The Politics of Our Selves

Power, Autonomy, and Gender in Contemporary Critical Theory

Amy Allen

Columbia University Press

The Politics of Our Selves

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Pub Date: July 2013

ISBN: 9780231136235

248 Pages

Format: Paperback

List Price: $32.00£27.00

Pub Date: November 2007

ISBN: 9780231136228

248 Pages

Format: Hardcover

List Price: $95.00£79.00

Pub Date: November 2007

ISBN: 9780231509848

248 Pages

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List Price: $31.99£27.00

The Politics of Our Selves

Power, Autonomy, and Gender in Contemporary Critical Theory

Amy Allen

Columbia University Press

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.

Can one theorize subjectivity in a way that allows both for the penetrating grip of power and for the self's critical, transformative capacities? So many critical theorists have tried and failed to square this circle that one might despair of the possibility. But Amy Allen's magnificent study gives one new hope. The work of a mature, confident thinker, The Politics of Ourselves combines original readings of Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, Jürgen Habermas, and Seyla Benhabib with a constructive account that goes further than any of them in clarifying the autonomy/subjection riddle.

Nancy Fraser, Henry A. and Louise Loeb Professor of Philosophy and Politics, New School for Social Research

Scholars will find this book an interesting read.

Kristina Grob, Feminist Review Blog

Persuasive and well-reasoned

J. Jeremy Wisnewski, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

This admirable book provides incredibly clear and lucid readings of texts that students find notoriously difficult... Highly recommended.


Nuanced and careful readings of Foucault, Butler, Habermas and Benhabib.

Margaret A. McLaren, Foucault Studies

A pathbreaking and elegantly argued book.

Jana Sawicki, PhiloSOPHIA

"[A] tour de force.... The Politics of Our Selves forces its reader to think hard, and honestly to think through the implications of the glib stand-off between Foucault and Habermas that stands in for a much more meaningful dialogue that we rarely get to have.

Cressida Heyes, Philosophy and Social Criticism

A remarkably comprehensive and very impressive treatment of many of the most vexing issues in contemporary critical theory.

Moira Gatens, European Journal of Philosophy
1. Introduction: The Politics of Our Selves
2. Foucault, Subjectivity, and the Enlightenment: A Critical Reappraisal
3. The Impurity of Practical Reason: Power and Autonomy in Foucault
4. Dependency, Subordination, and Recognition: Butler on Subjection
5. Empowering the Lifeworld? Autonomy and Power in Habermas
6. Contextualizing Critical Theory
7. Engendering Critical Theory

Read the introduction to The Politics of Our Selves:

About the Author

Amy Allen is Liberal Arts Research Professor and Head of the Philosophy Department at the Pennsylvania State University. She is also the author of The Power of Feminist Theory: Domination, Resistance, Solidarity.