Guess the Nonhuman: Review of Martin Crowley’s Accidental Agents

Guess the Nonhuman: Review of Martin Crowley’s Accidental Agents: Ecological Politics Beyond the Human

Margaryta Golovchenko

Under Review:
Accidental Agents: Ecological Politics Beyond the Human. Martin Crowley. Columbia University Press, February 2022.

It is perhaps more efficient to talk about Martin Crowley’s book Accidental Agents: Ecological Politics Beyond the Human in terms of what it is not. Based on the book’s title, it would not be unfair to assume that “beyond the human”, by dint of its proximity to “ecology”, would be the biological sort. However, the “beyond the human” of Accidental Agents is closer to the technical sort, such as drones and algorithms, which Crowley uses as examples. In the introduction, Crowley explicitly locates his project of distributed agency outside of new materialism and posthumanism, adding: “I am certainly not understanding agency as a sharp ontological distinction.” Nonhuman life is not the focal point in Accidental Agents so much as it is a participant in a more complex conversation that, Crowley suggests, must always involve the human. 

The goal of Accidental Agents is to conceptualize an alternative theory of agency, one that Crowly describes as an “antagonistic alliance”. Crowley envisions this as a network that is strengthened by the inclusion of participants who are ontologically different, not always human/humanoid nor even sentient. It facilitates a democratization of agency, where the concept of authorship as a form of decision-making is replaced by “plastic reading”. Crowley writes, “the plastic reader is not human. It is the location of an operation.” In other words, the subject does not make decisions on their own, but changes and is changed by their interactants, in an ongoing back-and-forth of metamorphosis.

Accidental Agents is a philosophical text that stays close to the work of three French philosophers: Bruno Latour, Bernard Stiegler, and Catherine Malabou. Each of the three chapters focuses on one philosopher. The chapter on Latour is spent discussing several of the philosopher’s concepts, of which cosmopolitics is the most important. Latour envisions cosmopolitics as a network of relationships connecting human and nonhuman life, which he considers necessary for building a more harmonious and communal world. Crowley uses cosmopolitics to consider how current debates on climate change create factions among people—most obviously,  whether one is a climate change denier, or fighting to save the planet while aligning oneself with more-than-human life.

In the next chapter, Crowley borrows Stiegler’s theory of the “processually immanent decision”, where a decision becomes a commitment through a string of events. Here, Crowley addresses the dehumanization of human beings when they become “data animals”, a resource to be exploited.

Chapter three features the work of Malabou, which is the most similar to Crowley’s conception of accidental agency. Crowley borrows the concepts of the “accident” and “plasticity” from Malabou and uses them to describe a state of individuality transcended, where responsibility rather than ego informs political decision-making. Malabou’s “accident” is very similar to the colloquial understanding of the term, but it is “plasticity” that has the power of disruption that we commonly associate with the accident. If the “accident” is the context in which change can occur, then “plasticity” indicates that change is possible, a change that is transformative rather than transcendental.

Crowley uses cosmopolitics to consider how current debates on climate change create factions among people—most obviously,  whether one is a climate change denier, or fighting to save the planet while aligning oneself with more-than-human life.

Between these three chapters are sections titled Horizon 1 and Horizon 2, which Crowley uses to think through the concepts of the preceding chapter. While each Horizon has a set of “objects”, —Forensic Architecture and algorithms, respectively—these are more of a starting point than a case study for close reading. Curiously, there is no Horizon 3 to cement the ideas of the Malabou chapter, only the conclusion, which Crowley uses to both summarize the discussion from each chapter as well as to emphasize that Malabou’s ideas come as close to an “answer” as we can get. 

These Horizon chapters are connected to my biggest struggle with, and in some sense even objection to, Crowley’s book: the applicability of the concepts. Accidental Agents is a dense book that is difficult to read, let alone summarize, if one is not adequately versed in the philosophical literature and language that form the backbone of Crowley’s arguments. Crowley makes it clear that he does not see the book as solely a philosophical thought experiment, to the point of emphasizing that he is not “arguing that political decisions are made just as well by train tracks and streams as they are by miners and millowners.” This positions Accidental Agents as distinct from texts like Jane Benett’s Vibrant Matter, which (per the implication) stay more in the realm of philosophical semantics. Rather, Crowley sees the need to make better distinctions between the different agents in distributed agency networks and to take advantage of said differences, which he suggests make for more informed policies.

This continued preoccupation with hierarchy and difference marks Accidental Agents’ continued stake in a Western way of looking and thinking “beyond the human.” At one point, Crowley disagrees with the idea that humans should act on behalf of other beings. Instead, Crowley considers humans and nonhumans, in whatever form they take, to exist in an alliance, with each member contributing to it in their own way. Such a declaration shows a lack of consideration for Indigenous cosmologies and ways of knowing, which emphasize alliances across states of being, without framing it as a hierarchical power dynamic. One need only look back to the 2016 protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline to see how the term “water protectors”, used by Indigenous communities, is starkly different from the language used by mass media in their coverage of the event.

The easy counter to this criticism is that Crowley’s book is working with and within a very specific philosophical tradition, that the book is about French philosophy and thus does not go outside of this limited scope. The problem with such a defense is that Crowley’s ideas dare to dream of a different, better world, one in which the centrality of some schools of philosophy can no longer be assumed. Accidental Agents is a piece in a giant puzzle, presenting ways of thinking that, while by no means insignificant, no longer stand alone in conceptualizing what an “antagonistic alliance” looks like.

Margaryta Golovchenko (she/her) is a settler-immigrant, poet, and critic from Tkaronto/Toronto, Treaty 13 and Williams Treaty territory. She is currently a Ph.D. student in the art history department at the University of Oregon and is researching the representation of human-animal relationships in 18th and 19th century French and British art. You can find her on Twitter.

Transparency Statement

This review was commissioned from an emailed pitch from ARB’s monthly listing. The author and editors were acquainted through previous ARB reviews. It was edited by Misha Grifka Wander and copyedited by Jake Casella Brookins. ARB arranged a review copy from the publisher.

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