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1: Introduction- Authorship and Agency

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    We are all authors of culture. When you fill out an application for employment or for an internship or for college, painting a picture of your accomplishments and your potential, you author culture. When you embrace or revise a family tradition or develop inside jokes with friends or post wry observations to social media, you author culture. When you work on an assignment for a writing course or any other class, or when you invest yourself in a passion project of your own or in a collaboration with others, or when you voice your perspectives about local or national policy, you contribute to the richness of social life in the various communities you interact with. You build culture. At times, we might be tempted to think of highly visible people—political leaders, popular musical artists, film celebrities, best-selling writers, protest movement organizers, social media influencers—as the true authors of culture. Certainly, figures like these are in a better position than most of us to promote particular ideas, values, or trends in ways that sway public opinion or perception at a large scale. Their prominence might reflect a complex blend of talent, labor, good fortune, and an ability to navigate systems of privilege and power. But at root, their authoring of culture is no different from ours, and our decisions about culture are crucial to determining who rises into high visibility and how much influence they exert. Well-known or not, we all create the culture we live in. All of our voices are integral to the ongoing process of generating culture. What you say matters. 

    Authoring Culture: Foundations of Twenty-First Century Writing is a resource for enriching your authoring of culture, for extending your ability to communicate with agency, a term that derives from the Latin verb agere, which translates as “to do” or “to take action.” Fields and professions ranging from psychology, economics, and law to theology and philosophy, among others, have developed concepts of agency that differ in detail but share a focus on action, either in service to someone else (consider a talent agent, an insurance agent, or even a secret agent) or, more commonly, on one’s own behalf. Even within fields, there is frequently debate over how exactly to define “agency” and over how precisely it operates. These differences often reflect varied perspectives on core questions. Some specialists debate the degree to which the capacity to act is inherent to us as individual people or conferred upon us by larger institutions such as governments or by wider social conventions. Others explore the extent to which agency relies upon rational decision-making or conscious intention on the part of individual actors: to what degree can we speak or act with agency if we are not completely certain what our aims are or if our choices result in unintended consequences? 

    Questions like these shape ideas about agency in Rhetoric and Composition as well. Marilyn Cooper offers one perspective, arguing that rhetorical agency “is based in individuals’ lived knowledge that their actions are their own,” even though agents “are very often not aware of their intentions…and the choices they make are not free from influence …” (421). At first glance, this model of agency might seem a little strange. According to Cooper, we do experience the power or authority to speak or act, yet we might not be fully aware of or in control of the meanings of our actions or their effects on the world around us. That lack of full awareness might appear to undercut agency rather than explain it. After all, how much power to speak do we really exhibit when our words are constrained by other forces or when we’re not entirely sure what we’re trying to accomplish? Taken from another perspective, however, Cooper’s model could foster our sense of agency in situations where we might not otherwise feel we have the capacity to act in our own interests. Her model frees us from having to understand all of our intentions. It allows us to write with agency even when we can see ways that our choices are affected by external circumstances, such as the expectations of the workplace, the conventions of professional practice, or the parameters of a writing assignment for class. Cooper encourages us to experience a measure of authority at moments we might otherwise be inclined to feel powerless. Claiming agency in moments like these can be a liberating and inspiring experience.

    Explorations of agency in other fields also have intriguing implications for considerations of authorship. Jonathan Newton is an economist, but his observations about agency blend productively with Cooper’s comments. Newton calls attention to two factors that potentially complicate our sense of how agency operates.  First, we often act not solely or even primarily as distinct individuals but as part of “collective entities” such as a workplace, a family, a faith community, a friend group, or other social bodies or organizations. These moments are not necessarily times when we knowingly sacrifice personal interests to community priorities. Rather, these are moments when we act out of a shared sense of purpose and significance, moments when we might not even be able to separate individual agency from the agency of the larger group. And second, Newton contends that we often act as what he calls “intra-human entities” or, less abstractly, as people with various and sometimes competing senses of our own selfhood. If Cooper notes that we are not always certain of our aims, Newton might suggest that our uncertainty reflects the conflict of rival goals and identities contending for voice within our writing selves. His perspective doesn’t automatically resolve those conflicts. However, it might offer us a way to think through our uncertainties, a framework for beginning to identify those conflicting identities and goals. The better we understand ourselves as we speak or write, the better position we’re in to speak and write effectively. 

