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What modern feminism is hiding Does Amia Srinivasan believe the orthodoxies that fill her new book?

'Vogue's favourite philosopher', Amia Srinivasan


August 26, 2021   6 mins

If you were a greengrocer in Soviet Czechoslovakia, it would be prudent to display, in your window, a poster proclaiming: “Workers of the world, unite.” This is the famous example Vaclav Havel used, in The Power of the Powerless (1978), to illustrate mass conformity to Communist dogma. Havel’s greengrocer probably never thinks about that slogan, let alone believes it; he puts it obediently in his window to signal compliance with the regime. As Havel puts it: “If he were to refuse, there could be trouble.”

I was reminded of Havel’s greengrocer when reading The Right To Sex, a much-lauded new book on women and feminism by Amia Srinivasan — the holder of Oxford University’s prestigious Chichele professorship of social and political theory, a position previously held by luminaries such as Isaiah Berlin.

Despite — or perhaps because of — her standing, she opens the book with a statement typically found in the preface of any contemporary woke writing about women; I’ve come to think of it as a direct equivalent to the greengrocer’s poster:

“At birth, bodies are sorted as ‘male’ or ‘female’, though many bodies must be mutilated to fit one category or the other, and many bodies will later protest against the decision that was made. This originary division determines what social purpose a body will be assigned.”

Yes, commissar, the statement says, the definition of “woman” in my book about women is “anyone who identifies as a woman”. No, commissar, biology is not a thing.

That politically essential disclaimer out of the way, Srinivasan dives into the messy business of sex and feminism. Is it possible, she asks, to make the “sexual marketplace” more welcoming to people who are not conventionally attractive — without telling people who they should or shouldn’t shag? Can we make porn less harmful to young people without banning it? Can we chart a course between believing women who make sexual assault accusations and avoiding miscarriages of justice — which might disproportionately impact minorities?

The Right To Sex has been breathlessly received by all the usual bellwethers of correct opinion. A gushing profile in Vogue promised that The Right to Sex “will radically change the way you see feminism”. Corbynite clickbait queen Ash Sarkar tweeted a photo of it as “absolutely extraordinary” beach reading. And the Ground Zero of gender-woo fog-weaving, the queer theorist Judith Butler, lauded the book (somewhat ironically, given her own notoriously impenetrable prose style) in the New Statesman as a beacon of “clarity”.

And indeed, taken one at a time, Srinivasan’s sentences are models of clarity. Taken together, though, her paragraphs and overarching arguments are not. One lengthy section — the coda to the book’s titular essay — dispenses with even the pretence of a sequential argument, instead offering some 40 pages of numbered paragraphs responding to critiques of The Right To Sex. And even where the text is arranged as a sequential argument, Srinivasan piles references together with examples and musings usually without bothering to spell out what they imply.

Instead, what we get is rhetorical questions. Sometimes several are arranged in a row, with none answered directly. “Is anyone innately attracted to penises or vaginas?” she asks. “Or are we first attracted to ways of being in the world, including bodily ways, which we later learn to associate with certain specific parts of the body?” We are left to speculate on how Srinivasan would actually answer the questions she poses.

Was this, I found myself wondering, the result of woolly thinking on the author’s part? This seemed unlikely, given Srinivasan’s successful career as a philosopher, an occupation that demands verbal precision. Rather, the cumulative impression is of intentional evasiveness. A tiptoeing across the minefield of contemporary debates about desire, personal autonomy, prostitution and exploitation. But is this mindless conformity? I came to think it less a matter of Havel’s greengrocer, than of another twentieth-century thinker who lived through an era of sharp constraints on what may be said: the German philosopher Leo Strauss.

For it’s one thing to be a shopkeeper, obediently sticking a poster up to signal compliance and a desire to be left alone. What if you’re a public intellectual? Few intelligent people hold unambiguously to the dogmas of the day, but where blasphemy incurs meaningful costs, communicating a less than flawlessly orthodox opinion in public writing is a risky business.

In Persecution and the Art of Writing, Strauss argues that writers in repressive social contexts have historically often conveyed a message at two levels. Where orthodoxy is enforced by persecution, Strauss argued, truth-telling can still be achieved by an author “provided he is capable of writing between the lines”.

A lazy read of The Right To Sex garners all of the orthodoxies we’ve come to know and love in elite woke feminism. Trans women are women; prostitution should be decriminalised; the solution to porn is not legislation but more sex education; hook-up culture is fine except when it isn’t, in which case it’s all men’s fault; anyone who isn’t bisexual should re-evaluate who they fancy in the light of identity politics. Each of these orthodoxies is presented with moral certainty, as simple statements: “Third wave feminists are right […] that sex work is work, and can be better work than the menial labour undertaken by most women”.

But having made a simple statement of the official position, our lucid Oxford professor proceeds to convey a sense that everything around that position is hopelessly muddled. Sex work is work, but:

“to understand what sort of work sex work is […] surely we have to say something about the political formation of male desire. And surely there will be related things to say about other forms of women’s work: teaching, nursing, caring, mothering. To say that sex work is ‘just work’ is to forget that all work – men’s work, women’s work – is never just work: it is also sexed.”

If you take at face value the poster Srinivasan put in the window of her greengrocer’s shop, asserting her belief that biology is not a thing, parsing what any of this means beyond the initial assertion of orthodoxy is like nailing jelly to a wall.

And I came to think that this is, in fact, the hidden structure in this seemingly structureless book: the repeated, maddening contrast between confident pronouncements of theoretical orthodoxy and miserable, inconclusive rummaging in the less than positive real-world outworkings of this orthodoxy. Read in this way, The Right To Sex is an accurate critical summary of woke feminism: clarity in theory, amoral mess in practice.

The text asserts that this mess can’t be solved, for to do so would be to embrace “authoritarian moralism”; but at the same time, the subtext demurs. Srinivasan approvingly mentions government interventions to force parents to accept state-sponsored sex education, or advertisers to create more “inclusive” marketing, policies with more than a striking resemblance to moral values imposed by authority.

The subtext, then, is that authoritarian moralism is good, but we can’t say so. The question is which morals? The things we can’t say in approaching this are hinted at in one of the book’s strangest and most Straussian glitches.

Strauss suggests that one means a writer may employ to signal a double meaning is to present the orthodox position in flat, affect-less language that bores the reader, and the text’s real argument in vivid, thrilling, memorable terms. And just such a slippage occurs in Srinivasan’s abrupt gear-change from a language of bloodless abstraction to the mythic register of gods and monsters when discussing “patriarchy”.

“What,” Srinivasan asks, “does it really take to alter the mind of patriarchy?” The personification is startling against a backdrop of generally arid prose. What is this thing, “patriarchy”? How can an abstraction have a “mind” like some creature out of myth?

The careful reader, reflecting on this eruption of the mythic, might be drawn toward a question so profoundly un-askable under mainstream feminism that it could conceivably pose a threat even to shortlistings for appointment to (say) prestigious professorships. Is “patriarchy” not fact but mythology?

And if in fact there were no such thing as “patriarchy”, we might then speculate on what actually shapes the often difficult terrain of men, women and sex. And that in turn points to themes so glaringly absent from Srinivasan’s book it’s hard not to read it as pointed: biology, children, and love.

You don’t get appointed to prestigious Oxford professorships without being both clever and canny. It’s now commonplace to acknowledge that the age of “free speech” is over, and The Right To Sex responds pragmatically to this state of affairs. It recites every conventional woke opinion the commissars could demand, while between the lines sketching the contours of an entirely different argument, conveyed in the only register such a thing could be conveyed in without trashing a prestigious career: esoterically.

And this shadow message implies many heresies: that the refusal to address love, biology, and children are driving us and our discourse mad. That loveless sex is hell. That pornography is hell, and is devastating young people, who long for loving sexual commitment. That trans women are not women. That “patriarchy” is a paper tiger. That there are irreducible trade-offs to be made between identity groups.

It’s of course impossible to know whether Srinivasan means this argument to emerge from her meandering if mercifully short volume. Given her prominent standing in an institution whose role is to shape elite youth into morally correct regime functionaries, she wouldn’t tell me if that were the case.

Either way, the esoteric reading is the more charitable one, so I’ll go with it. The alternative is that the youngest ever holder of Oxford’s prestigious Chichele Chair is peddling a poorly structured sheaf of arid witterings based on an incoherent worldview; is doing so under the name of “feminism”; and is being lionised for it in Vogue. I prefer to think someone of her evident wit and considerable prose skill understands exactly what she’s choosing not to say.


Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.

