Cover image for Embodiment and Agency Edited by Sue Campbell, Letitia Meynell, and Susan Sherwin

Embodiment and Agency

Edited by Sue Campbell, Edited by Letitia Meynell, and Susan Sherwin


$78.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03522-2

288 pages
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Embodiment and Agency

Edited by Sue Campbell, Edited by Letitia Meynell, and Susan Sherwin

“Bridging the gap that too often exists between theories of agency and embodiment, this exciting collection examines how bodies are agenetic and how human agency in the world is embodied. This volume will be welcomed by feminists and others who are interested in the ethical, political, economic, and global dimensions of human bodily agency.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
Themes of embodiment and agency have long been central to feminist philosophical thought and have increasingly led feminists to extend their theorizing to encompass a range of identities shaped by processes of gender, race, class, disability, and sexuality. The intersection of these themes, however, has often been limited to analyzing how specific modes of socialized embodiment can be impediments to agency or autonomy.

Embodiment and Agency is distinctive in bringing a remarkable range of theoretical perspectives and resources to the project in ways that stress possibilities as well as constraints. Contributors utilize, for example, phenomenology, psychoanalysis, care ethics, analytic philosophy, Hegelian critique, and postcolonial theory to examine embodiment and agency in contexts ranging from a child’s struggle to find her own identity to global politics. The volume is integrated through its theme, through an introductory essay situating the contributions in relation to each other and to current feminist theory on agency, and through the structuring of the contents into two distinct sections.

Part I, “Becoming Embodied Subjects,” explores how we become individually and collectively identified subjects through the possibilities for agency that arise from specific modes of embodiment. Part II, “Embodied Relations: Political Contexts,” continues the theme of embodied agency in contemporary sociopolitical contexts. It challenges the reader to reconceptualize the links between embodiment and moral agency in ways adequate to political realities, personal relationships, and collective responsibilities.

“Bridging the gap that too often exists between theories of agency and embodiment, this exciting collection examines how bodies are agenetic and how human agency in the world is embodied. This volume will be welcomed by feminists and others who are interested in the ethical, political, economic, and global dimensions of human bodily agency.”
“The essays contained in this volume offer fascinating philosophical, religious, scientific, historical, and political reflections on what it means to express (and fail to express) agency in and through one’s bodily interactions with other bodies. Above all, Embodiment and Agency reveals the diverse ways in which the experience of agency is always already embodied, thereby countering traditional liberal views that identify agency with conscious activity or a particular set of cognitive capacities.”

Sue Campbell is Professor of Philosophy and Women’s Studies at Dalhousie University, Halifax, Canada.

Letitia Meynell is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Dalhousie University.

Susan Sherwin is Professor of Philosophy at Dalhousie University.



Introduction: Minding Bodies

Letitia Meynell

Part I: Becoming Embodied Subjects

1. Emotional Metamorphoses: The Role of Others in Becoming a Subject

Kym Maclaren

2. Racial Grief and Melancholic Agency

Angela Failler

3. A Knowing That Resided in My Bones: Sensuous Embodiment and Trans Social Movement

Alexis Shotwell

4. The Phrenological Impulse and the Morphology of Character

Rebecca Kukla

5. Personal Identity, Narrative Integration, and Embodiment

Catriona Mackenzie

6. Bodily Limits to Autonomy: Emotion, Attitude, and Self-Defense

Sylvia Burrow

Part II: Embodied Relations, Political Contexts

7. Relational Existence and Termination of Lives: When Embodiment Precludes Agency

Susan Sherwin

8. A Body No Longer of One’s Own

Monique Lanoix

9. Premature (M)Othering: Levinasian Ethics and the Politics of Fetal Ultrasound Imaging

Jacqueline M. Davies

10. Inside the Frame of the Past: Memory, Diversity, and Solidarity

Sue Campbell

11. Collective Memory or Knowledge of the Past: “Covering Reality with Flowers”

Susan E. Babbitt

12. Agency and Empowerment: Embodied Realities in a Globalized World

Christine Koggel

List of Contributors



Minding Bodies

Letitia Meynell

1. Introduction

Feminist theory is peculiarly well suited to exploring the concepts of agency and embodiment. For historical, conceptual, and political reasons both topics have enjoyed considerable feminist attention. It is thus surprising that the many intersections that exist between these concepts have tended to be neglected, by both feminist theorists and nonfeminists alike. Theorizing about agency has often ignored all but the most rudimentary aspects of embodiment, and theories about the body have tended to forget that, typically, the human body is an agent, inevitably transforming through its actions both the world and itself. It is this strange gap between theorizing embodiment and theories of agency that the authors in this volume are particularly concerned to bridge.

