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worlds 0.0 Introduction Linguistically, and more specifically, semantically and pragmatically speaking, the term ‘agency’ has been, and still is, attributed a wide range of different meanings1, some of which refer to observable cultural actualities that are fairly tangible in character, others less so. Given the amount of space available for this article it will clearly not be possible to address in detail all these different shades of meaning here. So, as a kind of compromise, and as a way of opening up one possible angle for further semiotic investigations the concept of agency, let us examine a selection of some more or less common contemporary meanings attributed to it – with a glance too, at some visual and other metaphors used as encylopedic vehicles to envision or embody these meanings. Our aim is to see if this approach can contribute to a fruitful discussion of the notion of agency conceived of in terms of lived experience of enactive relationships with co-present, or non co-present forms of otherness in actual, fictional, ludic or simulated possible worlds. To provide a first overview of the tiny cluster of stars and planets that populate the specific sector of the global semantic-pragmatic universe we shall visit in the course of this treatise, I offer a few combinations of binary pairs of core metaphorical meanings related to the notion of agency, starting with some more tangible conceptualisations of it, and moving on to others that are increasingly intangible in character. 1.0 Ostentatious and non-ostententatious forms of agency In everyday talk, in the mass-media, and in most good dictionaries2 and lexica, one of the most commonly occuring conceptions of the linguistic term “agency” is a fairly concrete one: agency envisioned pragmatically and metaphorically as a kind of ostentiously transparent “good helper”: a private or publicly run aid, assistance or service instance prepared to take upon itself, and to guarantee, a systematic organisation and execution of necessary, specialised, well-defined operations, mediatory actions, business transactions or other similar services, on behalf of individual, corporate, public or other institutional clients. Travel agencies, advertising agencies, financial planning agencies, investment banks and brokers, and even contact and marriage agencies are typical contemporary embodiments of such a conception of agency. At the core of this way of envisioning agency lies the notion of an institutionalised coordinating instance that has developed a professional capacity to guarantee a functional organisation of necessary human, material, technological, legal, economic and other resources in order to produce a planned concatentation of actions that, as a result of the comprehensive efforts of the agency as an organic whole, produce
For a presentation of conceptualisations and models of agency currently being discussed in cognitive science and semiotics, see Andreassen, Brandt & Vang (2007), which is devoted in its entirety to the theme of Agency. 2 See for example these contextualised results of a search for “agency” on Websters Online Dictionary: http://www.websters-online-dictionary.org/definition/agency
predictable, well defined consequences on behalf of their clients. Furthermore, there is a presuppostion that the results of these efforts will always be in as close correspondence as possible with initially negotiated, carefully defined, subsets of client needs, desires and formal requirements regarding their fulfillment. Viewed in terms of intentionality3, then, this type of agency is characterised by its ability to develop and offer systematic forms of planned action designed to extract, map out, remediate and execute as faithfully as possible desired practical consequences of a limited number of well understood, well-defined client intentions. As an example of a simple visual metaphor for conceptualising and further concreticising this form of agency, I offer a screenshot (Figure 1) from a free downloadable computer game based on a procedural4 ludic modelling, or simulation of a fictional possible world that represents core organisational characteristics, work patterns and other practices of a modern travel agency. This ludic environment, its gameplay and rules of play seek to capture and communicate in as effective and entertaining way as possible some of the inherent complexity and interconnectedness of owning, managing and working in this type of agency.
