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External resource Woman with head bowed

Unending and uncertain: thinking through a phenomenological consideration of self-harm towards a feminist understanding of embodied agency

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Agency has been much discussed in both popular and academic feminist discourse, particularly in the context of empowerment and sexual practices. Following a third-wave emphasis on women’s ability to respect women’s choices and ability to exercise agency free from domination, postmodern feminist scholars have critiqued such a view as thoroughly implicated in discourses of neoliberal individualism and compulsory self-discipline. However, these critiques have not entirely succeeded in providing convincing alternative approaches for incorporating concepts and experiences of change and intentionality within frameworks which emphasise the governmentality of discourses of empowerment. Thus, this essay explores the benefits of shifting the frame of the discussion of agency from sexuality to self-harm, a practice and experience which is under-theorised within feminist thinking. Existing theorisations of self-harm, in which ideas of choice and self-determination are both centred and refused, highlight the particular importance of incorporating considerations of embodiment into discussions of agency. Therefore, the discussion uses a phenomenological perspective, as articulated by Sara Ahmed, to conceive of self-harm as an embodied, relational, and repeated act. Exploring each of these facets of self-harm highlights the need to explore theorisations of agency as messy and uncertain, reflecting the multiple pulls which can be exerted upon the body and to which the body can respond; as exercised by emplaced bodies which exist within contexts of necessity, wherein actions might be neither freely chosen nor entirely unwanted; and as continuous rather than discrete, never fully completed but rather a constant process of negotiation which exists in relation to complex personal and social histories. This return to the body, and the multiple and messy experiences of embodiment, highlights the benefits of both grounding feminist theorisations of agency within phenomenological considerations and of avoiding binary frameworks in which the possession or absence of agency are placed in discrete opposition. Centring uncertain and indeterminate embodied experiences might allow for a more productive platform for future feminist thinking.

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