2. The Tradition

Although somewhat mysterious in a feminist context, it is relatively easy to understand why the division between agency and embodiment is ubiquitous in traditional European thought, as it is firmly rooted in the distinction between mind (or soul) and body. The demarcation between mind and body (and the metaphysical problems arising from it) has been a mainstay of European thought, and while this demarcation is often associated with Plato and Descartes (Spelman 1982; Leder 1990), it is also at the heart of the Abrahamic religious traditions. In these religions, persons are thought to survive bodily death and receive in the “afterlife” punishment or reward for their actions in their previous embodied lives. In this tradition, the person is the soul/mind, not the crude material stuff of the body. Moreover, virtuous and rational persons concern themselves with the life of the immortal soul/mind, rather than mere bodily concerns. What Spelman has called “somatophobia” (fear and loathing of the body) is a recurring theme of the Western tradition (Spelman 1982).

This disdain for the body has resulted in the effective disappearance of the body from traditional European discussions of agency. Agency is clearly distinguished from mere bodily activity and is intimately tied to the mind. Activity is, after all, common to all life—even plants will grow and turn toward the sun. Agency, crucially, implies rationality and free will. In the European tradition, the agent was identified as the mind; thus the life of the mind became the locus for discussions of epistemology and ethics. Justification and judgment, those features of knowledge that distinguish it from mere belief, were thought to be achieved by minds. Similarly, ethical judgments, just as much as any other kind, are the purview of minds; so, too, is the will, which provides the capacity to act and to choose to do good or evil. While few, if any, thinkers in the European tradition have doubted that both knowledge of the world and action require a body, it has typically been treated as a mere medium through which information passes and by which the will pursues its ends. When properly functioning, the body is entirely generic. Indeed, often the body has only been noticed in theories of agency as something that may fail to function as expected or as commanded by the mind. Such failures have been taken as further proof of the inferiority of the body and bodily concerns when compared to the lofty life of the mind.

Experiences that, from a pre-theoretical view, might suggest that the mind-body distinction should not be so sharply drawn have been carefully dissected within this tradition. Thus desires and needs (phenomena where the mind appears ethically and rationally directed by and toward the body) were classified into rational desires or duties on one hand and mere appetites and preferences on the other, thus repeating and maintaining the mind-body split and the moral and epistemic hierarchy valuing the life of the mind over that of the body. Similarly, memory and imagination—in life, embodied experiences rich with affect—have often been reduced to ideas of the mind, one a source of knowledge, the other a source of creativity. The emotions, or “passions,” are also a case in point as they have typically been considered bodily states that required very strong control by the rational faculties.

There are notable exceptions, for instance, Hume’s account of emotions and moral psychology (1739/1969) reversed the relation of control, rendering reason the servant of the emotions. Indeed, a few philosophical and political theorists have gone even further, rejecting somatophobic dualism, in whole or in part. John Dewey’s notion of experience (Dewey 1980; Kestenbaum 1977), Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of perception (2002), Heidegger’s accounts of facticity and “being-in-the-world,” and more recently, Michel Foucault’s critique of power and modernity (Foucault 1979; 1980; 1990) have all explored the importance of embodiment to an understanding of human agency. Unfortunately, their implications for theories of agency have often been marginalized in canonical representations of the European tradition (Spicker 1970).

While one might think such heady stuff is the purview only of philosophy, it is not uncommon for members of the general public to think of themselves in dualistic ways—as minds that happen to be in particular bodies. Hence it seems quite natural to read science fiction stories of transplanting brains and downloading minds or ghost stories in which people’s lives of thoughts, desires, and feelings continue after their deaths. In these stories the body is treated as a mere vessel. Changing bodies seems to be like moving house—habits, challenges, and perspectives may alter, but the person inside remains one and the same. Even many common attitudes about emotions reflect the traditional philosophical views about the relation of mind to body. Thus crimes of passion may be treated more leniently precisely because the perpetrators are thought to have been overcome by their emotions and hence not responsible for their actions. Their embodied emotional state is supposed to have made it impossible for them to think and act rationally. An action, it seems, only belongs to a responsible agent when it is rationally chosen; emotions and other bodily responses can be disowned as aberrations. The implication is that subjects are only fully agents insofar as they can overcome their embodiment—mind and body are conceived as distinct and, indeed, in opposition.

Although the mind-body distinction and its many implications were prevalent throughout the history of European philosophy, the vision of “man” as rational agent took on new importance in the humanism of the Enlightenment. While this humanism displaced religion from the heart of the community (and, in some cases, from the hearts of individuals), mind-body dualism remained entrenched, and it continued to form the framing assumption for epistemology and ethics. Even now, within a mainstream philosophical community that attempts to keep religious assumptions out of metaphysics and that typically endorses some form of materialist monism (the position that there is no mind-body distinction because the mind is the brain) the implications of rejecting dualism have not yet reverberated through the discipline. While the theoretical tensions caused by the suppression of the body has prompted some contemporary philosophers of emotion and mind to challenge the tradition of somatophobic dualism (e.g., Damasio 1994; Clark 1998; Kelly 2003), the gulf between agency and embodiment, implied by mind-body dualism, remains in both ethics and epistemology.

