U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Beyond the Agency Debate: Guest Post by Jeremy C. Young

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.

19 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks for the post. It’s inspired me to do a little spitballing. I’m still trying to work my way through the opening fish metaphor. There’s a cave painting of a fish. There were people who found the cave painting and tried to represent it in the way that they understood depictions of fish. This representation of a representation was somehow made in bad faith because the modern artist didn’t attempt to accurately render the first, older representation. It also turns out that the cave painter’s representation was closer to a “true” fish out in the world. If the modern artist had made a good faith effort to more accurately represent the cave painter’s fish, then the “original” fish from which the cave painter drew her inspiration might have been better represented.

    So “the past” in this scenario is the fish that first inspired the cave painter. Presumably historical subjects are the cave painters, and historians are the modern artists who tend to muck things up. The historical record is the representation of the cave painter. The original fish—the past—is largely consigned to oblivion. All we have to go on is the early representation of the fish. We have to trust that cave painter. Presumably, this means that we need to pitch our theoretical assumptions, be they hegemonic or robustly agential.

    How does this square with the idea that “history reacts illogically?” History can’t react illogically, because historians choose its logic, no? That is, the original fish can’t be recovered other than in the limited sense of its early representation by the cave painter. I suspect that fish was a red herring. The complex circumstances that urged the early painter to paint can’t be recovered. We can’t know why or what she really meant by representing that fish on the cave wall. Yes, there’s a contemporary example of a fish like that presumably original fish to judge things by, but that only tells us so much.

    We can make a guess of course. But to do that, we have to represent too. We represent the representation. We gather up, by means of metaphor, what is impossible to recover, namely the stunning number of variables that ultimately led to this or that outcome. So is it that history reacts illogically, or that we simply can and will never really know enough to predict the outcomes of human activity?

    What if instead we saw hegemony or agency as tools in a toolbox? When I need hegemony to tell the story I mean to tell, I’ll use it. When I need agency, I’ll use it. Maybe I need both tools, who knows? I suppose I can go with “fundamental randomness” sometimes too if it helps me to express an irony. Hegemony is a metaphor for the complexity of human activity in an advanced capitalist society. It organizes that complexity, but at bottom it can’t describe the world in some fundamental or absolute way, because there is no fundamental way the world is. It expresses a life-world figuratively, by means of structure. Agency works similarly in that it sets up a figure of a universal human being to describe human beings in relation to one another and to things. “Randomness” is a metaphor for a complex set of relations that we can never ultimately plumb by virtue of being limited creatures. It’s not “fundamental,” or at least we can’t possibly know if it is or not. Why abandon two assumptions—agency and hegemony—for being “preconceived” conceptual straitjackets only to take on another equally as constraining conceptual straitjacket?

    • Great comment, Peter! To address a few of your points:

      – I’m not actually arguing that we should pitch theory (in fact, my post outlines a new theory of its own, so doing so would be hypocritical on my part). Rather, I’m arguing that your theory needs to be more robust and more nuanced. Since we know there is a great deal of randomness and variation in history — that teleology is itself a red herring, to borrow your metaphor — we need a theory whose consequences reflect that randomness and variation. Both the Genovesean and the Gramscian theories result in orderly, predictable marches through history, which doesn’t reflect the reality of the record we study.

      What you’re proposing is a way of getting at that variation that is common among today’s historians, and which I use myself: picking and choosing among available theories. I agree this is a good way to handle historical variability, but I also think it reveals the limitations present in all extant theories on this issue. If a theory only explains some historical circumstances and not others, perhaps using it in a limited way is the best we can do, but perhaps, too, we can seek to improve it to reflect more historical circumstances than it currently does. This is what I’m trying to do for the theory of agency. In my view, a theory whose consequences simulate randomness is more consonant with the historical record, and therefore more accurate and predictive, than is a theory whose consequences are teleological in nature.

      One smaller note: when I say that “history reacts illogically,” my point is that human actions shape historical events in unpredictable ways, not that they shape the historical narrative or the work of historians in those ways. So I think we may be talking past one another a bit on that point.

      • I really reacted badly to “illogically” as a descriptor for historical change, almost as badly as to “logically” as a descriptor for historical actors.

        While I tell my students that we have to take historical actors seriously and respectfully, that they are doing the best they can, mostly, that doesn’t change the fact that there is a great deal of agency in how they arrange their priorities under those circumstances, and that emotional and personal ‘logics’ may not actually meet any reasonable standard of ‘rational.’

