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05 April 2011 @ 06:34 pm
a non-post about agency  
I keep wanting to make some kind of (totally uninformed) post about agency, and how it's this word that gets brought in so often to dismiss or reject, to shut down discussions--and this is both an academic move and a fandom one, I think: one of the worst things you can say about a character, Shakespearean or sci-fi, is that she doesn't have agency. Because in that situation, of course, you would behave totally differently, you wouldn't let that happen to you, you wouldn't believe such ridiculous, silly things. (My students--not this batch in particular, just "students" en masse--do this relatively often, with characters like Desdemona or any woman in a Victorian novel who seems to fall in line with Victorian ideas.) You would be modern and autonomous, and every story would be completely and totally about you.

This nonexistent post, for which this spurt of words is merely a placeholder for the thing my brain can't form, is partly, in a lurking sort of way, about Amy Pond (particularly in "Amy's Choice"), and the weird assertion that Amy doesn't have agency, which doesn't make any sense to me, because I see her doing things all over the place. It seems--perhaps?--to stem from a feeling that Amy's decisions aren't wholly motivated by her own decisions in some way...but whose are? The idea seems to be that if one winds up in a situation one didn't choose to be in, or if outside forces are capable of acting on one, then one's agency completely evaporates. But don't we all experience that? Aren't all of our decisions only partially motivated by ourselves? Yes, the Dream Lord sets the terms of the game, and the board turns out to be the Doctor's subconscious--but Amy still has moves to make within that framework, and those moves matter; she still chooses to act in particular ways.

This could also, this post that doesn't exist, be a post about comedy, because similar ideas seem to underpin a lot of that discussion as well: I've started saying that my dissertation is about "uncovering a form of comic agency" largely in reaction to the discovery that lots of critics seem to think that such a thing isn't even possible--that being a character in a Shakespearean comedy is to give up all claim toward being an actor, and to become nothing but acted upon, as though there isn't a complex interplay going on at all times between the demands of society on these characters and what they demand for themselves.

Some time ago, when I got the first glimmering of an idea that I might want to write about children in connection with A Midsummer Night's Dream, I read a book that reduced young Lucius in Titus Andronicus to the status of his copy of Ovid, both "incompletely deliberating agents" for whom there was no real possibility of meaning anything on their own terms. (Throughout this book, children are depicted as being able to 'parrot' stories in which adult readers can hear deeper meanings, but not as having any control over those deeper meanings...which is a thing that often happens with the allusions that comic characters make, too.) I wrote then: "I often feel as though writers set out to define agency as narrowly as possible--here, the only real agency possible is to be the originator of an action, not a contributor; anything else makes you a mere relay--in order to claim agency for as few characters as possible--and I have a suspicion that most of them would be men, striding and autonomous, their dependence on others denied or occluded." I don't know how much I agree with that last bit, now--my notes are frequently more snarky than they ought to be--but I do think that a lot of definitions of agency that get used seem to depend on the denial of interdependence and interconnectedness; they set up an ideal of complete independence that is largely impossible to reach, and deny the very real actions that the many take in their lives, in favor of valorizing the few.
La Reine Noire: Wimminz!lareinenoire on April 6th, 2011 12:07 am (UTC)
(My students--not this batch in particular, just "students" en masse--do this relatively often, with characters like Desdemona or any woman in a Victorian novel who seems to fall in line with Victorian ideas.) You would be modern and autonomous, and every story would be completely and totally about you.

My students were generally quite dismissive of Desdemona until I pointed out to them that, as a woman in the early seventeenth century who had just turned her back on the society where she was born to marry a man her father did not approve of, had absolutely no other option than to hope Othello got over whatever was troubling him.

What's amusing, though, is that presenting Juliet and Desdemona as comic heroines trapped in tragic situations seemed to help my students make sense of how they do break boundaries and transcend the limits normally allowed to women primarily through speech acts. They think their words have the power to change things for the better, and do not realise that that power is constrained.

Agency is a problematic word in general, though. I tried to talk about it in my dissertation and ultimately abandoned most of what I tried to say, because it is such a loaded term and particularly difficult to apply in a pre-modern context. And, ugh, I hate when people (not just students) try to apply modern standards to earlier texts. Criticism: ur doin it wrong.
tempestsarekind: victoriana [bleak house]tempestsarekind on April 6th, 2011 06:44 pm (UTC)
Interesting! I've always sort of wondered what my students are expecting Desdemona to do, really: what action is she failing to take that would win their approval? (Well, except for that time when half the class was all, "She should have known Othello was jealous and shouldn't have lost the handkerchief." All I could do was boggle, then.) Because you're right: what other options does she have? She's thrown her lot in absolutely with Othello, and she's physically removed from her family in any case.

