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Being YourselfReview - Being Yourself
Essays on Identity, Action, and Social Life
by Diana Tietjens Meyers
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2004
Review by Jennifer Booth, Ph.D.
Sep 22nd 2004 (Volume 8, Issue 39)

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 autonomous agent.

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 selves.

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 experience.

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 to reject.

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


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