In the Enlightenment, zeal for scientific reasoning, rationality, and freedom were naturalized but not embodied. Liberal political thought arose from the idea that rationality and free will are natural capacities of “all” humanity. These capacities are taken to be equally valuable among all people and worthy of protection. The rise of the autonomous, radically independent individual as the locus for liberal political thought brought with it not only democracy but capitalism and the belief that the free market was a kind of economic state of nature in which “man,” both as an individual and as a species, could flourish. The myths of the “self-made man” and entirely self-interested, rational economic agents resulted in a view of human autonomy that ignored the influences of personal relationships, communities, social position, and embodiment. Moreover, it fostered a sense that the state had an obligation to defend negative freedoms from interference rather than enforce positive freedoms of access to resources or opportunities. As the agent was thought to be naturally and fundamentally free when outside the legal constraints of society, the role of the state was to protect these freedoms as much as possible under the constraints imposed by engaging in the shared project of nation building.

While attention to positive freedoms might have directed attention toward agents as situated, embodied, and in need of resources, mainstream European political thought has not encouraged this view of persons. Moreover, women’s culturally mediated activities of child bearing, mothering, and caring for others (particularly their emotional and bodily needs) positioned them, symbolically, as antithetical to the ideal autonomous agent; hence, women and their traditional activities have been invisible in most political, ethical, and epistemological theories in the European tradition. In other words, insofar as bodily circumstances are relevant to agents’ activities and capacities, traditional theory has treated those whose bodily demands interfere with acting independently and “rationally” (as was assumed to be the case for women, racialized minorities, people with disabilities, and others) as incapable of fully meeting the criteria for competent agency and, hence, legitimately denied some of the privileges of agents. Thus, the mind-body distinction has had a crucial role in dividing theories of successful agency from considerations of embodiment. This paradigmatically metaphysical topic has not only shaped ethics and epistemology but has informed politics, economics, and science and continues to play a dominant role in contemporary society.

3. Feminist Responses to the Tradition

Much of feminist theory can be understood as a reaction to and correction of dominant traditions of thought. Just as we can see the influence of the mind-body distinction in European epistemology, ethics, and political theory, so it has also provided the metaphysical framework against which feminist theory has evolved. An investigation of the history of what this distinction has meant for women and how it has been used to maintain their inferiority and support their oppression shows that “agency” and “embodiment” have always been interestingly intertwined. But it also helps to explain how the conversations on these topics evolved in isolation from each other and why discussions of agency and of embodiment have typically applied quite different strategies of resistance against traditional European thought.

As feminist historians have persuasively shown, the oppression of women in the European tradition has often been justified by the view that women’s bodies overwhelm their rational capacity and thus undermine their agency (Schiebinger 1989). This was born from the related, though logically distinct, views that women were both deficient in rational capacity and more at the mercy of the contingencies of their embodiment (Tuana 1993). For much of European history the differences of agentic capacities between the sexes could be understood as God-given, no more mysterious or in doubt than the difference between subject and sovereign. As the Apostle Paul tells us, “the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands” (Ephesians 5.23–24, New Revised Standard Version).

However, with the scientific revolution and Enlightenment came the secularization of politics and theories of human nature. Along with theories about men’s natural rights came both calls for the recognition of women’s rights and a sense that tradition—religious or otherwise—was insufficient grounds upon which to deny them. As Londa Schiebinger explains, once natural rights of equality and freedom were taken to be the logical consequence of natural features of man, calls for women’s rights “could be countered only by proof of natural inequalities” (Schiebinger 2000, 9). Thus scientific efforts to identify and explain the essential and profound natural differences between males and females flourished, searching for features of bodies that could be used to explain differences in agentic capacities and thus justify differences in education, opportunity and legal rights.

3.1. Agency

Feminists, eager to defend the legal rights and equal rational capacities of women, argued that any differences that science might find between men’s and women’s bodies were not relevant to their agentic capacities. Appearances to the contrary resulted from differing education and differences in labor between the sexes, but, as one early feminist put it, “the mind has no sex” (Schiebinger 1989, 1). In the second wave of feminism, this basic idea came to be expressed by distinguishing biological sex from social gender. Roughly speaking, sex was taken to be the category of biological description while gender was a social concept. That women typically have uteruses that often have the capacity to bear children is a biological fact about the female sex; that women are underrepresented in the study of physics and those professions related to physics is a social fact about women’s gender. The sex-gender distinction and the turn to thinking of the differences between men and women’s lives as the result of social constructions, rather than emerging from biological fact, reinforced the view that the details of embodiment did not matter as much as the body being sufficiently clearly marked to allow categorization into social identities.

The idea that women could be rational agents prompted serious consideration of agency in the context of women’s lives and traditional roles. Feminists began to consider epistemology and ethics from the perspective of women’s lives—their experiences, their interests, and their labor. In other words, they looked at the effects of gender in the acquisition of knowledge and activities of daily life. This theorizing produced new understandings of the self and agency that radically departed from traditional conceptions.

