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Hello, My Name is Agent, and I Seem to Have Misplaced My Agency

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Language is one of the most nuanced tools we, as human beings, have at our disposal, but it can also be one of the clumsiest. In a world where context means everything and when one word with a clear definition but an ambiguous connotation can change how the reader interprets your statement, word choice is paramount and virtually an art form.

So the use of the word “agency” as it is perceived in the scientific community can be a little problematic at times. Common understanding of the word is “a person or thing through which power is exerted or an end is achieved”1 or “working as a means to an end; instrumentality, intermediation.”2


But according to Newtonian physics and the classical conception of such, agency is in nature, and we are “benignly obtrusive” observers, according to a description by Karen Barad. The scientific community, and the lay understand of the world in general, has since moved away from this model. Now it is understood that they very act of observation is not only obtrusive, but will affect one’s unequivocally observations. Much like people will be aware of the attention when they are told to smile for the camera, natural phenomena are equally put on the spot, and, like people, some phenomena will continue to act as they would, while others might ham it up or shy away.


A thermometer in a cup of water has a temperature of its own which will alter that of the water it must measure, and the light used to observe the motion of atoms will interact and cause those atoms to move in ways they wouldn’t, had they not been agitated by the light’s energy.


This is where Karen Barad really comes in.


The feminist critique describes the effects of the system (patriarchy in society at large) on an agent (a single person), and the effect of that agent on the system, giving all the participants an agency. The feminist critique of science itself involves pointing out problems from the biases in hiring practices, to the fundamental way in which we as a society think about the act of science. Barad argues that, in this line of thought, the scientist is just as much of an agent acting upon their experiment, and that the observed phenomena has an agency all its own. But our agency implies a certain amount of moral and ethical responsibility.


So what, then, is agency?


“The brain and heart both generate weak magnetic fields which, in ways different from electronic fields, can reveal subtle clues about such maladies as epilepsy and arrhythmias. Sensitive magnetometers, based on superconducting quantum interference devices (SQUIDs), have been used to prepare detailed magnetoencephalograms (MEGs). Unfortunately, these devices require liquid helium and all its associated cryogenic equipment. Michael Romalis, a Princeton physicist, detects the brain’s faint magnetic fields using instead a vessel filled with potassium atoms, which have been polarized by a laser beam. The brain fields cause the K atoms to process in a measurable way. Already, Romalis says his device has attained a sensitivity thirty times better than previous atomic magnetometers used for biosensors, and a spatial resolution comparable to that for SQUIDs, with the prospect of improving by another factor of ten…”3


At first glance, one could logically conclude that the only agent is the physicist who created the machine. He is the only one doing something to achieve an end. But note all the active words. Romalis uses and detects, but the brain (and heart) generate and cause. Equally active words.


Barad would argue that the brain is just as much of an agent as Romalis, meaning that they have agency, though the organ has not really done anything other than emit the magnetic field that is produced every living organism. In fiction, giving agency to that which has no ability to decisively affect its surroundings is anthropomorphizing: ascribing human qualities to the not human, much as I did in my paragraph likening natural phenomena to people shying away from a camera.


If agency implies moral responsibility, and if our common understanding of the term implies a sense of an active choice rather than mere activity, can inanimate objects have agency? A bowling ball may be described as knocking down pins (to continue using active verbs), but it is the agency of the bowler that has been enacted, not that of the ball. Even if we can only see the ball knocking the pins down, it is understood that there is a human impetus behind the act.


Removing agency from phenomena creates a hierarchy, placing the flowers mindlessly seeking the sun beneath the scientist willfully observing them. However, Barad has already created a hierarchy among these agents by attributing responsibility only to human observers (a rabbit observing the flowers has no responsibility toward said flowers). The volcano that buried Pompeii can be described as responsible, but not in the sense that a decisive agent is considered responsible—Vesuvius is to blame for the ancient tragedy, but we all understand that the volcano is what it is, and can only act as a volcano under specific pressures would. But had Vesuvius had human agency, its responsibility would entail avoiding harm to Pompeii to the best of its abilities, and the quality of the blame had Vesuvius failed to do so would no longer be a causal blame, but a blame of knowing better and being a “bad, bad volcano.”


Something has agency, we can agree, but some things have more agency than others—much like the distribution of equality on a certain farm.


Can we describe these different forms of agency by using the same words? Is that responsible of us? Attributing the same level of agency to the rabbit that eats the flowers to the human observer that steps on the flowers seems disingenuous, though the flower’s fate was the same in the end. Regardless of the philosophical quandary of what constitutes an agent and what doesn’t, it is clear that the scientist in an experiment has more agency over the proceedings.


Is this, somehow, more responsible of us or useful or thoughtful critique of how we think about performing science? Not even Barad consistently uses the term agency in her articles, relying on her reader to know the definition of the word and the nuanced meaning of how she uses it in a variety of ways. But, for such a critical term, the audience doesn’t necessarily know the entirety of what agency and moral, ethical agency entails.


So is this merely the clash of layman’s terms and specialized academic language? Perhaps it is a flaw within the English language, which has no handy words to distinguishing between the agents without responsibility and those who have such responsibility inherent in their existence as agents. Possibly, it is our grammatical love of active verbs as English speakers and readers.


Or, just maybe, academia has gotten too nit-picky.



1. “Agency.” Merriam-Webster Online. Online ed. <>


2. “Agency.” Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989.


3. Xia et al., Lee et al. Two articles from Applied Physics Letters. November 20, 2006.


Articles Discussed:

Barad, Karen. “A Feminist Approach to Teaching Quantum Physics.” Teaching to the Majority: Breaking the Gender Barrier in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering. Ed. Sue Rosser. New York: Teachers College Press, 1995. 43-75.


Barad, Karen. “Scientific Literacy --> Agential Literacy = (Learning + Doing) Science Responsibility.” Feminist Science Studies. Ed. Mayberry et Al., 2001. 226-246.