        History is not something separate from people: history doesn’t “respond” least of all “illogically”; people respond according to their own logics and priorities within the context of the concepts and ideologies of their community and age. I don’t see how any other conception of history can adequately explain change.

      • Jonathan, what you describe in your comment accords pretty closely with my own views. “History responds illogically” is my way of saying that people’s actions often result in unexpected consequences as they are refracted by societal trends and events. We can’t draw a straight line between actions and consequences because of the vagaries of history. And I agree that people’s personal logic is often arational as historians would see it; that’s part of what makes history so fun.

  2. “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.”

    I’m not entirely sure what you mean by this claim. Are you saying that Gramscians assume that any action undertaken by people other than those who have trained themselves to understand capitalist hegemony (i.e., a revolutionary vanguard of some sort) are virtually incapable of avoiding reification of hegemony? Because if by “ordinary people” you include Gramsci, that would basically negate his entire project, which was to reach for an understanding of how to avoid doing exactly that, no?

    I’m also not sure how well this metaphor works: “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.”

    It’s not so much that actors strings get pulled, it’s that they have little control over whether the stones they hurl will hit their targets. That’s the unpredictability you refer to, but it’s not an unpredictability, in a sense, without a logic or a limit on the outcome; it’s a lot like trying to throw an extremely precise pitch. We may try to shave the corners, but the hegemony it passes through once we’ve let it go might cause the result of a wild pitch; yet we can be sure we will not be throwing the ball straight up into the air, right, because we’ve analyzed the game and understand that this, at least, won’t help us (even if we have to guess whether we should throw a slider or a change-up or whatever). Gramsci, as far as I can tell, is about doing the best you can to choose the right pitch; in fact, human beings CAN make informed decisions that are indeed their own, it is simply that the odds are stacked against them for getting the result they want once they’ve thrown that ball.

    I guess what I am trying to say is that your metaphors might be referring to something, but they don’t seem to be referring to Gramscian theory as I understand it. So maybe I don’t!, *lol* who knows.

    • Good points, and I love the baseball analogy. So let’s take it a bit further: my problem with Gramsci, I think (or at least with how he is used by American historians), is that he assumes every member of the working class wants or should want to throw a strike, and that if the ball doesn’t end up in the strike zone after they’ve thrown it, they have handed a victory to the other team. To me there is far more variability than that. Some people want to throw strikes. Some people want to throw balls. Some people want to throw to the kid in the stands. And some people do want to throw the ball straight up in the air, because they aren’t playing the game of proletariat versus bourgeoisie at all; they’re playing a different game entirely, one no more or less important than the one Gramsci thinks we all should play. Then you add in that extra layer of unpredictable outcomes — caused perhaps by cultural hegemony, but I think more likely by far less orderly historical forces — and you have a collection of results that appears random but that nevertheless possesses an underlying logic: the intentionality of unintentional agency.

      Or, to put it another way, Gramsci’s assumption that history is a battle between bourgeois cultural hegemons and the proletariat obscures the magnitude and variety of what people really ARE doing in those spaces outside the lines. Because it’s not a baseball game at all, with two opposing teams; it’s a complex world with a multitude of possibilities, whose outcomes are determined by the choices people make.

      • Oh ok, this is clarifying; but isn’t this – “he assumes every member of the working class wants or should want to throw a strike” — really speaking more to the original Marxist concept of false consciousness than Gramsci? I just take Gramsci’s imagined audience to be people who are already committed to his anti-capitalist project and want to anti-capitalist better, *lol*

        I totally agree that an orthodox Marxism that assumes “correct” and “false” consciousness leaves out all the people not “playing the game,” but that’s not shouting helplessly into the void necessarily, because in fact your interests could even align in some ways with the predominant hegemony.

      • Robin, I suppose my problem with Gramsci then is that I don’t see him sufficiently moving beyond the idea of false consciousness. I see him problematizing it, systematizing it, explaining it; but never considering the possibility that Marxism may be wrong, or that people who are not Marxists may act in ways that have value to society or to themselves even if they aren’t explicitly furthering Marxism. To me Gramsci is smart Marxism, but still Marxism, with all its limitations.

    • Robin, your reply sums up my reaction to the description of Gramscian theory in the post. And let’s not forget that theoretical engagement with Gramsci has been quite heterogeneous and has taken up the issue of agency in different ways. I think the call for an understanding of history that takes into account both agency and for the structural underpinnings of social and political action.

