The Politics of Our Selves

The Politics of Our Selves: Power, Autonomy, and Gender in Contemporary Critical Theory

Amy Allen
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 248
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/alle13622
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  • Book Info
    The Politics of Our Selves
    Book Description:

    Some critical theorists understand the self as constituted by power relations, while others insist upon the self's autonomous capacities for critical reflection and deliberate self-transformation. Up to now, it has all too often been assumed that these two understandings of the self are incompatible. In her bold new book, Amy Allen argues that the capacity for autonomy is rooted in the very power relations that constitute the self.

    Allen's theoretical framework illuminates both aspects of what she calls, following Foucault, the "politics of our selves." It analyzes power in all its depth and complexity, including the complicated phenomenon of subjection, without giving up on the ideal of autonomy. Drawing on original and critical readings of a diverse group of theorists, including Michel Foucault, Jurgen Habermas, Judith Butler, and Seyla Benhabib, Allen shows how the self can be both constituted by power and capable of an autonomous self-constitution. Her argument is a significant and vital contribution to feminist theory and to critical social theory, both of which have long grappled with the relationship between power and agency.

    If critical theory is to be truly critical, Allen argues, it will have to pay greater attention to the phenomenon of subjection, and will have to think through the challenges that the notion of subjection poses for the critical-theoretical conception of autonomy. In particular, Allen discusses in detail how the normative aspirations of Habermasian critical theory need to be recast in light of Foucault's and Butler's account of subjection. This book is original both in its attempt to think of power and autonomy simultaneously and in its effort to bring the work of Foucault and Habermas into a productive dialogue.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-50984-8
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VI)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. VII-VIII)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. IX-XIV)
  4. 1. Introduction: THE POLITICS OF OUR SELVES
    (pp. 1-21)

    In retrospect, Foucault’s claim that the main contemporary political problem is that of the politics of ourselves appears remarkably prescient; it anticipates, even as his own work undoubtedly helped to foster, the heated debates over identity politics and, more recently, the politics of recognition that have been the focus of so much intellectual and political attention over the last twenty-five years.

    However, Foucault’s call for a politics of ourselves remains a bit ambiguous. It seems to entail two distinct, though related, claims. First, it suggests that the self is not a natural or given entity (which Foucault indicates by saying...

  5. 2. Foucault, Subjectivity, and the Enlightenment: A CRITICAL REAPPRAISAL
    (pp. 22-44)

    A common theme in both feminist and Habermasian criticisms of Foucault is his alleged participation in and celebration of the death of the subject.¹ Since concepts such as agency, autonomy, and self-reflexivity seem to be dependent upon there being a subject in which they are instantiated, the death of the subject threatens to undermine these concepts as well, ultimately threatening, in turn, the project of social critique itself. As Benhabib puts it, “along with this dissolution of the subject … disappear of course concepts of intentionality, accountability, self-reflexivity and autonomy.”² Without such concepts, however, social critique is not only pointless—...

  6. 3. The Impurity of Practical Reason: POWER AND AUTONOMY IN FOUCAULT
    (pp. 45-71)

    In a set of lectures delivered at Dartmouth College in 1980, titled “About the Beginning of the Hermeneutics of the Self,” Foucault characterizes his research as a “genealogy of the modern subject.”¹ Such a genealogy provides a way out of “the philosophy of the subject,” a philosophical project that “sets as its task par excellence the foundation of all knowledge and the principle of all signification as stemming from the meaningful subject.”² Foucault’s principal targets here are Husserlian phenomenology—which he mentions explicitly in the lecture—and Sartrean existentialism—which, although not mentioned by name, is clearly on Foucault’s mind...

  7. 4. Dependency, Subordination, and Recognition: BUTLER ON SUBJECTION
    (pp. 72-95)

    “As a form of power,” Judith Butler writes in the opening of her book The Psychic Life of Power, “subjection is paradoxical.”¹ “Subjection” refers to the ambivalent process whereby one is constituted as a subject in and through the process of being subjected to disciplinary norms. It is one thing to think of power as an external force that dominates us; as painful as it can be to be subjected to power in this sense, there is nothing particularly paradoxical about it. “But if, following Foucault,” Butler continues, “we understand power as forming the subject as well, as providing the...

  8. 5. Empowering the Lifeworld? AUTONOMY AND POWER IN HABERMAS
    (pp. 96-122)

    Autonomy has long held a central place in Habermas’s critical social theory. As he argues in his inaugural Frankfurt lecture in 1965, “the human interest in autonomy and responsibility is not mere fancy, for it can be apprehended a priori. What raises us out of nature is the only thing whose nature we can know: language. Through its structure, autonomy and responsibility are posited for us.”¹ Although Habermas later rejected many aspects of his account of knowledge and human interests, about which more in the next chapter, the ideas of the rootedness of autonomy in the communicative use of language...

  9. 6. Contextualizing Critical Theory
    (pp. 123-150)

    The main argument of chapter 5 was that Habermas does not offer a satisfactory account of the ways in which power works through socialization processes to constitute individuals as subjects. For the most part, in his theory of communicative action, he examines power in the context of systems theory; his discussions of power in the lifeworld, whether in the context of his colonization of the lifeworld thesis or his analysis of systematically distorted communication, are not adequate to the task of developing an account of subjection. And although he does acknowledge, at least implicitly, a necessary role for power in...

  10. 7. Engendering Critical Theory
    (pp. 151-171)

    In a recent article, Benhabib, reflecting on her earlier exchange with Butler, contends that the most important theoretical issue at stake in this debate, and in the feminism/postmodernism debates more generally, is “the problem of the subject.”¹ Benhabib suggests that the problem of the subject can be broken down into two distinct but related problems: first, “how does feminism alter our understanding of the traditional epistemological or moral subject of western philosophy?”; second, “can we think of political/moral/cultural agency only insofar as we retain a robust conception of the autonomous, rational, and accountable subject, or is a concept of the...

  11. Concluding Reflections
    (pp. 172-184)

    As i discussed in the introduction, critical theory has two principal aims: the first is to offer an empirically grounded diagnosis of the central crisis tendencies and injustices of the present age; the second is to chart paths of progressive social transformation. Accomplishing the first task requires the development of an account of power in all its depth and complexity, including how it functions through the mechanism of subjection to constitute subordinating modes of subjectivity and identity. The task of analyzing subjection is crucially important for analyzing gender subordination and its complex interrelations with race and sexuality. Accomplishing the second...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 185-212)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 213-222)
  14. Index
    (pp. 223-230)