I got this book because I have an abiding interest in science, in the history of science, and in the history of various wider cultural backlashes agaiI got this book because I have an abiding interest in science, in the history of science, and in the history of various wider cultural backlashes against science. (I am a STEM/humanities dual degree holder, and came of age in Kansas during the most recent "Evolution Wars," so that's why that sort of thing interests me. How could it not?)
That's kind of what I thought this book would be --- an exploration of counter-trends to the Enlightenment ideals of rationality and empiricism. And, to an extent, it is; the author is a medievalist, not an Enlightenment historian or a historian of science, and he makes the very interesting claim that the "occult" pursuits mentioned in the title were of a piece with the more widely known, and celebrated, empirical investigations of that era.
(This is not the first time I've encountered that idea, but John Fleming does a very good job of making the case for it. His training as a medievalist works to his advantage here, because he can trace the medieval roots of both Enlightenment science and Enlightenment "magic.")
But the thing that was most counter to my expectations was that this book wasn't really the kind of history I was expecting -- one that dealt with places, events, ideas, trends, and in which individual people appeared briefly, like rocks in a streambed, subtly changing the water's flow and then quickly passed by -- no, this was more like a series of long, detailed biographical sketches.
Fleming chooses individuals or groups that he thinks illustrate something important, arrayed more or less chronologically from the late 1600s to the early 1800s, and he focuses on them, bringing in the broader cultural trends as needed.
The people and groups he chooses to profile are: Valentine Greatrakes, an Irish country gentleman who became famous for miraculously curing people of scrofula by touching them; a small French Jansenist sect that venerated a churchyard where a Jansenist deacon who was thought to have been able to heal people during his lifetime was buried, and who were struck with shaking fits when they visited his grave; Alchemists; Kabbalists; Freemasons; Rosicrucians (who these people were wasn't entirely clear to me! They don't seem to have been an order or a club so much as any people, anywhere, who were interested in discovering things? So I'm not sure who wasn't a Rosicrucian?); Count Cagliostro, who was actually a Sicilian named Giuseppe Balsamo, who went all over Europe founding Masonic lodges of his own "Egyptian" rite, and who was imprisoned in the Bastille because Marie-Antoinette believed (unfairly) that he had participated in a scheme to defraud her that is remembered today as "The Affair of the Diamond Necklace"; and the very interesting Julie de Krudener, a Latvian noblewoman who first became famous in pre-revolutionary Paris's literary scene, where she befriended lots of people who are still famous today, like Chateaubriand and Madame de Stael, and who later in life converted to Pietism and achieved further fame (or notoriety) as a sort of itinerant preacher. Most amazingly, she became convinced that Napoleon Bonaparte was the literal Antichrist, and that it was her special duty to stop him.
This is all very interesting, and also very well written; Fleming can be very funny. But what I thought was most admirable about his treatment of all these eccentric historical figures is how much he seems to respect them. No one is a fraud or a charlatan in this book, even when what they purport to be doing is physically impossible. Cagliostro in particular he seems to feel it his duty to rehabilitate, because Thomas Carlyle once called him the King of Liars. Fleming does his best to convince us that Cagliostro was not a liar, nor particularly mercenary; that he seems to have been a genuinely nice person, a loyal and honest person, and perhaps a bit too trusting. He is similarly gentle with Julie de Krudener. Lots of people have written her off as a frivolous, selfish, self-aggrandizing adulteress and social climber. Fleming does not deny the things she did to give people this impression, but he also tries to give us the full context of her actions, and to tell us how she saw things. He sees her as a woman of intense emotion, whose marriage could not give her everything she needed, and who did really love the men she had affairs with. He also does an admirable job of connecting her earlier "worldly" behavior -- her seeking out the literary salons like a flower follows the sun, and also her affairs -- to her later religious conversion, saying that both phases of her life follow logically from her florid emotionality and her need for an outlet for all those emotions. We are sympathetic to men whose devotion to Art, or to Principle, lead them to abandon their duties to family and community; why, besides sexism, would we not extend a woman the same benefit of the doubt?
