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There has been a lively debate amongst political theorists about whether certain liberal concepts of democracy are so idealized that they lack relevance to ‘real’ politics. Echoing these debates, Lois McNay examines in this book some theories of radical democracy and argues that they too tend to rely on troubling abstractions - or what she terms ‘socially weightless’ thinking. They often propose ideas of the political that are so far removed from the logic of everyday practice that, ultimately, their supposed emancipatory potential is thrown into question.

Radical democrats frequently maintain that what distinguishes their ideas of the political from others is the fundamental concern with unmasking and challenging unrecognized forms of inequality and domination that distort everyday life. But this supposed attentiveness to power is undermined by the invocation of rarefied models of political action that treat agency as an unproblematic given and overlook certain features of the embodied experience of oppression. The tendency of radical democrats to define democratic agency in terms of dynamics of perpetual flux, mobility and agonism passes over too swiftly the way in which objective structures of oppression are often taken into the body as subjective dispositions, leaving individuals with the feeling that they are unable to do little more than endure a state of affairs beyond their control.

Drawing on the work of Adorno, Bourdieu and Honneth, amongst others, McNay argues that in order to make good the critique of power, radical democratic theory should attend more closely to a phenomenology of negative social experience and what it can reveal about the social conditions necessary for effective political agency.
This book reassesses theories of agency and gender identity against the backdrop of changing relations between men and women in contemporary societies. McNay argues that recent thought on the formation of the modern subject offers a one-sided or negative account of agency, which underplays the creative dimension present in the responses of individuals to changing social relations. An understanding of this creative element is central to a theory of autonomous agency, and also to an explanation of the ways in which women and men negotiate changes within gender relations.


In exploring the implications of this idea of agency for a theory of gender identity, McNay brings together the work of leading feminist theorists - such as Judith Butler and Nancy Fraser - with the work of key continental social theorists. In particular, she examines the work of Pierre Bourdieu, Paul Ricoeur and Cornelius Castoriadis, each of whom has explored different aspects of the idea of the creativity of action. McNay argues that their thought has interesting implications for feminist ideas of gender, but these have been relatively neglected partly because of the huge influence of the work of Michel Foucault and Jacques Lacan in this area. She argues that, despite its suggestive nature, feminist theory must move away from the ideas of Foucault and Lacan if a more substantive account of agency is to be introduced into ideas of gender identity.

This book will appeal to students and scholars in the areas of social theory, gender studies and feminist theory.

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