Against the traditional liberal view of the radically autonomous subject, feminists argued that the self is not radically autonomous, but is importantly relational. While some theorists have understood the self as emerging solely through the interactions of close interpersonal relationships, others have understood relationships to include “the full range of influential human relations, personal and public . . . [thus] emphasizing political dimensions of the multiple relationships that structure an individual’s selfhood” (Sherwin 1998, 19). These thinkers have argued that the agent cannot escape her political context; the agent’s position in social hierarchies influences what she can know, what she wants, and what moral rights and obligations she might have.

In critiquing the liberal subject, feminist theorists have thus recognized that respecting and fostering the agency of women and members of other subordinated groups requires concepts of agency that are more theoretically creative and less politically exclusive than the dominant European ideal. Many feminists have worked on reconceptualizing the indispensable notion of autonomy in ways that recognize the importance of relational support to the possibilities of autonomous agency (e.g., Meyers 1989; Sherwin 1998; Mackenzie and Stoljar 2000). Others have attended to the transformative possibilities for critical agency that come with seeing the self as importantly socially constituted. Theorists like Maria Lugones (1989) and Sandra Harding (1991) among others have argued, for example, that the complex ways individuals are situated in the social can give rise to important critical positions for the exercise of political and epistemic agency.

However, in directly engaging dominant philosophical conceptions of agency, conceptions that neglect or disparage the body, feminist theorists have often themselves lost sight of the ways in which self-understanding and action are inevitably achieved through the body. Although they have decisively shown that any adequate theories of agency must be able to make sense of women’s lives without reinforcing oppressive norms, they have often failed to fully contest the very distinction upon which the exclusion of women from traditional theories rested—the mind-body distinction. Thus, feminist theories of agency and autonomy might be seen to implicitly reify the view that the life of the mind is distinct from and superior to the life of the body, simply through neglect.

3.2. Embodiment

Londa Schiebinger credits 1970s feminism with reinserting the body into history. Prior to this, the body was considered “too vulgar, trivial, or risqué to merit serious attention” (Schiebinger 2000, 1). Feminist theories of the body have been wide-ranging and multifaceted, some historical, others arising concomitantly with the shift in feminist theories of self and autonomy, some only indirectly engaging embodiment through theories of emotion, others engaging embodiment directly through philosophical phenomenology. Early accounts of the significance of embodiment in second wave feminism sometimes echoed familiar strains from the European tradition that associated men and masculinity with the mind, rationality, and agency, while linking women and femininity with the body, emotionality, and receptivity. These thinkers maintained that sex differences were essential differences—rooted in women’s biology as natural mothers or in men and women’s psychology through a psychoanalytic etiology (e.g., Keller 1987). Sexism, according to such views, was not rooted in the differences themselves, which were just a fact of nature, but in their inequitable valuation.

Many feminists, however, regarded this difference feminism as deeply misguided. One branch of feminist scholarship took the marking of gender on the body as evidence of the profound effects of social construction. This approach posits the body as a site of vulnerability and constraint upon which gender is carved. Theorists such as Sandra Bartky (1990), Susan Bordo (1993), Marilyn Frye (1983), and Iris Marion Young (2005) have made powerful contributions to our grasp of how oppressive systems operate through bodies socially marked and shaped as subordinate, creating “practiced and subjected” bodies (Bartky 1990, 71). The encoding of various meanings onto the body and the many ways that oppression is materialized through bodies was a focus that found ready support from feminist theorists in a number of areas. Feminist historians, for example, have documented the many ways in which the female body has been conceived as inferior to the male’s and as central to defining feminine identity. Moreover, they have traced the history of the role of science in creating our current folk theories of sex, race, and sexuality (Scheibinger 1989; Fausto-Sterling 2000). More recently, the feminist health movement has shown that a failure to take the possibility of significant statistical differences between sexed bodies seriously can both be understood as a symptom of sexist oppression and result in practices that seriously harm women (Baylis, Downie, and Sherwin 1998). (A familiar example of this critique involved the realization in the 1990s that many of the diagnostic signs of and treatments for heart disease were inadequate for diagnosing and treating women.) Though the focus on marked and socialized bodies has been, at the same time, an expression of feminists’ deep political commitment to acknowledging and fostering the agency of marginalized political subjects, it is fair to say that much feminist theory has engaged the issue of embodiment with an overwhelming focus on how oppressive practices constrain and damage agentic possibilities. Although this focus has been indispensable to an adequate analysis of oppression, it has done little to show how the body is the ground for agency more positively conceived.