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J Bryant
JB
J Bryant
2 years ago

I don’t know if this article is an exceptionally insightful analysis of a deeply coded book, or if Mary Harrington’s imagination went into overdrive when presented with an essentially meaningless text.
Either way I find the article dazzling. The author’s interpretation (or possible interpretation) of this book is extremely clever and if it’s correct she is showing us not just how to read this particular book but how deeply troubled are all academic disciplines dealing with issues of gender and sexuality. It is a brilliant piece of journalism that points to some very depressing conclusions about the state of even our most elite academic institutions (why would a person want to be a professor of a subject where you’re no longer allowed to even discuss the subject?).
Mary Harrington is reminded of the greengrocer’s window poster during the communist era. I’m reminded of the paintings from the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries when artists relied on powerful patrons for money and protection. The artist might paint their noble patron in a flattering pose, looking powerful, confident, and about twenty years younger, but the background of the painting told the real story. Animals, plants, fragments of Latin would all be recognizable to educated viewers as representing political opinions or little jokes at the noble subject’s expense.
Such artifice relied, of course, on the noble patron not recognizing the subtext and I suppose the same is true of The Right to Sex if Mary Harrington’s interpretation is correct. The woke had better not figure out what Amia Srinivasan is really saying. Nobody likes to be made to look a fool.

Last edited 2 years ago by J Bryant
David George
David George
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

“Either way I find the article dazzling”
Yes, Mary’s a treasure. I just paid my subs so that I could say that.

Terry Needham
PR
Terry Needham
2 years ago
Reply to  David George

We have to pay a sub to declare that Mary H is a treasure?
Things are worse than I thought.

Ian McKinney
Ian McKinney
2 years ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

I also wish to declare my belief that Mary Harrington is just about the best writer out there writing about anything right now.

A veritable genius, long may she reign.

Terry Needham
PR
Terry Needham
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian McKinney

She’s mine I tell you.

David George
David George
2 years ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

I was overdramatising, though I had been procrastinating about subscribing properly. Let’s just say that quality essays and essayists are worthy of recognition. Nothing bad in that.

Terry Needham
Terry Needham
2 years ago
Reply to  David George

I know you were!

Katalin Kish
KK
Katalin Kish
2 years ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

And I just learned to read all comments before defending someone’s first comment, which I clearly didn’t “get”.

Katalin Kish
Katalin Kish
2 years ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

Declare as a comment to this article. I have just paid for subscription to be able to “like” comments, and add my own, when I am able to.

Galeti Tavas
VS
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  David George

Mary is the best writer here.

“Is “patriarchy” not fact but mythology?”

It is completely a myth, and how excellent for her to add that question.

The thing is this Feminist writer is one of the Post-Modernism Philosophers, although possibly she has her doubts as it is an utterly evil philosophy, as evil as any which has existed in the world.

Post-Modernism refuses to believe in the very existence of the Individual (Foucault Derrida) – which is the core belief of Modernism (Modernism referred to is the last 500 years of science, arts, philosophy, and enlightenment). Modern means belief in the individual as the very base that all fallows from, in religion it is the soul, in secular it is like Locke “have a standing Rule to live by, common to every one of that Society, and made by the Legislative Power erected in it; A Liberty to follow my own Will in all things, where the Rule prescribes not; and not to be subject to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, Arbitrary Will of another Man.”

Post Modernism denies that anything can be known – all those 500 years are now Post – they are no longer valid. As nothing can be actually known all which exists is discussion, and that all discussion is power, one talking to try to win over the other. And from that means all are group identities, not individuals, as the individual cannot be proven to exist.

And so you get today’s philosophical nightmare – all is identity groups, and all relations is power. Thus all interactions are one identity group exerting power over other identity group. You and I and conflations of identity groups – gender, orientation, race, religion, origin, wealth, education, criminal history, marriage, political alignment, and on and on – but none an individual, so no individual rights exist – just the identity groups rights and eternal power struggle.

in P-M, All is power – the Patriarchy being a top one… The White Patriarchy being above that…. All is ‘Oppressor and Oppressed’ That is Post Modernism reality.

Obviously Critical Race Theory is the perfect example of this. This pernicious philosophy has destroyed our entire education system. It is pure evil.

Richard Lyon
Richard Lyon
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

“Gender-woo fog weaving” repaid the price of admission, for me.

