“I hate these blurred lines”: creatures of custom or autonomous agents?

June 18, 2014 § Leave a comment

Rothenberg, Molly A. “Articulating Social Agency in Our Mutual Friend: Problems with Performances, Practices, and Political Efficacy”. Project Muse 71.3 (2004). 719-49.  Web.

Oh my gosh, this article was a pain in the butt. If there is one thing that irks me about literary criticism is its easy slippage into exhaustive esoteric jargon. Although I do understand that the bulk of literary criticism is geared towards a specialized group in academia, not a mass audience, it drives me craycray when a critic skims–or worse, doesn’t even mention–a field of knowledge needed in order to grasp the argument or concepts stemming from it. Granted, yes, if this happens it is more than likely due to length constraints for journal articles, or the background needing further explanation has already been discussed over and over by prior critics so the blame, I guesssssss, falls on the reader. Me! This article would have been easier to grasp had I prior knowledge of Judith Butler’s gender performative theory and Michel de Certeau’s theory on non individualized political agency. As I write this post, I am still trying to figure out how exactly to make sense of this article.

Rothenberg zeros in on the ramifications of agency in Our Mutual Friend, positing that Dickens explores the complexities of distinguishing and ultimately separating individual motivation–acts of self-will, unencumbered by social influence–and the social conditioning of motivation–acts under the expectation of receiving and following “culturally sanctioned incentives and established institutional procedures” (720). Dickens’s web-like indexing of agency in the novel, Rothenberg argues, settles agency as nonbinarized, leaving the difference between autonomy and heteronomy fluid, blurring into one another and therefore making it impossible to recognize each separately.

Okay. I’m not lost yet. But then there’s a second, more mind-boggling level to her argument: “Not only are social determinants inculcated into individual psyches, making it impossible to distinguish idiosyncratic motivation from socially directed activity, but the inmixing of individual intentions with social determinants is further complicated by the ways that the purposes and actions of one person come in conflict with those of others” (my emphasis, 721). A process arguably wrought with contingency, agency is shaped by the agent(s), the one doing the enacting (called perfomances), and the receiver(s) or audience, the one experiencing, or better yet DECIDING, the effects of these performances. It is the receiver, not the performer, “that decides whether or not, and how, to apply a given convention in a given context” (726) meaning that it is the audience that essentially decides how one’s performance will be interpreted. In turn, this gives one’s agency meaning  (conferred onto one’s performance BY the receiver/audience, remember). Therefore, the performer starts off with “meaningless” agency, or no agency.

These are the barebones of Rothenberg’s argument. Moving forward, she sets out to critique Butler’s premise of nonintentionalism in her theory of performative agency by exposing a contradiction. Purportedly with the same “there is no performer prior to the performed” mentality (727), Butler stages performative agency in three steps: 1) before the initial act, the agent visualizes their anticipated act as carrying a stabilizing force (called normative effective) that will guarantee the performance’s intended result; 2) then, because of the myriad twists the agent can inject into a “normal” action (I offer a helpful paradox: an idiosyncratic norm), as the agent performs, she ends up appropriating her performance “to new purposes within a new context” (728); 3) thus by displacing the norm just a bit, the agent “install[s] a new normative force constraining interpretation” (728). So the contradiction being…? Ehmm, contrary to Butler’s assertion that the audience controls the meaning of a performance, these three steps imply the performer’s ability to dictate meaning to the audience. Rothenberg claims the latter is impossible since the performer’s ability to tweak a norm to their own liking stems from their inability to control their audience’s interpretation (728). And so again, the reception of a performance has nothing to do with the intentions of the performer. Yet, the audience assumes its interpretation matches the intentions of the performer and vise versa, resulting in a tacit, narcissist collaboration: “performer and audience dissolve into mirror images” (729).

Side note: This communicative matching though, resulting in the mirror imaging of performer and audience, doesn’t always happen. Just think about a typical argument two people have in any kind of relationship. Person one says something (performative utterance) with the intention of producing an intended result from person two (audience); person two gets super offended and flips out (for example) because he/she automatically assumes and projects his/her own interpretation, an interpretation that unfortunately does not match up to what person one meant by his/her own meaning–so intentionality goes to shit.

