What is an agent?

by Neil

Spendy talks here about Goffman’s ecological model, and first of all let me say it’s an extremely valuable compression, but it also puts me in mind to get out ahead of some of the problems we had in TIS S1. For those of you just joining us, let’s just say that somebody (I won’t name names) kept insisting that all communication is manipulation,” and boy oh boy, people didn’t like that!

Now when you see all this talk about organisms perpetrating manipulation” and espionage,” you start to get a picture of interaction where people are either sociopaths or Death Note characters, and since most of us are neither, this picture can be pretty unattractive. One way to revise the picture: what if people are not just one agent? Or, as Nick Greer puts it, what if the idea that no two organisms are ever perfectly aligned” continues to be true even within a single human organism?

To be clear, I am 100% stealing this from Freud. Throughout his work, he considers many different ways to slice and dice human psychology into multiple agencies, or at any rate, multiple things that can be treated like agencies. For a simple and early example, in The Interpretation of Dreams, he talks about a censoring agency” that prevents certain thoughts from rising from the unconscious layer to the conscious layer. In places, he takes the metaphor of a separate agency pretty far, to the point of comparing it to a literal government agency:

The censorship acts exactly like the censorship of newspapers at the Russian frontier, which allows foreign journals to fall into the hands of the readers who it is its business to protect only after a quantity of passages have been blacked out.

Now, he is clear elsewhere that this censoring agency” is a useful abstraction — i.e., he does not actually believe there is a little dude in there with a black pen — but abstraction or no, this gives one example of an ecological account of psychology, where the same dynamics seen at organizational scale might go all the way down.