Lesley van Reenen
LV
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  Richard Lyon

“a poorly structured sheaf of arid witterings” is another!

David Nebeský
David Nebeský
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

A common experience in totalitarian countries where seemingly pro-regime authors wrote between the lines is that readers read and “found” something between the lines even where there was nothing, in authors who were really servants of the totalitarian regime. And it was not only readers who “found” it there, but also censorship officials, sometimes.

Katalin Kish
Katalin Kish
2 years ago
Reply to  David Nebeský

One of the few positive aspects of trusted positions in authority awarded in communist countries on political trustworthiness instead of aptitude was that content “between the lines” was usually missed by apparatchiks after the Stalinist paranoia faded in countries like Hungary. We had song lyrics that still make me cry, while remaining permitted to perform, because of the cluelessness of censors.
It is possible of course that we were allowed to sing cryptic songs because the powerful knew, there was nothing we could do beyond weaving true meaning between the lines of poetry, prose and song-lyrics, and documenting what life really was like in communist countries in paintings’ backgrounds. We learned in 1956 and in 1968 the price to pay if we rose up against our captors.
One example of a loaded song is below is in its original Hungarian. It is too meaningful and too precious for me to try to translate it to English to be read by people who are unlikely to understand what this really meant for us behind the Iron Curtain:

Ha én zászló volnék, sohasem lobognék,

Mindenféle szélnek haragosa volnék,

Akkor lennék boldog, ha kifeszítenének,

S nem lennék játéka mindenféle szélnek.

sarah rutherford
SR
sarah rutherford
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Good points and a brilliant article. Picking up your ‘ Why would a person want to be a professor of a subject where you’re no longer allowed to even discuss the subject?, I was thinking similarly ‘why would you choose to write a book about a subject ie feminism and sex, when she can’t say what she wants to say.

Alan Hawkes
Alan Hawkes
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

On the subject of religious paintings the Church, and artists, trod a difficult path. On the one hand the Church said that angels were pure spirit: on the other hand it sanctioned them being painted in human form and with wings: the latter attribute signifying that they were messengers of God. Modern cartoonists do something similar: civil servants are shown wearing bowler hats, black jackets and pin-stripe trousers, though such dress is unusual these days. Occasionally artists got it wrong. Bronzino got in a lot of trouble when he painted The Harrowing of Hell. Bronzino painted a Hell in which many lost souls being rescued were nubile young women, who looked as if they were Playboy centre-folds.
I once read a Soviet-era joke. A Russian reader wrote to Pravda: Dear Editor, Is it true that half the Politburo are idiots? The reply was, Dear Citizen, We can assure you that half the Politburo are not idiots. Perhaps Amia Srinivasan’s book should be read in the same spirit.

Terry Needham
Terry Needham
2 years ago

“I prefer to think someone of her evident wit and considerable prose skill understands exactly what she’s choosing not to say.”
Let’s hope you are right. Either way, thank you for reading this stuff so that I don’t have too.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

That is indeed a great blessing. It is like those who can face and clean up horrors of traffic accidents and such that we may know they exist but not have to actually see and touch the reality of it.

Because this sort of book is a horror of a great magnitude, and in fact is the parasite worm which is eating the host (Universities) from the inside.

Sharon Overy
Sharon Overy
2 years ago

If you’re right in your reading, it means she knowingly lies to her students, her deceit possibly setting them up to ruin their lives.

Jon Redman
HJ
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  Sharon Overy

Well, quite. If this is true Ms Srinivasan has now completely jumped the shark and is in the mendacity business.
It’s as though she were living in East Germany and informing on her neighbours, but she’s secretly not a Communist really, so that’s OK then.

Douglas McNeish
Douglas McNeish
2 years ago
Reply to  Sharon Overy

“To shape elite youth into morally correct regime functionaries”

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
ER
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago
Reply to  Sharon Overy

I had not thought of it this way but a very good point.
I suspect, however, that the lives that are ruined are those who do not believe what they are being told but think they have to try to live it

James Jenkin
James Jenkin
2 years ago
Reply to  Sharon Overy

A profound moment from pop culture.

In LA Law, or one of those shows, two Christian Scientist parents were in court because they hadn’t given their child medical treatment, and the child died. The husband was dim, a true believer. The wife said she felt guilty, because she thought maybe the child should have had medical care.

And the wife got the serious punishment!