My only complaint with this book was that it ended too soon; it cuts off abruptly after explaining how Julie de Krudener reached the conclusion that Napoleon was the Antichrist. We are not shown how it affects the rest of her life. What did she DO with this astonishing information? Did she preach against him on street corners? Did she abandon all other pursuits, to devote her life solely to denouncing him? This sounds like a life-changing revelation, but we don't get to see how, or if, it did change her life! We're just left hanging....more
I've started to review this book a couple times, and just could not get a grip on it. It's a hard book to review, because it's so piecemeal. Instead oI've started to review this book a couple times, and just could not get a grip on it. It's a hard book to review, because it's so piecemeal. Instead of a single argument or thesis given a book-length treatment, Feminism Unmodified is a series of transcribed speeches grouped by theme. Each one can stand alone, but they overlap a lot with one another in terms of subject matter and the argument they are making. You can read through them all, cover to cover, or you can flip through the book and read them as they pique your interest.
I knew of Catharine MacKinnon before I got this book --- indeed, having heard of her was the reason I got it; the book itself isn't terribly inviting. (Neither is the other book I have of hers, Toward A Feminist Theory of the State. I probably wouldn't have bought either one if I hadn't been introduced to MacKinnon first, through a philosophy class.) I knew that her primary goal in her legal and theoretical writing is to point out that the abstract "person" is a man, and that there are gaps in law and philosophy where the laws and theories that fit around this theorized man don't work as well for women. (There are tons of other kinds of people who don't fit the mold either, and thus are also ill served by existing laws and social theories, but this book only deals with women. Indeed, probably the book's biggest failing is its supposition that women are all failed in the same way by male-dominated, male-defined laws and social structures --- that's where it is most apparent just how old this book is! There's a big difference between, say, a white, middle-class married woman and how the law fails to protect her interests and, say, an undocumented immigrant woman or a transsexual woman or a lesbian or a woman with disabilities whose caregivers live with her or are a party to her major life decisions. The law fails all of these people, and more, some more than others and all in different ways. The study of those differences is called intersectionality*, and it's a pretty big deal in feminism.)
Anyway, on to a more specific discussion of what this book is about. The essays are grouped in three categories --- Approaches, Applications and Pornography --- but it seems to me that there's a lot of cross-pollination across categories, especially the first two. I don't know that MacKinnon ever talks about her approach to achieving equality between the sexes without bringing in specific examples, or discusses a particular application of her ideas without rehashing the general theory. The third section of the book stands out a little more from the others, since it has a much more specific aim: making the case that pornography isn't speech, but actual violence against women. (This is another thing that most feminists today seem to consider dated and wrong, but I find it persuasive.)
In the first part, Approaches, there are five essays. The first one is a defense of the Equal Rights Amendment (which still hasn't passed, a generation later) given as part of a debate with Phyllis Schlafly. The second talks about how MacKinnon sees the relationship between the sexes: to her, "gender" is not the social roles built on top of naturally occurring sex differences, but is instead a violently imposed hierarchy of male over female. The third piece covers similar ground, but it does so differently, in more philosophical terms. It was derived from a talk she gave at a Marxist conference, so there's a lot of reference to the Marxist doctrine of class struggle, which she uses to describe her understanding of the relation between the sexes. Man is capital, woman is labor, and they are in conflict over the means of (re)production. The last two essays are a bit random; one of them could fit just as easily in the second part, as it is an analysis of one particular court case, and the other deals with what it's like being a woman in the male-dominated legal profession, and how the success of a few women in male-dominated fields doesn't change anything for women as a whole.
The essays in the second part, Applications, are less theoretical and more concrete and specific. They also deal more with specific points of law than they do with any broad philosophical framework. The first one talks about rape, and why so few women report their rapes; the second one (which is actually pretty philosophical; it could fit in just as easily in the first section) about areas of overlap between sex and violence (MacKinnon, unlike some, sees rape, sexual harassment and sexual assault as both violent and sexual acts); the third is a long dissertation on Roe v. Wade and why MacKinnon thinks it was a bad idea to base Roe on the right to privacy rather than on the right to equal protection under the law; the fourth is about sexual harassment, and looking back on how sexual harassment has been prosecuted since it was first defined as a crime; and the last one is about Title IX and the importance of sports in helping women understand that their bodies are their own.