Figure 15 Here we observe at the top left quadrant of the image a number of potential clients sitting waiting with questions they want to ask, or other things they have on their minds, “hovering” over their heads, while in the bottom half of the image, we see
For an overview of principle philosophical and conceptual questions linked to the notion of intentionality, together with a comprehensive literature list, see the following section of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Online: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/intentionality/ . See also Overgaard & Grünbaum (2007) for careful discussion of the relationship between perceptual intentionality and agency from a primarily husserlian perspective. 4 See Bogost (2007, p. ix) for discussion of the role of procedural rhetoric – “the art of persuasion through rule-based representations and interactions rather than the spoken word, writing, images, or moving pictures” in construction of what he refers to as the “unique persuasive power” (Ibidem) of videogames. 5 The Travel Agency Game is downloadable here: http://travel-agency.relaxlet.com/
individual agents in conversation with clients, seeking to understand and attend to their needs, or carrying out other kinds of agency functions, perhaps connected with management and training. At the top right hand corner of the screen is a calender, clock and a record of dollars earned so far by the player, and a proposed goal for their current month’s earnings. In this particular game the player is cast as owner of the agency. In order to succeed, through setting and achieving goals, players are expected to develop and expand the agency as a business organisation over time, by winning clients, increasing services and sales, engaging, managing and training more and better staff, and so on. Closely associated with the above conception of agency is another type of “concrete” agency that not only serves the interests of single individuals, or groups of individuals, as a tourist agency does, but also of larger cultural entities such as states, governments, federal, and even transnational, institutions. This implicates that the coordinated actions these agencies carry out are connected by proxy to a wider objective of comprehending and defending shared intentions defined in terms of regional, national or global cultural values, and seen as promoting, or protecting the larger public interest – however this notion might be defined. As we can see, this kind of agency is also characterised metaphorically as a kind of professional “good helper”. It differs, however, from the agency types mentioned previously in that it will often be seen to require – for strategic, political, judicial or other reasons – less ostentatiously transparent forms of organisation and operation. This in turn leads to modus operandi that require veiled, hidden, or clandestine methods to map out, remediate and meet desired consequences and requirements of their political or institutional client intentions. Real or fictional secret agents such as Mata Hari or James Bond (007), and the governmental (or other) counter-espionage and investigation agencies these agents are presumed to work for: MI5, CIA, FBI, KGB, Mossad and so on (Figure 2) can be said to be typical contemporary popular culture embodiments of this conception of agency.
Figure 26 2.0 Direct and Indirect Forms of Agency The two sets of examples mentioned above – which, as we have seen, also demonstrate a difference between ostentatious and non-ostententatious (or transparent and non-transparent) forms of agency mind-set and behaviour – bring to
From left to right (all Wikipedia: public domain): Photograph of Mata Hari performing, from the Mata Hari Museum; Ian Fleming’s image of James Bond; commissioned to aid the Daily Express comic strip artists; M15 Insigna; CIA insigna.
the fore yet another conceptual distinction that can be made between direct and indirect forms of agency: i.e. between i) forms of agency that are enacted, or performed, by some agent or agents on their own behalf, and ii) forms of agency that are enacted, or performed (willingly or unwillingly), by some agent or agents on behalf of someone or something else, and where this “someone or something else” may be either knowable or unknowable by the enacting agents in question. Here we might also speak of primary and secondary forms of agency, or if we prefer, of the exercise (or not) of agency by proxy. Indeed, one of the eleven quoted meanings of the term “agent” in the Random House Dictionary of English is “a person authorised by another person to act on his behalf”, while one of the ten quoted meanings of the term “agency” is “the relationship between a principal and his agent”. 3.0 Divine and Human forms of Agency The distinctions between direct and indirect, or primary and secondary forms of agency in its turn could lead us to consider forms of agency that are, or have been interpreted historically as manifestations (or consequences) of forms of intentionality enunciated by divine, super- or non-human entities or beings, seen not only as as influencing, but also as being the primus motor behind all forms of non-human and human agency. The most recent example of how of such a conception of agency has been conceptualised and metaphorised in contemporary culture is the heated debates in the international massmedia between exponents of creationist and empiricist models of the origins of the physical universe and other actual or possible worlds – cultural, interpersonal, conceptual, perceptual and so on – we live and move in. The creationist position7 considers all such phenomena a result, or manifestation of, an ongoing realisation of a divinely inspired plan of intelligent design. The three main guiding metaphors here are, then: divinity, intentionality, intelligent design. The empiricist position, on the other hand, has many different institutional manifestations, but is based on the painstaking collection of scientific data in order to hypothesize, measure, and (hopefully) verify the fundamental laws of physics governing the known universe, and thus too, all life on Earth. This latter position considers all known lifeforms, also humanity, a result of ongoing evolutionary processes – including genetic mutation and natural selection – that are emergent8 on physical, chemical and biological processes at work in a larger cosmic sphere that is itself a consequence of a continuing expansion of the universe after the “Big Bang”9 that was its unique
See the website of the Creation Museum, in Petersburg, Kentucky,, USA, to have an idea of how this particular position is currently being verbally, visually, spatially and materially enunciated as a museum project: http://creationmuseum.org/ 8 For a brief discussion of the notion of emergence see, for example, Johnson (2001). 9 According to an online article in Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Bang (accessed June 22, 2009): “The Big Bang is a cosmological model of the initial conditions and subsequent development of the universe. It is supported by the most comprehensive and accurate explanations from current scientific evidence and observation. As used by cosmologists, the term Big Bang generally refers to the idea that the universe has expanded from a primordial hot and dense initial condition at some finite time in the past, and continues to expand to this day.” There exist alternative cosmological models based on scientific evidence and measurement, for example Steady State Theory and Chaotic Inflation Theory, but at the present time the Big Bang Theory is the one that appears most reliably confirmed by existing knowledge that is backed up by substantial amounts of empirical evidence.
beginning. The three guiding metaphors here are, then: explosion, expansion, emergence. The principle point of contention between these two positions is not only the ontological issue of what, if anything, can actually be said to “exist”, it is also a more pragmatic one, regarding the actual origins, or “root cause” of everything we enter into some kind of meaningful relationship with in the course of our everyday lives – not so much the universe in general, but the physical world we live in, the various species of plants, animals, fish, insects and larger and smaller living organisms we encounter there and share this world with, and last but not least, ourselves, our societies, our cultures, and all other human beings in particular. Figure 3 below shows two visual metaphors that might be associated with these two positions: i) a winged divine being peering down from above the clouds, and ii) a schematic scientific model, or simulation, of possible phases of cosmic development in an expanding universe immediately after the Big Bang.
Figure 3 As this creationist-empiricist debate demonstrates, the history of philosophy and science is full of earnest, occasionally violent, debates that in different periods have evoked or revoked the notion of divine or other supernatural agency as the single driving force behind all cosmic, evolutionary or any other type of creative developmental process. This wider debate has links back to two classical teleological models in philosophy that are also relevent for our present discussion. These are based on i) Aristotle’s notion that all things that exist must possess some kind of end or “final cause” in order for them to be able to actualise what they, in this special sense, are “destined” to become, to do or to serve as. This actualisation process is driven by what Aristotle calls “efficient cause”, a kind of general agency that governs all forms of change, operating in concert with “formal cause” – a general idea or “blueprint” behind the thing in question, and “material cause” – the specific qualities that are inherent in whatever materials are used to create the thing , and ii) Plato’s notion that there exist an infinite number of stable, perfect – and for us directly unknowable – ideas (or forms) – such as might be imagined to emanate from the mind of an infinitely creative deity and that exist in a for us suprasensible world – that have the ability to serve as defining characteristics for any possible aspect of actual existence. According to Plato, combinations and permutations of such real universals are brought into play in different historical epochs as multiple forms of being – physical, biological, animal, human – which we are able to recognise, relate to and speculate freely about. Mathematical reasoning is what allows us to seek to
comprehend the particular shapes of objects, while philosophical reasoning is what allows us to seek to comprehend the ideas themselves, conceived of as the eternal realities they are. 3.0 Human and Non-Human Forms of Agency Since we have now touched on the idea that it is possible to conceptualise and metaphorise forms of agency that have super-, or non-human, origins – we have also opened up for a further conceptual distinction between human and non-human forms of agency. For the time being, I shall not go into too much detail regarding how we might possibly define the notion of agency itself, since some more coherent ideas on this score will hopefully emerge in the course of our present discussion. But on the basis of what I have discussed so far, we might already now begin to speculate that one possible general characteristic of agency may have to do with the identification of some active or efficient first cause – i.e. an instigator or instantiator – of some experienceable or observeable process, action, event, or eventual catenations or sequences of these. Since we human beings are also biological organisms, we obviously need to take into account not only what our own practical experiences of attributing forms of agency (or not) to natural processes, actions or events “mean” for us, or affect, us, but also how other non-human organisms involved in some way in these self-same processes, actions or events, relate to them, and are affected by them too. This is important, not least with regard to seeking to understand better the complex ways that “products”, or consequences of our own human agency are “plugged into”, and interact with, this more general scheme of things. This will of course be no easy task, as continuing political and cultural resistance to results of research in the environmental sciences, that form the basis for the ongoing efforts by governmental and international agencies10 responsible for documenting and seeking to limit and manage negative local and global effects of air and water pollution, climate change, resource depletion, wasteful energy use habits, and so on, demonstrate.