There’s a parable for you

Alan Hughes
AH
Alan Hughes
2 years ago
Reply to  Sharon Overy

Correct Sharon, but unlike some US captive giving coded messages in a Vietcong video she is being quite cowardly.

Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
2 years ago

So the old joke about Mathematicians and Philosophers still applies in the modern academy:
Dean, to the physics department. “Why do I always have to give you guys so much money, for laboratories and expensive equipment and stuff. Why couldn’t you be like the math department – all they need is money for pencils, paper and waste-paper baskets. Or even better, like the philosophy department. All they need are pencils and paper.”
Credit: http://consc.net/misc/mpp-joke.html

Jon Redman
HJ
Jon Redman
2 years ago

If I were 20 or 22 years old today and exposed to any of this sort of guff in real life and conversation, I think I would just constructively withdraw from either. I’d have nothing to do with western womankind; the advantages are scanty and frankly not worth the hassle.

Terry Needham
Terry Needham
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

But most women aren’t really “western womankind”. I was reminded yesterday of the scene from Annie Hall, where Alvy and Annie are squaring off for the first time. The accompanying subtitles contrast what the characters say with what they think – Just two more insecure humans making the best off it.

Last edited 2 years ago by Terry Needham
Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

Agree Terry, that’s why I say “If I were…exposed to any of this sort of guff in real life and conversation”. If not then fine, and indeed the women of my own generation whose opinions on this I know don’t see this world in this deranged way at all.
But those in their 20s, I don’t know but suspect many of those I know really are as crazy as they seem. Engaging with them would simply not be worth the bother. What’s the actual benefit?

Terry Needham
PR
Terry Needham
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Point taken. I was really wondering if what the young ‘uns say for public consumption is what they believe. I guess we are too old to find out.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
ER
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

My understanding is that they do and that they become traumatized when their views are challenged

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

I have a niece in the arts in a big city who hung up on me as I told her I was a Trump voter, and we have not spoken again. What silly people young are today, they just are so against things they cannot even tolerate anyone disagreeing with their Pavlovian values.

Douglas McNeish
DM
Douglas McNeish
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

And potential downsides can lead to moral, social and financial degradation.

Jon Redman
HJ
Jon Redman
2 years ago

Indeed Douglas. Unknowable, unmitigable risks to the downside, and…what are the upsides again?

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Amen brother

Lesley van Reenen
LV
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

I know you have a particular beef with women, but must point out that there are plenty of woke men about.

Mirax Path
MP
Mirax Path
2 years ago

I read a FT vanity piece on this philosopher a couple of years ago and there was absolutely nothing original or unconventional about her thoughts. She is very much a product of her education and her background. Mary’s skewering is accurate and well deserved.

Last edited 2 years ago by Mirax Path
Arild Brock
AB
Arild Brock
2 years ago

I appreciate Harrington criticising the untenable and even life-defying current gender orthodoxy. However, I think she underestimates the problem we are facing. 
The variation between arid orthodoxy and vivid truth found in Srinivasan’s book can be explained by a less honourable interpretation than the one suggested by Harrington (Strauss). As an alternative explanation I would suggest that Srinivasan has tried to “kill” her common sense (or logical thinking in general) on her way to the honourable professorship. She has, however, not yet succeeded completely.
That being said, the remaining glimpses of life seem small, indeed. If the quotation on “patriarchy” is the best Harrington could find, the author of “The right to sex” is very close to death. The book seems to consist of 10 % arid, but readable, orthodoxy, 89 % unreadable muddle and only up to 1 % life.
So how big is the problem we are facing? Roger Scruton said about the former regimes in Eastern Europe: The purpose of censorship and subduing free speech was not to lie, but to destroy the difference between true and false. 

Alan B
Alan B
2 years ago
Reply to  Arild Brock

Reading your comment, the below came to mind.
“Positivistic social science is ‘value-free’ or ‘ethically neutral’: it is neutral in the conflict between good and evil, however good and evil may be understood. This means that the ground which is common to all social scientists, the ground on which they carry on their investigations and discussions, can only be reached through a process of emancipation from moral judgments, or of abstracting from moral judgments: moral obtuseness is the necessary condition for scientific analysis. For to the extent to which we are not yet completely insensitive to moral distinctions, we are forced to make value judgments. The habit of looking at social or human phenomena without making value judgments has a corroding influence on any preferences. The more serious we are as social scientists, the more completely we develop within ourselves a state of indifference to any goal, or of aimlessness and drifting, a state which may be called nihilism…”
Leo Strauss, “What is Political Philosophy?”