There are, however, important resources in feminist theory for addressing these gaps. In particular, feminist theory is replete with a number of methodological strands that challenge the distorting legacy of mind/body dualism (though what follows is by no means an exhaustive list). First, the growth in feminist theory since the 1970s has been paralleled by a growth in theory of emotions (Rorty 1980; de Sousa 1987; Stocker 1999). Historically, emotions have been viewed as irrational, crucially embodied, part of our animal evolutionary past, and often peculiarly feminine. Yet their role in directing attention and motivating action has been an undeniable dimension of agency. Increasingly, emotion theorists, with substantial support from neuroscience (Damasio 1994), have argued that emotions have a crucial role in good judgment, and a rich literature has grown up exploring the ontology of emotions and their ethical, epistemic, and political significance. It is true that these theories focus on the cognitive and conceptual aspect of emotions; nevertheless this work has the capacity to challenge the tradition of mind-body dualism and provides a rich basis upon which to engage theories of both the body and agency. Many feminists now consider the emotions to be crucial components in ethics and epistemology (Calhoun 1984; Jaggar 1989; Scheman 1996; Campbell 1997). Indeed, the authors in this text simply assume the value of emotions to agency.

Secondly, poststructuralist, postmodern, and psychoanalytic modes of feminist theorizing have given rise to an array of devastating feminist critiques of the hierarchical dualisms that ground European thought. These dimensions of feminist theory have also yielded sophisticated post-Foucauldian conceptions of power that recognize in subjection possibilities for subversion and resistance, enacted through bodies. In Judith Butler’s work (1990; 1993), the embodied enactment and reinforcement of oppressive social norms is ineliminably tied to the power to undermine these same norms through subversive performance. In a similar vein, Donna Haraway’s (1991) cyborg embodies the potential of new partial perspectives, grounded in the breakdown of animal/human, organism/machine, and physical/nonphysical dichotomies. Freed from a unified organic essence and a mythology of lost innocence, the cyborg is a wily political agent whose fractured identity defies categorization and operates as a basis for resistance. Elizabeth Grosz’s account of agency as the multiple forces that act in and through a subject also poses a powerful challenge to multiple dualisms—including the dualism of inside and outside—that have informed dominant European understandings of bodies and minds (1994; 1995).

Third, many feminist theorists and activists have explored positions that rest “on the margins” of mainstream (read white, middle-class, culturally Christian, heterosexual, able-bodied) feminism. These theorists have used their own embodied realities as a challenge to do theory in ways that forefront the very embodied agency of those whose bodies are most disparaged by our current oppressive social orders. Theorists such as Patricia Hill Collins (2000), Audre Lorde (1984; 1986), Felly Nkweto Simmonds (1999), Susan Wendell (1996), Patricia Williams (1991), and Jacquelyn Zita (1998) have called on feminists to see that the ability to ignore the body in theorizing positive agency rests on the ignorance and privilege of those bodies that have not been marked by modes of oppression other than gender. Postcolonial feminist theorists, such as Chandra Talpade Mohanty (2003), have carried this concern with embodied agency into close contextual studies of women’s work and agency in the postcolonial contexts shaped by the interaction of global capitalism, with local ideologies of gender, class, caste, and ethnicity.

Finally, some feminists have drawn on phenomenology, particularly the work of Merleau-Ponty, to give an account of the lived body from the perspective of the subject (Bigwood 1991; Fielding 1996; Sullivan 1997; Weiss 1999; Stoller 2000; Young 2005). Interestingly, phenomenology is one of the few schools within the European tradition that has drawn together theories of embodiment and agency. For phenomenologists the lived body grounds the possibility of all experience. Against the tradition of treating the person as a mind in the vessel of the body, Merleau-Ponty took human being to be situated, embodied being-in-the-world. Although his work is not entirely ignored, it is definitely relegated to a certain philosophical niche and is typically overlooked by Anglo-American schools of thought.

Feminists have only begun to confront the depth of mind/body dualism in our theoretical traditions and have begun to rebuild philosophy from a more plausible basis, firmly grounded in real lives. This volume contributes to this project by re-envisioning knowledge, morality, and politics as grounded in living, marked, diverse, active bodies and addressing ongoing conversations from this robust physical and political basis. The authors in this volume also draw strongly on the rich, sophisticated discussions of autonomy that have grown out of close feminist inspection of the traditional liberal subject, bringing these discussions into close conversation with reflections on embodiment. They recognize that paying attention to embodiment, far from being a distraction, is an important and fecund ground for theorizing agency.

