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Transformation and Agency in Activist Scholarship

Layne Porta Gordon


Gordon discusses Gries’s and Parks’s chapters in order to explore what New Materialist accounts of agency and transformation can contribute to our understandings of scholarship-as-activism in the current socio-political-economic climate.


As the racist, sexist, and xenophobic policies and ideologies of our current political climate increasingly threaten the safety and security of marginalized communities, there is a felt sense in the most recent scholarship in our field that we must figure out how to move forward into a future that is more just, more equal—a future in which our work matters in new and renewed ways. The chapters in this collection contribute interesting and exciting possibilities to this endeavor. In this response essay, I look to two of these keynote webtexts as models of scholarship-as-activism in order to understand: (1) how scholars of rhetoric and writing studies are currently conceiving of and assembling projects that are aimed at social change, and (2) the tensions and possibilities of approaching such work from a New Materialist orientation. Specifically, I discuss Laurie Gries's "Swastika Monitoring: Developing Digital Research Tools to Track Visual Rhetorics of Hate" and Steve Parks's "Syrians for Truth and Justice: Articulating Entanglements, Disrupting Disciplinarity," paying particular attention to the way that their work accommodates a New Materialist perspective, and teasing out some of the tensions therein. Both Gries and Parks explicitly refer to their work as an activist project of documentation. More broadly, though, these chapters illustrate an interesting relationship between transformation and agency that may offer a hopeful model for other forms of activist scholarship in a deeply troubling political economic climate.

Gries's and Parks's Scholarship-as-Activism

Laurie Gries describes her Swastika Monitor project as "data activism," which aims to create information-based tools that can enable others to understand and intervene in social and political problems. In describing the exigence of her project, Gries focuses explicitly on the ways that such a project helps us understand rhetorical transformation, suggesting that "documenting responsivity and consequentiality, in addition to the details of the initial swastika events, helps elucidate how visual rhetorics of hate often become rhetorics of resilience as well as rhetorics of forgiveness and hope." If we are to consider the possibilities for activist scholarship in a New Materialist framework, beginning with such a powerful claim about rhetorical transformation is useful. In this case, Gries argues that by documenting these incidents, we see how these rhetorics transform as they participate in entanglements of nonhuman and human actors. Gries also discusses rhetorical transformation in her earlier work, Still Life with Rhetoric, defining it as "the process in which things become rhetorical in divergent, unpredictable ways as they circulate, transform, and catalyze change" (27). This definition evokes a complex, New Materialist account of agency in which agency is not a property of things or people, but rather emerges through their intra-action (87). Rhetorical transformation is not a thing people do to images, but rather an effect of such images' continual becoming and consequentiality.

Taking Gries's previous work on rhetorical transformation with her current data activist project of documenting transformation reveals some interesting implications for how we might understand the relationship between transformation and agency in activist scholarship. Specifically, Gries's description above of the value of documenting these swastika incidents raises some interesting questions, chief among them being: if we (humans) are not the ones who create transformation—if the focus in activist projects is not on human agency—how can we understand our possibilities (or responsibilities) for fostering political/social change? The underlying question here is: how can new materialism accommodate scholarship-as-activism in our current socio-political-economic climate?

Steve Parks's account of Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ) offers another useful example of the relationship between transformation and agency in current activist scholarship. Like Gries, Parks foregrounds the network of actors that he is working within/against in order to create change. Gries describes wanting to create a "digital actant" that can contribute to political action, whereas Parks refers to STJ as a process of "activating a network" that consists primarily of people, but people bound by powerful institutional structures. Usefully, then, these two projects illustrate different degrees of uptake of a New Materialist orientation. Gries attends more to nonhuman agency while Parks takes a more traditional approach to who counts as an actor in activist work. However, both projects are designed to contribute explicitly to the transformation of material, social, and political conditions that affect human beings. For Parks, the work of transforming fake news into truths involves not only physically bringing people and resources together, but also attending to the continually fluctuating material, institutional networks in which these actors flow. This coming together allows STJ to, in turn, function as a node within a larger global network. While Parks does not adhere to a strict New Materialist stance in the same way that Gries does, his account of the STJ project does cohere with a New Materialist orientation to transformation as a continual process of becoming. As Parks argues, building community partnerships involves assembling a variety of actors (both human and non-human) over time to achieve change.

