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Sexism and metaphor: an exchange

Notes
This issue of Radical Philosophy appears in a situation
where the interests of both its writers and readers
are under threat. Not only is philosophy being
threatened as a result of the economic crisis, but the
philosophical frameworks used by radical groups over
the last decade are directly under attack: the Open
University is accused of ‘Marxist bias’; the Gould
report calls for a McCarthyite purge; the ‘nouveaux
philosophes’ receive wide acclaim as the pall-bearers
of socialism.

Now is the time for a radical journal to heighten our
sense of urgency and encourage the production of relevant work. The News Section shows our attempt to
bring Radical Philosophy closer to its readership, and
make it more responsive to readers’ needs; it implicitly argues for a closer connection between Radical
Philosophy groups and the journal than the loose and
almost coincidental alliance that has existed in the past.

The articles published in this issue are congruent
with these moves. John Mepham’s review in RP16
opened with a paragraph later re-printed in Spare
Rib’s regular column of sexist adverts etc, ‘Tooth and
Nail’. We publish a response to this paragraph by the
Cambridge ‘Women in SOCiety’ collective, Mepham’s
reply, and their rej oinder. Peter Dews’ reply to Roy
Edgley’s article in RP15 defends Colletti’s position
that contradictions occur in thought, not in its objects.

Rip Bulkeley’s article on Mao, ‘On On Practice’,
critically examines a text that has been used as a
classic in the philosophic education of radicals.

Andrew Collier’S article again raises the question of
the transformability of the analytic tradition; he uses
concepts and methods from this tradition to produce
a positive and critical notion of ‘freedom’. This is
especially timely as public debate comes to focus on
‘individual rights’ and ‘human freedom’.

This issue also carries details of the next Radical
Philosophy conference, to be held in Brighton
6-8 January 1978.

Sexism and melaphor: an exchange
Dear Radical Philosophy Group,
We object strongly to the opening paragraph of
John Mepham’s review, “Goodbye to all that?”, in
Radical Philosophy no. 16. His choice of metaphor
– a woman being fucked (or is it rape?) by successive giants, and enjoying it – to convey his scorn for
the British academic left, betrays his careless and
uncritical participation in the worst sort of sexist
ideology. Presumably this is his attempt to escape
from the aridity he attributes to the left, if only in
style! You may find it interesting that the National
Front used just such imagery to convey their disgust
of the Left, in a leaflet distributed in Cambridge
last year.

The WomeQ. ‘s Liberation Movement, in its struggle
to combat such derogatory and all-pervasive ideas
about women and about sexuality, expects more
support from a Journal which purports to be critical
and politically radical. Hopefully this letter will
prompt some Editorial discussion on the issue apparently you do take up issues related to women’s
oppression (at the abstract level only?)
Our bodies are our own, so get off our backs, Mr
Mepham, and look elsewhere to titillate your
readers intellectual senses!

Up yours,
‘Women in SOCiety’ Course Collective
58 Kimberley Road, Cambridge

Dear RP comrades,
Something must have gone badly wrong with the
writing of that first paragraph of my review of Perry
Anderson’s book, because the ”Women in Society”
collective are not the only ones to have read into it
completely the opposite of what was intended. They
are quite right that the image with which the review
‘opens is a sexist image. It is so blatantly sexist that
one would have thought that it was obvious that its
rhetorical purposes was not to express or endorse
a sexist attitude but to expose one. In other words
_these readers have misunderstood the point of the
image, its function in the text. The point was inten-

ded in fact to be a critical one; the intended meaning
was absolutely the opposite to that read into it by the
Collective. Its purpose is not at all ‘to convey scorn
for the British academic left’ but to criticise the
political-cultural policy of the New Left Review. In
other words this deliberately and manifestly sexist
image was used in order to make an anti-sexist
point.

As I tried to explain in the review the NLR
diagnosis of the feebleness of British socialist
culture led them to adopt a particular policy in an
attempt to rectify the situation. They adopted the
policy of exposing British socialist intellectuals to
the major works of the ‘Western Marxist Tradition’.

This policy is open to all kinds of criticisms, some
of which I made explicitly in the review and some of
which the editor of the NLR seems now to accept
himself (although he fails, characteristically, to do
so in the manner of open self -criticism or political
analysis of the history of the NLR). One particular
criticism of that policy is that it is phallocratic; it
is this that that first paragraph was trying to express
not directly, not via theoretical analysis, but rhetorically, by means of the disputed metaphor. This was
meant to be read as saying: ‘The manner of the
NLR’s cultural intervention has been phallocratic
because it has thought of its audience as being passively excited and grateful for being serviced by the
Great Men of Europe, whose bodies of thought were
being made available in translation’. I was saying
that this is how they perceived us. Perhaps this
makes the irony of the metaphor more clear. It was
certainly used in a rather clumsy way.

Now, is this a fair accusation to throw at the NLR?

