Andrew Ross


Catharine A. MacKinnon. Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987. Pp. 315. $25.00 hardcover, $9.95 paperback.

Judith Becker and Ellen Levine, the two women who wrote a dissenting statement on the Report of the 1986 Meese Commission on Pornography, pointed out that it was almost impossible, under the conditions of the Commission's public forum, to find people willing to acknowledge their pleasurable consumption and use of pornographic materials. In the light of the "millions of apparently satisfied customers," they added, "it seems obvious that the data gathered [by the Commission] is not well balanced." Even if such favorable testimony had been easier to elicit, it is unlikely to have been welcome, given the Commission's heavily ideological mandate. But such a scenario, with such testimony, gives pause, and raises some wild thoughts. What would the Commission have done with a chorus of diverse confessions and ratifications of pleasure? Would this testimony have compromised or reinforced its conclusions? Does the business of such commissions involve bypassing or overlooking this kind of testimony?

Given the restricted purview of liberal law, which addresses considerations of harm, acts in the name of protection and appeals to the concept of negative liberty, the answer to these questions is likely to remain moot. In the case of pornography, however, I think that we ought to imagine what might be learned from a critical inquiry into consumer pleasures. For a start, it would help to address one of the 1986 Commission's own recorded complaints; in a rare enlightened moment born of frustration, the Report notes with regret that virtually all of the historical study of pornography has not been about "the social practice of pornography," but rather about the "control of that social practice by government," and recommends that if the use of pornography is "to be understood fully," then "the scope of thinking about the issue should be broadened substantially."'