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  • Politics, Persuasion, and Pragmatism: A Rhetoric of Feminist Utopian Fiction
  • Erin McKenna
Politics, Persuasion, and Pragmatism: A Rhetoric of Feminist Utopian Fiction. By Ellen Peel. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2002. xxvi + 227 pp. $49.95

In this book, Ellen Peel sets out to draw a distinction between a static utopian belief and what she terms a pragmatic utopian belief. She then tries to draw parallels between pragmatist and feminist beliefs and to show the [End Page 246] pragmatic elements in some feminist utopian fiction. While we get four chapters (two through five) on the various aspects of feminism, only chapter one addresses pragmatism, and not very comprehensively, or in much detail. This unequal treatment undermines the book as a whole.

The only use made of pragmatism is a continuously repeated assertion about a "pragmatic critique" that the feminist utopian literature being discussed represents. There is, however, no real discussion of pragmatism to give any context or focus to the claim. The rich and varied field of pragmatism is summed up by "provisional models, continual questioning, and distrust of premature closure" (8). These elements of pragmatism are not explained, supported, or used to provide meaningful analysis. The emptiness of the claims about pragmatism caused me to look at the bibliography where one can find no primary sources on pragmatism. There is not one work by Charles Saunders Peirce, William James, or John Dewey. Richard Rorty gets some room and three secondary sources are cited (The American Mind by Henry Steele Commager, Pragmatism: From Peirce to Davidson by John P. Murphy, and Pragmatism and Feminism by Charlene Haddock Seigfried). The only one of the secondary sources discussed is the obvious choice of Charlene Haddock Seigfried's Feminism and Pragmatism: Reweaving the Social Fabric. Given the purported topic of the book one would expect a somewhat extensive discussion and/or use of Seigfried's book. Instead it gets two paragraphs and is never used again.

Peel's claims that the feminist literature she discusses encourages readers to "pragmatically question" (170), "to continue pragmatic thinking after closing the book" (171), to "call forth a critically pragmatic attitude about storytelling itself as well as about the events of the particular story" (171) all lack meaning because pragmatism has not been explained or explored. Given the common misinterpretations of the word pragmatism and the varied interpretations of the philosophy of pragmatism, some attention must be paid to this topic if such conclusions are to carry any weight. Further, such conclusions demonstrate that the real focus of the book is rhetorical and literary analysis, not pragmatism or politics.

Part II of the book addresses specific examples of feminist utopian literature. Here Peel is on more solid ground, but I worry that those who are not familiar with Doris Lessing's The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five; Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness; or Monique Wittig's Les Guerilleres will not get enough information here to follow Peel's interesting analysis. One could, however, argue that her analysis will inspire readers to read the books and/or that her target audience is already familiar with the texts in question. [End Page 247]

Peel's position that the strength of these books comes in their lack of closure, their lack of dogmatism, and their dynamic and questioning approach is insightful and she makes good use of the novels to support these claims. However, the analysis is weakened by her continual empty assertions about this being a pragmatic approach. Even more disturbing are all the places in the second part of the book that cry out for connections to pragmatism that are simply overlooked. These include: issues of insularity (85), provincialism (92), providing a "third way of thinking" (97), inclusiveness (99), the self (106), dealing with change (114), the interdependence of all things (116), approaches to technology (118), the need for heterogeneity (122), pluralism (131), "dynamic instability" (135), multiplicity of truth (136), thought experiments (147), readiness to change (155), and imagination (166). I kept asking myself what pragmatism was specifically adding to the discussion when it was not really being used.

The strongest point of the book comes in chapter...


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