Only Words.

Author:Dinelli, David C.
 
FREE EXCERPT

By Catharine A. MacKinnon. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1993. Pp. v, 152. $14.95.

Professor Catharine MacKinnon's(1) short book, Only Words, has already produced a flurry of reactions. Only a few who have reviewed the book, which sets out MacKinnon's theoretical framework for her campaign against pornography, have treated it, or MacKinnon, kindly. Most have been unabashed in their criticism. Judge Richard Posner in the New Republic, for example, labels her "reckless."(2) In the Nation, Carlin Romano closes his review, in which he invites the reader to follow along as he fantasizes raping MacKinnon(3) by calling her an "authoritarian in the guise of a progressive."(4) Ronald Dworkin's review in the New York Review of Books, while generally respectful, spells MacKinnon's first name Catherine rather than Catharine(5) and includes on the opening page a caricaturized drawing of the professor with crossed arms and pursed lips, topped with a wild tornado of voluminous hair.(6)

Moreover, many of the criticisms reviewers have leveled are gender biased. For instance, Calvin Woodard states that the arguments MacKinnon employs in Only Words come merely from a woman sounding "a heartbreaking cry for help."(7) At the same time, however, her blunt, aggressive writing seems to have invaded a rhetorical space traditionally reserved for the words of men. Woodard, for example, labels MacKinnon "militant,"(8) apparently unbothered by any inconsistency in his characterizations. Carlin Romano gets on the bash MacKinnon-because-she-is-acting-like-a-man bandwagon when he laments that "precisely because of her star power, MacKinnon can't be laughed off. She's the lead commando in a legal phalanx . . . ."(9) Still another reviewer uses her allotted page in the Village Voice to muse about the possible sexual nature of MacKinnon's relationship with the recently newsworthy Jeffrey Masson.(10) The combined implication seems to be that we should not take MacKinnon's legal critiques seriously because she is a helpless commando who has a lot of sex.

Why the hostility? Why do these reviews read more like reactions than engagements? Did MacKinnon anticipate, or in fact even invite, this sort of response? To answer these questions, I should first outline what her book does.

The mere 110 pages of text divide into three parts. In the first part, titled "Defamation and Discrimination," MacKinnon attempts to link the production and consumption of pornography to a host of social sex inequalities, including rape and sexual harassment (pp. 3-41). Pornography, according to MacKinnon, creates these inequalities, at least indirectly: "Pornography does not leap off the shelf and assault women. Women could, in theory, walk safely past whole warehouses full of it, quietly resting in its jackets. It is what it takes to make it and what happens through its use that are the problem" (p. 15).

This cause-and-effect relationship between pornography and sex inequality motivates MacKinnon's project, yet some writers still doubt its empirical validity. Ronald Dworkin, no newcomer to the debate about pornography and free speech,(11) has gone so far as to assert that "no reputable study has concluded that pornography is a significant cause of sexual crime: many of them conclude, on the contrary . . . that desire for pornography is a symptom rather than a cause of deviance."(12)

Perhaps because she recognizes that the causal link remains, in legal parlance, a disputed issue of fact,(13) she lends her claim intellectual, if not empirical, force by relying on modern speech-act theory. Pornography, MacKinnon claims, is more than allusive; it does things: "Its place in abuse requires understanding it more in active than in passive terms, as constructing and performative rather than as merely referential or connotative" (p. 21; footnote omitted).

This strategy is clever, and MacKinnon correctly identifies J.L. Austin's How To Do Things with Words as the "original enunciation of the theory of performative speech."(14) A useful exploration of what pornography does, however, in all its various modes of production, commerce, and consumption, would require a more textured understanding of speech-act theory than the streamlined account MacKinnon gives in Only Words. Although the paradigmatic speech act -- a minister's pronouncing a couple man and wife or a jury's finding a defendant guilty -- is easily understood as an act in addition to an utterance, pornography pushes the bounds of the paradigm. For example, the only utterances in pornography are usually written down or taped on film or videocassette. Thus, the performer of the alleged speech act is rarely in the presence of his or her audience, the obvious exception being the case of live sex shows. Can "speech" in such a circumstance be or have the effect of a speech act? That is, are speech acts iterable? If I want to marry Jane Doe, can I play a recording of a minister proclaiming us to be married, or would the performance of marriage require the minister's presence?

Questions such as these have spawned a significant literature building on and critiquing Austin's ideas, particularly focusing on the problem of iterability of performative speech. Jacques Derrida, for instance, has observed "the possibility for every performative utterance (and a priori every other utterance) to be |quoted.'"(15) Austin, however, considered reiterated speech acts hollow, void: "[L]anguage in such circumstances [of reiteration] is in special ways -- intelligibly -- used not seriously, but in ways parasitic upon its normal use . . . . All this we are excluding from consideration."(16) To Derrida, Austin's bracketing of this crucial element of performative speech -- its iterability -- renders the Austinian version of speech-act theory flawed, or at least incomplete.(17) If Derrida is correct and Austin's description of the performative does not seek to explain the nature and effects of reiterated speech, then where is the Austinian performative speech in pornography? Who is saying what to whom and in what context? This all is not to say that the "speech" in pornography does not create inequality; the discussion merely suggests that MacKinnon needs to look beyond Austin if she hopes to describe accurately the mechanisms by which pornography "performs" its dirty work.(18)

MacKinnon's vivid description of pornography and its effects(19) suffers from another weakness as well: it fails to...

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