See, for example, these national, european and international environmental agency websites: http://www.environment-agency.gov.uk/ ; http://www.cityclimate.no/ ; http://www.eea.europa.eu/ ; http://www.unep.org/climatechange/
But for the time being let us just KiSS11 and go on to look at the above concrete example (Figure 4) of a fictional visual text depicting a non-humanly instantiated event or process being interpreted as potentially significant by something that is other than human. The context is one of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts famously understated cartoon strips first published in the United States in the early 1950’s. In this particular strip the interpreter of the event or process in question is the Mexican cousin of Snoopy, the pet dog of Charlie Brown (a principal character in the Peanuts series): a droopy-moustached character by the name of Spike, who lives alone in the desert. If we now use a part of our encyclopedic cultural knowledge base (Eco 1979; 1984) to try and interpret what we see going on in this small visual narrative, a reasonable conclusion might be that it was probably a gust of wind that caused the tumbleweed to roll past Spike, out there in the fictional desert. However, this conclusion in itself will probably not be sufficient to cause us to attribute some form of non-human agency to the tumbleweed, nor to the gust of wind presumably “responsible” for instantiating its rolling, bobbing movement, as depicted in the cartoon. But let us now try to “transcend” for a moment the mere fictional characteristics of the Spike figure – who in the larger cultural context of the strip serves as a kind of visual metaphor for a simple, “down-home”, but nonetheless thoughtful, verbally reasoning hybrid being that is neither dog nor human, but a bit of both – and consider him merely a dog. If we do this, it is not at all unconceivable – with reference to yet another zone of our cultural encyclopedic knowledge – that a real dog, as a tumbleweed blown by the wind rolls by would behave in a way that leads us to infer it is interested in this “event” – which is essentially what we seem to be witness to in the fictional scene above. We can quite easily imagine an elderly, lazy real dog languidly following the tumbleweed on its way with its eyes and a movement of the head, as Spike appears to do in the strip. However, we could also imagine that a young puppy, on the other hand, having less experience of the world than an “old-timer” like Spike, might well have begun to bark, leap up and run after the tumbleweed – just as if it was an “intruder” on his territory to be chased, sniffed, chewed, or just played with. An ostentious behaviour of this kind on the part of the pup could then easily be interpreted (by us) as it having (mistakenly) attributed a kind of imagined, simulated, “agency” to what, from our more informed point of view, is essentially an “inanimate” object: a tumbleweed. Or, if not to this object itself, then to who- or whatever had “animated” it – in this case the wind. This kind of “erroneous” attribution of agency due to a lack of “insider” knowledge (also regarding how agency might “actually” be constituted or defined), is of course a very human trait. Indeed, in the course of history we have wthnessed again and again natural events or processes being attributed non-human forms of agency in myths, fables or other metaphorical guises. Wind, rain, hail, snow, thunder and lightning, floods, high tides, earthquakes, tsunamis and so on, have all, in certain cultural settings, been subject to fallacious, speculative or fictional interpretations as,
KiSS is a well known acronym in the artificial intelligence community for “Keep it Short and Simple”, or “Keep it Simple Stupid”, a practical canon vital to bear in mind when working on trying to understand complex systems. It is essentially a popularisation of the premises behind William of Occam’s famous “razor, and other useful practical advice to scientists: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/KISS_principle .
