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Rethinking resistance

Foucault's aim is thus, in essence, an attempt to up the ante of critical theory: instead of assuming the capacity of a pure rationality, embedded in a power-free subject, to determine what is and should be, Foucault wants to critically analyze the very notion of subjectivity in the historical conditions which produce it. This by no means entails that critique is no longer possible. Rather, it entails that critique, if it is to be worthy of the name, must be sensitive to the historical forces at work on our own capacities to be selves and our ability to achieve autonomy.

Once we have reconceived Foucault's endeavor in this manner, it becomes much easier to see that "the differences between Habermas's and Foucault's projects have been seriously overstated" Allen's analysis, I think, marks a significant advance in the way we should understand the tension between Foucault and Habermas. The 'stand off' between these philosophers is rightly revealed as a distraction, the importance of which has been overblown on all sides.

As is so often the case, what is required to get past a dispute is not dogmatic posturing, but nuance.

Allen's reading of Foucault and Habermas brings this in spades, resulting in a much more persuasive understanding of the tension between Foucault and Habermas as based primarily on misunderstanding. If power is pervasive and constitutive of identity, it looks as though abandoning gendered identity might amount to abandoning identity as such , at least given our current episteme to use a Foucaultian term.


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  8. Butler and other feminists have criticized the view that a recognition of the contingency and plasticity of gender constructions is sufficient to eliminate them. This view ignores the power of such constructions over us. Indeed, it ignores that these constructions are us. The problem, fundamentally, is that it is only through such power-laden constructions that we have an identity.

    The Feminist Understanding of Politics and Power

    Judith Butler's important analysis, however, goes too far. Butler claims that all identity is essentially subjugated in virtue of simply being born and hence depending on the recognition of others.

    The Politics of Our Selves | Columbia University Press

    This involves forcing us, in the very process of becoming individuals, to accept extrinsic social requirements in order to be recognized by those whose love we need and desire. As Allen shows, however, this view conflates "dependence and subordination" When we see this, we recognize the possibility of " moments of mutual recognition … within on-going, dynamically unfolding, social relationships" This, then, allows us to see that we can have our identities, constituted as they are by recognition, in a way that need not involve subjugation, despite the fact that "there is no possible human social world from which power has been completely eliminated" Any conception of the social that does not acknowledge the problems and prospects of such mutual recognition -- recognition that can be transformative -- will ultimately be too narrow.

    As I see it, the most suggestive and important part of Allen's book is the vision of what results from dealing with these debates. For Allen, critical theory is a contextualized analysis of the interstices and intersections of power and autonomy -- one that recognizes the limits of rationality in engaging in critique, but one that also recognizes its importance.

    Allen's revision of Habermasian critical theory which defends a strong distinction between power and validity is one part of this important re-conceiving of the aims and methods of critical theory.