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Friday, 02 January 2009 11:12

The Untold Story - Page 2

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And yet, other reviewers seem to be taking part in a public stoning, attacking her book with the ferocious glee of the Taliban cornering a heretic. " The Birth of Pleasure fails on nearly every level . . . a sticky paste of unproven assertion, anecdote-as-data and swaths of memoir," writes journalist Emily Nussbaum in The New York Times. Reviewer Judith Warner of The Washington Post found the book "horribly dated. . . . It rambles . . . it meanders. . . . It is solipsistic . . . . I couldn't make heads or tails of it." "Smudgy thinking . . . poetic obscurantism . . . psychology gives way to mystagogy," writes Margaret Talbot in The New Republic.

Controversy is one thing, and by no means a bad thing, for a writer with a history of challenging received opinion. But, the reaction to The Birth of Pleasure seems extreme, often veering from criticism to outright contempt. Catharine Stimpson, dean of graduate students at New York University, wonders in a recent article for the New York Observer (titled "Who's Afraid of Carol Gilligan?") why reviewers of The Birth of Pleasure, itself a "hopeful vision of happiness and love," appear to be taking part in a "cultural blood sport," whipping up "some of the most disparaging reviews I've ever seen." What's this orgy of journalistic abuse all about? Is the book really so terrible? Or is there something about the message in The Birth of Pleasure that makes it even more disturbing than In a Different Voice or Meeting at the Crossroads --both of which were also attacked, although not with the same venom. Or are we living in a different era in which the kind of feminism that Gilligan represents now seems out of synch with what today's tough-minded, presumably long-since-liberated women want to read?

IN A DIFFERENT VOICE challenged theories of psychological development--based on studies of men and boys only--that, since the time of Aristotle, had assumed women were inferior to men in their capacity for moral reasoning and lacked a clear sense of self. Gilligan showed how women's voices, once heard in their own right and with their own integrity, change the conversation by drawing attention to aspects of human experience that previously were dismissed or silenced. The different voice was a relational voice. In contrast to an ethic of justice linked to ideals of autonomy, independence, and self-sufficiency, Gilligan described an ethic of care linked to realities of relationship and enjoining responsiveness, responsibility, and carefulness rather than carelessness toward oneself and others. It was an ethic based on a more psychological understanding of the human world.

After the social explosiveness of '70s feminism, Gilligan's book didn't initially seem all that radical. Low-key and nonpolemical, In a Different Voice didn't catalog outrages against women or attack men or male supremacy. Yet it effectively challenged the supremacy of an intellectual tradition built on the idea that, literally, psychology is the study of man . The book struck an emotionally-resonant chord in a whole generation of women, who recognized themselves in its pages--their own vague and undefined sense of not being heard, of learning to put on their own "pretend" voices. "Gilligan's book changed my view of feminism," says Carol Hekman, professor of political science at the University of Texas at Arlington, who had already written her own book about feminism. "She challenged the idea that there is one, singular and absolute path to either philosophical or moral truth. In fact, her view of feminism challenges the entire Western tradition--you can't get more revolutionary than that."

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