The third part, Pornography, is about ... you know what it's about. More specifically, it's about Deep Throat, and what it means that Linda Lovelace has said she was forced to perform in it. (MacKinnon says it means that Deep Throat is not mere speech, but the record of a crime, and itself an act of violence against its unwilling star). It's also about Playboy, and why MacKinnon thinks feminist organizations need to stop taking money from the Playboy Foundation. Another essay, "Not a Moral Issue," revisits in broader, more philosophical terms the same points made in the brief discussion of Deep Throat: pornography is not just speech, and obscenity law is irrelevant to what MacKinnon sees as the central harms of pornography, which are 1) direct harms done to the performers themselves, who may, like Linda Lovelace, have been forced to perform; and 2) indirect harms to all other women who have to deal with men who watch pornography and think of all women in pornographic terms. She explores this latter idea more in another long essay, "Francis Biddle's Sister," in which she riffs on Virginia Woolf's conception of Shakespeare's sister, talking about all the ways that rape culture hems women in and makes them divert energy that could be used to do great things into simple survival, and into trying to avoid being victimized. Another essay deals with the ordinance MacKinnon wrote with Andrea Dworkin, which would enable women to sue for damages if they thought they'd been victimized by pornography, and the last one addresses the Supreme Court decision that found that ordinance unconstitutional because it violated the First Amendment. MacKinnon is not a First Amendment absolutist, and she thinks it's wrong that one person's freedom to make pornography should supercede another person's right to be compensated for wrongs that she can attribute to the first person's exercise of said freedom. For the longest time I thought I was a First Amendment absolutist, that words were only words and they ought to be protected because they can't really hurt you and they are the one thing the least powerful people can use as effectively as the most powerful, so they deserve to be as unrestricted as possible, but lately I've been reconsidering the part about how they can't really hurt anyone. MacKinnon's writing is one of the first things that made me start to question that.
*There is one essay where she deals with this: "Whose Culture?", where she talks about a 1978 court case involving a Native American woman who was trying to get her children recognized as members of her tribe --- a right that, at the time (I don't know how it stands now), only applied to men who married outside the tribe....more
I started reading this book to prepare for the 2012 election, since the welfare state was one of the main issues in contention that year, and I figureI started reading this book to prepare for the 2012 election, since the welfare state was one of the main issues in contention that year, and I figured I might as well bone up a bit on its origins and evolution.
(I did not finish the book by the time the election happened. It's dry, densely written and makes for slow going, even if the subject matter is vitally important.)
Also, I very much recommend reading the author's prefaces. In the Sixth Edition (the edition I read), there are six of them, in reverse chronological order, written between 1973 (the First Edition) and 1998 (the sixth), and each one lists the things the author has added to the book to cover the things that had changed in social welfare policy since the last edition. What I found most interesting -- and also very darkly amusing -- were his personal hopes and predictions that he concludes every preface with, and that every succeeding preface opens by addressing just how wrong he was in the previous preface, and how things have actually turned out so much worse than he could have imagined.
Most hilariously (or most depressingly, depending on your mood) the most recent edition was published in 1998, during the second term of Bill Clinton. One can only imagine what the author of this book would write if he were to publish a Seventh Edition!
After the prefaces, there is a Background section that briefly discusses how the ancient Greeks and Romans, the Jews, the early Christians, the medieval Europeans and finally the England of Queen Elizabeth I treated their poor and homeless citizens. It is the Poor Laws of this latter time and place that is given the most attention, since they are the most direct predecessor to the laws of the earliest English colonies in America.
The themes that he establishes in his description of the Elizabethan Poor Laws -- categories of deserving and undeserving poor, the question of whose duty it is to find work for idle vagrants, helpful vs. punitive approaches to homelessness, unemployment and beggary -- will show up again and again throughout the rest of the book.
The rest of the book covers all of American history up to (and including part of) the Clinton presidency, with each chapter dealing with a discrete unit of time. He does not break them up by periodicity, but by notable changes in policy, or sometimes disruptive events like the American Revolution or the Civil War.
