Beyond the Agency Debate
by Jeremy C. Young
In a four-part series here at the S-USIH Blog last year (I II III IV), Eran Zelnik laid out the contours of a central debate in American historiography. Do ordinary people, he asked, possess agency – the ability to shape the contours of their society and to control their own fates? Are we mere marionettes on the historical stage, dancing perpetually to the tunes of our handlers? Or can we, like Pinocchio, periodically cut our strings and become co-authors of the historical pageant in which we find ourselves? Eran himself argued against the importance of agency; in so doing, he offered a thoughtful critique of perhaps the two most important American historical works derived from the agency tradition, Eugene Genovese’s Roll, Jordan, Roll (1974) and Richard White’s The Middle Ground (1991).
The anti-agency impulse to which Eran subscribes is, like so much about modern American historiography, fundamentally Gramscian in nature. Gramsci’s approach to history, best articulated in Jackson Lears’ famous 1985 essay about cultural hegemony in the American Historical Review, imagines proletarians locked not just in Marxian economic bondage but also in cultural captivity – their inchoate rage against the bourgeois establishment skillfully and inevitably turned toward their own continued domination by bourgeois cultural hegemons. I’ve never been convinced by this view of history, which imagines ordinary people shouting helplessly into the void while impersonal historical forces pull their strings. At the same time, I appreciate the limitations of the Pinocchio-unbound approach, which in the hands of Genovese and White can make slaves seem to rule their masters, or Native Americans to control their conquerors.
What’s striking about this debate, in fact, is just how much distance there is between the two leading schools of thought on agency. Either we have no power or we have all of it; either “the incorporation of America” (to quote Alan Trachtenberg) inevitably overwhelms all popular opposition, or the antebellum South is (to quote Genovese) “the world the slaves made.” Both views are interesting and have produced great works of scholarship, but both are also doctrinaire and teleological. They assume that history has easy rules and predictable patterns, when so often our research suggests the opposite. Surely there must be a more nuanced approach to agency that takes into consideration the messiness of historical cause and effect.
I’m reminded of an article on cave paintings I read years ago (forgive me, I can’t seem to find it anywhere now) in which the author describes flipping through a book of Western artistic renderings of a specific petroglyph in (I believe) New Hampshire. Early colonial illustrators looked at the prehistoric drawing of a fish and drew it as a fish – not the version actually depicted on the rock surface, but a modern Western drawing of a fish that looked nothing like the petroglyph. As time passed, American artists learned to stop imposing their own idea of what a fish should look like on the prehistoric artwork; as the drawings stopped trying so hard to make the petroglyph look like a fish and focused instead on faithfully rendering what they saw, the structural logic of the original artwork emerged, and the illustrations began to look not only like a fish, but like the specific fish represented on the rock wall.
What I’m interested in, metaphorically speaking, is an approach to agency that looks more like a fish than like a preconceived notion of a fish, that tries to observe meaning rather than to make meaning. The following is a first stab at such an approach to agency.
To begin, we need to draw a distinction between two kinds of agency: intentional agency and unintentional agency. To someone like Genovese, all agency is intentional: slaves try to disrupt the system of mastery, and they succeed. Perhaps sometimes agency works this way, but often the chain of cause and effect is not so straightforward. People do something in order to make something happen, but often something else completely unexpected happens instead. This is unintentional agency: people do indeed have the ability to influence their lives and surroundings, but actions often fail to bring about the desired consequences, instead bringing about unexpected results.
Gramscians, unlike Genoveseans, are comfortable with this idea of unintentional agency. After all, they reject both the Genovese intentional-agency approach and the earlier Marxist view that most proletarian action results in nothing. However, Gramscians tend to assume that virtually any action undertaken by ordinary people results in the same unintended consequence: the reification of bourgeois cultural hegemony. This is, in its own way, as limiting a view as Genovese’s. If cultural hegemons are so comfortable in their ability to turn populism against itself, why do they so often appear in the historical record as uncomfortable, scrambling to contain some new populist irruption? If proletarians are so helpless in the face of cultural hegemony, why do they remain, so often in history, untiring and enthusiastic in their fight against it?
My model of agency is simple: ordinary people, I believe, perceive historical trends that affect their lives. They do things in order to change those historical trends; often they do these things collectively, or in sufficient numbers that their actions influence their society. Sometimes, the effect of their actions is what they expected and hoped for. Other times, their actions play into dominant cultural trends and work directly against the change they seek. Bust most of the time, their actions have an impact on society that is both significant and unpredictable. They dethrone presidents when they sought to change ideas; they shape culture when they sought to influence politics. People act logically, and history reacts illogically; people’s experiences of history, and their responses to those experiences, create the fundamental randomness of historical change.
For an example, let me turn to my own research. I study people at the turn of the twentieth century who embraced a new, charismatic relationship between leaders and followers. By participating in this charismatic relationship, they hoped to bring about specific types of political change: first to elect William Jennings Bryan president, and then to bring about a Progressive regeneration of society. Those things didn’t happen, but the collective experience of this new leader-follower relationship brought about a completely different type of change: it altered the culture of leadership itself. No longer did Americans value leaders for their remoteness and emotional distance; instead, emotional availability and connection became a requirement of American leadership. Where once presidential candidates refused to campaign for office, today they must shake hands, kiss babies, and give speeches – all because Americans a hundred years ago tried, and failed, to get a few candidates elected.
This is how agency works, I believe. People have a great deal of power over historical trends, more perhaps than even Genovese recognized; simply by experiencing historical events, they can change history itself. But the connection between actions and consequences is often difficult to discern, as intentionality is refracted through history itself, like light through a glass of water. I like this view of agency because it simultaneously empowers and disempowers historical actors, and because it explains history’s messiness and unpredictability. I also believe it recovers agency as an immensely fruitful area of study. For too long, we have assumed either that people shape their fate or that they are buffeted helplessly by it. If, instead, they are engaged in a complex process of co-creation with historical forces, we have much work to do in understanding how that process works.
Jeremy C. Young is an assistant professor of history at Dixie State University. His book, The Age of Charisma: Leaders, Followers, and Emotions in American Society, 1870-1940, is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.