Explore with your body
Material Agency-Agentic World

Material Agency-Agentic World

Material Agency | Agentic World

I didn’t feel comfortable wearing the ceremonial get-up. There were too many layers –underwear, corset, camisole, mid-layer, shell layer, dress and belts. It hindered my movement. I couldn’t get on my bike and had to shuffle around, walking taking tiny steps because the fabric around my legs was wrapped too tight. My actions were strained and unnatural. I would rather be free to move as I please! For similar reasons, I switched from wearing high heels to flats.

Fashion is so prolific that we overlook how it shapes how we contextualise ourselves in the world. Our modern lives are filled with things, but the most intimate relationship we have are the ones we have with clothes. We pick up and discard other objects as we need them. But clothes are literally attached to our bodies most of the day. Yet, we still look at clothes as serving our needs, sheltering us from the environment or protecting our modesty.  But they actually exercise a particular type of control over us as, they guide and restrict our movements as well as our physiological responses.

Our clothes have the capacity, condition, or state of acting or of exerting power. In social sciences, this ‘power’ is called ‘material agency’[1]. The ‘power’ does not have to be big and could be something as trivial as your underwear riding up or the wool of your sweater scratching your skin. However, it is essential to focus on the role the material plays in affecting our lives.

Fashion is something we interact with every day through the ritual of dressing our bodies in clothes. Fashion is also about cultural phenomenon, society, workers, industry, knowledge, power, hierarchical systems, colonialism, nature, agriculture, pollution, and regeneration.To me, fashion is the ideal transformative medium to subvert an era of human exceptionalism and recuperate our relationship with the world, other species and things that we have lost.

The poem is a villanelle, an ancient form of French poetry, and there are many rules to adhere to. A villanelle should have 19 lines; five stanzas of three lines (tercet) each and a final stanza of four lines (quatrain). As you can see from the rhyme scheme; ABA ABA ABA ABA ABA ABAA, this type of poem only has two rhyming sounds. Furthermore, line one is repeated in lines 6, 12 and 18; and line three is repeated in lines 9, 15 and 19. It was quite a challenge to write a meaningful poem with repeating lines! I had to rewrite it a few times for it to make sense.

The poem attempts to contextualise philosophical conjectures like agency and relationality. Understanding the intricate network of interconnectedness could make humans sensitive to the nuances of other intelligent cosmologies. In such a hybrid existence, clothes are not passive objects but active actors and events. It is a world where we think through relations and are sensitive to the power clothes exert. We acknowledge clothes’ agency and the potentiality in the materiality of their threads. We understand how clothes communicate and affect us. It is a universe where clothes are not frivolous and disposable.

The material turn has been called a paradigm shift in the humanities and focuses on what has been made most passive: matter. – Fox, N., & Alldred, P. (2019). New Materialism. [Online]. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/320016117_New_Materialism. Accessed: 18 May 2022.

Is intentional agency only a humanistic quality?

Our relational notion needs to transcend.

According to Merleau-Ponty, there is no hard separation between bodily conduct and intelligent conduct; rather, there is a unity of behavior that expresses the intentionality and hence the meaning of this conduct. In habits, the body adapts to the intended meaning, thus giving itself a form of embodied consciousness.
I quote Maurice Merleau-Ponty from The Visible and the Invisible says: “Visible and mobile, my body is a thing among things; it is caught in the fabric of the world, and its cohesion is that of a thing. But, because it moves itself and sees, it holds things in a circle around itself. Things are an annex or prolongation of my body; they are incrusted in its flesh, they are part of its full definition” 

Merleau-Ponty, M., Lingis, A., & In Lefort, C. (1968). The visible and the invisible: Followed by working notes

Nothing is static; materials also exert a dynamic potentiality.

“If materials are not just static bits of matter waiting for someone to do something to them, but are always already in the midst of becoming something else, then materials have their own vitality and we find ourselves participants in an active world of lively materials. How might we use the movements of one material to
open up possibilities within other materials, allowing objects, things, or or bodies to suggest new relations through movements?”I learned a great deal about agency from this keynote session.

Kummen, K., Pacini-Ketchabaw, V., Blaise, M. & Taylor, A (2020) Common World Pedagogies: Interview Part 3. Video-recorded zoom keynote panel session. North Shore Early Childhood Conference: To Learn, To Wonder. Vancouver. (25/26 September). [Youtube]. Available at: https://youtu.be/PVxdSvsldCA

Bodies and things have different rhythms and intensities.

Joint participants in a world with endless movement.

“But what if the human role in shaping materials is not as central as we believe? What if materials shape us as much as we shape them? How might we experience materials differently if we acknowledge them as joint participants in our interactions with them? What happens when we choose to see materials, not as lifeless objects, but as events? How might a shift in perspective on materiality—including our own—change how we interact with materials, with young children, and with other educators?” 
Pacini-Ketchabaw, V. Kind, S. Kocher, L. Wapenaar, K. Kim, B. (2014). Material Encounters. Capilano University IDEA program.

Is intentional agency only a humanistic quality?

Not immutable, passive, or lifeless to our activities.

