Making History : Agency, Structure, and Change in Social Theory – Callinicos

Callinicos, Alex. Making History: Agency, Structure, and Change in Social Theory. Boston: Brill Academic Publishers, 2004. Print.

Callinicos discusses the nature of intentionality which not only requires an agent but which is future-focused. For there to be intent, there must also be someone to act with intent and to do so with beliefs and desires he/she feels will bring the intent about. Additionally, as they act, they are driven by the desire to see their intent realized. In Callinicos’ words intent is ” action guided by a goal that is absent, not-yet-realized, merely imagined or represented” (60).  When a being uses the most effective means to bring about the results of their intent, they can be described as acting rationally (62). Frequently, however, Callinicos observes that actions, rather than the agent carrying them out, are giving moral descriptors i.e. an act was “good” or “bad.” It is the agent, however, that has the belief, desires, and intent and therefore it is the agent who should be ascribed qualifiers rather than the act itself (67). In this way, our actions are reflections of our intent, or as Foucault may put it, our actions turn us into subjects (72-73). Callinicos is careful, however, to make clear that he is not endorsing “an epistemology in which the subject is the foundation of knowledge or the source of meaning” but rather where the subject is the “centre capable of initiating action, rather than as bundles of drives and desires constructed within social relations” (89).

Of particular interest to me, is Callinicos’ concern with agents as the focus of an actions moral/ethical/intentional quality over action as the focus. This runs in opposition to Nietzsche’s argument in The Genealogy of Morals that “there is no ‘being’ behind doing, effecting, becoming; ‘the doer’ is merely a diction added to the deed – the deed is everything.” Yet, as Butler points out, “Without an agent, it is argued, there can be no agency and hence no potential to initiate a transformation of relations of domination within society.” It is these opposing foci of agent/agency that games make so apparent. Also of importance for me is the use of rationality, which Callinicos argues is commonly the default mode of acting with intent. Rationality for him is the “most efficient means of achieving a given end.” While this argument is logical in most day-to-day undertakings, I question whether this concept of rationality is visible in games, especially those that highlight narrative “choice.” A common error, it seems to me, in these systems is to confuse rational choice – of that which is the most efficient way to bring about a goal – with intentional quality. In other words, games frequently bifurcate actions to two choices, and then ascribe quality to those actions. Those actions then stand in judgment for the agent, or become synonymous with the agent. Thus rational choices that bring about a desired end may reflect poorly on the subject despite the failure of the system to give them more freedom to act with intent.

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