for example, signs of “divine retribution” (e.g. The Bible), or as “agents of the gods” (e.g. Greek and Nordic mythology). But having said this, we also need to consider whether we ought to attribute agency (or not) to other, more complex configurations of physical, chemical and biological processes that more reasonably can be conceived of as autonomous non-human, nonanimal life-forms that ostensibly display advanced forms of non-human agency. Into this cluster of action-event-process instantiators we can clearly insert the “activities” of microorganisms: bacterias, viruses, lichens, or larger organisms: fungi, marine or other algae, plants and trees. What makes some form of agency attribution seem more intutitively reasonable in such cases is the fact that when carefully observed over time, all these organisms can be seen not only to “colonise” certain zones of the face of the earth, but also in certain cases (bacteria, viruses & funghi) to infect and influence our own bodies. They can also be observed to co-exist, cooperate and compete with one another – as well as with us and with other animals – in order to secure “access” for themselves to resources that contribute to maintain “local” environmental life conditions that will guarantee their continued survival, development and propogation. 4.0 Natural and Artificial Forms of Agency However, if we also recognise that many, if not most, natural events and processes that we sometimes attribute agency to are of a primarily “mechanical” or “habitbound”12 in character, then it will also be of interest to examine the relationship between natural – i.e. non-humanly designed, non-humanly enacted forms of agency, and artificial or simulated – i.e. humanly designed, non-humanly enacted forms of agency. Here the most clear example of the first type of agency would be actions, events and processes related to the non-human organisms and plants mentioned above, and of the second type: actions, events and processes associated with the “behaviour” of technologically developed agents such as mechanical robots, and various kinds of software robots or agents that are programmed to execute useful (or other) functions on our behalf when we “ask them to”, and even to “cooperate” in swarms of other artificial agents via the Internet to carry out even more complex tasks and activities. In this context it is also interesting to note that practitioners in the contemporary visual arts are incorporating what they refer to as “biological agency” into specially designed technological artefacts in order to create hybrid, biotechnological art forms, as a new medium of artistic expression. In this connection, Allison Nicole Kudla – herself an artist – notes in an article online “Biological Agency in Art”, that “vitalism implies an ‘unknown’ life force guiding and motivating an organism, and organiscism refers to optimally functioning organised systems. The concept of biological agency refers to its life force and similarly the manner in which it, as a system, is organised” (Kudla, 2008, p. 6). Elsewhere, she speaks of “works of art dealing with biological
Albeit with a certain element of indeterminacy or “chance” built in. After having read Darwin’s Origins of the Species (1859), the pragmatist philosopher C.S. Peirce noted enthusiatically that “natural selection, as conceived by Darwin, is a mode of evolution in which the only positive agent of change […] is fortuitous variation”, in Cohen (ed.) (1998), 276.
agency altered by the hand of the human” (ibidem, p. 4)13. Kudla’s work is inspired by a biosemiotic paradigm (von Uexkull, 1926) that suggests that biological entities are most usefully conceived of as “open systems” (Kudla, 2008, p. 4), “open to change of boundary conditions through the organism’s own awareness of its subjective universe.” (ibidem). In this context, the notions of “awareness” and “subjective universe” (von Uexkull’s notion of “Umwelt”) are interpreted metaphorically with reference to the symbiotic or cybernetic (Bateson 2000, pp. 315320 ) relationship that all living organisms (including we human beings) need to develop in order to mediate between the more specific characteristics and exigencies of their own “internal” physical and biological environment (or system), and the more general, often more complex characteristics and exigencies of the “external” environments (or ecosystems) these inhabit together with other organisms, all of which naturally seek to modify, adapt or organise this shared environment in ways that are as closely as possible in accord with their own “felt”, or “sensed” requirements for ecologically functional places and spaces that they can live “comfortably”, and thrive, in. 5.0 Individual and Social Forms of Agency This brings us to yet another conceptual distinction that could be made between individual (or personal) and social (swarm, flock or crowd) forms of agency. As we know, most physically mobile animals such as birds, fish, wolves, horses, lions, and so on, quite easily and effectively organise themselves into larger collectivities or aggregations of individuals in certain situations in order to cover collective needs or requirements it is difficult for single individuals to manage on their own (for example, migration, self-defence, hunting and gathering activities, care of the young etc.). The same, of course also applies to ourselves as human beings. It will then be reasonable to consider forms of agency that not only instantiate events, actions and processes that are orchestrated in synchronised ways (intentionally or otherwise) by single agents, but also by larger aggregations or groups of agents. Figure 5 below examplifies how i) a large flock of starlings in flight14 near the M6 motorway in England, ii) a large street gathering of people at a recent political rally in Tehran, Iran, and iii) a choreographed crowd-graphic at a political rally in North Korea all appear when viewed at a distance.
Earlier work in this tradition has links back to the Land Art, Earth Art and Environmental Art movements of the late 1960’s, and to the Conceptual Art movement. It has been developed and theorised on over the years by well-known artists involved in thse movements in different periods such as Jack Burnham (1968; 1970a,b,c), Hans Haacke (1986), Bill Viola (1992a,b) and Eduardo Kac (2005). For a detailed historical overview see also Marga Bijvoet (Undated; 1998). 14 http://www.societal-web.com/blog/tag/swarms/, accessed June 20 2009.
What is often at the center of interest for scientists studying this type of phenomenon is the question of how the vast numbers of macro- and micro-events, actions and processes related to spatial and temporal organisation that contribute to give an overall, constantly changing but functionally coherent form to the enunciation of such collective forms of agency are “managed” by each single individual involved. Here we frequently encounter references to the notions of i) swarm intelligence15 and ii) self-organisation16. By atempting to model these kinds of phenomena on a smaller or larger scale on computers, some quite simple sets of basic rules have been found to give reasonably convincing simulations of how individuals birds or fish in swarms or schools autoregulate their own position and orientation relative to the aggregation as a whole during its smooth and fast-flowing movements. Here, I cite for brevity and simplicity a brief note on one particular method for simulating swarm/school behaviour on a computer, from a demonstration website that also offers a couple of animated examples created by Tim Van der Bulcke (2006)17, who comments that: “Artificial swarming behaviour can easily be created by creating some agents (e.g. a fish or a bird) and let them move according to three simple rules: • separation: steer to avoid collision with other agents • alignment: steer towards the average heading of neigbouring agents • cohesion: steer towards the average position of neigbouring agents” Of course, very large human crowds, like the political rally in the image from Iran above, or the carefully orchestrated crowd graphics exemplified by the image from the North Korean rally, also function to some degree on the basis of such simple, local rule-driven processes. But there are clearly also other, more complex control mechanisms and principles at play during human mass-movements of this kind. In the case of the Iran political rallies, for example, we know from recent press reports that mobile phone conversations, sms and Twitter messages, together with other social networking services like Facebook, were used to organise and coordinate the general timing, positioning and movements of the crowds as they streamed through the center of the city. These coordination activities were certainly carried out on a fairly spontaneous, day-to-day basis, in addition to other more general “top-down” forms of motivation engendered by the public battle for political power, and the various, more or less charismatic individuals involved in this particular spectacle. Whereas, in the case of the North Korean crowd graphic example, it is quite easy to imagine that a quite long pre-planning and rehearsal period, coupled with general crowd management strategies and other specialised on-the-spot orchestration techniques were necessary to achieve a tightly coordinated, heavily choreographed visual performance of this scale. It is thus also interesting, but beyond the scope of this article, to speculate further
For an overview of key research literature and issues in the field of swarm intelligence see Liu & Passino (2000). For a comprehensive, regularly updated bibliography see the dedicated bibnetwiki page: http://bibnetwiki.org/wiki/Swarm_Intelligence 16 The notion of self-organisation is linked to research in complexity theory, and empirical simulation studies of the emergence of forms of agency in biological and social systems. For links to research in this field see Complexity & Artificial Life Research Concept: http://www.calresco.org/links.htm 17 http://timvandenbulcke.objectis.net/swarm-behaviour
regarding whether subtly different forms of collective agency might be said to be involved in each of these three cases. In the case of the starlings flocking along the M6, for example, it is clearly difficult to speak of some form of indirect agency exercised by proxy, which it would be more appropriate to consider in relation to the other two examples, unless we are prepared to consider some more general, collectively felt “need” of the bird community itself to carry out such manoevers at that particular time of day, or in that particular season, as a kind of “primary causal agent “motivating” or “instantiating” this activity. 