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Abstract

This dissertation develops the underspecified political consequences of what I call the category of practices of ethical self-overcoming. This grouping consists in Michel Foucault’s ethics of the care of the self; Pierre Hadot’s “spiritual exercises;” what the French sociologist of labor Georges Friedmann calls the “interior effort;” and what Martin Luther King Jr. refers to as the work of “self-purification” integral to direct action. I define this category as exercises intentionally taken up in order to bring about an ethical transformation within practicing subjects. I argue that these conceptions are each vulnerable to what Friedmann calls political “moralism,” wherein the political lives of groups and systems amount to the mere aggregation of individual ethical behavior. Taking that challenge seriously, I argue that any robust conception of ethical self-change must be able to effectively counter the moralist charge. On that critical foundation however, I demonstrate in turn that this category can instead collectively articulate an understanding in which the care of the self, the care of the other, and care of the community become coterminous. I do so through a reading of the 1955-56 Montgomery Bus Boycott, understood as a collective political-religious exercise. I analyze primary-source documentation of the non-violent training workshops and first-person accounts of the daily walk to work, as exercises of ethical-political self-change. Insofar as these practices serve as the non-reductive condition for efficacious political transformation, they constitute a representative space in which the care of the self and care of the other are necessarily indistinguishable. In so doing, they provide a formal model for a politics of self-change immune to the moralist charge. On this reading, the Boycott is a representative space in which caring for oneself and caring for others are necessarily indistinguishable, thus articulating a new and theoretically fruitful conception of the relationship of changing selves to changing material conditions.

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