And yes, "agency" is such a problematic word! I've started using it in face-to-face descriptions of my dissertation because "comedy as an act of will" tends to get blank stares until I elaborate...but I don't actually use the word in the dissertation! I'm hoping that the focus on modals will cover the requisite ground.

And, ugh, I hate when people (not just students) try to apply modern standards to earlier texts.

Yes! That doesn't mean that our only possible response is a historicist one, but it's silly to expect, say, a woman in a 19th-century novel (or a 17th-century play) to behave like a woman might (not would) behave in the 21st. Like, people who complain about how Austen novels are all about marriage, and how boring and limited that is, when a good or bad marriage sets the terms for the rest of a woman's life in this period.
litlover12 on April 6th, 2011 12:49 am (UTC)
I love this non-post. It's so true.

You are so much wiser than you give yourself credit for being.
viomisehuntviomisehunt on April 6th, 2011 03:49 am (UTC)
Ditto on tempestsarekind's She had me scrambling for definitions--haven't been to school in twenty years, and one forgets all those terms of study.

What's amusing, though, is that presenting Juliet and Desdemona as comic heroines trapped in tragic situations seemed to help my students make sense of how they do break boundaries and transcend the limits normally allowed to women primarily through speech acts. They think their words have the power to change things for the better, and do not realise that that power is constrained.
Juliet appears as one of Shakespeare's man powerful women. Consider that from her parent's point of view, as a good and obedient daughter, her main function is to be pretty and sweet natured, and expected to use her intelligent and any craft to attract and keep the wealthy husband of her parent's choice.

Juliet, if I recall, chooses Romeo before he speaks of his intentions to. It is her assertion that her attraction to him is such that she is prepared to deny father and name to have his love, that propels him into action. She's no pushover, eager for seduction where she is powerless. She's not interested in sweet talk, and frankly when it comes to "sweet talk" Juliet has Romeo beat.

So to tempestsarekind Speak on, bright angel on the matter of Agency.

Curious-- Amy's choice is seen as a passive one? It was forced on her, but isn't that part of the hero's journey? The Hero hesitates on that step where she knows there is no return, and often circumstances force her to move, to consider, to think, and act?
tempestsarekind: trespass sweetly urgedtempestsarekind on April 6th, 2011 06:37 pm (UTC)
Yes--Juliet definitely has the upper hand in the balcony scene, for all that she's surprised by Romeo's presence; she sets the terms of the relationship. And I've always adored her frankness in that scene: "But farewell, compliment."

I'm not really clear on the argument about Amy, but it seems to center on the idea that "Amy's Choice" really isn't, that she's being manipulated somehow. Which is on some level true, but it's not more true for her than it is for Rory or the Doctor; they're all forced to play by the "Dream Lord's" rules. And that manipulation doesn't negate the fact that they all make choices within that scheme. So part of what's weird about discussions of agency is that it seems like it's a lot easier for a female character to lose agency than for a male one, even if they are working under fairly similar circumstances.
tempestsarekind: little dorrittempestsarekind on April 6th, 2011 06:31 pm (UTC)
Aw, thank you! That's very nice of you to say.
S. Worthenowlfish on April 6th, 2011 11:48 am (UTC)
This is a rather wonderful post for me, to contrast with what I am having my students do: spend a week talking about agency. More specifically, a week of warning to practice discussing technologies *without* giving them agency, and remembering that it is usually people who have that, not things. So while I am going on about taking away agency, it is in a rather different context, and my students do struggle with it.
tempestsarekind: typewritertempestsarekind on April 6th, 2011 06:31 pm (UTC)
That's so interesting--I'd never really thought about it, but I suspect that I attribute agency to technology all the time! And I remember a commercial for a Windows phone (I think) that suggested that our only possible relationship to technology is to have technology that works faster, so we have to spend less time on Facebook, etc.: it's not possible for us to decide not to check Facebook during our son's soccer game; we need the new phone so that we can do it quickly.
viomisehuntviomisehunt on April 6th, 2011 07:38 pm (UTC)
Are we prepared as a reading/viewing audience to "like" women with agency in some situations, especially if the woman in question does not make the choice her audience feels is the desired one? While it is not necessary that everyone like the same character, it is interesting that many people don't like certain characters because of choices and outcomes. Classically when a male is rejected by a woman he desires, he will employ skill, manipulation, war, and at times forceful seduction to get what he wants. But then there is the Prince in Much Ado About Nothing, who graciously steps away from his pursuit of Beatrice when he realizes she loves Benedict, and turns to match-making. What is our emotional reaction to women in the same situations?