The first chapter deals with the colonial period (about 1620-1700); the second with the era of the American Revolution (that's what its title says, but it would be more accurate to call it the entire 18th century); the third deals with the first half of the 19th century, concentrating on "the trend toward indoor relief" ("indoor relief" meaning poorhouses, workhouses, "poor farms" and similar institutional settings); and the fourth with the Civil War and the period immediately following it. After that, the chapter organization shifts to being more thematic than chronological, though the overall direction of successive chapters is still forward in time. The fifth chapter talks about child welfare, and the approach that emerged in the 19th century to treat poor and indigent children differently, and create different institutions to serve (or, less charitably, warehouse) them, than poor and indigent adults. This was also around the time that laws against child labor were being enacted, and schooling was becoming mandatory for all children. The next three chapters are about the Public Health movement, the Settlement House movement (settlement houses being ), and the mental-health movement. Then there are chapters on the "renaissance of public welfare" at the turn of the 19th century into the 20th, and the "quest for professionalization," or the transition between social-welfare type work being mostly private, individual or religious charity work and the development of a body of professionals analogous to doctors, nurses, teachers, pharmacists etc. Following that chapter, the organization of chapters reverts to a more straightforward chronological order, with chapters on social work and welfare in the 1920s; the Depression and New Deal eras; the World War II and Great Society eras; the transitional period of the late 1960s and early 1970s, that bridges the gap between the Great Society and the Reaganesque approach to social-welfare policy that continues to dominate today. The last two chapters deal with Reagan's policies, and their continuation by Presidents Bush and Clinton....more
This biography of the former Emperor of Japan, who reigned from about the 1920s through the 1980s, has a definite agenda: it seeks to prove that, contThis biography of the former Emperor of Japan, who reigned from about the 1920s through the 1980s, has a definite agenda: it seeks to prove that, contrary to what was apparently conventional wisdom when it was written, Hirohito knew about, and was actively involved in planning, Japan's bombing of Pearl Harbor and its invasion of China.
Because of that, even though its subject's reign covered such a vast span of time, most of the book deals with the war years, the late 1930s and early-to-mid 1940s. That stuff was all very interesting and informative, but I think I would've wanted a bit more about the later years of his reign, since so much changed about his role after the war. The book addresses that to an extent: the abrupt change from his being thought of, and treated as, a god incarnate to being a sort of ceremonial head of state more like the British monarch. But I would have wanted to see more of how he adapted to that diminished role, especially since the book had done such a good job of showing how resourceful and adaptable he proved to be during the war years and the American occupation.
One thing that might be really interesting to some readers, but also confusing and potentially boring to others, is all the intrigue, plotting and behind-the-scenes negotiation that goes on in Hirohito's court. I found myself hard pressed to keep track of who was who, who was doing what and who knew about who was doing what. Especially since the revolving cast of characters includes not just princes and courtiers but also prominent army and navy officers. That adds up to A WHOLE LOT of names to keep straight.
There are some exciting parts, though: one of these plots leads to an attempted coup by a rogue faction of army officers, who plan to sneak into the houses of various high-level ministers and kill them in the dead of night; the other highlight was an incredible plan, at the start of the Occupation when no one was sure if the Allies were going to let Japan keep its "emperor system", to spirit away a child of royal blood and bring him up in secret as the real heir to the throne, which he would claim when he grew up.
There's also a lot of very interesting stuff about what the culture was like in Japan at the time; mostly, though, the book focuses a fairly narrow band of scrutiny on the military, diplomatic and political events of World War Two, specifically with an eye to tracing Hirohito's involvement in Japan's aggression. This is interesting, too, but maybe more interesting to someone with a specific interest in World War Two than to someone with a more general interest in Japan's history. The latter reader might find herself wishing the narrative could "zoom out" a little; I know I did sometimes....more
So this is an amazing, wonderful, shocking, revelatory book that is well-researched, beautifully written, thoughtful and that frames a moral imperativSo this is an amazing, wonderful, shocking, revelatory book that is well-researched, beautifully written, thoughtful and that frames a moral imperative of undeniable power. It is also among my favorite feminist texts, and whenever I open it to look something up, I inevitably find myself rereading entire sections or chapters because I can't put it down.
Nevertheless, I only gave it four stars. I have some criticisms of it, which explain the non-perfect rating, but I love it so much I feel conflicted about that non-perfect rating. I'd give it 4 1/2 or 4 3/4 if fractional ratings were allowed on this site.
