Read Toward a Feminist Theory of the State by Catharine A. MacKinnon Free Online
Book Title: Toward a Feminist Theory of the State|
The author of the book: Catharine A. MacKinnon
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Loaded: 1445 times
Reader ratings: 4.7
Edition: Harvard University Press
Date of issue: September 1st 1991
ISBN 13: 9780674896468
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 7.33 MB
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On First Reading Catherine MacKinnon, or, A Middle-Aged White Dude Mansplains Feminist Theory
Before I started this book, I expected it to be a polemic. I was surprised to discover that it is actually a work of philosophy. It has its roots in Marxism - which, unfortunately, I don't know at all - but quickly branches out into its own direction.
I can see from the other reviewers that not everyone likes the idea of starting with Marxism, but the author makes it seem logical. Marxism, as even I know, is centered on the concept of work. Simplifying to a kindergarten level, some social classes work, and other social classes get the benefit of that work, which one intuitively feels is wrong. In the book's memorable opening sentence, MacKinnon tells us that sexuality is to feminism what work is to Marxism: that which is most one's own, yet most taken away. Again simplifying to a kindergarten level, men fuck women. Some of the women may want to be fucked, but a great many of them don't, yet get fucked anyway. And once more, one intuitively feels that this is wrong.
MacKinnon starts off in the first part of the book by explaining why a coherent analysis doesn't work inside a Marxist framework. Marx and Engels, it seems, had confused ideas about gender roles. She then gives her own analysis, which I found extremely interesting. I can't decide yet whether I'm prepared to buy it, but it certainly passes my test for what constitutes worthwhile philosophy: it forced me to think about things in a new way. MacKinnon's analysis of feminism doesn't center on the concept of class, but rather on the concept of "objectification". Although the word is one that's frequently bandied about, I was surprised to discover that I apparently didn't know what it meant. I'd naively imagined it meant the process of reducing women to sex objects. This is a part of it, but in fact the idea is much more wide-ranging.
So what is "objectification"? It turns out that it's intimately connected to "objectivity", and to the process of "objective thinking". In another memorable passage, MacKinnon summarizes the key connections as follows:Objectivity is the methodological stance of which objectification is the social process. Sexual objectification is the primary process of the subjection of women. It unites act with word, construction with expression, perception with enforcement, myth with reality. Man fucks woman; subject verb object.What does this mean? I'm still not sure I get it - but right now, here's how I would paraphrase her claim. "Objectivity", or "objective thought", is sold as the process by which one understands the world in a way that is independent of the observer, and in particular of the gender of the observer. It is supposed to be the way one understands the world as it is. If one is not objective, one is at best subjective and at worst delusional.
The problem is that "objective" thought doesn't in fact give a picture of the world that is independent of the identity and gender of the observer. It gives a picture of the world as understood by men, since it has been developed by men. In particular, it gives a picture of sexuality and gender as understood by men. This includes the ideas that what is sexy is what men find sexy; what is appropriate or normal in sexual relationships is what men consider appropriate or normal in sexual relationships; what actually happens during sexual relationships is what men consider happens during sexual relationships. So, for example, since men eroticise dominance and submission and find it sexy to be dominant, women must objectively find it sexy to be submissive; since men obtain sexual pleasure from vaginal penetration, women must objectively get sexual pleasure from being vaginally penetrated; since men enjoy pornography and do not consider that it infringes anybody's civil rights, pornography cannot objectively infringe anybody's civil rights; since men consider than women are often fantasizing when they claim that they have been raped and abused, women have objectively not been raped and abused in these situations; since the law, which has been almost entirely constructed by men, considers that women are treated equally, women are objectively treated equally.
I find a great deal of this convincing, but I still have trouble accepting the whole system. In particular, I have trouble accepting the idea that objective thought is a bad thing, which seems to be what she's saying here. I absolutely agree that what people call objective thought may not be objective at all. But what is the real alternative to objectivity? Surprisingly often, she mentions quantum mechanics; she suggests that male thought is classical, referring to an objective reality, while female thought is quantum mechanical, referring to a reality which depends on the observer. I don't feel very happy with this line of reasoning. It's a rather naive characterization of quantum mechanics, which doesn't deny the existence of an objective reality, just the possibility of directly observing it; second, sexual relations occur in the macro-world, where quantum-level phenomena are not relevant. If it's just an analogy, then what is the thing that's analogous to quantum mechanics? Why is there no reality that can be directly observed, even in principle? And I'm also doubtful about the wider implications of her analysis of sex. She frequently objects to the eroticisation of dominance and submission, and says this is essentially male; but at the same time, she says that men find some element of dominance and submission essential to sex, even if they are the submissive partner, and that lesbian couples also find dominance and submission sexy. She never really says what the alternative is. What is this female form of sex, where dominance and submission play no part?
So I'm to some degree sceptical, which is my usual response to philosophy - but at the same time, I find the questions being asked both intellectually fascinating and of burning importance. Professor MacKinnon, you've convinced me that I need to learn more about feminism. I'm going to look around for further reading.
[Update, Jul 15 2018]
Adam Becker's excellent book What is Real? , which I read last week, intersects in an interesting way with MacKinnon's arguments. As noted above, I was intuitively unhappy about MacKinnon's claims regarding quantum mechanics. Becker's detailed account lets me be more precise about my grounds for unhappiness.
In fact, the situation is considerably worse than I had thought. It's not just dubious to claim that quantum mechanics denies the existence of an objective reality; it turns out that that whole philosophical position is one which was created by a small group of powerful white men, and maintained using methods which in many cases have been unethical in the extreme. To increase the irony even further, a key counterargument was found at an early stage by a female physicist, Grete Hermann. Hermann's ideas were completely ignored by the scientific community, and only became known when they were independently rediscovered twenty years later by a male physicist.
This certainly drives home how difficult it is to escape from the privileged white male point of view. So at a deeper level, Becker's story can perhaps equally well be read as supporting MacKinnon rather than undermining her.
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Read information about the authorCatharine A. MacKinnon is the Elizabeth A. Long Professor of Law at the University of Michigan and the James Barr Ames Visiting Professor of Law at Harvard Law School (long-term). She holds a BA from Smith College, a JD from Yale Law School, and a PhD in political science from Yale, and specializes in sex equality issues under international and domestic (including comparative and constitutional) law.
Prof. MacKinnon pioneered the legal claim for sexual harassment and, with Andrea Dworkin, created ordinances recognizing pornography as a civil rights violation and the Swedish model for abolishing prostitution. The Supreme Court of Canada has largely accepted her approaches to equality, pornography, and hate speech, which have been influential internationally as well. Representing Bosnian women survivors of Serbian genocidal sexual atrocities, she won with co-counsel a damage award of $745 million in August 2000 in Kadic v. Karadzic under the Alien Tort Act, the first recognition of rape as an act of genocide.
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