decenters the Enlightenment self and makes it equal or subsidiary to things, networks or governmentality.
  • Implied above: in confounding the status of human agency and self, this theory condition also has problematized politics – or more specifically, how to conceptualize how individuals might engage, change and create new orders in the face of dominant political structures. A longstanding issue, especially in fields such as labor, race, gender and colonial/postcolonial studies.
  • Then, more specifically within such humanities framing, we asked: “what is at stake for the history of technology as a field of inquiry?” in engaging the categories of self, material and agency as foundational concerns.

Our colleagues (just getting caffeinated at 8 am) took the second bullet point as a critical point of departure, with special attention to the standing (vulnerability) of the humanities in the current political environment. From this, we highlighted a need to shift the agency/self/politics problem from a theoretical concern to one of immediate relevance. Another thread of discussion built on this to explore education’s role in perpetuating stereotypes and conceptions of individuals with more/less social worth and potential (embedded, say, in the STEM movement and in standardized testing regimes) – in short, it’s role in reinforcing notions of self that facilitate dominant political structures.

The discussion also grappled with the self as individual and social category – of how to reconcile individual selves as “layered, barnacled, differentiated” and the tendency to characterize in specific eras or cultural communities more general, near-monolithic characterizations of the self. One interesting insight offered was the suggestion that one of the functions of professions in the 19th and 20th centuries has been to create, through rhetoric and practice, specific, uniform conceptions of self.

Such problematics led to consideration of spatial and temporal scales (with reference especially to insights derived from thinking about current globalization and the Anthropocene) and how normalization of particular scales has consequence for notions of agency/self. In this frame, and the others, loomed the question of identifying and interpreting (or even having an) “archive” to enable historical accounts of the self.

As all this suggests, the roundtable was an exercise in nudging forward a discussion – especially, to foreground the value of a historical approach to grappling with the categories of the self and human agency and, as corollary, to historicize the theories that have most structured our thinking about these categories.