“Neil Postman has reinterpreted McLuhan’s aphorism that ‘the medium is the message’ as meaning that ’embedded in every tool is an ideological bias, a predisposition to construct the world as one thing rather than another, to value one thing over another, to amplify one sense or skill or attitude more loudly than another’” (Postman 1993, p. 13).” – Daniel Chandler references to Niel Postman in his paper.
Postman, N. (1993): Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Vintage.
Chandler, D. (1995). Visual Memory. [Online]. Available at: http://visual-memory.co.uk/daniel/Documents/short/process.html. Accessed: 11 November 2021.

Materials’ movement is only stifled by our measurement

It also suggests that the act of observing, of measuring, a quantum system has a profound effect on the system. The question of exactly how that happens constitutes the measurement problem of quantum mechanics.
 Marianne. (19 November 2020). Physics in a minute: The double slit experiment. University of Cambridge. [Online]. Available at: https://plus.maths.org/content/physicsminute-double-slit-experiment-0. Accessed: 27 April 2022.

Nothing is static; materials also exert a dynamic potentiality.

“The clothes could be the body and the body could be the clothes”. Rei Kawakubo, a designer whose renegade creations have never accepted the body as a limitation, tackled cultural tropes of female body image and its connection to clothing in her Spring/Summer 1997 collection, titled “Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body” – widely remembered as the “lumps and bumps” collection. Pandering to the popularity of padding in the 80s and 90s she subverts its conventional application (to accentuate the female form), and rather uses it to effectually distort the body. The clothes are therefore shaping the body rather than having clothes being subservient to the body. Reimaginings of these salacious outfits were later used in a performance, Dance Works III, by famed choreographer Merce Cunningham. 

Carpenter, B. (2012). Dance Works III: Merce Cunningham / Rei Kawakubo. [Online]. Available at:  https://walkerart.org/calendar/2012/dance-works-iii-merce-cunningham-rei-kawakubo. Accessed: 02 April 2022.

Kith narrowly contextualised within rational or functional properties.

Kith refers to well known and intimate people and things in our lives. It is a term I learned by watching Donna Haraway: story telling for earthly survival. We learn about Donna Harraway’s trickeries and situated positionalities which offer a rich and dense understanding of partial ways of knowing, and self-reflexivity. She discusses how we should be at odds with and alliance with the different constituents that comprise our life. Biogenetics alone does not denote relations. “We should make kith not only kin”, she says and discusses to importance of companion species in her life. I think we can extend the concept of kith to the material world. I know I have loved my wardrobe more than most of my partners. 

Donna Haraway: story telling for earthly survival. DVD video. Brooklyn, NY : Icarus Films, 2017.

Breathability, weight, drape, durability, softness, construction, water-repellent.

See N.A. (N.A). Fabric Properties. Contrado Imaging Ltd. [Online]. Available at: https://www.contrado.com/fabric-properties

Is intentional agency only a humanistic quality?

Animate vs inanimate are deeply rooted cultural binaries.

“Traditional academic disciplines attempt to fit the practices of everyday life into frameworks which are primarily sociocultural, psychological, linguistic or technological. But those who seek to explore processes of mediation must attempt to move as readily as possible between such interpretative frames”. 

Chandler, D. (1995). Visual Memory. [Online] At: http://visual-memory.co.uk/daniel/Documents/short/process.html. Accessed: 11 November 2021.

Let affordances be understood as not compliant objects but as events.

 ‘…to a theory of visual perceiving proposes that “affordances” are among the properties of environmental things that an animal perceives.’ 

Gibson, James, J. (1979), The theory of affordances: The ecological approach to visual perception. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. [Online]. Available at: https://monoskop.org/images/c/c6/Gibson_James_J_
. Accessed: 31 March 2022.

Nothing is static; materials also exert a dynamic potentiality.

Hussein Chalayan and Damien Jalet co-produced Gravity Fatigue, a transformational  performance combining the visual creativity of Chalayan’s with contemporary dance choreographed by Jalet. Starting with the clothes, the garments became the grammar for the dance, intervening in the process of and flow; the performers acted as conduits moving with the materials’ own inclinations. The clothes constricted certain natural movements or sometimes suspended bodies in the air. There were also instances where the clothes just engaged with the floor. 

Chalayan, H & Jalet, D. (2015). Gravity Fatigue. [Online]. Available at: https://damienjalet.com/project/gravity-fatigue/. Accessed: 22 March 2022.

Let’s notice how they live, participate and gesture in their own ontology.

Thing-power ! Intra-acting in vibrant social-ecological environments.

[1] Jane Bennet coins the term ‘thing-power’ in her paper. 

[2] Intra-action is a Baradian term used to replace ‘interaction,’ which necessitates pre-established bodies that then participate in  action with each other. Intra-action understands agency as not an inherent property of an individual or human to be exercised, but as a dynamism of forces (p. 141). 

[1] Bennet, J (2004). The Force of Things: Steps toward an Ecology of Matter. [Online]. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1177/0090591703260853. Acc

[2] Barad, Karen. (2007). Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham: Duke University Press. [Online]. Available at: https://newmaterialism.eu/almanac/i/intra-action.html. Accessed: 10 April 2022.essed: 9 April 2022.

Is intentional agency only a humanistic quality?

Nothing is static; materials also exert a dynamic potentiality.