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Professor Meyers provides a
collection of self authored essays which centre on the topic of agency. More
precisely, they ask how we define agency; its relation to autonomy,
rationality, and self-determination; and overall how we define the self. Meyers
approach is broadly one of locating the self, or the 'agent', within the
cultural, social and embodied contexts in which we live. Although Meyers does
not wholly reject a Kantian account of rational autonomy or even the
poststructuralist abandonment of a unitary self, her suggestion is that neither
will sufficiently account for the phenomenological experience of being an
The book is divided into three
parts: the first of which concentrates on establishing Meyers' 'autonomous
agent'. The second progresses to see this agent in a context of morals and
rights, with particular focus on emotional or caring approaches to moral judgments.
The last section grounds the issues raised throughout the book in contemporary
cultural contexts, notably the admirable artworks of Hannah Wilke.
On the whole the book is well
structured, although each chapter could be read independently of one another
there is no repetition or tedious overlap between them. It is fair to say that
the sections differ somewhat in their intelligibility to a non-academic
audience. In particular, the first section is quite dense, and in places
understanding is much facilitated by a reader's background knowledge. However,
that said, the work is not constrained by technical jargon or lifeless theorizing.
On the contrary, Meyers' style is elegant, insightful and altogether gripping
in places. Peppered with personal experiences and analogies this book is likely
to be pleasing to any interested reader.
At the beginning of the book
Meyer makes two moves that are commendable: she clearly states her agenda and
is up-front about the terminological implications she wishes to avoid. It is
clear that Meyer's writes from a feminist perspective, but she does so in a
novel way. Whereas many similar theorists may find themselves drawn to ideal
theories of actions and ethics, Meyers clearly states that such romanticizing
is out of touch with the problems, prejudice, and oppression that
contemporaneous women face. What she aims to do is pinpoint and explicate the
methods by which today's women are able to become autonomous agents whilst
living in sometimes oppressive contexts.
Although Meyers departs from
well-trodden definitions, she maintains traditional terminology. For instance,
when using the term 'self determination' she clearly divorces herself from any
debate on free will versus determinism in human action. However, one need only
look closely to the text as new definitions of agency, autonomy and
self-determination emerge. One might suspect that the reason Meyer does not
start the book with simplistic positive definitions is because the agent she
envisages just does not lend itself to simplistic definitions.
For Meyer autonomous individuals
are self governing: they have a clear awareness of and sensitivity to their
traits, attributes, values and beliefs, and are able to be appropriately
reactive to them:
When people are clear about what
they truly want, who they deeply care about, what they genuinely believe in,
and so forth, and when they are able to act on these desires, affections, and
values, they may attest to their own autonomy." (p.13)
For Meyers, it seems the acts of
choosing deciding and valuing are central to being an autonomous subject. The
actual content of the choices one might make does not seem of rival importance.
Individuals for Meyer have 'intersectional'
identities, a term used to describe the complexity of the social groups and
bonds which define people. A person's intersectional identity is a result of
any combinations of the variables of race, ethnicity, class, sexual
orientation, gender, and so on and so forth.
Though as the term intersectionality
might indicate, knowing ones own values and making informed choices is not
equivalent to the possession of any kind of unitary or homogenized self
concept. Such a unitary 'self' is neither desired nor required by Meyer. That
is, knowing what one truly wants is, for Meyer, to know who one truly is and
hence there is no additional need to locate an ontologically unified subject
anywhere along the line.
There is no self-to-be-located, it is something we create
(and it seems, never finish):
"The authentic self is nothing but the
evolving collocation of attributes" (p.39)
However, the intersectional
authentic self is not to be captured by a poststructuralist or as Meyers terms
it 'contrarian'(see p.21) account. That is, total loss of the notion of 'self'
is not something Meyer wishes to advocate; on the contrary self-knowledge as
she intends it is at the very heart of being an autonomous agent. Meyers
escapes the paradox looming here between rejecting an exclusively unitary self
and abandoning the self altogether by claiming that people have not one self,
but 'selves'. More accurately, they have dimensions of self. This rejection of
a simple unitary self is equated somewhat with a rejection of a rational or
wholly independent self. In particular, Meyers rejects the sufficiency of a
Kantian characterization of autonomy: to Meyers, the rational agent is only one
aspect of the autonomous agent she proposes.
Meyers suggests there are five
dimensions to the self: the unitary self (the Kantian rational analyzer); the
social self (the effect of enculturated values); the relational self (made from
interpersonal bonds that we make); the divided self (our psychodynamic
unconscious desires), and the embodied self.
Although she explores how the 'embodied'
self might play a role in controlling action, one wishes the consideration of
the embodied self could be taken further. For instance, one could claim that
the relational self and the social self at least are partly comprised of the
embodied self, the latter of which is then further realised in the former two
Another aspect of the account
that is perhaps underdeveloped is an explanation of how it is that we have the
experience of being a unified self, not a multidimensional self. Meyers claim
seems to be that the narratives which we generate about our lives manage the
weaving of these dimensional selves into one coherent story without fuss, so
there should therefore be no problem in explaining our contemporaneous
On the whole, the second and
third sections of the book are arguably less pure theoretical analysis and more
contextual investigation of the theoretical ideas. However this does not lessen
either the insight or sophistication which Meyers brings throughout the book.
The consideration of rights and morals, the introduction of feminist artistic
movements and the demonstration of her views on agency in the context of our
cultural time are commendable.
One is left with the feeling that
Meyers' agents are far from being victims. Although people are exposed to
myriad influences from enculturation, social groupings and hierarchies, they
are not simply osmotic sponges. Meyers' agent exercises autonomy competency
through the use of a variety of skills. They communicate, they value, they
imagine, they categorize, defend against, reflect upon, modify and select the
inputs that they wish to incorporate into their identities and those they wish
Perhaps quite refreshingly,
Meyers' suggestion is that having an intersectional identity and a
multidimensional self is, in fact, the key to agentic autonomy and not a
formula for its destruction.
© 2005 Jennifer Booth
Jennifer Booth, Department of
Philosophy, University of Warwick