'Decision Time: Neoliberalism Personhood, Popular Aesthetics, and the Inexorability of Agency'
In this talk, I examine the challenges that the hegemony of neoliberal forms of governance presents to our understanding of the relations among time, power and agency. While many such theorizations seek means through which agency might be located or enhanced—Judith Butler’s performativity would be one classic example—the work of many contemporary thinkers has made clear that neoliberal governance works through rather than against individual agency; it constantly requires that people make meaningful choices whose outcomes differ significantly, and it assigns sole responsibility for these choices and outcomes to the individual in question. I consider the effects of this transformation by turning to a series of texts that focus on what I term suffering agency, or the experience of agency as a form of anguished entrapment rather than self-enhancing empowerment. These works, which include texts from Dave Eggers’ novel What is the What to the torture-porn Saw franchise, offer visions of neoliberal personhood in which to be an individual making agential choice appears either akin to or literally a form of torture. I offer an account of how these works map suffering agency and the role that time plays in both generating this experience and in imagining potential alternatives.
Dr Jane Elliott's research focuses on three main areas: post-1945 fiction, with a particular emphasis on the intersection between popular forms and political theory; contemporary theory; and the novel during and after postmodernism. She also has interests in contemporary fantasy fiction and film, ethnic American literature, and contemporary American popular culture.
Dr Elliott's current research explores the conjoined aesthetic and political developments that have emerged since the turn of the 21st century and the waning of the postmodern moment. This interest is reflected in the twenty-essay collection she has recently co-edited, entitled Theory after 'Theory' (Routledge 2011); the second editor for the collection is Derek Attridge. The collection draws together a diverse body of thinkers from various disciplines, including Rey Chow, Roberto Esposito, Simon Gikandi, Brian Massumi, Elizabeth Povinelli, Bernard Stiegler and Eugene Thacker, in order to examine the ways in which theory has taken on new forms that challenge some of the fundamental intellectual stances that once defined ‘Theory’. Dr Elliott is currently working on a monograph that explores the intersection of neoliberal microeconomics, popular aesthetics and the Left theorization of agency in a variety of American and British novels and films, from the novel and film Never Let Me Go to the horror franchise Saw to Hurricane Katrina documentaries. Essays from this project have appeared in Novel and the collection Old and New Media after Katrina.
Dr Elliott's first book, Popular Feminist Fiction as American Allegory: Representing National Time was published by Palgrave in 2008, and her work on contemporary literature and theory has also appeared in Cultural Critique, Modern Fiction Studies, and the PMLA. In addition, she serves as the Humanities Editor for The Public Intellectual, an online journal devoted to bringing academic insights to a mainstream audience.
Time-Horizon and Agency
I argue that our subjective sense of remaining time is vital to our agency. The argument, in outline, is this:
(1) A diminishing time-horizon diminishes one’s capacity to self-reauthor.
(2) The capacity to self-reauthor is constitutive of agency par excellence.
(C) Therefore, a diminishing time-horizon attenuates agency.
(1) says that the sense that we are running out of time saps our ability to deliberately change our characters. (2) says that this ability is essential for being creatures maximally in control of what we do. (2) is intuitively obvious: since your actions are partly determined by your character, the more control you have over your character, the more control you have over your actions. The argument for (1) has two stages. First, I argue on conceptual grounds that self-reauthoring requires, at a minimum, the capacities (a) for negative self-evaluation and (b) for long-term planning. Second, I adduce empirical evidence (from Socioemotional Selectivity Theory) that these are precisely the capacities that get eroded with time. If these arguments work, (C) follows deductively: our agency wanes with the waning time-horizon. Thus, if we ignore the integrity of the time-horizon to agency, we will miss both a vital feature of agency and the central tragedy of running out of time.
I obtained my PhD in Philosophy from Cambridge in 2007. Since then, I have held three Philosophy postdocs - in South Africa, Mexico, and currently at Vienna University. Although my areas of specialization are epistemology and metaethics, I have recently become really interested in the philosophy of old age. (A forthcoming publication in the area: ‘Age and Agency’, Ageing and the Elderly, special issue of Philosophical Papers).
Time, Affect and Suicidal Microbes.
