I am certainly not the only person on this blog to have done serious work on the issue of feminist interpretations of autonomy, heteronomy, relationality, kenosis (i.e., self-sacrifice/self-emptying), and vulnerability, but I have been reflecting on it frequently of late. This is actually one of those topics that seems to pervade everything we at WIT think about, so I’m finally going to devote some explicit attention to it. Basically, what are the right ways to exercise our agency and cultivate our freedom? Concomitantly, what are the right ways to nourish our relationships with others and understand our identities in robustly communitarian terms? What are the wrong ways? I can only start reflection on such matters in this post, and I will probably have to return to them in later posts.
I think that for the last several decades, one central fault line within Christian feminist theologies has centered around the question, roughly put, of self-assertion vs. self-sacrifice. Other things that fall along the binary are as follows: autonomy vs. heteronomy, impermeability vs. empathy, strength vs. weakness (yes, sometimes “weakness” is deployed as a positive concept, much to my own personal annoyance), individualism vs. communitarianism, creating protective boundaries for oneself vs. cultivating expansive hospitality toward the other. And so on. All these terms carry their own particular valences, but you get the point.
On the one hand, feminists and feminist theologians strive to make space for women’s voices and exercises of agency in various spheres of activity. For example, liberal feminists focus on women making an impact in various social institutions. Further, romantic feminists focus on the “unique” voice that women contribute to our understandings of what it means to be human (namely, by drawing particular attention to such uniquely female experiences as childbirth and menstruation; I think John Paul II, in his own zany way, was riffing on a problematic variant of this kind of feminism in his Theology of the Body). Lastly, radical feminists insist on the need for women to separate from an ineradicably patriarchal society and create their own alternative woman-centered communities — later Mary Daly, perhaps? (As a side note, when people talk pejoratively about “crazy feminists,” they are usually referring to radical separatist feminists. I point out this fact right now to reassert that feminism is a complex and multifaceted phenomena that isn’t always separatist, but I also want to interrogate the assumption that a woman-centered community is “crazy” anyway in light of various insidious forms of sexism and male violence against women still operating in society today. Whatevs.)
These strands are not hermetically sealed off from each other, so one person can espouse different dimensions of each particular paradigm. They are still floating around today, and they were all put on the table in a special way in the 1960s (although you can find liberal feminist thought beginning in the nineteenth century in Europe and the United States). One could also name other strands in contemporary feminist thought (Marxist feminism, for example), but my general point is to highlight that one of the guiding leitmotifs of feminist thought is the importance of promoting the active flourishing and agency of women in all spheres of thought and existence. Specifically, such promotion occurs as a direct rejection of patriarchal subordination of women, especially their bodies, throughout the history of relations between women and men. This is a crucial task, as women as a group are still not on equal footing with men basically anywhere on the globe in almost any sphere of activity.
At the same time, however, feminists have also pondered what kind of autonomy women should be fighting for and accruing to themselves. Feminists are rightly concerned that the model of autonomy most readily available for appropriation is the masculinist model in which one exercises and preaches absolute independence, a general lack of concern for others, stoicism, and the appearance of a certain kind of physical and intellectual prowess. This kind of subject is also usually obsessed with his own rights to do this and that. The (male) rugged individualist, basically.
In the face of this kind of gestalt, feminists (and many women of color) prioritize relationality, vulnerability, and permeability to the other as anthropological accents that have come to the fore particularly because of the increase in women’s voices in the last few decades. (There are some contemporary male communitarians, such as Alasdair MacIntyre, Robert Bellah, and Stanley Hauerwas, but they tend not to express an explicit concern for the flourishing of women or other subaltern groups, or at least that is not their primary focus.) This stance takes into more adequate account the ethical valences of our being and acting within various intersecting communities, and it means kissing absolute individual autonomy good bye. In this vein, Judith Butler, a contemporary secular feminist theorist heavily influenced by both Levinas and Foucault, writes about how we must accept our own self-opacity as an appropriate ethical response to communion and relationship: “To be undone by another is a primary necessity, an anguish, to be sure, but also a chance — to be addressed, claimed, bound to what is not me, but also to be moved, to be prompted to act, to address myself elsewhere, and so to vacate the self-sufficient ‘I’ as a kind of possession” (Giving an Account of Oneself 136). In this way, Butler voices the current deconstruction/postmodern feminist turn toward articulating the instability and social construction of our identities. Anti Ron Swanson, if you will.
In light of these various turns in feminist thought, how should we rethink the conditions of agency? How do we understand ourselves as acting within the world in a way that makes sense of our capacity to choose as well as our embeddedness in a particular context and our responsibilities for others within the common good? Many contemporary feminists have gone with the permeability/social embeddedness axis without leaving much room to discuss thoroughly one’s individual identity and capacity to choose; other feminists are trying to negotiate a balance between agency and embeddedness, and then there’s the bulk of Americans who are pretty into individual rights and capitalistic consumerism. What do we say about this?