This also reminded of (and this is a moment when structuralism seems so eerie to me; you realize that the same patterns of ideas show up over and over again)  Roland Barthes’s “death of the author” theory. That when an author releases his or her work to the public…he undergoes a symbolic death. Whatever intentions the author had in creating his work do not and will not matter as long as there is a public’s interpretation to account for. That the author’s intentions are nullified is also due to the vicissitudes of language. I offer a half-assed, succinct example: Mansfield Park by Jane Austen. After Edward Said came out with Culture and Imperialism in 1993 where he offered a revolutionizing interpretation of MP through the lens of postcolonialism, readers found it really hard to ignore the slavery implications, heretofore uninterpreted in that contextual vein. Did Austen intend for her novel to be received in this way back in 1814? Were critics interpreting the novel this way before Said came along? Nope and nope, but now a postcolonial interpretation or at least an awareness of it seems unavoidable. Things change. Woah, what a digression. Back to Rothenberg.

Another part of performative theory specifically looks at bodily practices (like hand gestures?!) stripped of intentionality, and emphasizes “that these habitual actions are embodiments of an external field of social forces, installed at the subconscious level by patterns of daily life” (730)–sounds like Jameson’s political unconscious. Just like Jameson seeks to dismantle distinctions between public/private, social/psychological, political/poetic, individual/society, embodied practices show that “distinctions among unconscious habits, socially patterned behaviors, and freely willed actions disappear” (731). Furthermore, under the premise that collective society only permits an individual to choose their actions “within a given set of possibilities,”  an individual who “actively chooses which action to take,” de Certeau argues, shows “a resistance to the system” (733). Aaaaand we are back to the contradiction we encountered with Butler. If an individual chooses which action to take, doesn’t this entail an individualized and intentionalized agency? Rothenberg points out this problem but I’m still grappling with the way she solves it. According to de Certeau, an individual innovates their actions depending on the options provided to them by the system (back to idiosyncratic normative behavior), helping the individual to seek and realize their own intentions and goals (an illusion, apparently), but that these intentions ultimately amount to nada–goals are not fulfilled and social structures remain unchanged (733). Confused yet? Yay! Me too. To add to the confusion, Rothenberg writes via de Certeau that out of an individual’s innovative actions in the social system–“singularities”–emerges “culture”, culture being a phenomenon that exposes the “cracks” in the social system, unearthing and displacing social tensions while simultaneously providing society with “symbolic balances, contracts or compatibility and compromises, all the more or less temporary” (733).  Differentiating between society and culture? Huh? I’ve always used these terms interchangeably. Rothenberg means social structure and culture. To distinguish the two, Rothenberg cites a couple of de Certeau’s terms: strategies and tactics. Strategies are types of actions that accord with existing social forces and tactics are actions undertaken when presented with an opportunity for resistance during a momentary lapse in the hegemonic social system. I am still not sure how this facilitates recognizing the difference between social structure and culture but Rothenberg does apply de Certeau’s strategies and tactics to the encounter between Roger Riderhood and John Harmon which was helpful in demonstrating de Certeau’s point about intentions amounting to nothing, essentially being meaningless: “intention, position, and outcome contravene one another” (736). Somewhere along the way, Rothenberg faults de Certeau for believing that one’s deviating actions from the social system are the result of “inherent multivocality” or “creative transgression” (737). Instead, the origins of all actions are impossible to determine, especially when attempting to trace the “politically relevant outcomes” of these actions (738).

Fast forward because I’ve rambled long enough. This is what Rothenberg is getting at…her purpose in exposing contradiction and circularity in Butler and de Certeau’s theories is to prove that intentionalism is an illusion for us all, a pretty little lie we keep telling ourselves to keep from realizing that our customary actions really only function like a safety net, entailing our repression of the realization that meaning is unstable, ephemeral, and always changing. Thus, our customary actions serve to protect us from “threats to our [false] sense of stable significance” (743).

Food for thought. I’m stuffed. wah wah wah…


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