he cover design of Claire Rasmussen’s appealing and insightful book aptly captures the paradox of autonomy. A heroic female athlete races forward, effortlessly gliding over a hurdle, head held high in a halo of light. The racer’s left hand points ahead, setting her direction towards victory and progress. On-lookers stand restrained behind a barricade, prevented from interfering with the runner’s forward motion. The athletic body—the autonomous animal—creates her destiny. And yet the runner does not trace a random route. The track is laid for her, the goal is indisputable, and the endpoint is foreordained. How then, Rasmussen asks, can autonomy be understood? To answer this question, the author explicates autonomy from the standpoint of the self. She is interested specifically in “the practices of the self that are required of us in order to be seen by others—and our self—as autonomous” (page xiii). This focus on the self that views autonomy as “the ability to self-govern” and the “compulsion to self-regulate” (page xiv) is both a major strength and a potential limitation of the work.

Rasmussen begins the book with a succinct, accessible, and rewarding review of approaches to autonomy. An avowed antifoundationalist, she considers and rejects the classical liberal view of autonomy as an inherent trait of the rights-bearing subject and repudiates, on the same ground, a Kantian reliance on transcendental moral law and the assumption of universal rationality as the guarantor of moral action. This brings her to the “paradox” (page 18) posed by Foucault, whose view of society as saturated with power relations makes autonomy “an impossible fantasy” (page 13) in which “the political norm of autonomy requires that autonomous subjects conform to socially defined expectations of autonomous subjects” (page 15) at the same time that the denial of Kantian universal rationality “makes the subject ultimately responsible…for its actions” (page 19). Rasmussen threads this needle by bypassing the “early” Foucault’s focus on disciplining the subject in favor of the “late” Foucault’s ethic of care, which requires the subject to self-critically constitute herself as a moral agent. Having rejected the possibility of universal moral law, Rasmussen turns to the caring subject as ethically responsible for her actions:

“[T]he subject unmoored from a fixed, universal law who has nothing outside of itself to which to refer is truly autonomous and fully responsible. Without a law outside of itself to justify its actions, the self must make the decision without reference to a predetermined rule…. [T]he self is not accessing a transcendental moral law but must continually make the law, and the self, anew” (pages 19-20).

By insistently foregrounding the self as the active subject, Rasmussen’s work contributes to and reflects the current fascination with the constitution of subjectivity. This emphasis also highlights the limitations of her argument. The burden on the self appears unlimited—the loneliness of the long-distance runner. The self must make not only the law but also itself, and must do so unceasingly, never, of course, succeeding once and for all. But seeing autonomy as “practices of the self”—the modern subject as the possibility for politics—deflects attention, ironically and unduly, from politics as the possibility for the self. Rasmussen’s belief (from Nietzsche, Derrida and Foucault) in the necessity of self-critique as a means for the subject to constitute herself as political contrasts, for example, with Arendt’s belief in the subject forged within the arena of the political. Where Rasmussen sees critique as a task for the self, Arendt offers critique as a political, public, and collective process. The difference is significant in both mood and consequence. If power, after Foucault, is simultaneously the power to discipline and the power to care, the former encompasses the latter within its disciplinary net—a dark and foreboding view indeed. For Arendt, in optimistic contrast, it is the political rather than the self that produces the possibility for autonomy, self-realization, and self-development. Arendt’s distinction between (social) behavior and (political) action is perhaps germane to this discussion. Where the social is the site of conformity and discipline and behavior refers to adherence to social norms and the reduction of the subject “to the level of a conditioned and behaving animal” (Arendt, 1958: 45), the political is the realm of individuality and action and the site in which the private self emerges into and is created in publicity, plurality, and conflict.

Marshaling a multitude of hyphenated terms to forward her claims (self-governance, self-regulation, self-rule, self-critique), Rasmussen places all the emphasis on the self, such that self-critique is critique of or by the self and self-regulation is regulation of the self by the self. A more nuanced relational reading might see the hyphen as an equal sign, giving equal salience to the terms on each side of the hyphen. In place of the regulation of the self by the self, the latter sense invokes the regulation of regulation by the self-in-relation, where the self is simultaneously inside and outside the relation it seeks to regulate, both regulating and being regulated, both the subject and object of politics and thus unable to rely solely on its own agency and interventions—its self-critique—to constitute its political autonomy.

Rasmussen’s one-sided focus on the self may elide and obscure important dimensions of the political. Her fascinating discussion of adolescence, for example, as the moment in which the subject is trained to become political, accentuates the limits on the self imposed when “individuals are compelled to be self-governing in specific ways in order to be granted the privileges of maturity” (page 25). As an example, she describes social intervention against teenage pregnancy as the assertion of social control over the teenage female body. A more expansive and relational perspective, however, might situate teen-pregnancy policies in the transformation of state intervention from a social welfare approach to a punitive/repressive approach consistent with a shift from Keynesian to neoliberal state policy responding to shifts in the global economy. On this view, the action emanates from and is directed at the state-economy relation, control of the body is the means rather than the end of social policy, and the teenage body sustains collateral damage from the policy shift. These are system-maintaining actions rather than body-constituting actions, but the focus on the latter obscures the larger relational context within which they occur.

It is in prompting and advancing these conceptual debates that the book is of greatest value, and the author makes an enduring contribution. As a reflection of its time and the current fascination with the self, the book replicates the paradox of autonomy: caught between creativity and law, at once breaking important, new, and valuable ground while unavoidably constrained by its theoretical foundations. The book should be read by anyone seeking to resolve the paradox of freedom—whether political, academic, or otherwise. 


Arendt H (1958) The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.