Posted by: Johan Normark | May 11, 2009

PA 5 – Polyagents and indexical polyagents

As mentioned in my latest post in this series, polyagency is a collection of intensive processes that lie in-between the virtual and the actual. It is a distributed agency that lacks an identity of its own, but it generates other identities through the becoming, both externally and internally. It is in the in-between where individuation takes place, where virtuality closes onto itself and forms an actualized boundary to what is external. Both polyagency and virtuality lack metric spatiality (space seen in Euclidean terms) and actualized/spatialized temporality. However, they both generate polyagents that are actual/extensive (Normark 2006). Thus, polyagency shares with the virtual the lack of a defined temporal and spatial location. Polyagency is a space without a space. If an artefact is broken, its polyagency is not broken. The polyagency has just differentiated and relates to two objects or actualizations that each have different tendencies, but that maintain the same original virtuality.

In the posthumanocentric terminology, actual entities/assemblages are also polyagents (entities with polyagency) which share similarities with Latour’s (1999) actants. Polyagents interact with each other and the way these actuals intersect with each other is also polyagency because the encounter generates becomings. The actual states of a causeway always fluctuate in its contours. The virtual tendencies of the causeway keep it united from the points of view of particular actual ideologies (more on these in another post): archaeologists see the causeway as an archaeological structure and road constructors see them as potential construction fill for new roads.

The actual is also the level of representations. Semiotics has played a substantial role in postprocessual archaeology. But there it is mainly dependent on the signifier. As such, it is problematic since Bergson sees the signs (such as Peirce’s icon, index, and symbol) as actuals, as something static. These are derived from the intellect’s freezing of the world and its focus on defining actuals. Signs relate to something other than themselves. The signs may therefore have particular meanings, but these meanings are most often not reachable in the archaeological record. Thus, traditional semiotics is a transcendent approach to materiality that relies on a hylomorphic model. Instead, Deleuze and Guattari (1988: 67) argue that the human agent is not a signifier, nor is she signified. The human agent is actualized. For them, the sign is “an element that triggers a material process in a properly attuned body” (Bonta and Protevi 2004: 141).

For Deleuze and Guattari (1987), the index is a territorial sign and hence corresponds with the polyagent. This indexical polyagent only needs the human agent to become reproduced (cf. Gell 1998). The idea of the distributed indexical polyagent is used to explain how a polyagents of certain forms and styles are reproduced. A collection of various distributed indexical polyagents forms a polyagentive œuvre that is unique for every locale or site. An œuvre is the total amount of indexical polyagents at a site or locale at a specific time.

The indexical polyagents, assemblages and œuvres are nested together in polyagentive networks of various spatio-temporal extents. The network also relates to non-indexical polyagents, what Schiffer (1999) calls externs (sun, moon, clouds, light, etc). The network has nodes that connect other networks at other spatial locations. The network is temporal and is constantly fluctuating and brings along virtualities from near and far to various nodes of the network. This polyagentive network is not symmetrical as suggested by “symmetrical archaeology” (Olsen 2007). The symmetry between “material agency” and human agency breaks down when it comes to intentionality. Pickering argues that human beings and machines (and in my view other material objects as well) are intertwined in a tuning process, but that there is no strict symmetry. Human beings have a planning capacity, set up goals and make plans whereas materiality does not. These plans emerge temporally but they transform in the encounters with materiality (Pickering 1995:17-18). Therefore, Pickering disagrees with Latour’s idea that there is symmetry between human beings and non-humans. For Latour there is no primacy between different forms of agents before the encounter (Bruun Jensen 2003b:230). Pickering rather suggests a dualism that is dependent on human intentionality. Human action often has future goals in view (Bruun Jensen 2003a:87). However, in archaeology we cannot know past humans’ goals, so the focus must be set on the assemblages where humans were constituent parts. It seems as if there is symmetry between humans and non-humans in posthumanocentric archaeology, but this is only because we lack sufficient data of the ancient humans.

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