What does it mean to be an agent in the ‘critical zone’, the near-surface environment of the Earth where most living things reside and have evolved? This is a complex, dense, folded world, a commons where the powers of each entity – abiotic, living or technological – are dependent on those around it. The character of the critical zone does not just distribute agency but alters its very condition of possibility. I want to unpack this a little by reference to two Latin verbs, agere and gerere, the influence on European thought of which can be traced in our thinking about agency.
Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition points out how in ancient Greek and Latin there are two words with which to designate the verb ‘to act’. In Latin there is agere,[i] ‘to set into motion’ (from which we get the words ‘agent’, ‘act’ and ‘action’) but also gerere , ‘to bear’ or ‘to sustain’ (Arendt 1958: 189).[ii] Here, she says, we can see a crucial split occurring in European thought about agency and action, a split as consequential as that between nature and culture that Latour (1993) describes as the modern constitution. This is the division between a beginning made by a single person, and the achievement in which many join by ‘bearing’ and ‘finishing’ the enterprise, by seeing it through; between the one who leads and the others that follow. Because of this diremption of spirit, agere came to mean ‘to lead’, giving us the Western masculinist political imaginary of a ruler who rules alone, who rules because he is alone, who rules through his own isolation and is isolated because he rules. The ruler, Arendt says interestingly, is ‘isolated against others by his force’ (Arendt 1958: 189).
In the same book Arendt also gave us the wonderful idea of ‘acting into nature’ – that with modern technology our struggle with nature comes to take on the unpredictability and fragility exhibited by action and speech in the human sphere, so prone to misinterpretation and ironic consequences (Arendt 1958: 231). And this invites us to apply her genealogy of political rule to the human relation with nature as a whole. Thinking of ‘making’ in a hylomorphic way – as simply imposing an imagined and desired form on passive matter (Galarraga and Szerszynski 2012) – is to imagine the agent as isolated by their striving: to imagine that humans can ‘act’, and non-humans will simply ‘bear’ or ‘sustain’ the effects of their action.
Yet this isolation is always an illusion, as it was in the case of Prince Kutuzov in War and Peace (Tolstoy 1889). As Arendt puts it, ‘the actor always moves among and in relation to other acting beings … he is never merely a ‘doer’ but always and at the same time a sufferer’ (Arendt 1958: 190).
Here one thinks of Michel Serres’ reflection in The Natural Contract (1995) on Goya’s Fighters with Clubs – that in the painting, nature is not just a backdrop for the human agon but an actor, one that is threatening to envelop the human pair. The club fighters in Goya’s painting are both actors and bearers – they suffer in the agon of battle, they are in agony, but are also somehow ‘carrying out’ something where their wills have been subsumed within a wider story of humans and nature. Perhaps we should call the painting Clavigers, so that we can use this word for ‘club-bearers’ to smuggle in the verb gerere.[iii]
Amongst the multiple agencies of the critical zone, there is no simple division between initiator and bearer, between leader and follower, active and passive. We need to find new ways of talking about action in the grammatical ‘middle voice’, that don’t make a simplistic division between things that simply act and things that simply bear or carry through the results of those actions (Szerszynski 2019).
Arendt, Hannah (1958) The Human Condition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Galarraga, Maialen and Bronislaw Szerszynski (2012) ‘Making climates: solar radiation management and the ethics of fabrication,’ in Engineering the Climate: The Ethics of Solar Radiation Management, ed. Christopher Preston, Lexington, MA: Lexington, pp. 211-25.
Latour, Bruno (1993) We Have Never Been Modern, tr. Catherine Porter, Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf.
Serres, Michel (1995) The Natural Contract, tr. Elizabeth MacArthur and William Paulson, Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
Szerszynski, Bronislaw (2019) ‘Drift as a planetary phenomenon,’ Performance Research, 23(7), pp. 136-44.
Tolstoy, Leo (1889) War and Peace, tr. Nathan Haskell Dole, New York: T.Y. Crowell & Co.
[i] Gk agein, from the PIE root ag- – to drive, to move or to draw out.
[ii] Gerere gives us words such as gestate (to carry), suggest (to carry or bring up) and jest or gest (to perform).
[iii] Claviger, from clava ‘club, knotty branch’ + stem of gerere ‘to bear’.