4. The Volume

4.1. Becoming Subjects: Agency Embodied

As Lois McNay notes, theories of identity formation of subjects in oppressive circumstances have typically been negative, treating “subjectification as subjection” (2000, 2). While McNay traces this trend to Foucauldian social construction and Lacanian psychoanalysis, it is fair to say that this tendency goes right to the roots of feminist theory. In his early liberal feminist treatise, John Stuart Mill, for example, offers a vivid account of subjectification as subjection:

in the case of women, a hot-house and stove cultivation has always been carried on of some of the capabilities of their nature, for the benefit and pleasure of their masters. Then, because certain products of the general vital force sprout luxuriantly and reach a great development in this heated atmosphere and under this active nurture and watering, while other shoots from the same root, which are left outside in the wintry air, with ice purposely heaped all round them, have a stunted growth, and some are burnt off with fire and disappear; men, with that inability to recognize their own work which distinguishes the unanalytic mind, indolently believe that the tree grows of itself in the way they have made it grow, and that it should die if one half of it were not kept in a vapour bath and the other half in the snow. (Mill 1869/1997, 21)

Although Mill’s account is perceptive, both identifying the delusion of those who police gender norms and suggesting that no body can entirely flourish under the extremes of gender socialization, Mill’s gendered subject is nevertheless entirely passive. Whether subjected to or freed from oppressive forces, women become subjects passively, either through “hot-house and stove” social construction or through nature taking its course through the body’s ontogeny. Freed from oppression, girls become women in the fertile soil of liberal society just as acorns become oak trees.

Subsequent feminist attention to the real ways in which girls become women has emphasized that emotionally rich relationships of care, which are complex and importantly mutual, are the means by which individual humans become subjects and agents. The reciprocity of these relationships expressly implies that the subject herself has a role in becoming subject, but as the authors in Part I reveal, the agency of becoming subject goes far beyond the mutuality of parent-child relationships. These authors explore how we become individually and collectively identified subjects through the agentic possibilities that arise from specific modes of embodiment in a variety of contexts.

Kym Maclaren sets the tone for this section and for the volume, providing a useful account of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology through an engaging example of identity development in young children in “Emotional Metamorphoses: The Role of Others in Becoming a Subject.” Maclaren introduces a number of themes that recur throughout the volume: the importance of others in constituting the self, the epistemic and ethical role of emotions, the project of autonomy, and the importance of grounding theory in real lives and moral psychology, rather than relying on abstract idealization. Maclaren offers a new conceptualization of the subject as agent, using phenomenology as a powerful tool for reconfiguring the subject as “being in the world” as she struggles to understand her experience and become herself. This struggle is particularly fraught in Maclaren’s example of sibling rivalry, regression, and self-overcoming in the development of young children. Her account of psychological development serves as an explanation of the way in which particular relationships, physically enacted through bodies, provide new resources for understanding one’s place in the world and developing a sense of self that belongs there.

Angela Failler and Alexis Shotwell develop these themes while also introducing another: the influence of oppressive political contexts on our attempts to create selves. While they raise a familiar feminist issue—the lived politics of marginalized identities—each argues that we must reconceive agency through reflecting on aspects of embodiment to understand the positive possibilities of self-creation. In “Racial Grief and Melancholic Agency,” Failler takes up the challenges of self-becoming in a racialized context. Following Anne Anlin Cheng’s extension of Freudian melancholy into social critique (2000), Failler offers a psychoanalysis of American racism, revealing the ongoing process of becoming a racialized subject through disavowals and incorporations of various lost others. This process is both profoundly political and personal, enacted in society and inscribed on the body. In contrast to the simplified analyses of so-called power feminists, Failler offers a nuanced account of the perils of victim identification; she explores melancholia as a legitimate expression of grief that can also be a site for agency. Like Maclaren, Failler attempts to theorize new dimensions of agency that show how embodied relations that are often regarded as conflicted and oppositional can be a resource for agentic capacities.

Similar struggles for self-definition, mediated between social construction and biological reality, are negotiated by Alexis Shotwell in “A Knowing That Resided in My Bones: Sensuous Embodiment and Trans Social Movement.” Guided by trans narratives and other genderqueer biographies, Shotwell navigates the epistemology of embodiment through the concept of sensuous knowledge—a type of embodied understanding that calls for political action. Through this knowledge genderqueer subjects can propel positive projects of self and social transformation. Through transitioning, trans subjects come to be at home in their own bodies; thus, genderqueer transformations are seen to be deeply personal transformations that are also political. Being at home in one’s body is shown to be entwined with being at home in one’s community.

Shotwell’s characterization of sexual transitioning as a site for agency finds a counterpoint in Rebecca Kukla’s critical discussion of body modification and the discourse of the mismatch between the inner agent and her outer body that justifies it. In “The Phrenological Impulse and the Morphology of Character,” Kukla suggests that we remain captivated by the idea that parts of the body can be taken as signs of character and that we can thus truly become ourselves by surgically altering our bodies. Kukla explores how the background assumptions of nineteenth-century phrenology and mind-body dualism—complicated by the possibility of a mismatch between them—still resonate in the twenty-first century. Contemporary plastic surgery acts as an external means of crafting one’s own character and correcting deceptive “deformities” so as to either reveal the real self and its capacities or to become a new self. The character, limited by having the wrong appearance, is freed; the knife restores the natural order. Kukla’s account foregrounds the complex politics behind these transformations.