    Consider how agency operates in this example from the webcomic xkcd, by Randall Munroe. The frame, titled “Angular Momentum,” features the characters Cueball, sitting on the bed, and Megan, twirling around the room. In response to Cueball’s puzzled question, Megan explains that she is generating a rotational force to counteract the angular momentum of the earth, slowing the spin of the planet and thereby lengthening the night so she can spend more time with Cueball. Stick figure drawing of two characters. Cueball is sitting on bed and Megan twirling.

    In principle, Megan’s thinking is correct, at least to a degree. The spin of any rotating object, even one as massive as the Earth, is affected by external forces applied to the object. Pressing one’s finger to a spinning desk globe demonstrates this principle in action: depending upon the magnitude of the downward pressure on the globe, it will gradually or almost immediately stop spinning. If one side of that globe faces away from a light source—a lamp across the room or sunlight shining through a window—it will indeed remain in darkness longer or even permanently as the spin of the globe decreases or stops. Its “night” gets longer. In practice, however, Megan’s efforts to extend the night are futile. The mass of the Earth and its rotational momentum are astronomically greater than that of a desk globe. No matter how vigorously Megan spins, her impact on the Earth’s rotation will be completely negligible. Neither she nor Cueball will experience any lengthening of the night. If her final aim is to have more quality time with Cueball, she would do far better by leaving off spinning and spending that time with Cueball instead. And as Munroe sardonically asks in the title text for the comic (visible by hovering the mouse over the frame on the xkcd site), would extending the night even be worth it if all that spinning left Megan feeling too dizzy and nauseous to enjoy her extra time with Cueball?

    Yet the impossibility of Megan attaining her stated goal of staving off the dawn does not mean she lacks agency in the comic. Her response to Cueball’s question powerfully expresses her intense wish to be with him, and it reveals her effort to apply her knowledge of physics to address the looming problem of their time together coming to an end with the rising of the sun. She understands enough of the relevant math to be aware that her best efforts will yield only the “tiniest” change in the Earth’s angular momentum, but it seems that, however immeasurably short, any extension of their time together is so valuable to her that she will do whatever it takes to achieve it. Megan’s capacity to shape her physical environment in her desired manner is inconsequential, but her communicative agency is quite impressive. Arguably, the fruitlessness of her actions intensifies the rhetorical power of her words. Her speech draws a direct line from her actions to her emotions, which she conveys both to Cueball and, indirectly yet just as powerfully, to those of us reading the comic. Munroe’s placement of her words in visual space breaks down her logic step-by-step and culminates in “with you” hanging in the air as Megan’s ultimate endpoint. In “Angular Momentum,” Munroe displays the curious contradictions identified by Cooper and Newman, foregrounding Megan’s communicative agency in a situation in which her actions are so outweighed by external forces as to appear pointless.

    Fortunately, writers need not face down the monumental force of the planet to exercise agency. In fact, you can enact authority in nearly any writing situation. Authoring Culture: Foundations of Twenty-First Century Writing explores a set of concepts you can draw upon to analyze a wide range of rhetorical situations, whether you are preparing to work on a writing assignment for class, completing a writing task at work, or writing out of personal interest or for social occasions: 


