Friday, May 16, 2008

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

Amy Allen, The Politics of Our Selves: Power, Autonomy, and Gender in Contemporary Critical Theory, Columbia University Press, 2008, 230pp., $34.50 (hbk), ISBN 9780231136228.

Reviewed by J. Jeremy Wisnewski, Hartwick College

In her recent book, Amy Allen tackles one of the persistent problems of post-Foucaultian critical theory: how can we acknowledge the pervasive mechanisms of power in the formation of our identities, and yet still allow for an ideal of autonomous action? This problem -- one that has been a sticking point in the discussion between Foucaultians and Habermasians -- has also come to be an issue of much importance in the feminist literature. The Politics of Our Selves is a persuasive and well-reasoned account of how we might find our way through some difficult -- some might say 'intractable' -- problems of contemporary feminism and critical theory. The book demonstrates that the perceived opposition between power and knowledge is something of a red herring. Recognizing this, moreover, has important consequences for some of feminism's most serious debates -- as well as for understanding the appropriate parameters of a critical theory.

The Politics of Our Selves begins by rethinking the Foucault/Habermas debate -- a debate that centers on the place of critique in the network of power. In reading Foucault's work, where power 'is everywhere' and is that in virtue of which agents are constructed and placed within systems of normalization and subordination, a persistent worry seems to arise: if power is absolutely everywhere, how is it possible to engage in the critique of power in such a way that we might (at least partially) liberate ourselves from the oppressive aspects of power? If power pervades everything, it follows that it pervades rationality, and hence that the use of rationality itself is riddled with the very means of subordination we are trying to overcome. It is precisely this criticism that has been leveled against the Foucaultian enterprise by philosophers like Habermas and Charles Taylor.

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