Does pornography create a false picture of what women are and how they are to be treated? Feminist legal scholar Catherine MacKinnon has famously argued as much, claiming that pornographic material falsely constructs women’s natures, and that this false construction has negative implications. In this series of posts, I’m trying to see whether any sense can be made of this claim.
To help me do this, I’m making use of an article by Mary Kate McGowan entitled “On Pornography: MacKinnon, Speech Acts, and “False” Construction”. In this article, McGowan makes the case that MacKinnon’s false-construction thesis can be understood in light of contemporary speech act theory. We laid the groundwork for appreciating McGowan’s arguments in part one. There are three important points to bear in mind from that discussion.
First, MacKinnon’s claim does not cover all forms of pornography, merely a subset of pornography with particular features. We call this subset “Mac-Porn”. To get the full list of criteria for becoming a member of that subset, you’ll need to read part one, but (roughly) Mac-Porn covers sexually explicit material that brutalises, objectifies and reduces women to purely sexual beings.
Second, there are significant problems associated with the notion of false construction. While we can agree that certain facts are socially constructed — e.g. the fact that two people are married — it seems nonsensical to say that a constructed fact is false. If the construction is what brings the fact into being, how can that fact be false? That would seem to be a contradiction in terms. It is, however, possible to say that a constructed fact is defective or deficient in some respect. Consequently, it is probably best to reinterpret MacKinnon’s thesis as the “defective construction” thesis (or something along those lines).
Third, and finally, it is possible to do this if we view pornography as a kind of verdictive speech act. This is because within speech act theory, the successful performance of speech act is dependent on the satisfaction of a number of conditions. If those conditions are not satisfied, the act may still be performed, albeit in a defective or incomplete manner. We had just introduced this concept at the end of the last post, so we’ll start this post by further exploring its complexities. Following this, we’ll see exactly how one might defend an argument in favour of the defective construction thesis.
1. Erroneous Verdictives and Sneaky Exercitives
A verdictive speech act is an authoritative judgment about some antecedent matter of fact or value. We noted the classic example of this the last day: the call of a referee, linesman or umpire in a sporting contest. Take the linesman in a football game. He can declare that a player is offside by raising his flag. In doing so, he reports on a purely factual matter (namely: the position of the player on the football pitch relative to others). Take also the jury in a legal trial. They can declare whether a defendant committed a crime. In doing so, they report on purely factual matters, although they also evaluate those facts in light of legal concepts. In both instances, it is possible for those making the judgments to get things wrong. In other words, for the authorities to issue erroneous verdictives. These would match our definition of deficiency.
Verdictive speech acts are typically contrasted with exercitives. The latter being enactments of permissibility conditions in particular social spheres. For example, a golf club president may be able to ban the use of mobile phones within the club by words alone. In doing so, he does not report on antecedent facts, but rather makes it the case that something is true in future. In this instance, he makes it the case that mobile phone use is banned.
When discussing verdictives and exercitives in the previous post, I got slight ahead of myself by suggesting that verdictives can defectively construct social facts. I want to back up for a moment here and consider exactly how they might be able to do this, because, on the face of it, it doesn’t seem like they can. After all, verdictives are merely judgments about past facts, they are not, like exercitives, constructions of facts.
Or are they? One of McGowan’s key moves in her article is to highlight how verdictives have a sneaky exercitive aspect to them. As she points out, it is not merely the case that verdictives report on facts; they also (like exercitives) affect permissibility conditions in the future. Thus, when the linesman judges a player to be offside, he doesn’t merely report on the fact, he also thereby prevents the player from continuing a particular move or passage of play. Likewise, if the jury in a legal trial decide that the defendant has committed a murder, they make it permissible for a sentence to be imposed or for liberty to be taken away. The reason verdictives have this power is that they are issued by authorities in social settings where those verdictives have normative significance.
So, not only can verdictives be erroneous, they can also be sneakily exercitive. And in being erroneous and sneakily exercitive, they thereby provide a mechanism through which speech could defectively construct social facts.
2. The Defective Construction Argument
That brings us, at long last, to McGowan’s reconstruction of MacKinnon’s argument. In essence, she claims that Mac-Porn may be an erroneously verdictive, sneakily exercitive speech act about women’s natures. As a result, it may defectively construct facts about women’s natures, and those facts may take on the kind of social significance that MacKinnon abhors. Specifically, those facts may affect permissibility conditions for women in society.
This suggests something like the following argument in defence of the defective construction thesis (this is a bit of mess, but it is my attempt to formalise some of the preceding concepts and ideas):
- (1) If X is an erroneous verdictive about Y, then X defectively constructs Y-type facts, and those facts may take on a certain social significance (usually in relation to permissibility conditions for agents affected by or covered by Y-type facts).
