The Paradox of Agency

A multi-description exploration of the Paradox of Agency in Complexity.

MJ 611/ 2021 

Complexity should be your excuse for inaction.

Harry August

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

This website is an exploration of the idea of the Paradox of Agency. Contributions will be continuously added below in alphabetical order. If you want to contribute, get in touch! Read more about this project. Receive a notification for new contributions by signing up to the newsletter.

Nora Bateson


Leadership Within the Paradox of Agency

In this era of multiple crises and global threats, I am increasingly uneasy with the call for leadership. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Rachel Carson, and other iconic figures are held up as examples of true leaders: they offered charisma, vision and strength enough to pioneer new eras of thought. The lack of such characters now, we are told, suggests a vacuum in our capacity to generate the old-school kind of hope for the future that these courageous individuals embodied. So where are the leaders of today? This is the question plaintively asked of today’s activists, scientists, politicians, and keepers of the moral fabric. 

I would like a moment to call bullshit. This thinking about leadership is not useful. There is no such thing as an isolated individual—we are all interdependent. Period. Our evolution is only in our mutual contribution and learning. Mutual. Leadership is an evolving process and, as such, our understanding of what leadership is must evolve in accordance. In the past the world understood leadership as the great deeds of heroes; now we are in another phase of global transition that requires an understanding of leadership based on our understanding of interdependency. [more]

To understand agency from a complexity perspective it is essential to engage with the other term with which agency is linked: structure. So a complexity take on agency necessarily is also a complexity take on structure. You can’t have one without the other as the old song used to say in more conventional days of love and marriage. The terms in social theory exist necessarily at a level of abstraction and we need to address them in that way. However, abstraction is never enough – we need instantiation – concrete examples which demonstrate how things actually are in the world in which we live. Abstraction is a tool of philosophy and philosophers in the meta-physical tradition have certainly engaged with agency, although in doing so they have forgotten Locke’s insistence that philosophers are the under-labourers of science. Their job is to tidy up around the work of the craftspeople. Much of recent philosophical engagement has been poorly, if at all, informed by social theory and social reality. So what we are going to do here is to begin with a discussion of agency and structure from a complexity perspective at a level of abstraction, and in so doing say some rather rude (but accurate) things about meta-physicians’ take on them. Then we will turn to an instantiation, one derived from our own lived experience and the lived experience of our own families in the era of the Capitalocene. In the context of an emergent possible climate catastrophe – to say possible is very important because agency is what will make a difference here – the issue of how we move beyond a world based on the human use of stored carbon energy is the fundamental issue facing humanity on the only planet we have.  [more]

Nitzan Hermon


When comparing different kinds, we must go to the general before linking the specifics. We can't compare a chair to an apple, or two people, without first going into our intuition and cognitive bucketing of both.

In the process of comparing, we must go into a nonlinguistic, intuitive place. When we go into the general, we leave the detailed experience and go into our heads. Generalization is an embodied action; it is deploying to our intuition. The minute we leave bits and atoms, ambiguity and creativity appear. [more]

A project of Marcus Jenal.
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