Emancipation without utopia: Subjection, modernity, and the normative claims of feminist critical theory

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Feminist theory needs both explanatory-diagnostic and anticipatory-utopian moments in order to be truly critical and truly feminist. However, the explanatory-diagnostic task of analyzing the workings of gendered power relations in all of their depth and complexity seems to undercut the very possibility of emancipation on which the anticipatory-utopian task relies. In this paper, I take this looming paradox as an invitation to rethink our understanding of emancipation and its relation to the anticipatory-utopian dimensions of critique, asking what conception of emancipation is compatible with a complex explanatory-diagnostic analysis of contemporary gender domination as it is intertwined and entangled with race, class, sexuality, and empire. I explore this question through an analysis of two specific debates in which the paradoxical relationship between power and emancipation emerges in particularly salient and seemingly intractable forms: debates over subjection and modernity. Drawing on the work of Michel Foucault, I argue that a negativistic conception of emancipation offers the best way for feminist critical theory to transform the paradox of power and emancipation into a productive tension that can fuel critique.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)513-529
Number of pages17
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jun 1 2015

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Gender Studies
  • Philosophy


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