Our Legacy of Engaged Scholarship: Agency as a Catalyst for Transformation

In this response essay, I use "activist scholarship" and "scholarship-as-activism" interchangeably, so it may be useful to define the concept in order to understand where Gries and Parks fit, or diverge, from a broader legacy of engaged scholarship in our field. I use "activist scholarship/scholarship-as-activism" to refer to research, writing, and other forms of academic production that aim to contribute to some kind of social/political change in a community (whether that community is local, national, or global). As Ellen Cushman has argued in her oft-cited "The Rhetorician as an Agent of Social Change," this process involves using our specific, situated institutional positions and resources in the service of others (14). In rhetoric and writing studies, a significant portion of recent activist scholarship has fallen under the umbrella of "community engagement," a term that has been used to encompass service learning courses, community literacy projects, and participatory action research among other efforts. As we have increasingly turned our interests to community engagement, we have also developed certain habits of thinking about the relationship between transformation and agency. Specifically, we tend to assume a close, often causal relationship between agency and transformation: if we can empower individuals in communities to realize their agential potential, we can work with them to achieve the transformation of social/political/material conditions. While other strands of activist scholarship, such as institutional critique (Porter, et al.), focus more intentionally on the ways that material structures shape social relationships, a tendency has nevertheless developed in community engaged scholarship towards thinking about transformation primarily in terms of human agents. In other words, while activist scholars in our field are acutely aware of the complex range of material and immaterial factors in processes of social transformation, they tend to privilege human actors at the risk of obscuring the importance of non-human ones. Take the following quotes from prominent activist scholars for example:

Activism means accepting a civic duty to empower people with our positions, a type of leftist stealing from the rich to give to the poor. To empower, as I use it, means: (a) to enable someone to achieve a goal by providing resources for them; (b) to facilitate actions—particularly those associated with language and literacy; (c) to lend our power or status to forward people's achievement. (Ellen Cushman, "The Rhetorician as an Agent of Social Change" 14)
Perhaps the most compelling element for me of the approach we developed in Open Doors is the shift in focus from individual to collective improvements. This speaks to the last three principles of Alinsky's organizing approach; the shift honors the experience of disenfranchised people while it points toward greater independence for groups and individuals who must see themselves as agents of their own future rather than victims of their history. (Eli Goldblatt, "Alinksy's Reveille" 291)
[Action research] involves trained social researchers who serve as facilitators and teachers of members of local communities or organizations. Because these people together establish the AR agenda, generate the knowledge necessary to transform the situation, and put the results to work, AR is a par­ticipatory process in which everyone involved takes some responsibility. (Greenwood and Levin, Introduction to Action Research 7)

As the highlighted excerpts illustrate, transformation tends to be treated primarily as the outcome of an empowering relationship between people. In Greenwood and Levin's account of action research, for example, transformation is achieved via the interaction between community members and researchers—an interaction that "transform[s] the situation." The power of people to contribute knowledge and resources to solve problems and alter existing conditions is central to social transformation in this account. Goldblatt similarly insists on the importance of people seeing themselves "as agents of their own future," highlighting a belief shared by many activist scholars: the key to social transformation is the exercise of human agency. These scholars—and others who have followed in their footsteps—are of course attuned to the material conditions and the complex institutional, political, and social networks that their projects operate within, but they also prioritize human agency and see it as key to achieving the transformation of existing social and political conditions. Figure 1 presents one (admittedly simplistic) way of visualizing this approach to activist work. In this depiction, empowerment is the process through which an individual can realize and actualize their agential potential in order to achieve some kind of transformation. While structural conditions and material resources are integral factors in this process, these non-human variables are not granted the same status as human actors. In other words, this orientation acknowledges that structural conditions and available resources contribute to an individual's sense of and exercise of agency, but it would not see those structural conditions or resources as actors themselves. One potential benefit of a New Materialist approach to activist scholarship, as I discuss below, is its ability to raise the profile of other, non-human variables in processes of transformation.

empowerment visualization
A visualization of common understandings of engagement in activist scholarship.

New Materialist Activism: Agency—Transformation—Becoming

As Gries and Parks illustrate in their chapters, one of the unique strengths of a New Materialist approach to activist scholarship is that it can account for agency and transformation as the effects of continual processes of becoming. A New Materialist paradigm sees agency as an effect, not a pre-existing quality or possession; agency is brought about only through the intra-action of (non-human and human) actors. As Karen Barad explains, "agency is a matter of intra-acting; it is an enactment, not something that someone or something has. Agency cannot be designated as an attribute of 'subjects' or 'objects' (as they do not preexist as such). Agency is not an attribute whatsoever—it is 'doing'/'being' in its intra-activity" (826–827). Gries's account of agency in Still Life with Rhetoric illustrates this point as well, as she argues that "agency is a doing, an enactment generated by a variety of components intra-acting within a particular phenomenon" (57). Agency is therefore brought about by the coming together of actors in an entanglement.

