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Only Words

2.4 out of 5 stars 15 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0674639348
ISBN-10: 0674639340
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In her most cogent and accessible book to date, feminist legal scholar MacKinnon lashes "absolutists" who maintain that all forms of expression, including pornography and hate propaganda, should be constitutionally protected. MacKinnon counters that pornography and hate messages "do the same thing: enact the abuse." Porn, she argues, subordinates and degrades women and incites sexual harassers, wife beaters, child molesters, rapists and clients of prostitutes. MacKinnon, a Univeristy of Michigan law professor, believes that we need to balance First Amendment concerns for free speech with Fourteenth Amendment protection of equality. She advocates "a new model for freedom of expression . . . in which free speech does not most readily protect the activities of Nazis, Klansmen, and pornorgraphers, while doing nothing for their victims." And she hails two recent decisions by Canada's Supreme Court which bolster the rights of persons harmed by pornography or hate propaganda.
Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

MacKinnon, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School and the author of numerous works (e.g., Toward a Feminist Theory of the State , LJ 8/89), is one of the nation's foremost proponents of feminist legal theory. Her latest work, a collection of three essays, is a polemic against pornography and its protection under the First Amendment. The first essay presents a highly emotional attack against pornography that would have benefited from a definition of terms and fewer unsubstantiated assertions and assumptions. The other two essays compare and equate pornography and sexual harassment with racial discrimination and abuse; they are more reasoned and provide cogent material for discussion of gendered aspects of the legal system. This book will create controversy among legal scholars and feminists. Recommended for both legal libraries and women's studies collections.
- Sharon Firestone, Coll. of Law Lib. , Arizona State Univ., Tempe
Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 160 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (March 1, 1996)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674639340
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674639348
  • Product Dimensions: 5 x 0.4 x 7.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 2.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #797,527 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This small, thin book on hate speech and pornography is unpleasant to read, not just because of its topic but because of its stridency. There are far more outraged references to dirty words, body parts, and violent acts than seem necessary. This no doubt reflects the feelings of the author herself, but I felt something more was involved, requiring more effort to understand. She is a professor of law and a famous authority in her field, so the book requires attention..

The core of the argument is taken from a book by the English philosopher J. L. Austin, 'How to do Things with Words", which appeared in 1955. He observed that many so-called "statements" are really actions in addition to being words put together in a grammatical way. For example, when King Arthur taps Launcelot on the shoulder with a sword and says "I dub thee Knight", the speech is making Launcelot a different sort of person. Austin called such statements "performatives" and pointed out that to be a valid action, a performative must satisfy a number of conditions: "There must be an accepted conventional procedure having a certain conventional effect ...", "the particular persons and circumstances must be appropriate ...", and so on for a total of six conditions. Later philosophers have elaborated on Austin's classifications, and even tried to view all language as action.

The author mentions Austin once, in a footnote at the end of the book. Uninterested in subtleties, she declares over and over that certain offensive pictures, words, and films are acts in themselves. Pornographic materials "subordinate women through pictures or words." (p. 22) (Apparently we should forget that there is a lot of pornography that does not involve subordination.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is painful to read. I'm glad I bought this before taking a class with Catharine MacKinnon so I could drop her class before the semester started. She has extreme views that do little more than essentialize and generalize.
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Format: Paperback
[Note: This review deals almost exclusively with the first essay.]
Professor Catharine A. MacKinnon is at once one of the brightest and most controversial feminist legal scholars today. She and Andrea Dworkin were instrumental in getting anti-pornography legislation enacted or considered in several towns and cities (though the legislation adopted was later declared unconstitutional). MacKinnon is also the person to whom the claim that all sex is rape is most often attributed (probably unfairly). She is thus someone to whom much attention is, and should be, devoted.
"Only Words" is the sarcastic and ironic title of a collection of three essays in which MacKinnon argues passionately that pornography and sexual and racial harassment are not "only words." The operative word is "passionately," for "Only Words" is indeed a passionate and emotional work. MacKinnon, who has argued intelligently and with great force for a new theoretical framework (as in her "Feminism Unmodified"), here falls victim to her passion, producing a work that is academically unsound. Her evidence is, at times, shoddy or even ludicrous. For example, to support the claim that pornography causes violence, she cites a convicted murderer who said as much "as only an honest perpetrator can" (p. 18). That someone as intelligent as MacKinnon would cite the words of a killer seeking to shift blame (shades of Ted Bundy) is rather astonishing and a sign that emotion has overcome intellect here. Aside from the very real possibility that the killer was simply prevaricating, there is also the problem of a killer being able to identify cause and effect, a problem that MacKinnon overlooks.
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Format: Paperback
Catharine MacKinnon, along with her long-time legal and scholary partner, Andrea Dworkin, is one of the most prominent feminist critics of pornography. Her *Only Words* is an attempt to place her critique of pornography within the larger context of a critique of hate speech in general.

In some ways, *Only Words* is a success. She presents her viewpoints lucidly and passionately. She does indeed offer a thought-provoking analysis of pornography as hate speech (though I should note that in the legal statutes that she and Dworkin have drafted, she treats pornography not as hate speech, but as libel), and offers an insightful approach to hate speech. Philosophers reading this book will see the strong influence of J.L. Austin's concept of the speech act. The idea Austin offers us is that there are cases in which to *say* something is also to *do* something. For example, under the appropriate circumstances, to utter "I do" or "Guilty" just *is* to marry, and to convict a defendant, respectively. MacKinnon uses this idea to argue that to the extent to which pornography *says* something (she isn't entirely consistent on whether pornography expresses an idea or an ideology, often vaccilating between different conceptions of what pornography does as is needed to suit her immediate goals), it also *does* something. Pornography, she argues, *is* a form of violence against women.

But while her comitment and passion are indubitable, her evidence is not as well situated. In good lawyerly fashion, MacKinnon is more interested in convincing her readers than getting at the truth. She plays fast and loose with her data, and much of the book (especially part I) seems to be written according to the dictim: 'I know what I think, so don't bother me with the facts.
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