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Arendt, Foucault, and Feminist Politics: A Critical Reappraisal

Taylor, Diana.  “Arendt, Foucault, and Feminist Politics: A Critical Reappraisal.”  Feminist Politics: Identity, Difference, and Agency.  Ed. Deborah Orr, Dianna Taylor, Eileen Kahl, Kathleen Earle, Christa Rainwater, and Linda López McAlister.  Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007.  243-263.  Print.

Taylor’s essay addresses the contributions to feminist theory made by Hannah Arendt and Michel Foucault; specifically, she focuses on three key ideas from the two theorists.  First is Arendt’s concept of agonism, which she describes as how acting in concert with others allows individuals to distinguish themselves, such that there is recognition that groups can come together in unity while still recognizing differences amongst themselves.  Second is Foucault’s definition of creativity, qualified in his writing as connected to innovation, wherein we seek out in our reflection those things that have never been conceived of before, and in so doing the practices of thinking differently and actively engaging are developed.  Finally, both authors have a similar arguments regarding identity, such that they embrace the value of identity but reject it as a foundation for politics.

The combined contribution of Arendt and Foucault’s work to feminist theory appeal directly both to themes that I have been considering with regard to my work currently, as well as more broadly to concerns I have had regarding doing any work in advocacy.  As I have mentioned previously, I struggle to find my place in advocacy work given concerns about the legitimacy of my participation – that is, I can advocate with women as a woman, but the intersectionality of oppression is such that I am often an outsider to the struggles of many people, women or otherwise.  This is hardly a unique thought – much of modern feminist theory is concerned with this dynamic – but so far I still constantly question how I can be involved.  Because I really want to be involved. 

These concerns are easily and necessarily extended outward to the organizations I work with, as is the case currently.  Right now, I think my organization has taken approaches I would agree with, trying to ensure that it represents and serves the interests of our particular communities to the best of its ability.  Now, considering its ideology and methodology with regard to Arendt’s agonism is actually further encouraging.  Recognizing our ability to come together in unified action while simultaneously acknowledging and in many ways reconstituting important differences among ourselves strikes a balance between our desire to help and the need at times to step back. 

Arendt also had an interesting statement regarding what she termed “the lesser evil,” the crux of which was that choosing what appeared to be the lesser evil in a given situation was still a capitulation to the institutions in which any moderately traditional actor naturally functions in.  Instead of this, Arendt argues that actors need to think outside their socially constructed reality and conceive of other choices and paths.  In my time at the organization I have seen instances of this kind of choice many times over: with some individual organizations’ inability to discuss abortion (discussed in my response from 9/30) to the opposite situation where a coalition conceded to a difficult compromise while its members made statements against the document it was accepting (discussed in my response from 10/21).  By Arendt’s theory, there were more options and paths in each of these situations than were considered; but they were not happened upon because they exist outside the normal structure of thought and action. 

Taking this argument along with Foucault’s creativity, I see the potential for the more radical activism I would like to be learning about and engaging in.  In so many ways, both advocacy and direct service organizations must capitulate to institutions in order to foster necessary change in the short- and medium-runs.  However, from an ideological standpoint I object to the ways in which such a decision reinforces those same institutions that have created and maintained the problems our organizations face.  As such, I would like to explore counter-institutional advocacy.  And while I may find such work in more radical organizations, from Arendt and Foucault’s work it also seems like there are openings for more moderate organizations to successfully adopt radical practices.  This is something that has been reinforced by me readings from Feminist Practice and Poststructuralist Theory, and is something I would like to explore further in Arendt’s work and others from more modern times.


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