Agency work


In a washed-out pasta sauce jar on our kitchen counter, I watch as a monarch caterpillar morphs into a chrysalis. I stand here in utter astonishment, refusing to blink for fear of missing a single second. When it’s all over, what had once been a caterpillar is now a self-contained, lime-green, acorn-shaped encasement hanging from a single silken thread. The whole process leaves me speechless and yet I’m moved to write about this mysterious, almost magical event, a literal encapsulation of one of nature’s finest feats, a miracle that in six decades on this planet I’d yet to witness with my own eyes.

But first I have to make sure that I’m spelling chrysalis correctly and so I quickly grab my phone to double-check and while I’m there I’m invited by the device to view photos I’d taken five years earlier. How can I resist, what with that one tantalizing photo icon of a shimmering sunset on Little Traverse Bay offered as a teaser?

So I find myself accepting the invitation to go down that memory lane and while there I get an urgent warning from my phone that my Google Drive is running dangerously low, that a number of my phone’s key functions will fail to operate properly unless I purchase additional memory.

By this point I’m frankly trying to remember what it was that I was doing before all this photo-teasing and fear-mongering began.

Our moments and our days and really much of our lives are governed in large measure by the agency we bring to our existence— that volitional energy that’s driven and propelled by our own wants, needs, interests, longings and desires. Yet we find ourselves inundated like never before by ever-expanding, multi-tiered marketing efforts in which time is money and therefore the more of our time that a phone (a site, a social-media post, etc.) is successful in procuring, the weaker our own personal agency becomes.

At the present time it appears that agency is in need of increasing amounts of muscularity if it is to do its job at directing our lives in the manner in which we ourselves choose, so that we’re able to devote our time and attention to activities and purposes that feel meaningful—be it a white paper, a work of art, a community garden, a blog post or a pleasant disposition following a self-permitted nap. Perhaps the muscle that agency needs will only come from resistance. Similar to resistance machines at the gym, we strengthen our agency by resisting the pings, pangs, pops, dazzling distractions and disproportionate warnings delivered by our devices while remaining grounded as much as possible in the real world, with living creatures, the no-legged, two-legged, four-legged and beyond.

In How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, artist, writer and Stanford University professor Jenny Odell offers this:

In the long meantime, as I sit in the deep bowl of the Rose Garden, surrounded by various human and nonhuman bodies, inhabiting a reality interwoven by myriad bodily sensitivities besides my own—indeed, the very boundaries of my own body overcome by the smell of jasmine and just-ripening blackberry—I look down at my phone and wonder if it isn’t its own kind of sensory-deprivation chamber. That tiny, glowing world of metrics cannot compare to this one, which speaks to me instead in breezes, light and shadow, and the unruly, indescribable detail of the real.


As for muscular agency in the real world, this lovely creature shows me how it’s done. I watch as she clings to the stick that lifts her out of the jar. With unwavering determination she begins to move her wings, tentatively at first and then with fuller motion and momentum. She falls to the ground more than once but continues onward, eventually gaining lift-off in her first few low-altitude flights, then a few more and now full throttle into the neighbor’s yard and then with remarkably insufficient fanfare she’s gone. I’ve been video recording all the while but I eventually come to my senses and put down my phone.

Some memories are better in analog.