      I would also question the dichotomy drawn here between human beings and history, particularly one as logical and one as illogical. I do not think that it is helpful to keep reifying the modern fiction of the human self as a being whose actions are moved by a “rational” will. Even the world of so-called “extraordinary people”–if we are going to folllow the binary of the post, ordinary versus non-ordinary–is a world of affect, where thoughts and actions are inseparable from the order of affective indeterminacy (I would not call it “irrational” because this would reproduce again the binary, as if we could separate reason from the embodied order of affects).

      And to the understanding of history as illogical, one could apply the same logic formulated here about agency: it is not an either/or question, logical versus illogical, it is both. So perhaps it is better to think it in other terms, that encapsulate what a Marxist would call its objective forces and, on the other hand, its indeterminacy.

      • Oops, I meant to say in the first paragraph:

        I think the call for an understanding of history that takes into account both agency and for the structural underpinnings of social and political action is quite fair and necessary, but one can find this orientation, at least among neoGramscians.

      • Just to clarify, I’m not using “logical” as a synonym for “rational.” I agree that an emphasis on historical actors as being invested in the project of Western rationality is overblown and frequently misplaced. I mean something perhaps more like “volitional” — that there is an intentionality behind people’s actions, that they don’t simply muddle along, but act to bring about certain outcomes.

  3. Jeremy Young’s posting is so good because of the way it triggers off so many different reactions, especially different tropes or figures for representing things–drawings of fishes, baseball, etc. But I found myself thinking, as perhaps others did, of Plato’s allegory of the cave(interestingly echoed in the example of an actual fish drawing on the wall of a real cave). But at that point, I realized there were perhaps two ways to think about its lessons. The first is Plato’s that all existence(ontic in Heidegger’s terms) is a mere reflection or representation of a world of forms. Thus artistic renderings of objects in the world, like fishes, are representations of representations. Very quickly, we are on the slippery slope of a self-defeating number of recursions guttering out into entropy.[How’s that for mixing metaphors?] BUT the series of representations of the fish that Jeremy Young mentions does not mark out a trajectory of decline, but one of increasing accuracy and faithfulness to the original. It’s hard to know what to call it as opposed to Platonism–modern “worldliness” perhaps? On this view, there is no ontologically privileged realm beneath or below or behind given existence. Repetition/ representation can possibly make things better not worse.
    One other thing: there is an interesting literature on agency that focuses on the notion of the “situated self” developed by thinkers such as Charles Taylor. In this view, the absolutists of freedom AND determinism both share the belief that IF the self is influenced at all by its historical, social, etc situation, it is utterly determined by it. But Taylor and others maintain that, on the contrary, to be situated just is a pre-requisite for having/being an agential self, rather than a disqualification.

  4. Just a historiographic point: Genovese was one of the first, if not _the_ first, American historians to invoke Gramsci, and the argument of _Roll, Jordan, Roll_ is heavily invested in arguments about hegemony and paternalism. He is not an advocate for a vision of an abstracted “agency”. Perhaps some of his critics in the 1970s, such as Gutman in _The Black Family_ might be more appropriately put into that camp. As others have suggested, arguments about Gramscian “hegemony” are attempts to synthesize concerns about power with concerns about agency from below; they are responses to the kind of top-down and absolutist versions of structural determination and human passivity present in a variety of other Western Marxisms, including Althusser and Frankfurt School thinkers. I think you are really talking about structural determinism vs. human agency, which has a long tradition as a matter of debate. Marx famously said (and has famously been quoted over and over again) that man makes his own history, but not under the conditions of his own making.

    And on another note: I haven’t seen this referenced in any of the discussion here, but probably the best known critique of the concept of “agency” in historians’ discourse is Walter Johnson, “On Agency,” Journal of Social History Volume 37, Number 1, Fall 2003, pp. 113-124.

    • Thanks for these helpful notes, Dan. I confess I’m more confused by Gramsci than ever. I don’t know that I understand how Lears and Genovese can be part of the same intellectual project, or how Gramsci is not an advocate of structural determinism. I’ll have to read more on this before I draft an article on these issues.

    • Dan, thanks for pointing out that Walter Johnson essay. It was awesome. Too bad I didn’t know about it before I wrote my series on agency… It also provides one of the best articulated critiques of Roll Jordan Roll I’ve seen.
      It was particularly interesting to see this coming from Johnson who just four years earlier released the book that took the idea of agency in slavery furthest.

