Marilyn Cooper reminds us that in a postmodern world, intellectuals have constructed a new model of human beings as subjects. These new subjects “are assumed to be so fragmented that they are incapable of coherent intentions or actions, and agency is merely a position into which they are interpellated” (Cooper 423). For rhetoric to exist, however, and for rhetorical theory to be of any importance, individuals must possess agency. Cooper defines agency in terms of neurophenomenology; agents change their structure in response to the world around them and to the imagined potential results of their actions. Human beings assimilate into their surroundings but do so with unique intentions, goals and histories. In Cooper’s words, “individual agents are determinate, but not determined” (428). Agents can be responsible by listening to others in a mind that is open to new ideas, and recognize the fact that truths exist in minds other than one’s own.
Agency exists, and it is indeed necessary for rhetorical theory. Individuals act with particular intentions and goals as they assimilate into their surroundings, and when individuals come together to form groups they are, in some cases, able to exert rhetorical influence, even as “the system” works to minimize the effects of rhetorics that challenge the dominant ideology. The belief that 21st-century subjects are inherently fragmented informs scholarly arguments that suggest late capitalism is entrenched and utterly secure. I argue, however, that by unifying with other individual subjects to form collectives, by filling public spaces and pressuring politicians, and by speaking in a wide range of voices that span across the political spectrum, fragmented subjects are able to make coherent, effective rhetorical decisions.
As our postmodern subject position becomes increasingly apparent it is vital to examine the potential of poly-vocal rhetorics, and to strive for an understanding of the possibilities and limitations of collective agency. Rights of nature advocates employ a rhetoric that, while still very new, has shown itself to be an effective means of shifting discourse away from the dominant ideology of late capitalism and influencing important political decision-making processes.
Cooper, Marilyn. “Rhetorical Agency as Emergent and Enacted.” CCC 62.3 (2011): 420-444.