By Drucilla Cornell.(*) New York and London: Routledge Press, 1995. Pp. ix, 237. $17.95.
In The Imaginary Domain, Drucilla Cornell defends a view of women's equality designed to offer "a new perspective" on "the hotly contested issues of abortion, pornography, and sexual harassment" (p. 4). These issues have presented difficulties for feminist legal thought, particularly when it comes to determining how best to interpret the relation of equality to freedom, on the one hand, and to sexual difference, on the other. Cornell argues that women must be legally recognized as having "the equal chance to transform ourselves into individuated beings who can participate in public and political life as equal citizens" (p. 4). This legal recognition requires the equal protection of "certain minimum conditions of individuation"--such as the right to bodily integrity or to a protected "imaginary domain" (p. 4). Cornell thus reinterprets the harms of denying abortion rights, of pornography, and of sexual harassment in terms of the ways each deprives women of their equal right to these conditions of individuation, and therefore the equal chance to become persons.
Cornell's conception of equality is an original one, stemming from her reliance on John Rawls's theory of justice and Lacanian psychoanalysis. What Cornell takes from the analytic tradition provides many of the book's important innovations. What she takes from Lacanian psychoanalysis varies much more in its plausibility and its usefulness for feminist scholarship. Although she occasionally disappoints, Cornell ultimately provides valuable insights about the issues she addresses and for feminist legal thought more generally.
One of Cornell's most valuable contributions comes from her adaptation of John Rawls's theory of justice. Cornell accepts Rawls's notion of a "veil of ignorance,"(1) but examines it from a position analytically prior to the beginning point of Rawls's theory, which presumes persons capable of engaging in the practical reason upon which the original contract is based. Rawls, according to Cornell, begins by asking "[w]hat must persons be like to engage in practical reason?" and by responding with the presumption that human beings possess both a "sense of justice" and a "capacity for good" (p. 17). Hence Rawls takes personhood as if it were given. In contrast, Cornell conceives of personhood as a struggle that can be thwarted: "What must persons be like to engage in practical reason? They must be individuated enough to have the equivalent chance to become persons in the first place" (p. 18).
According to Cornell, the need to ask this prior question stems in part from an "explicit feminist recognition of just how precious and difficult the achievement of individuation sufficient to undertake the project of becoming a person actually is" (p. 18). Moreover, sex and sexuality are "unique and formative" to human personality, and any feminist theory of legal equality must "explicitly recognize the sexuate bases of each one of us" (p. 6). Cornell's theory of equality thus does not turn on a gender comparison between men and women, but rather argues for "equality for each one of us as a sexuate, and thus a phenomenal, creature" (p. 20). All men and women, all "sexuate" beings, must have equal access to those minimum conditions necessary to the struggle to achieve personhood. For the specification of those conditions, Cornell relies on Lacanian psychoanalysis: The conditions of individuation are "justified through an appeal to empirical practical reason since they demand some recognition of experience, i.e., the experience provided by psychoanalytic knowledge" (p. 18). Cornell elaborates on these conditions in chapters on abortion, pornography, and sexual harassment.
Cornell defends a right to abortion on her first condition of individuation, the right to "bodily integrity" (p. 33). She takes empirical account of this condition by adapting Lacan's concept of the "mirror stage";(2) this stage begins with an infant's "first experience of perceiving itself as a whole" and persists in certain basic ways throughout one's life (p. 39). Cornell maintains that the process of...