  5. On Gramsci.

    I think one of the big issues here is *which Gramsci.*

    Particularly in the European/UK context, Gramsci’s concept of hegemony is not the same as, but rather should be *compared to* the idea of domination. That’s the key turn he made as a Marxist theory, Hegemony is a battlefield, a terrain of struggle, in which there can be wars of maneuver or wars of position, in which one makes long marches through institutions and in which culture, attitudes, beliefs, ideas all matter as a space of struggle and conflict. It’s messy. All of which makes sense if you are a revolutionary and you are stuck…in prison (The Prison Notebooks after all). Outright domination vs. outright revolution becomes impossible in that context. Also when you are in Italy, with the powerful, multifaceted institution of the Catholic Church, with all its complex doctrine, shaping much of the political and social (and cultural) landscape. Outright domination vs. outright revolution doesn’t quite make sense anymore.

    Some of the best recent work on Gramscian approaches surfaced in the Birmingham School/Subcultural studies in the 1970s, trying to get a fix on how to better understand the working classes of the UK and their embrace, in fraught ways, of a consumer capitalist culture that ultimately seemed to work against their own interests. Stuart Hall is the key figure here.

    For these thinkers, as for Gramsci himself, hegemony was nothing bleak at all. For if there was hegemonic forces, there was also counter-hegemonic forces to seek out, identify, and support both in history and in the present. Gramsci becomes part of the EP Thompson-Raymond Williams kind of social history turn in this context.

    But as it moved into the American context in the 1970s and 80s, in the work of Genovese, Lears, George Lipsitz, Leon Fink, and others, Gramscian hegemony tilted toward something else: rather than being used to theorize the history of subalterns, undergrounds, lurking radicalisms, possible untapped revolutionary constellations of people and culture and power, Gramscian theory became a mechanism for explaining precisely the opposite—why the elites, the bad guys, always seemed to come out on top despite rumblings from below. The focus, in the American context, tilted from counterhegemony to hegemony as merely a more subtle, tricky, dastardly mode of control. As if Gramsci were an honorary member of the Frankfurt School. Instead of his ideas feeling like an intellectual liberation from simplistic vulgar Marxist equations of domination or more sophisticated but ultimately quite bleak Adorno/Horkheimer thinking, Gramsci’s hegemony became a tool for explaining the persistence of domination.

    Shades of Foucault’s thinking also creeping in here to Gramscian analysis? As in Foucault’s ideas about the ever more subtle modes of control and domination in modern Western liberal societies in work such as Discipline and Punish? Gramsci’s prison was a panopticon, I guess.

    The American adaptation of Gramsci in the 1970s and 80s, in other words, used his concept of hegemony to explain tenacity of hierarchies, of power—the ways that the powerful were so effective at adjusting and adapting to “agency” from below to maintain their grip on the social order. In the US history literature, to my reading, Gramsci was useful for helping to explain continuity.

    (Exceptions to this in the US context might be Michael Denning’s work—but Denning literally studied at Birmingham, so that’s why—and maybe Robin Kelley’s work, as channeled through CLR James.)

    By contrast, the UK subcultural folks of the 70s and cultural studies folks in the US who emerged from their efforts by the 1980s used Gramsci in search of how to notice and then accentuate forces that might counter and even overthrow the dominant structures and elites. Not Gramsci for interpreting continuity, but rather as a way to notice and accentuate the possibilities of change. From better history of the subalterns and subcultures and lurking overlaps among disadvantaged groups fragmented from each other by cultural ideas promulgated from above, a new kind of transformative cultural context and political movement might emerge.

    I’d be curious if others agree or disagree with this historiographical reading of Gramsci as taken up on both sides of the Atlantic in the last decades of the 20th century.

    All of which is background to the useful effort here to give us more finely-grained ways of thinking about what Dan notes as human agency (especially bottom-up) and structural determinism (especially top-down). And, yes, that Walter Johnson essay is something!


    • Thanks for this fascinating exposition, Michael, which makes this whole Gramsci business a whole lot clearer. That Stuart Hall essay on Gramsci is on my reading list. So in your view, I’m arguing against American Gramscians but not against Gramsci, I suppose.

      • Thanks for getting this going with your blog post!

        I do think that Genovese is the tricky one here. Going back a long time now to when I read the book: on the one hand, Roll Jordan Roll emphasizes the “agency” of slaves, pushing the planter class to adjust and compromise their modes of control; on the other hand, the planter class is able to maintain control by shifting from patriarchal to paternalistic relationships with slaves. Am I remembering that argument correctly, 19th century experts?! So Genovese uses Gramsci to show how the slave system persisted even as agency from below forced it to change the modes of domination–or should I write of hegemonic control. I remember the book being weirdly bleaker than its title made you think it would be (maybe because I knew the more conservative directions Genovese would go in after publishing it and read it in that light). And I now I want to remember how he goes about explaining abolitionism and the end of slavery. Does he do so in explicitly Gramscian terms still?

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