I do myself think that the style ‘of at least some of
those ‘great texts’ is indeed phallocratic. This is a
function of their dogmatic, system-building method,
Note from the production group. We regret that part of
John Mepham’s review, column 2 on page 41 of RP16, was
laid out back to front. The column should be read beginning from the words ‘and the great intellectuals’,
20 lines from the foot of the page.We apologise to
John Mepham and to RP16 readers.

1

their oppressive obscurity, and the way they have of
laying down the law. I also think that the style of the
NLR’s presentation of the works has been open to
criticism. They have over the years often changed
theoretical allegiance, and they have at different
times adopted positions which are in total contradiction with each other. And they have done this with
no public explanation, no self.-criticism, but always
with the most strident self-assurance and insistence,
Le .. as if from a position of mysterious omnipotence
and authority, too remote to be open to dialogue or
criticism (and I think that the book by Anderson
which was under review suffers from exactly these
same faults). This posture of authority seemed to
me to add up preCisely to the classical Freudian
figure of the Phallic Lawgiver, Le., to be phallocratic rather than just ‘oppressive’ or ‘elitist’ in
some more general or vague sense. But this was
merely an unworked-out intuition on my part; I did
not think it through thoroughly nor give it a theoretical analysis. I find that Michele Le Doeuff’s article
‘Women and Philosophy’ in RP 17, which I have subsequently read, brilliantly captures some of what I
was trying so inadequately to get at.

So I think that the ‘Women in SOCiety’ Collective’s
reaction to that first paragraph is based on their
having misunderstood the rhetoric. Whether this is
more the fault of the writing or the reading is not
important as long as it is now clear.

But there is one more thing I would like to say.

The last two columns of the review are, as they
stand in RP. totally incoherent. This is not at all
the fault of the writing. The argument would have
been quite clear, I believe, if only the RP production
.team had not cut up the text into several pieces and
then glued it together again all in the wrong order.

The depressing thing is how few people seem to have
noticed that this has happened.

Fraternally.

John Mepham
41 Colbourne Road, Hove, Sussex

Dear John Mepham.

Thank you for your letter explaining your intention
in using the disputed metaphor. I’d like to take up
our criticism of it in more detail, given that our
first letter was intended chiefly as an expression of
the feeling of assault and anger which we experienced
on reading it. We felt it important to convey that
anger. One of my points is precisely that male and
female readers would not read your metaphor in the
same way, and I’m not at all sure that either would
read it in the way you intended. I think it unlikely
that your male readers would have identified with
the feminine, derided position in your metaphor, as
your interided meaning of it would require. They
might partiCipate in the first part of this, i.e. ‘NLR
has talked down to me as passive/feminine’ but
given men’s desire not to be in that feminine place,
I think their response would be an indignant ‘no I’m
not’, which achieves what you want – anger at NLR’s
patronizing attitude – but leaves the metaphor itself
unchallenged.

Obviously we think it’s both possible and necessary
to subvert sexist imagery by using it incongruously
or ironically, but we don’t think you succeeded. In
its more outrageous form I think it is a weapon more
likely to succeed in the hands of the group oppressed
by such imagery – women. The weakest point about
your metaphor, to me, is that it is the opening paragraph of the review and is read in a vacuum, without
2

anY immediate markers to jolt the reader out of
aSSimilating it in its conventional sense.

Another criticism feminists have of much male
writing, which your metaphor seems to illustrate,
is the emphaSis on style above clarity. In your letter
you say: ‘This was meant to be read as saying ••. ‘

and go on to explain very clearly what the metaphor
left obscure. Perhaps it would have been preferable
to put it this way in the first place. To us it seemed
like an attempt to entice the reader to the review by
the use of strong, sexual imagery – in that sense we
felt women’s bodies were being used in an intellectually titillating way, whether it was your conscious
intention or not.

On the point of our misinterpreting the metaphor,
we did in the sense that we saw you as scornful of
NLR for ‘prostituting’ itself to one body of European
thought after another. This doesn’t seem inconsistent
with your description of NLR’s often-changing
theoretical allegiance.

I hope this has made our position clearer.

in sisterhood,
Valerie Binney
(for the Women’s Paper Collective)
58 Kimberley Road, Cambridge

Critique of Anthropology
Vol. 3 Nos. 9/10
SPECIAL ISSUE ON WOMEN
Contents:

Rayna R. Reiter: The Search for Origins
P. Aaby: Engels and Women
Maxine Molyneux: Androcentrism in
Marxist Anthropology
John Moore: The Exploitation of Women
in Evolutionary Perspective
F. Edholm, O. Harris, K. Young:

Conceptualising Women
Research notes: Barbara Bradby on the
Non-valorisation of Women’s Labour and
Victoria Goddard on Domestic Industry in
Naples
Book reviews: Ann Whitehead on Jack Goody’s
Production and Reproduction, and Elisabeth
Croll on Delia Davin’s Woman-Work
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