G A
GA
G A
2 years ago

She’s either thick or a coward. Neither should be teaching at Oxford.

Bronwen Saunders
Bronwen Saunders
2 years ago
Reply to  G A

Exactly. That was my first thought too.

Galeti Tavas
VS
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  G A

She is a member of a self-loathing hate cult, so should definitely not be a teacher. The problem is these evil people got in in the 1980s and have been propagating their secular form of Satanism (called Post Modernism) so successfully that all the products of non-Stem University education are fully indoctrinated.

Margaret Tudeau-Clayton
MT
Margaret Tudeau-Clayton
2 years ago

Thank you Mary for this excellent piece. My heart sank as you confirmed my fears as to what would happen to Amia once she was appointed to this chair. I read some brilliant original and witty reviews and essays by her in the LRB some time ago and guessed she was destined to great things, but this was too early – she had not even published a first book. The pressure on her to produce a book must have been compounded by the pressure to swallow the new ideology which is being forced on academics across the West. Like so many she has not had time to think whether or what she believes, hence this ‘warped’ book as it appears from your analysis, though I will have to read it for myself.
As for Oxbridge chairs, at least in the arts and humanities, it is alas no longer the case that intellectual acuity is what is needed. At least one recent appointment has been made as much for DIE.

Jon Redman
HJ
Jon Redman
2 years ago

Exactly. I feel about other people’s sexuality exactly how I feel about their farts. I’m sure it’s a very big deal to them but it’s of no interest to me and I certainly don’t need them to share.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago

Thanks to Mary and her excellent essay, I have two takeaways. 1. I will not waste my time and read the woke book and 2. I must Google Judith Butler.

Last edited 2 years ago by Lesley van Reenen
Claire Dunnage
CD
Claire Dunnage
2 years ago

Although, I found this article fascinating, I would need to read the book myself and make up my own mind. I really don’t think it’s a good idea to just blindly except some else’s interpretation without reading the text myself.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire Dunnage

I don’t have enough life years left to wade through endless woke ordure. I value Mary’s opinion generally so am happy to be guided. Be sure you feed back to us if you have the appetite to read it.

A Spetzari
A Spetzari
2 years ago

Highly recommend ‘Cynical Theories’ by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay
This is the epitome of two intelligent people having researched and read something so others don’t have to (Judith Butler, Foucault, Derrida etc)
The first half explains the history and bibliography of all things ‘woke’ and postmodern – which is a tough(ish) read, only because they are trying to make sense of the utterly non-sensical.
The second is a more practical critique of these ideologies.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

I am part of the way through Cynical Theories. I am very admiring of Pluckrose and Lindsay. Also Peter Boghossian who teamed up with them in the hilarious grievance studies affair.

Dawn McD
DM
Dawn McD
2 years ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

I’m currently listening to Cynical Theories on Audible, and it’s absolutely helping me to understand the origins of our current insanity. There is so much to read, I’m grateful for people like Mary H. who can help me sort and choose thoughtfully.

Franz Von Peppercorn
MB
Franz Von Peppercorn
2 years ago

Well if you have to. You may need a butler translator.

Jonathan Nash
Jonathan Nash
2 years ago

When Shostakovich concealed his distaste for Stalinism in hidden musical references the jeopardy he faced was being shot. The worst this woman faces for speaking honestly is a twitter pile on and some rowdy disruption to her lectures – unpleasant, but surely not too much to expect the Chichele professor to bear? If Mary Harrington’s reading of this book is correct, the writer is a moral and intellectual coward.

James Jenkin
James Jenkin
2 years ago

Wow, what a great article

Jim le Messurier
Jim le Messurier
2 years ago

This review has many superb insights and I hope it gets a wide readership.
The delving into Straussian ideas about the psychology of writing in order to explain the disconnect ( as Harrington sees it ) between the pat recital of the woke orthodoxy and the writer’s mess of ideas underneath, is brilliant.
But then I do believe that “patriarchy” is – at best – a paper tiger. I love it that Mary Harrington has posited that idea in her review. It’s the truth.

michael stanwick
MS
michael stanwick
2 years ago

I did wonder about applying the attribution of ‘paper tiger’ to ‘patriarchy’ (as in feminist ideology). What is this thing, “patriarchy”? How can an abstraction have a “mind” like some creature out of myth?
I suppose even an abstraction can be a ‘paper tiger’, precisely because it is a reification of a myth? Reified by sheer ideological zealousness and Nietzschian ressentiment?

