Feminist Philosophy and … Pornography

September 16, 2013 - September 18, 2013
Institut für Philosophie, Humboldt-University, Berlin

Room 3059
Unter den Linden 6
Berlin
Germany

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Main speakers:

Nancy Bauer
Tufts University
University of Essex
Matt Drabek
University of Iowa
Anne W. Eaton
University of Illinois, Chicago
Nicole Hall
University of Edinburgh
Texas A&M University
Katharine Jenkins
University of Sheffield
Rae Langton
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Hans Maes
University of Kent at Canterbury
Ishani Maitra
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
Mary Kate McGowan
Wellesley College
Evangelia (Lina) Papadaki
University of Crete
Nicole Wyatt
University of Calgary
Yale-NUS College

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The heir of Playboy, Cooper Hefner, stated in a recent newspaper article that Playboy isn’t pornography - rather, Playboy is art and it empowers women (The Independent, Jan 6th 2013). This claim is in stark contrast with most feminist views: many feminists do not consider Playboy to be empowering and they take pornography to be a kind of harm. Rae Langton forcefully and famously argued for such feminist claims in her article “Speech Acts and Unspeakable Acts” (originally published in 1993). In her paper, Langton defends the philosophical cogency of Catherine MacKinnon’s view that pornography not only causes the subordination and silencing of women, but it also constitutes women’s subordination and silencing. Langton’s defence appeals to J. L. Austin’s speech act theory. She argues that pornographic speech illocutionarily subordinates women and silences their speech. It does the former in ranking women as inferior, legitimating discrimination against them, and depriving women of important rights to do with free speech. This last point connects to illocutionary silencing. Pornographic speech does not prevent women from making utterances. Rather, the thought is, pornographic speech may create communicative conditions that result in illocutionary disablement of women’s speech in specific contexts. Particularly this may be so with respect to women’s refusals of unwanted sex: if pornographic speech prevents the locution ‘No!’ from being seen to be a refusal in a sexual context, due to which sex is forced on the speaker, she has not successfully performed the illocutionary speech act of refusing the unwanted sex. In this case, there may be a free speech argument against pornography.

Since the publication of Langton’s seminal article, a rich philosophical literature on pornography has emerged. A number of philosophers from different backgrounds have either critiqued or defended Langton’s position (e.g. Ronald Dworkin, Leslie Green, Jennifer Saul, Judith Butler, Caroline West, Nellie Wieland, and many others). Despite the rich literature on the topic, precious little agreement still exists on some key questions: How do or should we define ‘pornography’? Does pornography in fact subordinate and silence women? What should legally be done about pornography, if anything at all?

The first goal of this conference is to take stock of extant debates and discussions. We wish to clarify the conceptual and political terrains of feminist discussions concerning pornography. In particular, we wish to investigate how do or should feminist philosophers define 'pornography' and related terms (e.g. harm, silencing, objectification). Further, what are the political commitments of those working on the topic, and what might be a helpful feminist political strategy with respect to the reality of pornography. Despite the wealth of literature on pornography over the past couple of decades, these questions are still in need of being addressed.

The second goal of this conference is to explore new issues and themes in the feminist philosophical debates that have emerged more recently. By doing so, we wish to create new lines of inquiry on themes that (to date) have received surprisingly little attention from feminist philosophers. We also aim to investigate how these new issues intersect with older, more established, debates. Specifically, we wish to examine three themes: HARM – EPISTEMOLOGY – AESTHETICS. We will investigate the themes themselves, how they intersect with one another, and how do or can these issues and their intersections help answer our first set of questions about feminist conceptual and political commitments. In more detail, we will be asking:

HARM – Are the existing conceptions of harm, illocutionary subordination and silencing plausible and/or helpful? Do they help us in settling questions about the legal treatment of pornography, or should we base our discussions in the legal domain on some other notions? Do feminist philosophers even have to settle the issue of pornography’s harmfulness once and for all?   

EPISTEMOLOGY - What kinds of knowledge claims does pornography involve, if any? Does it involve maker's knowledge, as Langton has recently argued (in her Sexual Solipsism, OUP 2009)? If so, is the maker's knowledge that pornography involves harmful, as Langton claims? What would its harmfulness consist in?

AESTHETICS - What kind of representation does pornography involve? Is the representation (of women, sexuality, etc) in pornography harmful and if so, in what sense? How do the elements of reality and fantasy in pornography relate to one another? And how do these elements intersect with the previous two themes (harm and knowledge)? Can pornography be considered art (as Hefner Jn. claims)? If so, what consequences does this have for the view that pornography harms women?

For queries concerning the forthcoming event on Pornography, please contact Mari Mikkola (mari.mikkola@hu-berlin.de).

This conference is part of the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin Symposium Series Feminist Philosophy and…. For further information about the Symposium Series and about past events, please see:

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August 26, 2013, 10:00am CET

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