Languaging, Agency and Biodynamical Engines

A short manifesto

What is an agent? What is distinctive about human agency? What role does language play in the making of human agents? How does languaging inhibit or enhance the capacity of persons to be agents? What role does languaging play in how we become human agents? How does agency relate to bodily feelings? How is it constrained and/or enabled by second-order moral codes and conventions? What forms of agency – human and non-human – are possible in the extended human ecology? How do we enact our agentive capacities in languaging behaviour? How can the distributed view of ‘language’ contribute to our understanding of these and other questions?

All of these questions are of interest to the Distributed Language (DL) community, and in response to the it makes a number o distinctive claims, briefly outlined in the next paragraph.

On the distributed view of language, agents are defined relationally in terms of an agent-environment system with its dynamical properties and capacities. Specifically with respect to the distributed view of languaging, persons exploit pico-scale bodily dynamics to coordinate their actions both with other persons and with selected aspects of their physical, social and cultural environments (see, for example, Steffensen, Thibault, & Cowley 2010, Thibault 2011). First-order languaging is grounded in, and feeds off, the dynamical properties of bodily events on very rapid time-scales of the order of fractions of seconds to milliseconds. This aspect of human languaging is specific to the DL view and represents a decisive difference with respect to all other currently available theories of language. These other theories are based on abstract formal patterns (for example, phonology grammar, syntax, and discourse). Underpinning the dynamics of first-order language is a feeling economy which Susan Stuart has identified in her work with the term ‘enkinaesthesia’ (2010, 2011a & 2011b).

Enkinaesthesia refers to the reciprocal affective neuro-muscular dynamical flows and muscle tensions that are felt and enfolded between co-participating agents in dialogical relation with one another. The anticipatory dynamics of this feeling can be experienced through both direct and indirect touch, being physically touched, your perception of others perceiving you, and the way language, as a biodynamical engine, can affect, for example, the body’s biochemistry and blood pressure. Moreover, these enkinaesthetic dialogical-relations are the preconceptual experientially recursive temporal dynamics which form the deep extended melodies of relationships-in-time.

Some relevant questions for discussion, debate, and further research

Building on these insights and the bringing together first-order languaging dynamics and enkinaesthesia, there are many important issues and questions which need to be explored and discussed. These include, but are not limited to:

  1. What is the relationship between felt enkinaesthetic melodies and the dynamical properties and capacities of persons in first-order languaging?
  2. How does this relationship affect the possibilities of dialogically coordinated agency between persons in interaction?
  3. How do we distinguish and relate agents, persons, and selves?
  4. How are such properties and relations used to enact recognizable forms of human agency in the human ecology?
  5. What is special about this ecology that enables distinctively human forms of agency to arise?
  6. How does human agency differ from other forms of agency, e.g. in non-human worlds?
  7. How does it give rise to a shared sense of embodied agents in interaction in ways not available to form-based accounts of language?
  8. How does the feeling body and felt enkinaesthetic melodies between persons in relations of reciprocity and community contribute to and modulate the interactions between situated agents and their worlds?
  9. How do feelings and first-order dynamics become interpreted in meaningful ways as patterns that make sense to interactants (and observers) and intelligible behaviour in the human ecology?
  10. How can first-order dynamics modulate and alter feeling   states of persons in ways that affect agency?
  11. How do multiple constraints on pico-scale bodily dynamics lead to the normative evaluations that relate to what Goffman (1963) called the ‘interaction order’?
  12. How do these normative evaluations relate to cultural constraints deriving from historical traditions?
  13. How can these patterns and their interpretation under normative, value-driven constraints orient the decisions and actions of agents?
  14. How do babies, robots, and bonobos pick up and learn to respond to detect and respond to norms in interactive events in the human ecology?
  15. How does the DL view of languaging differ from rival accounts founded, for example, on notions such as heterophenomenology, intersubjectivity, structural coupling, participatory sense-making, coaction? What are the relevant differences between these views and the areas of dialogue and debate with the DL view?
  16. Given that linguistic interactivity between persons and between persons and their worlds, regulates thinking, acting, feeling, how does interactivity enable us to rethink agency in the DL perspective?
  17. According to the DL view, languaging integrates biology, social practices, artefacts, technologies, and cultural values and patterns. What, then, does the DL view contribute to our thinking about agency?
  18. How can it help us to rethink the role of languaging and interactivity in particular domains of social practice (e.g. health, education, organisations) where these questions and insights might be applied in ways that can help to improve our understanding of the human condition?
  19. What are the implications and consequences of the DL view for the ways in which humans interact with non-human agents and agencies? What forms of relationships do human agents form with these both for good and for bad?
  20. How does human agency connect us to and affect the here-and-now and the beyond? How are agents affected by these? Do we understand the connections?
  21. How do agents leave their mark, make a difference, and what is the signature of these marks?

Invitation to join the research cluster

The main aim of this cluster is to move our understanding of these very pertinent issues forward. So, if you share our interest in these questions and would like to participate in our community, we encourage your to join our cluster, and contribute to its activities and discussion.

We have already run three very successful symposia on these issues in 2009 at the University College Volda, Norway, organised by Stephen Dougherty, in February 2010 at the University of Glasgow, UK, organised by Susan Stuart, and in October 2010 at the Herzen State Pedagogical University of Russia, Saint Petersburg, Russia, organised by Nataliya A. Abieva. The 2009 conference was entitled “Beyond Constructivism”, the March 2010 “Expression, Engagement, Embodiment: The Ecology of Situation Transcendence”, and the October 2010 “The Status of Language in Human Cognition and Communication”.

Cluster Members

Nataliya Abieva, Lecturer, Foreign Language Department, Herzen State Pedagogical University of Russia

Stephen Cowley, Senior Lecturer in Developmental Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire, United Kingdom and an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

Sune Vork Steffensen, Associate Professor, Institute of Language and Communication, University of Southern Denmark

Susan A. J. Stuart, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Glasgow

Paul J. Thibault, Professor, Linguistics and Media communication, Agder University College, Kristiansand, Norway


Steffensen, S. V., Thibault, P. J. & Cowley, S. J. (2010) “Living in the social meshwork:            207 the case of health interaction”, in Signifying Bodies: Biosemiosis, Interaction and Health, pp.207-44, ISBN 978-972-697-191-7.

Stuart, S. A. J. (2010) “Enkinaesthesia, Biosemiotics and the Ethiosphere”, in Signifying Bodies: Biosemiosis, Interaction and Health, pp.305-30, ISBN 978-972-697-191-7.

Stuart, S. A. J. (2011a) “Enkinaesthesia: the fundamental challenge for machine consciousness”, International Journal of Machine Consciousness, 3 (1), pp. 145-62.

Stuart, S. A. J. (2011b) “Enkinaesthesia: the essential sensuous background for co-agency”, in: Radman, Z. (ed.) The Background: Knowing Without Thinking, Palgrave Macmillan.

Thibault, P. J. (2011) “First-Order Languaging Dynamics and Second-Order Language: The Distributed Language View”, Ecological Psychology, 23 (3) pp.1–36.

Cluster Coordinators

Susan Stuart |

Paul Thibault