The Distinctly Human? Rethinking Actor, Agency, and Individual Consciousness in History

AHA Session 97
Friday, January 5, 2018: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Congressional Room B (Omni Shoreham, West Lobby)
Konstantin Dierks, Indiana University
Manu Goswami, New York University

Session Abstract

A foundational category of historical analysis, ‘agency’ lost much of its theoretical standing and methodological utility in the course of what historians call today the ‘culture wars’ of the 1980s and 1990s. Having posited a language-mediated, discourse-framed, and culturally constructed view of history, champions of poststructuralist-linguistic analytics introduced historians to new agents of history such as language, discourse, culture. Not absent from preceding historiographical traditions, ‘culture’ in its new incarnation no longer simply transmitted the meanings of reality or served historical actors as a toolbox for critical reflection. Akin to language, it formed a ‘specific historical realm’ with its own rules and logics that mediated between the social, the real, and the individual. Culture or language or discourse became the source of one’s deepest presumptions about the world and the self and, as a result, replaced the self. A lot was lost in this theorization of culture as a system of signification and organization of social life and the individual self. On what grounds was one to keep the notions of individual consciousness, critical reflection of one’s facticity, anti-systemic thought/movement, in one word, human agency, meaningful if the terms that made up one’s very notion of self were resolutely relegated beyond oneself, in a language/culture-mediated sociality that had no single author?

The panel participants engage this question from within different theoretical agendas and from different research sites. A scholar of modern Russian history, Professor Krylova interrogates the limits of what Gabrielle Spiegel called ‘revisionist accommodations’—the manifold revisionist scholarship of the last two decades that has tried to counteract the apparent depletion of the agency category of its analytical and ethical meaning by rediscovering agency in everyday uses and misuses of culture and in the subversive and transgressive behavior of historical subjects. Krylova argues that this focus on ‘culture in use’ and the subversive subject has not allowed scholars to address the most categorical poststructuralist propositions that render the notion of ‘individual consciousness’ meaningless and that refuse historical subjects a possibility of developing a critical distance from a discursive regime that claims them as subjects. The question of individual and interior consciousness informs Professor Smith’s contribution to the panel. He explores the conceptual utility of the notion by using the experience of Antoine Blanquet, an eighteenth-century roads inspector in the Gévaudan region of southern France, which allows him to probe the processes of individual decision-making. Professor Shaw, in his paper on later medieval English travel and communication networks, discusses the need for a new theory of agency and the actor (that is, of the distinctly human in history) in relation to the very different, post-humanistic use of the two concepts that has come to the fore in the work of Bruno Latour. Professors Manu Goswami (discussant) who has written on colonial internationalisms and anti-systemic movements and Konstantin Dierks (chair) who has investigated the ‘vulnerabilities of personal agency’ in the early anglophone Atlantic World will contribute their own insights to the conceptual and theoretical issues raised by the three panelists.

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