rector, actor, other (oh and also…modernity)

The following is a guest post by Isaac Ariail Reed and sketches the framework from his new book, “Power in Modernity: Agency Relations and the Creative Destruction of the King’s Two Bodies.”

A recurrent feature of game-theoretical economics, political science and sociology is the principal-agent problem. Many phenomena in the social world can be described in terms of the (various) theories of principals and agents. Want to understand how Southwest Airlines broke into the industry? Why presidents do not exit losing wars? Why it was an advantage for Kennedy in his standoff with Khrushchev to have a “rogue” general who favored nuclear war? Why corruption is not only a collective action problem? Principal-agent theory is here to help! A principal sends an agent to do a task, under some kind of contract or agreement, establishing a relationship subject to certain constraints, and open to certain possibilities. If we can describe these constraints and possibilities, we can explain a lot.  Does agent know more than principal? Does principal have the capacity to punish agent, reward agent, or both? And so on.

In sociology, James Coleman’s magisterial Foundations of Social Theory elaborates across hundreds of pages the stunning complexity that can be accounted for, starting with only this basic dyad (now that is parsimony). In my own field of historical sociology, Edgar Kiser has taken this thinking a long way—for example, using it to study ancient Rome with Danielle Kane in one of my favorite papers—and arguing that Weber’s political sociology can be understood as a meditation on agency problems. (I agree with Kiser that agency problems are an animating feature of Weber’s political sociology.)

So, agency theory is cool. And if you want a crash course in all of this stuff, you can read what is, in my view, the best Annual Review of Sociology article ever, by Susan Shapiro. She also developed agency theory as a way to think very sociologically about those notorious agents of our contemporary world—lawyers.


I am also a cultural sociologist, interested in the use and abuse of signs and their meanings in the construction of social relations. Indeed, I am such an unapologetic cultural sociologist that I think that “discourse” and “performance” are different dimensions of power, rather than being just different ways to say “culture.”

And so, to me, the problem—anticipated and explicated in a series of articles by Julia Adams—was to design an account of social life as agency problems attuned to signification, subject-formation, and myth/fantasy. To represent this cultural break with—if also appreciation of, rational choice theory—I reinterpreted principal and agent (and, from a different philosophy, lord and bondsman) as “rector” and “actor.” In a power dyad, rector turns actor into an agent, in so far as actor gives up her own projects and adopts those of the rector. The vocabulary may be awkward, but my hope is that it is also evocative of some central Weberian concerns for those of us who study political culture: what signifies rectitude, rightness, and claims to legitimate rule? What makes someone a convincing rector, able to issue commands and have them followed? Are there certain, recurrent tropes of rectorship that we can trace across time and space?

I also needed a third term, for a simple reason that goes all the way back to the classics: these relationships of delegation and domination, between rector and actor, are inflected in complex (and very cultural) ways by that which is “outside.” (In Coleman, the agent encounters a “third party”—but that’s not good enough, because we have to study how the third party is imagined, fantasized about, profaned, excluded or included, or subject to both disregard and violence). Consider Du Bois on the white worker, the black worker, and the wages of whiteness; Marx on the lumpenproletariat; and Joan Robinson’s famous slogan (“The misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all.”) This was the other, excluded and profaned, and thereby removed from the dialectic of rector and actor and their struggles. To me, the best place to start building this theory was a gigantic classic of historical sociology, Slavery and Social Death, whose concept of natal alienation draws the contours of an extreme point of alterity. This work, recently revisited in a special issue of Theory and Society, has an important intellectual history, not only in the historiography of slavery and the sociology of violence and exclusion, but also in critical theory and political philosophy, making an appearance in works like Axel Honneth’s Struggle for Recognition and John Rawls’ “Justice as Fairness: Political not Metaphysical.”