6.0 Internally and Externally Experienced Forms of Agency Having introduced the notion of a dynamic, symbiotic (or cybernetic) relationship between the “internal” biological environments of organisms and the larger “external” physical, biological and social environments these inhabit together with other organisms of different kinds, all of which seek to actively develop and modify these environments relative to their own requirements, one last conceptual distinction I would like to discuss here regards the relationship between internally and externally experienced forms of agency. By internally experienced forms of agency I mean our own, and others’ enactive experience (Noë 2004) of our embodied exercise of complex sensorimotor activities during exploration of, and interactions with, our physical, biological, interpersonal or cultural environment and other organisms, objects or artefacts that this environment contains and makes manifest. By externally experienced forms of agency I mean our own, or other living organisms’, experiences of agency attributed by us, or by them, to actions, events or processes that involve other organisms or life forms in a shared physical, biological, intersubjective or cultural environment. When considered strictly in human terms, this dichotomy will essentially refer to the difference between our experiences of ourselves as capable of exercising forms of agency on our own, or on others’ behalf, and our experiences of others as capable of exercising forms of agency on their own, or on others’ behalf. This of course might also lead us to consider the difference between experienced forms of agency and attributed forms of agency in general. But we shall not go into that here. 7.0 Free Will and Moral Agency Now, as we approach the end of this present discussion, I want to briefly touch on the issue of whether we human beings possess Free Will or not. This is a thorny old philosophical and theoretical issue that has also been discussed at great length and with great passion in a very wide range of historical and cultural contexts18. However, all this fervent discussion does not really seem to have led us to any kind of general consensus on this matter. The main problem here seems to be linked to our own empirical situatedness in the world as physical, biological and social organisms, that to some extent, and in spite of our considerable mindedness and potential for rational forms of reasoning, are always simultaneously entangled with and dependent on (if
See the wikipedia entry for “Free Will” for a condensed overview of some historical and conceptual background, and som of the most discussed issues in this connection: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_will
not absolutely determined by) extremely complex, autonomous, “mechanically” functioning physical, biological and social processes that operate well beyond the bounds of our immediate comprehension of them, and thus too, of our self-conscious control of them, either as individuals or as collectivities. Relatively recently, however, the notion of Moral Agency19 has been introduced as a way to mediate between traditional determinist and indeterminist positions associated with the issue of Free Will. If we take agency in general as the ability to motivate and instantiate actual events and processes in the world through concrete forms of action or activity, then no moral dimension regarding decisions to motivate or instantiate action is necessarily implied. Moral Agency, however, is bound to our own particular existential condition as human beings who are able to reflect upon, and make conscious decisions about, how we ought, or ought not act in any given decisionmaking situation that may lead ourselves, or others (and this also regards natural or artificial20 forms of otherness) to execute, or perform some form of action. This is, of course, especially important with regard to decisions that might produce actions with wider, possibly profoundly traumatic, consequences not only for ourselves, but also for other co-present or non co-present “forms of otherness” (i.e. people, places, things, artefacts, animals, organisms and so on). The perhaps most ostentatious and striking example of this kind of situation in our contemporary electronically interlinked and increasingly interdependent world, are the often extremely fast and stressful “hybrid” decision-making processes that involve advanced “AI”-based software agents, millions of human financial traders and their clients, and vast amounts of virtual assets, credit and other forms of financial resources, the combined “fate” of all of which is continually being weighed and balanced in the international financial markets on a minute-by-minute basis, on the basis of these highly complex, and often only superficially transparent decision-making processes. Clearly, we will probably never arrive at a perfect situation where every single vital decision-making process we take part in at any level of personal or collective, (cultural, social, financial, political and so on) significance, can be guaranteed ad hoc not to have any possible negative consequences in the future for ourselves or for an unspecified multitude of co-present or non co-present forms of otherness.What is most important however – and this, I believe, is where the notion of Moral Agency really comes into play – is that we must always be prepared to recognise, share information about, and try to learn from, our most glaring errors of judgement during decision making processes. This can be done by asking ourselves as often as possible: “should this have occurred”. In the event of receiving a clear negative response to this question, we must be prepared to activate our own forms of (individual and collective) agency in the most effective ways possible in order to avoid having something even remotely similar occur one more time in the future. References Ainly, K. (2005), "Responsibility in International Relations: the moral agency of
