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  • Origin Stories in Political Thought: Discourses on Gender, Power and Citizenship
  • Ingrid Makus
Joanne H. Wright . Origin Stories in Political Thought: Discourses on Gender, Power and Citizenship. University of Toronto Press. 2004. 230. $50.00

The aim of this book is to explore the uses and abuses of 'origin stories' in political thought. In chapter 1 Wright makes an eloquent case for the [End Page 149] importance of such stories to political discourse. Drawing on Plato's 'myth of the metals' from the Republic as an example, she proposes that origin stories offer multiple narratives. Most often they include an account of the beginnings of human society, a depiction of the nature of human beings, and, most fundamental to political theorizing, a justification for hierarchical social and political arrangements. Moreover, to the extent that 'origin stories' inevitably need to consider human reproduction, they end up addressing gender relations. The task of political theory is to examine these origin stories for what they can tell us about historical and political debates over conflicting and competing notions of citizenship, power, equality, and consent.

Of central importance to political theorists, according to Wright, is that the authors of these origin stories often deliberately 'lie': they distort 'historical truths' to serve their own political purposes, which have to do with providing a convincing account of particular arrangements of power and advocating a particular political strategy.

We cannot do without 'origin stories' – they derive from a human need to find our place in the world, to tell us where we came from and where we are going. But, Wright warns, 'origin stories' are dangerous if accepted uncritically, because they tend to foreclose reasoned debate that could elicit real political solutions, instead drawing us into mythical narratives that offer simplistic solutions to political conflict and essentialist renditions of human nature, especially in its gendered dimensions. Wright proposes that uncovering the myths and falsehoods created and perpetuated in origin stories requires a 'historical method' that explores how the authors of political origin stories are embedded in and responsive to political and social imperatives and debates of their time.

In chapters 2 to 6 Wright engages in such an exploration of the 'origin stories' in Plato, Hobbes, Carole Pateman, and second-wave radical feminism. The strongest chapter in my view is the one that engages with Pateman's reading of the Hobbesian 'contract' as a sexual one (chapter 5). In an insightful and subtle reading of Pateman's Sexual Contract, Wright convincingly demonstrates that Pateman's 'uncovering' of Hobbes's 'origin story' – as one in which maternal dominion and right in the state of nature turn to sexual oppression and political exclusion for women in civil society – is itself 'a feminist origin story.' Pateman is in fact drawing on and perpetuating an 'origin story' that maintains that the original and essential foundation of human interaction is male desire for sexual access to women and a sexual conquest of women by men, embodied by rape and embedded in social contract theory and practice. In chapter 6, Wright persuasively shows how Pateman's narrative of sexual conquest is carried further in second-wave feminism. Radical feminism in the 1960s and 1970s draws on the myth [End Page 150] of a pre-patriarchal society in which superior female principles reign. Wright shows how this 'feminist myth' simply overturned the 'masculinist' myth that is central to origin stories in Western thought and is formulated most clearly in Plato's Timaeus (chapter 1). Plato's creation story is turned on its head by radical feminism for political purposes – to strategize a separatist radical political movement.

Although they provide a much-needed historically grounded interpretative background, the chapters on Hobbes (3 and 4) are the least convincing, in my view. Chapter 3 proposes that Hobbes simultaneously engages in and criticizes the political uses of narratives that present 'customary' beginnings. Chapter 4 proposes that Hobbes does not explicitly support or perpetuate historical assumptions of his day about the mythical nature of the Amazons and seems implicitly to acknowledge the role of women in political activity by refusing to admonish women involved in the Levellers. It is not clear how this historical background material...


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pp. 149-151
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