Dissertation Abstract: Constructed Subjectivities and a “Thick” Account of Agency: A Foucauldian Dialogue with Douglass, Fanon, and the Augustinian-Franciscan Tradition

If everything goes according to the plan, I am scheduled to defend my dissertation the last week of August (at this time the exact date has not been given).  Below is a copy of my dissertation abstract for those interested.

Constructed Subjectivities and a “Thick” Account of Agency: A Foucauldian Dialogue with Douglass, Fanon, and the Augustinian-Franciscan Tradition


Cynthia R. Nielsen, Ph.D.
University of Dallas, 2011
Director: Philipp W. Rosemann


Michel Foucault offers penetrating analyses of how subjectivities are constructed. His statements regarding the ubiquity of power relations have been misinterpreted as both a denial of human agency and a death blow to the subject. Against this entrenched view, I argue that his understanding of power relations presuppose free subjects and, in fact, creates a space for resistance possibilities.

Foucault articulates a “metaphysically thin” account of agency. That is, a free subject is one whose relations with others produces a field of possibilities for acting on one’s own as well as others’ actions. That field may, of course, become severely restricted. Nonetheless, even in extremely oppressive situations, an agent retains her freedom as long as she is able in some way to resist.

Here our dialogue with Douglass and Fanon proves fruitful. Douglass, for example, was forced to live in an inhumane slave society; yet, he engaged in subversive acts, allowing him to re-narrate his subjectivity. Although Douglass’s freedom was constrained, he was not rendered completely passive. Through examining Douglass’s and Fanon’s concrete experiences of oppression, I demonstrate the empirical validity of Foucault’s theoretical analyses concerning power relations and subject-(re)formation.

Unlike Foucault, Douglass and Fanon were forthright concerning their moral evaluations. That is, they condemned as intrinsically evil the practice of slavery and colonization. Foucault’s reticence to make transcultural moral judgments signals a weakness in his account not unrelated to his reticence to affirm universal structures of human being. Consequently, Foucault’s anthropology and “ontologically minimalist” view of agency creates an obstacle for our modern and premodern dialogue partners.

I then turn to Augustine whose critique of Roman narratives, awareness of social conditioning, and processive view of the self exhibit striking similarities to Foucault’s reflections. However, Augustine’s ambiguous position regarding agency coupled with his (strong) doctrine of sin is, for Foucault, unpalatable. Enter Scotus. Scotus’s notion of agency affirms the power for opposite acts, and his “thick” account of the will and freedom establishes a basis for transcultural, moral critique. Scotus thus serves as a via media, facilitating constructive dialogue with (post)modern thinkers evincing emancipatory concerns and attunement to social construction.


9 thoughts on “Dissertation Abstract: Constructed Subjectivities and a “Thick” Account of Agency: A Foucauldian Dialogue with Douglass, Fanon, and the Augustinian-Franciscan Tradition”

  1. You’ve whet my whistle, Cynthia. Makes me miss Dallas. I look forward to reading this sometime, perhaps as a book!

  2. Your abstract sounds amazing. I’m so poorly read in each of these thinkers, but you’ve made all of them sparkle. I love the stage directions: “Enter Scotus.” Let me know if you ever want to put on a puppet show adaptation of your dissertation: I know somebody with a barn where we can put on a show. I’m particularly interested, as you may remember from previous conversations, in how Foucault allows for resistance qua resistance, as opposed to resistance as being “purely” embedded within the power relations already present. Finally, scenes from The Battle of Algiers kept flashing in my mind as I read your abstract. Have you written on this film? If not, it might be a sexy article to work up based on your dissertation’s “theory” as applied to a new “case study.”

  3. Thanks for your comment, Frank. A puppet show would great and having Scotus as a hero rather than a villain will totally perturb, cause discomfort to, turn off the Roman Catholic Aquinas is the pinnacle of all thought camp and Radical Orthodoxy narrative, which scripts Scotus as the villain ushering us into all that is baaaad in modernity, blah, blah, blah. I think that Foucault sees freedom and resistance as correlative concepts that are never purely “pure”, but with that, it doesn’t mean that genuine human agency and genuine fields of resistance allowing for new subjectivites to emerge are, as it were, not possible. In the dissertation, Itry to use musical (jazz and classical) analogies to “show” how this is the case.

  4. Good luck with your defense! I’m sure all will go well. I just hope the Texas drought I’ve been reading about isn’t driving you too crazy…

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