See Ainly (2005); Himma (2007) and Jeffery (ed.) (2008) for some recent publications in this area. See also the Centre for the Study of Mind in Nature website: http://www.csmn.uio.no/research /moral-agency for a presentation of ongoing research in this are, based at the University of Oslo in Norway. 20 Himma (2007)
informal groups" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Studies Association, Hilton Hawaiian Village, Honolulu, Hawaii, Mar 05, 2005: http://www.allacademic.com/meta/p69704_index.html (June 30 2009) Andreassen, L., Brandt L., & Vang, J. (Eds.) (2007), “Agency”, Cognitive Semiotics, Issue 0, Spring 2007, Peter Lang AG, Pieterlen. Bateson, G. (2000), Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Chicago University Press, Chicago, London. Bijvoet, M.J.M. (Undated), “Art As Inquiry”, Stichting Media / Art / Investigations http://www.stichting-mai.de/hwg/amb/aai/art_as_inquiry_00.htm (June 25 2009) Bijvoet, M.J.M. (1999), “Reflections on Art, Science and Technology, Artists’ Essays”, Stichting Media / Art / Investigations, http://www.stichtingmai.de/hwg/amb/rast/reflections_ast.pdf (June 25 2009) Bogost, I. (2007), Persuasive Games. The Expressive Power of Videogames, The MIT Press, Cambridge (MA), London. Burnham, J. (1968), Beyond Modern Sculpture, George Braziller, New York. Burnham, J. (1970a), The Structure of Art, George Braziller, New York. Burnham, J. (1970b), "The Aesthetics of Intelligent Systems," On the Future of Art, Viking Press, New York, 95–122. Burnham, J. (1970c) "Notes on Art and Information Processing," Software, Information Technology: Its New Meaning for Art, Jewish Museum, New York, 10– 14 Eco, U. (1979), A Theory of Semiotics, Indiana University Press, Bloomington. Eco, U. (1984) Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, Indiana University Press, Bloomington. Haacke, H. (1986), "Museums, Managers, and Consciousness," Hans Haacke: Unfinished Business, The New Museum of Contemporary Art/MIT Press, New York, Cambridge (MA), 33–40 Himma, K.E. (2007), Artificial Agency, Consciousness, and the Criteria for Moral Agency: What Properties Must an Artificial Agent Have to Be a Moral Agent? (April 27, 2007). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=983503 (June 30 2009) Kac, E. (2005), Telepresence and Bio Art – Networking Humans, Rabbits and Robots. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor (MI). Jeffery (ed.) (2008), Confronting Evil in International Relations: Ethical Responses to Problems of Moral Agency, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke Kudla, A.N. (2008), “Biological Agency in Art”, In Leonardo Electronic Almanac, Vol 16 Issue 2–3, http://leoalmanac.org/ (June 27 2009) Liu, Y. & Passino, K.M. (2000), Swarm Intelligence: Literature Overview, online document: http://www.ece.osu.edu/~passino/swarms.pdf (June 18 2009) Noë, A. (2004), Action in Perception, The MIT Press, Cambridge (Ma.), London. Overgaard & Grünbaum (2007) “What do Weather Watchers See? Perceptual intentionality and agency”, in L. Andreassen, L. Brandt & J. Vang (Eds.) (2007), “Agency”, Cognitive Semiotics, Issue 0, Spring 2007, Peter Lang AG, Pieterlen, 8–31. Peirce, C.S. (1893) “Evolutionary Love”, The Monist, January 1893. In Cohen, M. (ed.) 1998, Charles Sanders Peirce: Chance, Love and Logic. Philosophical Essays, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, London, 267–300. in Stein, J. & Urdang, L. (1983), (eds.) Random House Dictionary of the English Language, Random House, New York. Uexküll, J. von (1926), Theoretical Biology. Harcourt, Brace and Company, Inc., New York. Viola, B. (1992a), "Perception, Technology, Imagination, and the Landscape,"
Enclitic, Vol.11, No.3, July 1992, 57–60 Viola, B. (1992b), "On Transcending the Water Glass," CyberArts: Exploring Art and Technology, ed. Linda Jacobson, Miller Freeman, San Francisco, 3–5 Other Websites Consulted http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2007/07/swarms/miller-text/2 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swarm_Development_Group http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/xpl/freeabs_all.jsp?arnumber=1299599 http://timvandenbulcke.objectis.net/swarm-behaviour http://www.ece.osu.edu/~passino/swarms.pdf (2001) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_will#cite_ref-HandE_68-0 http://www.csmn.uio.no/research/moral-agency/ http://www.stichting-mai.de/ http://www.ekac.org/ http://www.websters-online-dictionary.org/
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