Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Agency and Autonomy

Straining against the limits of reality.

I am reading Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew Crawford. You should too. The thoughts here were stimulated by chapter 3 of that book.

Crawford's book is basically about the value of manual work. It often finds itself set against the forces of consumerism. In this chapter Crawford brings up a distinction, originally conceived by Albert Borgmann, between "commanding reality," corresponding to "things," and "disposable reality," corresponding to "devices."

Proper use of a "thing" (I might have said "tool") requires obedience to certain absolute principles. An example is a violin, which only becomes the extension of a man's will once he has completely subjected himself to laws of music and physics. A "device," on the other hand, is much more accommodating. Devices are designed to free men from precisely the constraints which things would place upon them. An example is a stereo, which produces any kind of music on command and without restriction.

Things foster what Crawford calls agency, while devices foster autonomy. Things teach men that they are not the arbiters of what is real, and make them submit to the real in order to make use of them. Devices, on the other hand, bring men the reality which they desire.

Crawford does not categorically say that agency is better than autonomy. He concedes that he drives a motorcycle which has an electric start and automatic oil pump, among other features, which free him from the demands which such tasks would place on him, and therefore that greater autonomy is often preferable to the opportunity for greater agency. The point he is making is more one of an imbalance between the two in our society, that the culture of consumerism is inextricably bound up with offering men autonomy, and that the value of agency has been reduced to be more like nostalgia.

To me, whether or not you prefer autonomy or agency is bound up in your view of humanity. If you are a secular humanist, you believe that men can and ought to build the reality which best suits them. Devices which free them from limitations previously imposed upon them are part of progress toward the reality which we as a race are constructing for ourselves. In this view, a man ought to be completely free from anything to which he does not wish to be subject.

If, on the other hand, you are a Christian humanist, you see that things perform the useful service to men of teaching them that they are not the center of the universe. They put man in his place, not as the author of creation, but as he to whom it has been commanded to have dominion over creation. In so doing, they give him the opportunity to become more human as he bends the things to his will precisely by bending himself to the external reality they announce.

People are inspired by the exercise of agency in the creation of commanding reality. For example, the comedy of Conan O'brien and the cooking of Mario Batali inspire me in this way. By contrast, people are sated by the exercise of autonomy in the indulgence of disposable reality. For example, Netflix streaming over my Wii brings me untold hours of entertainment without leaving my room.

Truly exercising agency is hard. My bread turns out inconsistently, though with work it is usually still tasty. But our society offers ever more autonomy through ever more products. I'm looking at you, Apple.

I would like to opt for more agency. Bring on the things.

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