Identity as institution: power, agency, and the self

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Department of Humanities


This paper addresses issues of agency and self-identity on the basis of a phenomenology of embodiment. It considers a tension in accounts of embodiment between, on the one hand, the body as the locus of subjectivity, lived experience, and agency, and, on the other hand, the body as constructed, as the site where discursive regimes of power are inscribed. In exploring this tension I consider Frantz Fanon’s and Sarah Ahmed’s phenomenological accounts of racism to illustrate the ways in which social power and violence come to be implicated in these conflicts within our embodied identities. I also consider Foucauldian “power” in relation to Merleau-Ponty’s concept of “institution.” I argue that only the phenomenological concept of institution, by drawing our attention to the ambiguities of lived embodiment, succeeds in offering us resources for thinking about the interplay between passivity and agency in the life of the subject, and, in particular, about a form of agency not wholly reducible to the effects of power.

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© 2020, Springer Nature B.V. Publisher’s version of record: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11097-020-09707-w

Publication Title

Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences