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Common Knowledge 9.1 (2003) 167-168
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Margaret Archer, Being Human: The Problem of Agency (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 323 pp.
Being Human is a volume that can be read independently or as the third panel in a triptych that includes Archer's earlier works, Culture and Agency (1988) and Realist Social Theory (1995). Archer describes herself as a "social realist," which means that she resists the "dissolution of humanity" implied by postmodern theorists' penchant for reducing all human capacities to "gifts of society" or products of social discourse. "A convincing social constructionist account of a broken leg," she writes, "has never been encountered." She insists therefore that humans engage a reality that is not reducible to consciousness or to language, and she insists that human agency emerges precisely from the practical order of irreducible human concerns. One of the most successful sections of the book is her discussion of the emotions as embodied commentaries on these concerns, which [End Page 167] are neither given by nature nor imposed by language but rather are emergent in human experience. The self may not be sovereign, as so many modernist accounts held, but neither is it merely "a face etched in the sand, washed away by the tide." The importance of Being Human is that it shows how this assertion must be true even for writers like Foucault who claim otherwise, and that it endeavors to point a way forward through the impasse.
Don Seeman is lecturer in anthropology and an Alon Fellow at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the author of several articles on the sociopolitical contexts of infectious disease and on the cultural phenomenology of suffering and violence.