"The women of Bikini Kill let guitarist Billy Karren be in their feminist punk band, but only if he's willing to just "do some shit." Being a feminist dude is like that. We may ask you to "do some shit" for the band, but you don't get to be Kathleen Hannah."--@heatherurehere

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Relational Autonomy

False Dichotomies
Among the good discussions that we've had here (in my opinion, of course) at FA have included some interesting takes on what it means to be an individual chooser in a world full of other individual choosers, and how gender and gender inequality intersects with the concept of agency. In a discussion about what men might want to do in order to help create safer-feeling spaces for women (and others) in the world, it was remarked more than once that whomever is feeling unsafe, it is that person's choice to feel that way, or that person's choice to walk down a particular street, or that person's choice to walk down the street any way he wants, regardless of how that might or might not make others feel. Further, for some, the mere suggestion that we are not completely autonomous, rational agents seemed to imply some sort of slippery-slope argument where nobody is then responsible for anything. Eric, for instance, said:
To say that our social circumstances affect our choices to such a huge extent that we are not REALLY individual rational agents, but people limited by our social contexts that the choices are made for us, is to imply that there really isn't such a thing as choice to begin with.

I tried to point out that there was a false dichotomy at work here, between the idea that we are autonomous, atomistic rational agents and the idea that we are mere autonoma, compeltely created by our environment with only 'external' input and no input, so to speak, from the individual. But it can be a tough idea to get one's head around--if the choices we make are affected by our environment, indeed, if the very individuals that we have become isn't simply a matter of individual choice, then what happens to the notions of rights, to the notions of individual autonomy, to choice?

Feminism and the Ahistorical Self
arielladrake, another commentor, points us the way, by first also noting that the dichotomy is lame a false one, but also pointing to the way that feminists may conceptualize agency and autonomy:
Because, for most feminist theory, and phenomenological conceptions of the subject, it's not a case of 'individual rational agents' and 'choice doesn't exist' as the only two options. Because the idea of the individual rational agent in philosophy *is* predicated on this idea of an asocial, ahistorical, transcended subject. And, quite frankly, that's bollocks, because it fails to understand the reality of people. It's the people clinging to this that proclaim any criticism of this fundamental modernist flaw must mean that we are all completely determined and have no choices whatsoever.

But while I knew (and agreed with) various feminist conceptualizations of why ahistorical, atomistic selves aren't very good reflections of people in the world, I hadn't run across any theorhetical frameworks provided by feminists which would help to reconceptualize individual choosers, taking into account feminists' various critiques (except, perhaps, some understanding of the ethics of care, which seemed to me to be useful, but narrow in scope) until I ran across the notion of relational autonomy.

How Relational Autonomy Works
Relational autonomy isn't a simple concept, from what I've been able to glean so far, but we can understand it as consisting of two main conceptual arugments: First of all, 'autonomous' agents can only learn to be autonomous agents from within a social setting. Dr. Elizabeth Sperry, in her paper "Foucauldian Power, Relational Autonomy, and Resistance Through Friendship," points this out clearly and succinctly:
Relational autonomy theorists contend that autonomy is fundamentally social in nature. Far from requiring a complete independence from others, autonomy is made possible only thanks to forms of dependence and interaction with others. First, in our society potentially autonomous agents are constructed as such only through extended periods of dependency on others, usually in family settings. Indeed, insufficient or ineffective nurturing during childhood makes more difficult the attainment of autonomy in adulthood. Certainly others must provide food and shelter in order for young children to be able to attain autonomous adulthood. But young children are not merely physically dependent on others; they must be taught language, various behaviors, the rudiments of self-control, the concept of values, the resources of their culture, and the possibility of relations with others. The development of autonomy is thus not possible in the absence of social relations, including relations of dependency.

So, autonomy, if it exists at all, must develop from within social systems of interactions with others.

But that's not the only place that autonomy relies on relationships with others. The second main point of relational autonomy is that autonomy itself relies on interactions with others to provide the necessary 'raw materials' for decision making. As adults, being social is intextricably intertwined with being autonomous. Sperry explains this clearly:
Second, adult autonomy is maintained in relationships with others. It is difficult to imagine a would-be autonomous agent successfully maintaining her sense of self in the absence of all human interaction, not only because the psychological costs of absolute loneliness would be immense, but because an agent continues to work out her sense of self through social interaction. Linda Barclay notes that “our ongoing success as an autonomous agent is affected by our ability to share our ideas, our aspirations, and our beliefs in conversation with others. It is unlikely that any vision or aspiration is sustained in isolation from others.”21 We rely on others for emotional support, for intellectual interchange, and to supply the context in which many of our own projects can be pursued. Autonomous agents have various goals and desires—to publish a book, to maintain a healthy marriage, to invest wisely for retirement, and so on—which require cooperation from others. Additionally, each of us continues to alter our sense of self and our life plan in response to the input and actions of agents around us.

Finally, the self’s own concepts and values are made possible through social organization. This differs from the developmental point that we learn our culture’s language, concepts, values, and available life plans in early childhood socialization; the claim here is that these elements themselves are culturally created and sustained. The very words and meanings we use to reflect on our preferred path of individual self-development are “constituted by social practices,”22 as is the value of reflecting on our own self-development. Social practices are necessary for autonomy in that they produce its raw matter.

As Sperry goes on to explain, it isn't that we are cut off causally from others that can make us autonomous, or some innate quality that we possess, but rather it is the actual reflection on our environments that help to create autonomous beings. So, to go back to our original discussion about men and their possible responsibilities for behavior simply walking down the street in a sexist society, we might frame it this way: The men who do reflect on the fact that they live in a sexist society and make their decisions with that in mind are being more autonomous--not in the sense of being cut off from others causally, but in the sense of creating a self that makes decisions about itself taking into account others who are outside of itself--than the men who pretend that we're atomistic, that each of us is an individual chooser with no (or little) regard to the input that we recieved as we grew up, or the input we constantly recieve now as adults.

And What Does All of this Have to Do with Feminism?
To bring it back to the topic of this groupblog more explicitly, it's important to note that the entire concept of relational autonomy has as its roots the feminist criticism of the self as an ahistorical, causally atomistic sort of thing--which in part leads to a rejection of overly simplistic conceptions of self, free-will, and, as it turns out, autonomy.

[[edited out 'lame' per ariella's suggestion]]


Anonymous said...

Hello Jeff
I appreciate the way you instatiate relational self as a "man walking down a street in a sexist society". And thanks for the whole article and the quotes; very helpful. Yet, I don't think that "relational self" is an exclusively "feminist" notion. Ahistoricality of liberal conceptions of the self and subjectivity have been criticized philosophically and politically way before the emergence of feminist movement. Among many, those bump into my mind immediately are Karl Marx's and Fredrich Engels' criticisims in a number of their works: The Holy Family, The German Ideology, and the Manifesto etc.
By the way, I came accross this blog incidentally but I hope to attend more regularly.

Jeff Pollet said...

Hey Siyaves...thanks for stopping by. Posts these days are few and far-between, but it may not always be that way.

You're right about the roots of relational autonomy, of course--that's why Foucault is mentioned early on and such.

I do think that the way relational autonomy is used these days has been updated by feminism enough that I'd put feminism at the head of the pack of "-isms" that have brought us relational autonomy, but I don't have the time or energy to back that up at the moment.

I'm a lapsed Marxist, and one reason I'm lapsed is that feminism has added enough to lots of Marxist ideas that appeal to me that they're pretty much feminist ideas to me, no matter how much they rest somehow on the shoulders of Marx (and Engels). But again, I have no time to show my work here...just intuitions.