A Way to Understand Human Agency

It’s like we are performers in the song of the universe.

There is a song by a composer named John Cage called “4’ 33’’ ”.

Now, please note, there is a lot of debate about this song with a large group of people claiming it isn’t actually a song and a lot of people naming that it is brilliant, and within that debate, anytime someone says that this isn’t a piece of music, it is always met with Cage’s response that, “Everything is music.”

The premier of this song happened in August of 1952 — it was a relatively anticipated debut by a composer that was successful while known for being a bit edgy…which is exactly what you experienced if you showed up for that premier in Woodstock, New York.

Today, you can listen to a recording of the song being performed and experience what that first audience did in 1952 — something of a historic moment in the history of music.

Here’s what happens in the performance of the song:

As the performance begins, you hear the performer walking up to a piano. They sit down, arrange the music, and then you can hear them take the lid to the keys and shut it — thus beginning the piece. Which means the performer doesn’t actually play any notes on the piano. Instead, you listen as the performer takes a timer, hits the button making a quiet beep, and proceeds to just sit there.

In the meantime, everyone else in the room is sitting and watching and waiting. You hear some coughing, some shuffling in seats, some sniffling, and any other ambient sounds being made in the room. Then, as the performance continues, you hear, from all these people who have showed up to hear this new composition, whispering — even an audible whisper of, “When are they going to start?”

Finally, when movement one is finished, the performer hits the timer, opens the lid of the piano, shuffles the sheet music (which I believe are just blank pieces of paper with a reminder to hit the timer and close the piano lid), and begins the next movement by again closing the lid, hitting the timer, and proceeding to sit there.

Once movement three is finished and the timer is hit for the final time, the performer stands, bows to the audience, and the song is finished with the timer reading after its final stop:


So there is a theoretical question here — is this actually a song?

But there is also a larger question being asked — what is music?

And for John Cage, he was making a point…every noise, even silence, is a song.

Which means, the person sitting at the piano wasn’t the only performer. If you showed up that night, you were not spectating a song…you witnessed a compelling argument Cage was making about the world:

You are not the audience…you are actually the performer.

You are not the audience of the story of the world.
You are not spectating or watching or passively witnessing the song that is our universe.

You are an active participant in it.

A couple thoughts on what this means for human agency:

1. You Have Agency

Philosophically, it is generally agreed that you have a capacity to act — to make decisions that affect your environment.

The question is whether or not you are in control of your existence or if you are at the whims of something else. Are you a spectator or an active player? A puppet or a participant?

Some cultural conditioning — especially from our entertainment industry — positions us as pure consumers without much control simply looking in on what the powerful people decide. Even on a sociological level when it comes to government and politics, there is a sense that we are powerless.

But we are not characters in the story of the universe — we are collective authors. We are not spectators in the song of the universe — we are performers.

From neuroscience to metaphysics, our agency is affirmed as a natural dynamic of our human existence.

2. An Argument From Communication Theory

There are five principles of communication that reflect the law-like reality of human interaction. One example is that “All communication is continuous” — essentially that everything you do is a communicative act. This is what we would call non-verbal communication.

But the final principle affirms the power of human agency:

All communication is irreversible.

Everything you do + say + think creates something permanent.

Not only is everything you do a communicative act, it is now a part of the world forever. Your life builds the world we find ourselves in. Every movement of your life affects the ecosystem of our reality.

No matter what, you will leave marks on the world.

The question isn’t whether or not you will paint on the canvas.

The question is, “What are you going to paint?”

The question isn’t whether or not you perform the song.

The question is, “How are you going to contribute to it.”

You have the immense propensity to play the song, to contribute to the story, and to perform with your life the unfolding reality of our existence. Human Agency isn’t the question. What matter is what you do with your agency — because you are a part of the audience and the audience is actually the performers.

3. What This Means For You

First, you have responsibility.

Simply by being a human, you have been given the gift of life and it is powerful. You have the power to destroy or to bring flourishing. Agency in itself is morally neutral — we are trusting you will use your responsibility well. Here’s how I think you should use that power.

Second, we need you.

It is as if each human being has this potential & this gift that will certainly impact things in irreversible ways — then we need your gifts.

We are less without you.

We need you to use your energy + gifts + time to contribute to this music. We need you to actively do something with your agency that adds to the story.

How would you live if you were exactly what was needed to heal the world?

Because you are.

The song will only be made if you take part in it.

We need you to be a performer in the song of the universe.

Claps are great, responses are better.

Here’s Some Links:

  1. My “Medium” stuff — — (that’s what the “M” is for)
  2. The platform I write for called “Becoming Human”
  3. If you are interested in exploring how to “become more human” — that’s what the envelope is for.

Or you can click here to get guides, practices, & content to craft how you live as a human being.

Originally published at tylerkleeberger.com.



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Tyler Kleeberger

Tyler Kleeberger


Pursuing what it means to be human so as to build the best world possible. Practical ethics through in-depth exploration. Becoming Human: tylerkleeberger.com.