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    With these concepts in mind, you can approach your writing tasks as opportunities to expand your agency: in Cooper’s terms, to generate an awareness of speaking for yourself in the texts you compose. That self-awareness might take a number of forms. Using these concepts can help you more fully understand the contexts in which you write, thereby developing a better grasp not only of what others might expect of you but of how you can pursue your own goals and interests. For example, you might reevaluate values and perspectives you hold—not necessarily with the aim of changing them, although priorities can shift over time and context—but with the objective of better understanding how they relate to the issues you address in your text. You can use the concepts to examine the words or texts generated by other people, perhaps leading to new insights about their interests and concerns and opening the door to positive connections with people who had once seemed distant from your life or even opposed to your own priorities. These concepts might provide historical or cultural frameworks that enable you to view elements of your own experience in a new light, discovering connections between your life and the stories or concerns of others that you were not previously attuned to. Other concepts might help you recognize unexpected paths of resistance, opening possibilities for you to alter the world around you in ways that more fully reflect your values. And some concepts might encourage you to experiment with inventive modes of communication that provide compelling ways for you to express your voice. Whatever uses you put them to, these concepts can extend your ability to author culture by offering lenses through which you can view and participate in the rich variety of ways we write today.  

    When we highlight the authoring of culture “today,” in the twenty-first century specifically, we call attention to technological and cultural developments in recent decades that shape our everyday interactions and define the parameters in which we communicate. Most obviously, digital technologies, pioneered in the middle years of the last century, have become more capable, more affordable, and more portable than ever before. Digital divides remain, but many more people have much readier access to tools for authoring and distributing not merely words but images, video, sound, and a variety of compositions that blend multiple media forms, and we are increasingly accustomed to using a range of modes of communication in situations that, not so long ago, were primarily the domain of printed text. What we write, how we write, and why we write all change over time and across different contexts. One recent change is the emergence of so-called AI chatbots based on large language models, such as ChatGPT and Google Bard. We consider each of the concepts listed above in relation to this uncertain new technology. Another relatively recent development is the growing accessibility of 3D printing. While far from a common household technology at this time, 3D printing represents a fascinating new medium for rhetorical expression, one that could blend with written text, images, and other modes of communication in innovative forms of multi-modal text. We provide discussion of 3D printing in relation to several of the concepts included in this resource. In our coverage of all the concepts and in our attention to multi-modal writing and to newer technologies, we want to ensure that Authoring Culture: Foundations of Twenty-First Century Writing prepares you to compose texts for all the writing you are likely to do now and in the future, as students, professionals, and engaged citizens. Since it is impossible to know all the many ways writing will continue to evolve and change as you move forward in your lives, we focus on how to learn about writing rather than on particular writing conventions. No matter what kind of writing task you find yourself presented with in the future, we want to prepare you with the strategies, skills, and habits to meet the challenge successfully.

    Authoring Culture: Foundations of Twenty-First Century Writing is an open educational resource (OER) designed for use in college-level first-year writing courses, in other college courses that ask you to complete writing projects, and in a wide array of other situations, in or out of class, in which you would like to review or learn more about elements of writing—a personal project you’re working on, perhaps, or a proposal, report, or presentation you’re developing for your workplace. As an OER, Authoring Culture is distributed under a Creative Commons license, so it is freely available for you to use whether or not you are enrolled in a course that has adopted it as a class textbook. You are also free to modify it: you can add your own notes or new examples to the text; you can reword passages so that you understand them more readily; you can remove material you don’t find helpful or reorganize chapters in ways that better fit your habits of writing. You can even share Authoring Culture with others, in its original form or with your modifications, as long as you provide attribution to the original project authors in accordance with the Creative Commons license. Our aim in releasing Authoring Culture as an OER is to make it as accessible and useful for you as possible. 


    Works Cited

    Cooper, Marilyn M. “Rhetorical Agency as Emergent and Enacted.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 62, no. 3, 2011, pp. 420–49. JSTOR, Rhetorical Agency as Emergent and Enacted []

    Munroe, Randall. “Angular Momentum.” xkcd: A Webcomic of Romance, Sarcasm, Math, and Language, Angular Momentum []. Licensed under CC BY-NC 2.5.

    Newton, Jonathan. “Agency Equilibrium.” Games, vol. 10, no. 1, Mar 2019, Agency Equilibrium [].

    1: Introduction- Authorship and Agency is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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