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  • Rethinking Agency
  • Rebecca M. Chung
Mann, Patricia. Micropolitics: Agency in a Postfeminist Era. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994.

Micropolitics argues that shifting gender roles help produce postmodern anxiety. According to author Patricia Mann, scholars have overlooked the importance of shifting gender roles to help explain the postmodern condition: “I formulated this theory of individual agency in response to gendered social transformations that I believe provide the basic foundation for all other social transformations today, and I call it a ‘gendered micropolitics’” (1). Mann claims that modernist paradigms miss t he influence of micropolitics on the public sphere: “I am a postmodern philosopher in a quite literal sense. I believe that the social and political frameworks of modernism are exhausted and incapable of making sense of the most important contemporary pr oblems” (1). Moreover, these paradigms cannot account for facts of contemporary life: social “unmooring,” female and male emotional neediness, the dependency of public success on private servicing, and the profound social transitions involved when women decide forever that homemaking is a choice, not an inevitability. A postmodern, postfeminist era has begun. While liberal discourses remain dominant, they are conflict-ridden and unstable as a consequence of the social enfranchisement of women, and the unmooring of women, men, and children from patriarchal kinship relationshps. The identification of humanity and masculinity is no longer normatively or structurally secured by the ailing institutions of late liberalism. And so, the actions of women and men, as well, have a peculiarly radical/constructive potential. Yet it will remain difficult to appreciate or to act upon that potential so long as we continue to assume modernist visions of change and political agency. (25)

By ignoring new historical realities, scholars risk ignoring the material conditions foundational to emerging postmodern social practice. In fact, they altogether miss an opportunity to observe an emerging relationship between material and social practic e. Driven moreover by outdated theories about social behavior, scholars make incomprehensible what could be comprehensible—if the scholars would take seriously new theories, particularly theories inclusive of female experience. Mann makes her position quite clear: “Changing gender relations are the most significant social phenomenon of our time” (2).

Micropolitics effectively forestalls accusations of non-philosophical meandering by pointing out the limits of conventional philosophical practice: “Perhaps we are [becoming] unphilosophical, but only insofar as we are placing demands upon ou r philosophical resources to which they are not yet capable of responding” (33). Here, and throughout Micropolitics, Mann is at her best when articulating the limits of conventional thinking vis-a-vis “philosophically interesting changes in the human condition” such as universal female enfranchisement, job protections, reproductive choice, non-patriarchal family structure, and presumptive female equality generally. Using the canon of philosophy, Micropolitics demonstrates the uniqueness of current gender roles in Anglo-European history.

In these ways Micropolitics purports to be about agency. Unfortunately the social analyses run away from the concept. Individual chapters omit any sustained engagement with the question of agency as they explore the consequences of female s ocial enfranchisment in contemporary American society.

Mann’s analysis follows a pattern: she begins each chapter with a theoretical discussion of agency, then drops the topic in order to conduct an analysis of some current issue or event: the double duty workday, abortion, pornography, the history of libera list individualism, women in the military, Anita Hill, sexual harassment, William Kennedy Smith, Mike Tyson, date rape, Thelma and Louise. The problem is that none of these specific analyses, grounded as they are in cultural criticism common places, really requires a new thinking of gendered micro-political agency in the first place. Readers informed about these events, but wondering how they might be reconsidered in light of the ongoing theoretical debates over postfeminist agency, will fin d themselves repeatedly provoked and then disappointed.

This digressive, or at any rate anti-climactic, structuring of the chapters reflects a general problem in the organizational logic of the book. One is grateful for the new terms and concepts Mann introduces—but her capacity to produce these new concepts seem to outrun her capacity to arrange and order them. Her sentences often contain more than one idea, her paragraphs more than one...

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