Anyone who assumes agency, or takes an assertive role in their life goals, especially emotional or romantic goals, must accept the possivility of rejection, illusion, defeat, or loss. You can win, but still experience a costly loss. However these events allows the character the choice to move on, reassess their goals, or to take another course to the achieve the same goal.(In the DW universe, this would be Martha, Amy, and Rose. Why didn't I include Donna? Donna--who according to Moffat is the Doctor's equal-- is snatched out of time for that first meeting. She does actively seek to travel with the Doctor again, but she has his will, thoughts, personality forced on her, and her choice is stolen from her--but if the only thing that distinguishes her from Rose and Martha is her lack of romantic affection-- what are the DW writers saying about the power of love? In the End Rose's choice is stolen from her. She not only can't not have what she struggled and broke laws for, she is told where she must spend the rest of her life, and whom with. It is the Doctor's assertion that she must stay in the other universe, not her own. He tells her that as part the price he expects her to help the human Doctor as in no uncertain terms is he allowing her to go back with him. In the end, the only person choosing to make her own path--including carrying a gun if she feels she needs it to protect herself and her man-- is Martha.)

tempestsarekind: bananas are goodtempestsarekind on April 7th, 2011 12:24 am (UTC)
I have really mixed feelings about both Rose's and Donna's endings, but I think RTD displays a tendency with both characters to have them make choices and then make sure they don't get to keep the results of those choices. In "Doomsday" Rose chooses to stay with the Doctor, and it's the height of tragedy that she's ripped away from him by the void--even though ten minutes earlier, the Doctor tried to make that same decision for her. (Ten is weird that way. He likes to have his tragedy cake and eat it too.) And Donna has the same thing happen.

The thing that really always bothers me about them, though, is the fact that it's never indicated that they have a sense of what the outcomes of their actions might be. Rose wants to get back to Nine, so she tries to get the TARDIS to take her back to him--but does she actually sign up for absorbing the energy of the Time Vortex and becoming the Bad Wolf? Does Donna actually agree to that human-Time Lord metacrisis when she touches the Doctor's severed hand? I don't feel convinced that the answer is yes, in either case.
viomisehuntviomisehunt on April 7th, 2011 01:15 am (UTC)
Rose and the TARDIS is a strange mixture of violation and incident. Rose forced opened the heart of the TARDIS, not knowing there was a sentient presence inside. Nothing indicated that she knew that would happen, and the Doctor made it very clear that she could not control it the power. I think she thought she was like Dave with Hal. The TARDIS although sentient and able to take form (There is a canon story, one on the BBC website where the TARDIS became Martha to communicate better with the Doctor), I think the raw power and conscious will just latch on to someone when released like that, and she/it latch on to Rose whose personality was primarily "will".
Donna's life was saved momentarily, but there doesn't seem a moment when -- like Lestat -- she is given a choice of sharing the Doctor's essence. She's happy about it, but that seems rather like a woman accepting her parents choice of a spouse but finding out he's very nice.

And, well, I have a hard time calling Doomsday a tragedy. They both lived.
It was tragic for Ianto maybe, as he lost his Lisa, and Martha's family as they lost Adeola and the other people who were lost. The people who died had no where to go, but the Doctor and Rose though seperated from each other still had a lifetime of choices and discovery before them. Of course they couldn't see it right then. It was sad but admirable that just as he seems to find love, the Doctor makes the decision that Rose having what she always wanted, her father alive and happy with her mother meant more to him than keeping her at his side. However this is not the first time he's had to make this decision, although I can see where it gets more difficult. The loss of Rose is not like Adric getting killed, or having the Time Lords take Jamie and Zoe away from him. He sent his granddaughter Susan away so she can have a life. I watched Two's farewell other day, and it was lovely watching Two cheer Jamie on as the lad barely escapes a bullet and charges into battle.

Rose is not flailing around in the void. Her story could have went either way; I'm glad they decided not to have Rose discover she really loved Mickey. But I could see her, having a good life and maybe finding her own path, like Ace eventually does. It was cool to have Rose try and get back to the Doctor, until she gets there and he gives her double of himself. And there is the double who has, it seems, no say in his own path. He has to go where the Doctor sends him, love whom the Doctor loves.

tempestsarekind: ten has a secrettempestsarekind on April 8th, 2011 08:37 pm (UTC)
Ten's double (who is also partly Donna--I know RTD ignores this at the end, but he says it upfront) is such a problematic way to wrap up the Rose/Doctor story; I can't believe that it's supposed to be a happy ending! Maybe in six months, or a year, or two--but not at the moment of its happening, and not guaranteed.

And, well, I have a hard time calling Doomsday a tragedy. They both lived.

Well, yes--me too. But I get the sense that it's supposed to be really tragic, and Ten's Rose angst gets all over season 3 in unpleasant ways.

As an aside, it's always bothered me that Martha never found out that the Doctor was there when Adeola died. I don't know why it bothers me, particularly; it just does.