Agency All Around

One of the curious paradoxes of the Anthropocene is that the extensive ecological damage wrought by human activity has also revealed an agentic earth and more-than-human entities that are reacting to human encroachments. We are beginning to realize that we are not the only influencers and earth-movers, but that other species, entities, and earth forces have immense power and the abilities to push back. In effect, we are being confronted with a diffuse more-than-human agency that manifests itself in a multiplicity of forms, both living and non-living, from the rise and spread of Zika to the simultaneously terrifying yet awe-inspiring destruction wrought by super hurricanes and volcanic eruptions. Such thoughts came to me recently as I observed how the cactus in my room had slowly altered its position towards the sunlight emanating from my bedroom window. I later learned that such plant movement, which is ubiquitous across all species, is known as phototropism, or the process by which plants orient themselves towards the light energy sources that they and ultimately all of us need in order to survive and thrive.

I found this idea rather fascinating, as many of us tend to think of plants as inert entities existing somewhere between life and non-life, as acted upon rather than able to act. However, by patiently observing something as seemingly uneventful or insignificant as the gradual turning of a house plant’s leaves towards a window, there emerges the profound realization that this is but an age-old myth, a gross misconception. Far from being a sole attribute of beings like ourselves, who supposedly (and falsely) presume to hold the monopoly on conscious intentionality, agency, if interpreted in the Latourian sense as the ability to produce effects and to alter one’s course in response to external events, is all around! Political theorist, Jane Bennett, in her incredible work, Vibrant Matter, similarly reveals a whole universe pulsing with the capacity to make things happen- from atoms, to phytoplankton, to hurricanes, to humans. And this, at least in my view, is both wildly exhilarating and humbling, to know that we are not alone and certainly not all-powerful. With the present and looming crises of the Anthropocene, caused in many ways by the misguided belief in human superiority and perceived immunity from the consequences of our actions, we might do well to find more harmonious ways of co-existing with our fellow actants.

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