Catriona Mackenzie revisits and integrates many of the themes raised in the first four papers, providing the reader with a careful theoretical analysis of the role of narrative in self-becoming and both the constraints of political oppression and embodied possibility in this activity. Her essay, “Personal Identity, Narrative Integration, and Embodiment,” follows a growing feminist critique of traditional European accounts of personal identity, abandoning the attempt to explicate necessary and sufficient conditions for personal identity in favor of an analysis of narrative self-constitution. Drawing on Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, Mackenzie shows that a narrative approach to self that ignores the importance of embodied subjectivity cannot explain the dialectic of continuity and change that characterize our attempts to become integrated subjects. Crucial to Mackenzie’s account is the idea of the bodily perspective, comprising body schema—the non-conscious, non-intentional organization of experience and action that guides ordinary daily activity—and body image—the “perceptual awareness of one’s body . . . mental representations of one’s body, beliefs about it, and emotional attitudes toward it.” This bodily perspective forms the lens through which the subject experiences and understands her life and thus is the basis of all possible action. The first-person self-narrative is also informed by the responses of others who perceive her body; thus, the subject is vulnerable to having her own bodily perspective challenged and changed by others. In this way Mackenzie offers insight into the ways in which oppressive norms can be internalized, without thereby stripping the subject of agency.

Sylvia Burrow completes Part I by offering a concrete suggestion for developing agency through embodied practice. In “Bodily Limits to Autonomy: Emotion, Attitude, and Self-Defense,” Burrow argues that training in self-defense can contribute to autonomy, investigating the role of the body and bodily awareness in confronting sex oppression. Building on Diana Tietjens Meyers’s account of autonomy as a set of competencies (1989; 2004), Burrow extends the analysis to involve bodily competencies arising from self-defense training. These are not limited to the physical skills by which one can defend oneself from personal violence, but also extend to self-confidence and associated attitudes that provide the emotional basis for developing autonomy. By offering a tangible method for overcoming the bodily-encoded limits associated with sex oppression and feminine identity, Burrow directs our attention to the larger political themes that run through the second part of the volume.

4.2. Embodied Relations: Political Contexts

The papers in Part II engage central political issues—national policies on the distribution of scarce medical resources, political goals of religious movements, Aboriginal reclamations of postcolonial histories, international conflict, and globalized economics—exploring the wide variety of ways in which politics constrains and creates possibilities for meaningful action. Susan Sherwin and Monique Lanoix focus on state-sponsored or institutionally managed contexts of care where moral commitments arising from personal relationships, embodied practices, and bodily and agentic capacities confront the public policy and political institutions that inform and shape these relationships, constraining personal agency. Jacqueline Davies and Sue Campbell foreground the ways in which the deep values and commitments that inform our interpretive practices (themselves a product of historical contingencies that engage larger political movements) construct and constrain the ways in which agents can think of themselves and present themselves. Susan Babbitt and Christine Koggel bring the discussion into the international arena, demanding that global economics and international policies be held accountable to the lived realities of human agents, the pursuit of justice, and the hope of genuinely improving human lives. All of the essays in this part challenge the reader to reconceptualize agency and embodiment in ways adequate to political realities and personal relationships, exploring the limits of bodies and agency.

The first three papers of this section, by Susan Sherwin, Monique Lanoix, and Jacqueline Davies, address the relationships between bodies in particular medical contexts, where differences in embodiment between caregiver and care receiver may have serious consequences for the agentic possibilities of both. While these relationships are crucially ethical and personal, each of these three papers brings out ways in which the agency of the subjects is constrained by outside political forces.

In “Relational Existence and Termination of Lives: When Embodiment Precludes Agency,” Susan Sherwin reveals the power of a relational analysis in challenging and changing the contemporary discourse around ethical relationships and policy decisions in key medical contexts. Specifically, Sherwin confronts public policy that addresses the obligations that particular others have to those at the boundaries of moral personhood in the contexts of abortion and end-of-life decisions for individuals in persistent vegetative states. Sherwin’s contextual approach embeds personhood in the social environments that constitute and maintain persons, and questions the moral and political meanings of embodied states that preclude agency. The capacity to relate is importantly mutual, and Sherwin argues that forms of embodiment that exclude certain critical agentic capacities need to be recognized as morally significant differences. Public policy decisions that burden those in relations of care for humans at the borders of moral personhood with ethical and legal obligations must meet the demands of justice and conform with the goals and values implicitly held by the social collective responsible for the policy.

Monique Lanoix effectively extends and reframes Sherwin’s analysis looking at the institutionalized and economic mediation of the care relationships that typify the end of life. In “A Body No Longer of One’s Own,” Lanoix investigates the politics of control and the limits of agency negotiated by those who cannot fulfill the activities of daily living without some assistance and by the people who care for them. Despite the obvious centrality of bodily needs, limitations, and labor in these relationships, Lanoix argues that current institutionalized practices of care actually ignore the body. She explains that the current economic structuring of care labor compromises the caregiver and alienates the care receiver from her own body under a misleading public discourse of consumer autonomy. Lanoix advocates a reconfiguring of care activities around relational models of autonomy that reconceptualize the relationship between caregiver and -receiver as mutual, and highlight the personal and intimate nature of the care labor itself.