And so it became rector, actor, other. These parsimonious terms—along with the idea of a project–are the skeleton key with which to study the immense variations in the interpretations of power and rule that form the bread-and-butter of a cultural-political sociology. The idea was to start with the skeleton, so as to build interpretive explanations of specific moments of struggle, or specific transitions in structures of power. Transitions to modernity in the Atlantic world, for example.

As with most overly ambitious theoretical schemas, this one has a humble beginning. I was interested in Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676—a known crucible of historiographical controversy regarding the deep history of race in America—and as I got deeper into it, I noticed how important the sign of the King was to organizing political conflict, and especially, speech in a time of violence, in early modern English/British North America. That is, the actual English king Charles II and his armies were far, far away in time and space, but the language of the King was vital to “doing politics”—which is to say, pursuing conflicts of interest inside a given worldview and ethos. And what was this language? It was vast iconography that boiled down to one question: who was the best agent of the ultimate rector, the King, who was himself the agent of God? This cultural configuration of politics even, at a certain point in English history, had a legal theory attached to it—“the King’s Two Bodies,” according to which the ultimate rector had a second, ethereal body that contained the entire political community, never died, and was always right. The King’s Two Bodies was more than a piece of legalese. It was also it a widespread cultural trope for organizing the world into a hierarchy of rectors, actors, and others, and for constructing chains of power.

The transformations of the early modern Atlantic world were about a great many things—most notably, capitalism and the construction of the Black Atlantic. But, amongst these dynamic vectors of modernity, the Atlantic world also experienced a series of shocks in political culture concerned with whether the language of the King could sustain and contain political conflict—and in particular, be the basis for building long chains of power inside and outside of modern states—in this new, dynamic era of profit, violence, and aspirations to individual authorship and group self-determination.

The answer, from revolutionaries in Haiti, the USA, and France, was “no.” However, the second body of the King is hard to get rid of entirely—because it is just so damn useful for solving principal-agent problems. So, then, this is one way to think about modernity: as that which rushes in to try to replace the language of the King in the making and unmaking of hierarchical relationships. Modernity, in other words, provides a series of ways to answer the question of who is rector, who is actor, and who is other.

In the maelstrom of the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, for example, or in the conflagration between U.S. troops and Amerindian tribes in the Ohio Valley (also in 1794), a reconfigured set of meanings are to be found in the letters and sermons by which far-flung chains of power were constructed. “The people” were now the true rector who was always already inherently right (like the “King’s interest” was before). To be good and righteous was to act with rectitude as an agent for the people. But who and what were the people, and how do you put them on stage, or know what they think? We know the mechanisms for this (elections, etc.) and debate them endlessly. But this was also an interpretive quandary, with new meanings and new consequences. Hashing out who was in, and who was out, of “the people” renovated how hierarchies were built and profit was pursued—and who was condemned to perpetual alterity, radically excluded. Another way of saying this is that as certain power players started imagining that they were rectors because they were part of a band of brothers, rather than agents of a Kingly father, they helped invent American modernity as a politico-cultural formation with both democratic possibilities and radical exclusions from the dignitas of personhood. It is a myth we have not seen the end of yet.  

Like one of my mentors, I think that the weirdness of the early modern world explains a lot of the weirdness of our current world. But you do not have to share this particular orientation to find rector-actor-other theory useful. Instead, it is designed as a frame for understanding how situations in which people and groups are tied to each other hierarchically have multiple dimensions—material, relational, discursive, and performative. It is, in other words, a theory of agency grounded in semiotics and critical theory, rather than in rational choice theory.

 One of the implications of the theory suggests that I am not the best person to interpret it. When long chains of power (and/or authority) are constructed, something like an extended high-stakes game of telephone takes place, as communication flows through hierarchy. The creativity tends to happen at the end of such chains, where the ritual constraints on interpretation are lessened significantly, and miscommunications become organizational innovations. So, I hope someone comes up with a better interpretation of rector-actor-other than I do in Power in Modernity: Agency Relations and the Creative Destruction of the King’s Two Bodies.

Isaac Ariail Reed is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Virginia.

Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

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