Structure and Agency

a video of a women going up stepsI saw an interesting video the other day, of a woman, Amy Tso, who has climbed the “Grouse Grind” over 900 times — a challenging 3 km hike up a mountain in British Columbia that includes nearly 3,000 stairs and which takes about two hours to climb.

At the 58 second point of the video she comments, “Usually we go around this step,” while we see her walking by a rock ledge that’s just a little higher than most tired hikers would like — “save more energy,” she then adds.

There’s surely no better example of the manner in which the things we know as structure and agency are intertwined, is there? For we know that the stairs (i.e., structure) were carved by someone who surely had a plan in mind (i.e., agency) — in fact, I have no doubt that it was an elaborate team of someones, over a considerable length of time, each surely with their own reasons and goals, likely not all working at the same time, but who collectively produced a single staircase of compromises and negotiations between them all (though probably someone wore the white hardhat and gave orders, no?, introducing notions of hierarchy and power into our understanding). It’s a structure comprised of newly carved elements, of course, but also includes some creatively re-purposed features (i.e., roots happening across the area that became the path (thereby introducing happenstance and accident into our understanding). So the staircase is itself a nice example of how the words “structure” and “agency” actually identify the same thing, each naming features important to, singled out by, the the one doing the naming.

But then add to this the hiker with a plan of her own, the user of this structure, the one immersed in it, the one who was merely a figment of the creators’ imaginations, and we see a system continually re-invented, reinforced, and even subverted by repeated users who, voila!, have made a step where there previously wasn’t one, thereby bypassing the design, and through their repeated use of this little work-around have authorized it as but one more element of a structure that it originally was meant to undermine.

Ain’t that kind’a like how any structure — say, language — works too?

“Of course there are times that, you know, I get tired of the steps or bored of it, then I switch it up.”

– Amy Tso, Queen of the Grouse Grind.


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