Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Agency Hurts but Pretty Hurts Too

In one of my classes, we were talking about agency as it related to gender and the hierarchy of gendered behavior, performance, and capacity. In particular, women performing masculinity in order to have access to male dominated and male coded jobs. One female student mentioned that she and her friends had debated about what to wear to a career fair - skirt or pants - and the requisite cost toward being taken seriously, getting the job. We just went in pants, she muttered at the end of their considerations. Pretty hurts.
At a minimum, a feminist theory of agency must explain how it is possible for women in male-dominated societies to live in ways that reflect their genuine needs and concerns, and it must explain how it is possible for women to develop critiques of sexist social and political institutions and to mount active resistance. Moreover, it must accomplish both of those tasks without pretending that people are capable of stepping outside their own socially determined viewpoints to attain a God-like perspective. (via britannica
I replied that while we might technically call the ability to choose between these "agency," we can't expect either of those options to increase women's agency, the availability of more choices. In fact, both choices reinforce the hierarchies of gender within capitalist competition; they decrease women's agency long term. So in this sense, her conflict and choice was certainly not political nor efficient resistance. And to me agency is tied up in political resistance. The personal is political. Of course some personal choices are act of resistance, but theory must acknowledge the agent who access these choices. Agency describes not only the set of options that we are able to consider due to our socialization, but also those options that are made available to us by our leverage of capital and privilege over a field that is set against women and especially women of color. 
Agency requires a well-developed repertoire of skills in self-discovery, self-definition, and self-direction.(via britannica
Your sense of agency within systems of power is based on utilizing your privilege to the best of your advantage, to convince the systems of power to over look your Otherness, to reinforce the system with the fractures of your bones growing back in the shape of the dominator. As long as you move within the field of dominance-submission masculine-feminine, you are increasing the strength of that field and its rules, no matter how you move through it.  Of all the privileges I have utilized to make it here, what's one more? and certainly one such as whether I wear pants or earrings to appease an interviewer's buy-in with femininity. That's not where my work lies. 
There is no denying that there exist dispositions to resist; and one of the tasks of sociology is precisely to examine under what conditions these dispositions are socially constituted, effectively triggered, and rendered politically efficient. [...] Often forget that the dominated seldom escape the antinomy of domination. for example to oppose the school system, in the manner of the British working class 'lads' analyzed by Willis (1997), through horseplay, truancy, and delinquency, is to exclude oneself from school, and, increasingly to lock oneself into one's condition of dominated. On the contrary, to accept assimilation by adopting school culture accounts to being coopted by the institution. The dominated are very often condemned to such dilemmas, to choices between two solutions which, each from a certain standpoint, are equally bad ones (the same applies, in a sense, to women or to stigmatized minorities) (via The Purpose of Reflexive Sociology, Pierre Bourdieu and Loic J.D. Wacquant)
 Agency is not thoughtless or reckless. Agency is not exerted when you perform normative behavior. Agency is not tested when there are no sanctions for your choice. Agency is mute when you voice and reverberate in the chorus of existing power structures. 
I do not see how relations of domination, whether material or symbolic, could possibly operate without implying, activating resistance. The dominated, in any social universe, can always exert a certain force, in as much as belong to a field means by definition that one is capable of producing effects in it (if only elicit reactions of exclusion on the part of those who occupy its dominant position). (via The Purpose of Reflexive Sociology, Pierre Bourdieu and Loic J.D. Wacquant)
Agency is how much you're willing to give up to make a point.  Agency hurts, but pretty hurts tooAgency is not easy, painless, or quick. It's slow and it hurts and you've got to think long and hard about what you do, what you're risking, the worth of your impulse towards life and liberty. Agency is the pain of learning to unbind your feet, your heart, your mind and learn how to stand again. Agency is the joy of finding yourself outside the field of cruelty, the beauty of standing with your sisters. 
I'm talking about when you put your body and your mind on the line and commit yourself to years of struggle in order to change the society in which you live. (Andrea Dworkin, via DGR)