The book was first written in 1972, but the edition I have is a revised one from 2005, in which she addresses how much things have changed since she first wrote it, both in terms of science and politics. Politically, the mental-health professions are not the bastions of patriarchy they were when Chesler first wrote about them: lots of women are in these professions, and lots of therapists are feminists, and incorporate feminist principles into their practice. More obviously, our understanding of the biological underpinnings of mental illness has improved, and with it our ability to treat them.
Another reviewer criticized Chesler for ignoring actually seriously ill women in favor of healthy women whose disobedience or nonconformity was called illness as a pretext for locking them up; I don't know if this person read the revised edition or not, but in the book I read she does acknowledge disabling mental illness. She goes out of her way to state that she does not wish to romanticize mental illness, nor to argue against any treatment that relieves a mentally ill person's suffering and enables that person to live a longer, fuller life.
She also discusses some famous case histories of women who suffered actual mental breakdowns, who clearly needed help, but who were not really helped by the treatment they got. These women included Zelda Fitzgerald, Bertha Pappenheim (better known as "Anna O."), Ellen West, Catharine Beecher, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Sylvia Plath.
Far more disturbing to me were her descriptions of real women who were not insane at all, and did not seek treatment for themselves, but who were committed to lunatic asylums by husbands and fathers who wanted them out of the way. Those women include Elizabeth Packard (whose theological opinions differed from her husband's, and whose crime was to speak these ideas in public), Adriana Brinckle (who sold some pieces of furniture she hadn't fully paid for, and was locked up for almost thirty years), and Freud's other famous patient "Dora" (whose father was basically pimping her out to some other guy, and who was quite understandably upset about that).
(She also discusses a FASCINATING study by a psychiatrist named Shirley Angrist that compared women mental patients who had been released from the asylum, women who had been re-hospitalized at least once, and normal housewives, and found that mental health had little to do with whether a woman was pronounced cured or not: rather, the determining factor seemed to be her willingness to keep house and defer to her husband. This study was done in 1961).
There is also a very long section, making up the majority of the book, that contains Phyllis Chesler's own original research, which was a series of detailed interviews with a bunch of women who had been treated for mental illnesses. She divided her subjects up into categories, though she admits there is a lot of overlap between some of them: women who had been in sexual relationships with their therapists, women who had been hospitalized for mental illness, lesbians, feminists, and "Third World women," which seems to be a confusing label for poor women of color. (I say it is confusing because some or all of the women in this group are Americans; "Third World" to me connotes foreign origin as well as dark skin, poverty and disenfranchisement.) All of these women describe experiences that did not help them; only some were ever actually mentally ill; and lots of them, especially the women of color, the women who were institutionalized long-term, and the lesbians, tell horrible tales of abuse. Almost all of the lesbians were committed just because they were lesbian.
There is a recurring Greek-mythology motif that never quite seems to belong; Chesler explores female archetypes from that canon, particularly myths that explore mother-daughter relationships, like those of Demeter and Persephone or Clytemnestra and Electra. These sections were very interesting, and poetic, and gave me new ways to see these stories I've known since I was a child, but they don't really mesh with the rest of the book. There are a few areas of thematic commonality --- one of Chesler's ideas is that women check themselves into asylum so much because we are so starved for mother-love --- but for the most part they seem more in keeping with her later books, which focus on relationships between women, than with this book.
I also really wanted to see her discuss women with developmental disabilities, as the same concerns about institutional abuse and power dynamics apply to them.
Ultimately, I want people to read this, even if it is incomplete and most of the stories it tells are old. I think the ethical questions it raises about how we treat mental illness, and the extent to which we do not treat people with mental illnesses like People Who Matter, and the extent to which the institutions we have set up for those members of our society who can't take care of themselves tend to breed abuse, neglect and authoritarianism, are very, Very, VERY important. So I recommend this to everyone --- not my usual practice when reviewing a book about such a specialized topic, especially a history book, but this one is just that necessary. It shines a critical light where most people are content not to look....more
This book is an exhaustive look at a fairly large body of scientific literature --- Rebecca Jordan-Young is trying to evaluate the evidence for the thThis book is an exhaustive look at a fairly large body of scientific literature --- Rebecca Jordan-Young is trying to evaluate the evidence for the thesis that testosterone and estrogen shape distinctly male and female, and also gay and straight, brains sometime during gestation.