- (2) Mac-Porn is an erroneous verdictive about women’s natures.
- (3) Therefore, Mac-porn defectively constructs facts about women’s natures, and these facts may affect permissibility conditions for women is the social sphere.
The defence of the first premise is immanent in much of what has already been said. The example of the linesman declaring a player offside, when he/she really was not, provides a concrete illustration of the principle. The declaration is erroneous, but has a significant effect on what is permissible after the declaration. The principle state in premise (1) is merely an extrapolation from cases like this, which could be multiplied ad nauseum.
The defence of the second premise is much trickier. Indeed, McGowan doesn’t really even attempt to defend it in her article. Her goal is much more modest than that. She’s just interested in showing how it may be possible to defend MacKinnon’s thesis (or something pretty close to it). She’s not actually interested in defending it. Still, it would be disappointing if nothing at all could be said about premise (2), since that is at the heart of this debate.
The easiest way to defend premise (2) would be to draw a direct analogy between Mac-Porn and other erroneous verdictives (such as the case of the linesman we just described). But McGowan notes that any such analogy will run into, at least three, difficulties.
The first difficulty relates to authority. Clearly, the linesman is a recognised authority in football, and this authority is what allows his declarations to have their verdictive and exercitive effects. But does Mac-Porn have authority? That’s more difficult to justify. In a previous series of posts, I looked at some arguments suggesting that it might be possible to say that pornography has authority through the complicity of the audience. There is also the possibility that it has authority through some more subtle, sub-conscious psychological mechanism. Still, there are problems with this, and they cannot be ignored.
The second difficulty relates to the facts that Mac-Porn is supposedly passing judgment on. In the case of the linesman in football, the facts are pretty straightforward: they concern the position of the player on the pitch relative to other players and to the ball. Furthermore, the mismatch between those facts, and the facts actually reported by the linesman are usually pretty straightforward too. Neither of these things holds in the case of Mac-Porn and women’s natures. For starters, the notion that there is some fact of the matter about women’s natures is highly controversial (and something I am inclined to doubt).
Additionally, it is difficult to say exactly how Mac-Porn makes erroneous judgments about women’s natures. Ostensibly, pornography doesn’t make any profound scientific or metaphysical claims about anything: it provokes sexual responses, not intellectual ones. Still, these are not insuperable problems. It may be that the error made by Mac-Porn is in claiming that there is some fact of the matter about women’s natures; and it may be that Mac-Porn inadvertently creates representations of women’s natures, even when that is not its primary purpose.
Finally, there is the difficulty relating to the constructive mechanism. In the case of the linesman in football, this mechanism is simple enough. The raising of the flag is the verdictive, and this constructs a fact that has normative significance for subsequent phases of the game. Usually, however, if an error was made in the initial verdictive it is readily identifiable, even if people have to go along with it. In the case of Mac-Porn the mechanism is more complex and subtle. As McGowan sees it, if Mac-Porn is indeed a verdictive with a sneakily exercitive aspect, it could succeed in masking its erroneous representation of women’s natures. This would happen through the following four-step mechanism:
Step One: Mac-Porn represents women as having a set of essential qualities.
Step Two: This has normative significance for socio-sexual relationships such that women are only permitted to behave in accordance with their essential qualities in those relationships.
Step Three: Women adjust their behaviour to fit with this set of permissibility conditions.
Step Four: Consequently, women end up behaving in a way that is consistent with the erroneous verdictive, thereby masking the original construction.
With this kind of mechanism at play, it may become very difficult to actually determine whether or not Mac-Porn defectively constructs women’s natures. I think this is an interesting observation on McGowan’s part, but I suspect it overstates the masking effect of Mac-Porn. I suspect in many cases it is relatively easy to prove that pornography does not accurately represent women’s natures. I say this mainly because I think it unlikely that there are such facts in the first place. Maybe I’m wrong about this, but I often worry about the potential in some academic quarters to overstate the power of symbols and symbolic representations.
These three difficulties do not make it impossible to defend premise (2). Far from it. But they do make any purported defence a more daunting prospect.
It’s time to bring this to a close. To sum up, we’ve been examining Catherine MacKinnon’s claim that pornography falsely constructs women’s natures. The claim is probably indefensible in its original form, insofar as it is too broad and too paradoxical. But if it is reinterpreted as the more narrow and precise claim that a certain subset of pornographic material (Mac-Porn) defectively constructs women’s natures, then it might stand a chance.
This would work if we could view Mac-Porn as a type of erroneous verdictive speech act, with a sneakily exercitive aspect. To translate that into ordinary English: it would work if we could view Mac-Porn as an authoritative judgment about what women are, and if that judgement has normative significance for the way in which they are treated in the social sphere.
While it is interesting to consider this possibility, one must nevertheless acknowledge certain difficulties with its proper defence.
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