The Idea of Emancipation after Postcolonial Theory

Via a critical reading of Saba Mahmood’s Politics of Piety, this essay argues the traditions of “history from below”, subaltern studies, and postcolonial feminist studies have issued in a series of conceptual difficulties around the idea of emancipation. Mahmood rightly criticizes the tendency of these traditions to conflate agency and resistance. Her own effort to decouple agency and desire from emancipatory politics, however, undercuts theory’s capacity to diagnose domination and ties theory too closely to the self-understandings of its subjects. Distinguishing appropriately between agency and freedom and between desire and interests can revivify the idea of emancipation. A universal interest in freedom from domination can be defended on this basis without discounting the self-understandings and actual desires of people. This argument points the way to a division of labour between emancipatory political theory, which analyses public institutions in the name of the universal interest in freedom, and emancipatory politics, which begins from people’s actual desires in order to build support for institutional change.

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