To do this, she looks at all the studies ever published following either of these designs: 1) using a sample of people about whom something is known of their prenatal hormone exposure (like people with disorders like congenital adrenal hyperplasia, or people whose mothers allowed researchers to test their blood or amniotic hormone levels while pregnant) and trying to gather data about their abilities, personality traits, sexuality and compliance with gender norms, or 2) getting a bunch of "gender-atypical" people, like gay, lesbian or transgender people, or straight, cisgender people who defy gender norms in some other way, like women who are engineers, mathematicians or computer programmers, and trying to gather data about their early hormone exposure.
There's a lot of that literature to go through, and she does it meticulously, though her focus is less on answering the question "Are there male or female brains?" (she doesn't think we can answer that yet) and more on determining exactly what all these studies can tell us, and how well they fit together.
Most of the book is spent delving into technical details of how each study was done, and it seems to be written for an academic rather than a lay audience. I found this book valuable, and will definitely refer back to it a lot, but I didn't enjoy reading it the way I enjoyed reading Cordelia Fine's Delusions of Gender, which addresses similar issues for a more general audience, and is written in a much more engaging style....more
Very, very interesting --- if confusingly structured and sometimes awkwardly written --- discussion of something really bizarre that happened in AmeriVery, very interesting --- if confusingly structured and sometimes awkwardly written --- discussion of something really bizarre that happened in American psychology during the 1980s and 1990s.
People would go into therapists' offices, looking for help with various psychological problems --- eating disorders, depression, relationship problems, etc. --- and, sometimes, the overzealous therapist would leap to the conclusion that the person must have been abused as a child, and would insist that memories of the abuse must lie buried within the patient's unconscious mind, waiting to be dug up.
One of the writers of this book, Elizabeth Loftus, is a memory researcher who found herself in the middle of a bunch of court cases relating to repressed memories, which she believes were mostly fictitious. (She doesn't think anyone knowingly lied about being abused; she just thinks some very desperate and suggestible people and some therapists who were very, very strongly committed to the idea that all psychopathology stems from childhood trauma got together and created these lurid, nightmarish stories of abuse, which both patient and therapist believed in). Loftus describes her research, especially the turns it took as she tried to prove her suspicions about the origins of these bizarre memories: at one point, she is able to demonstrate that you *can* create a memory of a traumatic event where none existed before, just by suggesting to someone that they actually experienced whatever it is you want them to remember. (Loftus's example was getting lost in a mall --- something scary enough, to a child, that "remembering" it caused distress, but not so horrific as to do lasting psychological damage to the people she suggested it to).
Besides the bizarre, unreal nature of so many of the uncovered memories, I was also struck by just how *unhelpful* so much of the recovered-memory "therapy" was to the people undergoing it. In the cases Loftus describes, the patients would go into the therapist's office with persistent, but manageable, psychological problems, and would become so consumed by the memories of abuse they discovered in therapy that they would become totally unable to cope with daily life. It really brings home the magnitude of the ethical violations these therapists committed, giving traumatic memories to people who had none....more
I was kind of disappointed by this book. It seemed like Levy never really gets into any detailed analysis of the phenomena she's writing about, preferI was kind of disappointed by this book. It seemed like Levy never really gets into any detailed analysis of the phenomena she's writing about, preferring to argue by lengthy anecdote. Sometimes there's a germ of a really interesting idea that I'd love to read more about, like a paragraph in which Levy postulates that "raunch culture" is actually the underside of the strict conservative, anti-sex political climate we're in now --- but then she never develops that idea any further. She just goes on to describe another random scene of young women willingly making sexual objects of themselves.
That brings me to another thing about this book that kind of irked me --- sometimes, it almost seems like Levy --- Levy, the radical feminist, the critic of objectification in all its forms --- is objectifying the women she's writing about. She seems to dwell excessively on their looks, especially the sexualized aspects of their looks, like whether they are wearing a push-up bra and/or high heels, how short their skirts are, minute details of makeup, hairstyle, skin tone and texture and body type.
So, as much as I might agree with this book's thesis --- that women still aren't equal, and embracing sexual objecthood isn't empowering --- I don't think the book does a very good job of arguing the point. It feels half-finished....more