One cannot spend eight years reading books on historical esoterica and four years in graduate seminars on the subject of historiography without being forced to train oneself to maintain equanimity of facial expression no matter how many times one is confronted with the trendiest topic in contemporary social science: agency. It’s a trendy topic because it’s obvious and simple, and it allows graduate students who are short on time (and, often, motivation) to pretend they’ve thought carefully about a reading assignment by raising the objection that the historian has not given enough consideration to the “agency” of this or that group of people or has overstated the amount of agency that group of people was able to exercise. So, I’ll admit, of all of the feminist bloggers on the internet, I probably have the lowest tolerance for discussions of the concept of agency, both because I feel sorry for the dead horse and because there’s almost always an element of delusion, dishonesty, or intentional relativism in any agency argument.
The discussion of agency might make more sense in the realm of writing about history than it does in terms of feminism, mainly because there’s no real agreement on the role of the historian in society. Is a historian supposed to tell us how things got the way they are now? How things were at a given moment? Which things led to which other things? Are historians supposed to use the past to warn us about the present or the future? Offer moral judgments? As the belief that the scientific method is the only true means by which one can know anything has come to dominate western (and — at this point — global) epistemology, and as the belief that only “experts” with expensive and standardized training have the cultural and social authority to tell us anything (and even then, experts are only allowed to have opinions about the very narrow subject areas that they’re experts on), historians have moved away from making grand claims and toward attempting to explain “what it was like” at a given time in a given location while avoiding mention of what came before and after out of fear of being accused of teleological thinking or, even worse, stepping beyond the boundaries of their areas of expertise. They can be excused for that. The academy sets up false divisions between disciplines, geographical regions, time periods, and subjects of inquiry that one must tolerate in order to get the funding needed to read for a living. But what that has done to the field of history is fairly dismal. The world looks fragmented, patterns of oppression and violence seem incoherent and quite possibly unreal, economic exploitation appears disconnected from politics, women look like one percent of the population because that’s how much text ends up devoted to telling their story.
Unfortunately, those who write women’s history are often the worst culprits and are frequently guilty of focusing on agency to the exclusion of reality, telling us these women transcended the limits placed on women as a whole, these women resisted male oppression, or these women made lemonade when men gave them a truckload of horseshit and abuse. Usually, these women end up being an infinitesimal portion of the female elites of a given society who were able to exercise a small measure of freedom and write about it, leaving us with evidence that it happened. I’m all for celebrating women who break out of molds and resist, but not when the celebration covers up a reality that warrants mourning, a covering up that often occurs despite the fact that the broader, oppressive reality is cursorily acknowledged in the introduction to the book.
There’s a balance that has yet to be struck; how do we recover and acknowledge the voices and perspectives that patriarchy, plutocracy, and global capitalism have suppressed and silenced without losing sight of the overarching systems of oppression that left us with that dearth of competing perspectives in the first place? Is it more important to recover those perspectives, or is it more important to call attention to the systems of oppression in order that we might move toward taking them down? Do we focus in on individuals exercising agency in a system that’s fucked, or analyze and critique the system itself?
I’m going with the latter, both as a historian and as a feminist, not because I don’t think the former is important, but because the former, while it might make me feel warm and/or fuzzy, distracts me from the work that has to be done. And because, as a feminist, I’m not beholden to the same set of rules I am as a historian. Feminism needs totalizing theories, not micro-histories or anecdotes of individual agency. The fragmentation of knowledge and the emphasis on detail over systematizing theory is a key component in the continuation of capitalism, patriarchy, and human misery. Marx didn’t care whether one factory worker in Berlin said, “Hey, your theory doesn’t ring true for me. My life fucking rules!”
I’m often told that I rob people of agency by making statements that porn is bad, that rape is an epidemic, that stripping isn’t transgressive, that breast implants aren’t a form of empowerment. I’m tired of making those incredibly obvious statements anyway, but how exactly am I robbing anyone of their agency? I know it’s hard to face the idea that one’s agency is limited in a world in which we’re told we are all individuals with unlimited potential, but please have a look around. We operate within fields, as Bordieu would say, and within those fields, our agency is, in fact, limited. Not by radical feminists, but by those with enough social and cultural capital to set the terms of the field itself (which radical feminists do not have). I might ignore what agency you exercise within a fucked system and choose to focus my energies on the system itself, but I can’t rob you of agency or the ability to exercise it, only the system can. What does agency mean when it’s so limited by pre-existing boundaries? Why focus our energy on congratulating people for agency exercised within a limiting, oppressive social formation instead of calling attention to systemic oppression? Why allow seven women’s agency, especially when it plays into patriarchal oppression, overshadow three billion women’s reality?