Jacqueline Davies also addresses the ways in which third parties may inform ethical relationships and, in some cases, attempt to create ethical relationships where, arguably, none exist. In “Premature (M)Othering: Levinasian Ethics and the Politics of Fetal Ultrasound Imaging,” Davies shows how pro-life groups endorse using fetal ultrasound as a means of forcing pregnant women, prematurely, into an ethical relationship with the “unborn child,” displacing the a pregnant woman’s embodied experience of her pregnancy in favor of the supposedly objective authority of the visual image. The argument implicit in these tactics looks, at first glance, like an application of Levinas’s ethics—the pregnant woman is confronted by the fetal face of the Other, who demands that she respond ethically to her or his needs and thus become mother. However, Davies argues that rather than mediating between a mother and child, the ultrasound operates as a surrogate moralist, brandishing the image of a fetal face and ventriloquizing its voice. The image presents the fetus as the face of the Other and thus creates a mother who must meet the ethical demand of the encounter—that is, a mother whose motherhood is defined by the impossibility of choosing abortion. The ethical relation that might exist between pregnant woman and fetus is hijacked by a third party that masquerades as providing information (and thus as an aid to autonomy) while in fact radically constraining pregnant women’s bodily self-determination and moral integrity.

Sue Campbell continues to explore the power of others in interpreting experience and ethical relevance, turning toward the importance of others’ embodied imaginative engagement with representations of the past. In “Inside the Frame of the Past: Memory, Diversity, and Solidarity,” Campbell applies performance theory to the epistemology of memory as a method of illuminating the relational and reconstructive aspects of remembering. Although she begins her analysis by showing how memory performances and their reception often function to affirm personal relationships through creating an imaginary of shared values, Campbell extends her analysis to oppositional rememberings that challenge the audiences from which they seek uptake. Her central example is a First Nations work, The Scrubbing Project. Utilizing Maria Lugones’s account of “world”-traveling (Lugones 1989), Campbell argues that even when audiences are ill at ease in others’ memory “worlds,” their engagement can contribute important resources to marginalized social memory, opening the possibility for relationships of solidarity. Campbell reveals the deep politics of collective memory, using performance theory to draw attention to the importance of communicative uptake in making memories meaningful.

The final two papers of the volume continue the theme of collective moral agency, each addressing the position of agents in the context of global politics and international injustice. In counterpoint to Campbell, Susan Babbitt challenges the focus on collective memory as the basis for imagining a just future. In “Collective Memory or Knowledge of the Past: ‘Covering Reality with Flowers,’” Babbitt draws on insights from Palestinian author Mourid Barghouti (2003) and Marxist (particularly Cuban) political figures, exhorting us to look with “open eyes” and engage concretely with the contingent present, rather than seeking to understand the present through mythologies of the past. Arguing against an intellectualist conception of collective memory as increased knowledge about the past or increased attention to others’ perspectives, she contends that acts are made meaningful for agents by virtue of being relevant for their current self-conceptions and future plans. Thus, people can only find an explanatory purpose in alternative accounts of the past when they already need and desire to move into the future differently. Babbitt’s analysis is primarily directed toward our collective envisioning of a more just future and demands that this humanistic project not be hobbled by attachments to the past and identities rooted in collective histories. Rather, to achieve true freedom, we must actively avoid intellectual despotism, embrace the insecurity that follows from a lack of certainty, and start from an experiential understanding of our lived individual and social reality.

Christine Koggel completes the volume by offering a characterization of agency in a globalized context of postcolonial oppression that is sensitive to the multiple and varied challenges of the lives of the economically marginalized. Koggel argues in “Agency and Empowerment: Embodied Realities in a Globalized World” that the current focus on agency and empowerment in international development and discussions of social justice, though laudable, requires a relational conception of persons in order to be successful. This relational analysis reveals the power dynamics that are characteristic of the inequalities of contemporary liberal, capitalist society, and international economic bodies—dynamics frequently invisible to those in power. She argues that the real facts of daily living for the socially marginalized—especially the ways in which basic bodily needs are pursued and achieved, despite a context of displacement and denial—is only visible through a relational account. Koggel’s essay concludes the volume by addressing some of the central ethical challenges facing contemporary society: the problems of social justice in the face of global capitalism. In framing the problem as one of how to enhance the agency of the oppressed without denying their current agency in the context of real bodily needs, limitations, and physically enacted relations of power, she moves us closer toward an “embodied ethics” (Weiss 1999, chap. 7). Through engaging the body, in its physical and political context, not merely as the tool of the agent, but the site of agency, the authors in this volume reveal the importance of integrating the concepts of agency and embodiment and understanding them as crucially in relation with one another.

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