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The Politics of Our Selves: Power, Autonomy, and Gender in Contemporary Critical Theory (review)
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In this ambitious book Amy Allen proposes nothing less than the integration of two traditions of social-political theory that have generally been taken to be straightforwardly opposed. Foucauldian genealogy and Habermasian critical theory have been at the center of political philosophy and social critique for the past few decades. The story of their incompatibility is by now so well rehearsed that it is nearly exhausted, in the sense of almost being taken for granted. This speaks to the admirable ambition of Allen’s attempt to develop a frame into which both Foucauldian and Habermasian theory can be fit. What strikes me as important about this book is not, however, its ambition, though I certainly find this impressive (especially within our contemporary climate of professionalized and obligatory overspecialization). What is important about this book, rather, is its successes in realizing its ambitions. This is not to claim that the book is without its argumentative weaknesses and expository gaps. But the successes are what really stand out and impress the reader here (note how rare this is in our contemporary atmosphere of professionalized and obligatory hyperskepticism).

The central aim of The Politics of Our Selves is to overcome “the difficulty that we have in thinking through power and autonomy simultaneously” (21). Allen takes on this task by engaging two related disputes at the center of contemporary critical theory: the Foucault–Habermas debates and the debates in feminist theory between Judith Butler and Seyla Benhabib.

Allen’s contribution to feminist theory builds admirably on her earlier The Power of Feminist Theory (Westview, 1999) in which she seeks to invest feminism with a rigorous conception of power. In the present book, Allen furthers a critical feminism that is not undone by the old dilemmas between structure and agency, power and autonomy. For these purposes Allen follows Nancy Fraser’s argument that feminists can draw on both Butler and Benhabib without contradiction. Yet she goes further than Fraser in showing just how we might reconstruct Butler’s and Benhabib’s work so that they may be better taken up in tandem: “The overall aim of this book is an attempt to accomplish the ambitious task suggested but left undone by Fraser: to envision subjects as both culturally constructed in and through relations of power and yet capable of critique” (21).

Here Allen’s feminist interventions intersect with her contributions to critical theory more broadly. Allen shows how power and autonomy can be complementary in both Foucault and Habermas. In Foucault, this involves showing that he affirms a concept of autonomy that can be integrated with his well-known work on power; in Habermas, this requires showing how sensitivity to the workings of power can help inform his robust conception of autonomy.

Allen offers an impressive reinterpretation of Foucault by focusing on his productive relationship to Kant. Foucault, she says, develops “a critique of critique itself, a continuation-through-transformation of that project” (24). Foucault is a Kantian but not in Béatrice Han-Pile’s sense of a thinker wrestling with the philosophical relation between transcendentality and empiricity. Foucault is a Kantian in that he is engaged in an immanent critique, in Kant’s special sense of that word, of our modernity. This rereading of Foucault is both timely and convincing. Yet some readers will worry that Allen goes too far in extending the comparison to Foucault’s and Kant’s conceptions of autonomy. One can accept Allen’s point that “autonomy is central to Foucault’s conception of critique” (64), but a worry remains that her description of Foucault’s autonomy resuscitates questions about the Kantian transcendental subject that she (unlike Han-Pile) rightly does not want to see Foucault as posing.

Allen takes autonomy in Foucault to consist in two capacities, for critical reflection and for deliberate self-transformation (2). I agree that Foucault understands freedom in terms of critical reflection and self-transformation, but I have always understood these as practices rather than capacities. If freedom is conceived as a capacity, then this capacity must inhere in something; this invites the transcendental subject in through the back door. Conceptualizing freedom as what we do rather than as what we are helps...

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