Given that activist scholars in our field often talk about agency as a felt capacity of human beings to change the world around them, it may seem that a New Materialist approach is antithetical to activist scholarship. However, one valuable aspect of a New Materialist account of agency for scholarship-as-activism is that it emphasizes the constant state of relationship that characterizes the world in which we live. Gries's description of agency in Still Life with Rhetoric reflects this importance of relationship, particularly in her suggestion that "actancy" may be a more appropriate term than "agency," because "rhetoric always emerges from the relations and activities of mutually transforming entities within assemblages" (74). As actors/entities intra-act, agency is produced, and it is only through this intra-action that agency is produced. Rather than seeing agency as a quality or possession, a New Materialist orientation foregrounds agency as an effect of intra-action—the dynamic result of radical processes of becoming. These radical processes of becoming are what lead to transformation.

One metaphor for understanding this complex intra-activity is Andrew Pickering's description of the mangle, which he uses to illustrate that "the contours of material and social agency are mangled in practice, meaning [they are] emergently transformed and delineated in the dialectic of resistance and accommodation" (23). Susan Hekman also takes up Pickering's mangle metaphor, arguing that "what the mangle gives us is an image of how we are located in the world and how the elements of that world interact. . . . When I drive to work in my car (or, significantly, my SUV) I am in a mangle constituted by social, political, technological, biological, global, and a host of other elements" (25). We are always in the mangle, though the mangle is always changing, transforming through the intra-action that constitutes it. Pickering's metaphor (and Hekman's elucidation of it) is therefore helpful for visualizing the radical enactment and intra-activity that Barad describes. The mangle is constantly in a state of becoming, and through that becoming agency is continually produced. Figure 2, below, is my attempt at illustrating this understanding of agency. In Figure 1 (above), agency is seen as a possession or innate quality of humans. The gif below, on the other hand, shows agency as an effect of the intra-action of the actors in the phenomenon. Agency is thus depicted as a kind of cloud—a produced effect of the coming together of a range of actors. Crucially, this figure does not distinguish between human and non-human actors, hence my use of shapes to represent actors rather than anthropomorphized or non-anthropomorphized icons. Although particular shapes (actors) are foregrounded here, the wandering lines are indicative of the range of constantly fluctuating, sometimes elusive, actors in the mangle.

agency visualization
A visualization of agency based on Pickering's metaphor of the "mangle."

One thing we might learn, then, from a New Materialist account of agency and transformation is just how entangled we are with both human and non-human actors. The mangle metaphor can help us understand the highly complex networks that we participate in when entering into activist and community engaged projects. As Hekman argues, the mangle metaphor "illuminates the situation of human agents in the contemporary world in nearly every aspect of our existence" (25). If our goal is to help bring about the transformation of social-political conditions, we could benefit from a worldview that offers a more expansive understanding of becoming.

The question remains, though, what our own role and possibility for acting might be in such complex entanglements. If we cannot create transformation or help others realize some inherent agential potential, what can we do? One answer comes from the work of Karen Barad, who argues that because the world is in a constant state of becoming, we have a responsibility to participate in that becoming: "particular possibilities for acting exist at every moment, and these changing possibilities entail a responsibility to intervene in the world's becoming, to contest and rework what matters and what is excluded from mattering" (827). While we are not responsible for creating transformation, we do participate in the entanglements that contribute to its becoming.

In this sense, conceiving of activist projects from a New Materialist orientation offers a productive way to shift our focus and re-energize our activist efforts in a troubling political climate. Rather than talking about "enabling" or "empowering" communities or "creating" change, we might focus on the idea of entering into entanglements and understanding the relationships that continually contribute to the becoming of agency and transformation in various circumstances. We can use these ideas to better understand the human and nonhuman actors that we intra-act with in these projects. Finally, rather than treating transformation as a goal, we might attend to becoming, considering how the social and political conditions we are concerned with have come to be—how they have transformed over time, how they might continue to transform, and what we can contribute to that transformation. In making this shift, we may better understand the "conjoined material-discursive nature of constraints, conditions, and practices" (Barad 823), and in doing so, develop tools and networks that may intervene in these conditions.

Works Cited

  • Barad, Karen. "Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter." Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 28, no. 3, 2003, pp. 801–31.
  • Cushman, Ellen. "The Rhetorician as an Agent of Social Change." College Composition and Communication, vol. 47, no. 1, 2015, pp. 7–28.
  • Goldblatt, Eli. "Alinsky's Reveille: A Community-Organizing Model for Neighborhood-Based Literacy Projects." College English, vol. 67, no. 3, 2004, pp. 274–95.
  • Greenwood, D. J. and M. Levin. Introduction to Action Research: Social Research for Social Change. SAGE, 2006.
  • Gries, Laurie E. Still Life with Rhetoric: A New Materialist Approach for Visual Rhetorics. Utah State UP, 2015.
  • Hekman, Susan. The Material of Knowledge: Feminist Disclosures. Indiana UP, 2010.
  • Pickering, Andrew. The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency, and Science. U of Chicago P, 1995.
  • Porter, James E., et al. "Institutional Critique: A Rhetorical Methodology for Change." College Composition and Communication, vol. 51, no. 4, 2000, pp. 610–42.