According to Jacques Derrida, in the tradition of Western philosophy nonhuman animals don’t have ‘time’. Temporality, which Martin Heidegger associates with auto-affection – giving oneself a presence, would be an exclusive human characteristic. Without access to knowledge and an experience of death as such, animals don’t die; they merely perish, according to Heidegger. Given these assumptions it may not be surprising that until recently marine microbes such as unicellular phytoplankton have been considered immortal unless eaten by predators. Concerns about global climate change however have spurred new research into the lives and ecologies of marine microbes and especially into their potentially beneficial role as carbon dioxide consumers. Assumptions about their atemporal existence are currently in the process of revision. Marine biologists in fact suggest that under specific conditions phytoplankton actively kill themselves. Drawing on new empirical research into programmed cell death in microbes, I explore how an affirmation of phytoplankton’s mortality may reconstruct the relationship between life and death, biological individuality and assumptions about a “natural” teleology. In multicellular animal bodies cell death is associated with a purpose; some individual cells must die in order to keep the organism alive. As long as individual cells are considered parts of a larger system, the organism, their deaths seems to make sense in evolutionary terms. But why would unicellular phytoplankton actively kill themselves? Assuming that microbial populations are composed of competing, selfish individuals, these research findings cease to make sense. Reading this research together with the Derridean move from autoaffection, which forms the basis of selfhood in humans and cells towards heteroaffection that recognizes that death is always internal to life and the ‘other’ always already part of the ‘self’, I explore how the deconstruction of individuality from within biology may suggests alternatives to our anthropocentric notion of time and affectivity in scientific knowledge production.
Astrid Schrader is currently a postdoctoral fellow in Anthropology and STS at York University in Toronto, Canada. She received her PhD in History of Consciousness and Feminist Studies from the University of California, Santa Cruz, upon completing her dissertation “Dino & Demons: The Politics of Temporality and Responsibility in Science”. Since then, Astrid spent a year as postdoctoral fellow at the Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women at Brown University and has been teaching in the Science, Technology, and Society Program at Sarah Lawrence College for the last three years. Astrid’s recent research in Feminist Science Studies has focused on the scientific investigation of toxic marine microorganisms and the environmental problems these ‘harmful algae’ are said to cause. With the help of toxic dinoflagellates, feminist philosopher Karen Barad’s theoretical framework of agential realism and the philosophy of Jacques Derrida, Astrid has been exploring questions of responsibility and agency in scientific knowledge production, new ontologies, the relationship between anthropocentrism and conceptions of time, and environmental justice. Her research has been published in the journals of Social Studies of Science, Environmental Philosophy, and differences (forthcoming). In addition, Astrid has just completed co-editing (with Sophia Roosth) a special issue of the journal differences titled “Feminist Theory out of Science” (to appear in this Fall) that seeks to highlight how close attention to the materialities of scientific practices may inform feminist theories.
Many current questions about connections between conceptions of time and notions of power and agency were also present within and central to the Modernist movement in literature. In particular, the challenge of presenting hero figures, who have traditionally depended on qualitative temporal concepts such as there being a “right” time for an action to occur, within a world dominated by a quantitative, clock-driven model of time led to many Modernist authors abandoning the possibility of heroism in their works. Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, however, offers a potential solution to this problem through the actions of its protagonist, and, in doing so, it provides a model for blending quantitative and qualitative aspects of time that remains useful today. Clarissa Dalloway’s unique heroism lies in her ability to effectively navigate the hours of her day and fulfill her goal of creating a moment that will capture and reflect the beauty of life. She is successful in her movement through time not because she is singularly focused on forcing the party to happen when she wants it to occur but instead because she blends an understanding of quantitative aspects of time (i.e., that, in order for the party to be successful, there are practical, logistical aspects that must take place “on time”) with other temporal elements that are qualitative in nature. Awareness of these latter, Kairic, opportunities, and the courage to act within a significant moment without any guarantee of success, are what separates Clarissa from the majority of her would-be-heroic literary peers. The tension that Woolf highlights between quantitative and qualitative aspects of time is still present today, but it has been magnified in the decades since the novel’s publication. By examining Clarissa’s path, however, we may gain a better understanding of how agency is impacted by one’s temporal model.
I am an Assistant Professor of English at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia. I graduated in May of 2012 with a Ph.D. in literature from The University of Georgia, and my dissertation, “‘There Will Be Time’: Heroism, Temporality, and the Search for Opportunity in Modern Literature,” focuses on a convergence between concepts of heroism and temporal models in Modernist literature. My research interests include perceptions of time and agency and how they are applied in literature, particularly as they pertain to the presentation of hero figures.
from our workshop on Power, Time and Agency held in Manchester, January 2013