The problem of agency in literature of the 1960s Europe

Is the human an autonomous agent, a cog in the wheel or something in between? Views of human agency are defined differently throughout history, influenced by among other the technological development that simultaneous increase and decrease individual agency. This research project examines how human agency is dealt with in literary works from the 1960s Europe, to detect changing conditions for the human agent in the early information age.

A posthuman mediated agent

The historical approach in this project is motivated by theoretical discussions of agencies in contemporary theory, among them perspectives often categorized as posthuman (Kathrine Hayles, Jane Bennett, Donna Haraway) or nonmodern (Andrew Pickering, Bruno Latour). One of our key challenges today, they argue, is to start understanding human agency as distributed, and reject the idea of action as something performed by autonomous individuals. Such theories resonate well with experiences in contemporary society: Daily we learn how decisions we are making and the actions we are performing are more and more intertwined, not just with other people, but with technological devices, databases, machines, and – in the age of the Anthropocene – with nature.

Literature and agency in the 1960s Europe

How was the problem of agency discussed in the 1960s Europe? A thesis from the French philosopher Gilbert Simondon argue that humans have created technological individuals in the 20th century, that occupies the place of the individual acting human, forcing humans to take the role of mere supervisors. This rejection of the individual human agent, and many other ideas on agency formulated around 1960, is read alongside literature and aesthetic experiments from the same decade. While benefitting from theoretical perspectives from media theory, but also philosophical discussions on agency from G. W. F. Hegel to Christoph Menke, this study is focused on literature, and explores how narratives and aesthetic reflections deal with the question of agency. Stress is on literature from Scandinavia, France and Germany, among others works by Nathalie Sarraute, Nils Leijer, Inger Christensen, Herbert Franke, Sven Åge Madsen and Finn Alnæs.

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