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The Power of Feminist Theory (review)

From: Hypatia
Volume 17, Number 1, Winter 2002
pp. 222-226 | 10.1353/hyp.2002.0019

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Hypatia 17.1 (2002) 222-226

Book Review

The Power of Feminist Theory

The Power of Feminist Theory.By AMY ALLEN. Boulder: Westview Press, 1999.

"Why are feminists interested in power?" asks Amy Allen in her compelling and lucid book, The Power of Feminist Theory. Because we are interested in "understanding, criticizing, challenging, subverting, and ultimately overturning the multiple axes of stratification affecting women in contemporary Western societies, including (but not limited to) sexism, racism, heterosexism, and class oppression" (2). According to Allen, we not only need to be able to understand and describe the many and complex forms that power takes, but also to identify nonpernicious forms of power in order to bring about progressive social change through collective struggle. Our conception of power must be rooted in our emancipatory interests.

Although much of feminist theory over the past thirty years has been about power, not many feminists have attempted to develop a feminist conception of power itself. Some (such as Susan Moller Okin) simply and problematically assume a liberal understanding of power as a possession of individuals or groups that must be redistributed. Others focus exclusively on either domination (for example, Catharine MacKinnon, Carole Pateman, Andrea Dworkin) or empowerment (for example, Carol Gilligan, Sara Ruddick, Virginia Held, Starhawk). Allen quickly dismisses the liberal model of power as incapable of grasping the relational, structural, and dynamic aspects of power. Moreover, she rightly points out that feminist analyses that focus exclusively on either domination or empowerment are one-dimensional. Each obscures the operations of other forms of domination (racism, classism, etc.) and the ways in which one and the same practice or institution can be empowering for some women and disempowering for others. One-dimensional accounts also fail to capture the interplay between domination and resistance. They cannot make sense of the fact that "we can be both dominated and empowered at the same time and in the context of one and the same norm, institution, and practice" (25).

Through a critical appropriation and synthesis of the analyses of power found in the work of Michel Foucault and Judith Butler, Allen attempts to develop a conception of power that combines insights of both domination and empowerment theorists and eliminates the one-sidedness and incompleteness of each. In the process of critically engaging these theorists, she takes on some of the most trenchant feminist criticisms of their work, and manages to say something insightful or original about each of them. She then supplements the resulting view with an account of solidarity and collective struggle based on the insights of Hannah Arendt.

Foucault's analysis of disciplinary and regulatory power represents the lynchpin of Allen's feminist conception of power. In his genealogies of power, Foucault describes the productive operations of a form of power that "both constrains individuals by subjecting them to regulation, control, and normalization and, at the same time, enables or empowers individuals by positioning them as subjects who are endowed with the capacity to act" (51). What is unique and useful about Foucault's account of subjection is that it can account for the interplay between constraint and enablement, domination and resistance. The most serious limitations that she finds in his conception of power are "paradox of agency" that plagues his account of subjection, and his cynical tendency to view power solely in strategic (hence, normatively neutral) terms. According to Allen, Foucault oscillates between a deterministic picture of disciplined and normalized subjects and voluntaristic assertions that as subjects we always have the capacity to act. In order to reconcile this tension, Foucault needs "an account of what it is that mediates between the agency of subjects and the power that subjects them" (56). Allen finds such an account in Butler's mature version of the theory of performativity.

In essays and books written after Gender Trouble, Butler finesses the paradox of agency by supplementing her Foucauldian account of the power of normalization and discipline with the Derridean notion of "citationality." As Allen elucidates, for Butler "gender performance is not an act by a voluntaristic subject who simply chooses which sex or gender to be; rather, it is a compelled reiteration of norms that construct individuals as sexed and...



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