Jim le Messurier
JS
Jim le Messurier
2 years ago

I think you have it. I could have gone with ‘nonsense’, but ‘paper tiger’ as a reified myth works for me.

Pete Marsh
Pete Marsh
2 years ago

I’m now sure that many Oxbridge academics are not selected on merit.

Michael James
MJ
Michael James
2 years ago
Reply to  Pete Marsh

Groupthink and fashion rule everything now. Is there any academic discipline that hasn’t been exposed as ‘racist’?

C Troedodo
CT
C Troedodo
2 years ago

Brilliant review. To paraphrase a former Chichele Professor do you think Prof Srinivasan is a fox pretending to be a hedgehog?

Earl King
Earl King
2 years ago

Many understand that family is everything. For help, comfort and a social life. Friends are important but are rarely substitutes for family. The act of having a family is at a minimum biological, hopeful it is also wonderfully emotional. Sex is both practical for having children but it is also a love affirming act. It can also just “feel good”. That said there are women and men who do not like sex. Some who cannot find love and are reduced to form of mechanical sex reduced to self stimulation with and without porn. Then there are of course biological males who feel like they are women. These people cannot give birth nor nurse no matter how many desire this. Women who become men cannot inseminate a woman with their own genetic sperm. Denying basic biology is a fantasy. Sex and gender are not the same but both share biology no matter how much one’s desire to forget that.

David D'Andrea
David D'Andrea
2 years ago

This essay is a bit of a stretch. I’d be delighted to find a Straussian coded dissent hidden within the latest woke missal, especially one bearing the imprimatur of a prestigious Oxford chair. (Funny how such a “revolutionary” ideology can claim the aligned support of academia, media and corporate capital!) But I don’t see evidence of any such dissent here. “What does it really take to alter the mind of patriarchy?” is hardly “vivid, thrilling, memorable” terminology. To say that it’s a shift into “the mythic register of gods and monsters” is a bit of a howler.
I love Harrington but I feel that her talents are perhaps put under strain when she (as other Unherd columnists) are expected to contribute so frequently. I look forward to reading her next well-considered piece.

David Nebeský
David Nebeský
2 years ago

Greengrocer in communist (not Soviet!) Czechoslovakia put “Workers of the world, unite!” poster in the window not because it was prudent to do so nor because he signaled compliance with the regime. He signaled nothing, it was just one of a million unpleasant duties of a citizen of communist Czechoslovakia. Putting up a poster with communist propaganda in the window at the appointment time meant nothing. But NOT putting it up meant a hell of a lot. Not a potential trouble, but very real trouble especially if the failure to display the poster (or Soviet flag or something else) repeated. And not just trouble for the former greengrocer (who would lost his job meantime), but for his kids, too.

Victoria Cooper
VC
Victoria Cooper
2 years ago

I have a confession. When I saw the photo of Amia Sriniva I silently groaned and thought no way. Then I gave myself a sharp slap and muttered about books and covers. Unconscious bias being a deadly sin nowadays. Second confession – always listen to your unconscious bias. All the while ruing the loss of University education.

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago

I’m not sure I’d agree with assertions that an academic career in philosophy is synonymous with precision of language. Perhaps it used to be. Nowadays ‘academic’ achievement appears to be synonymous with long-winded jumbles of word salad reeling off one wokeist trope after another with little actual meaning if you stop and think about it for a second. I’ve always been suspicious of overtly florid language, it is often a pretty wrapper, that sounds very intellectual, used to hide a lack of substance.

John Callender
John Callender
2 years ago

It was said (by Roger Scruton perhaps?) that one purpose of propaganda is to demoralise the population. This is done when the person producing the content knows that it’s lies and nonsense; the people listening to, or reading it, know that it’s lies and nonsense; the people producing it know that the listeners or readers know that it’s lies and nonsense; but everyone is too afraid or intimidated to point out that it’s lies and nonsense.
This creates a culture of passive resignation and acceptance, and a split between outward conformity and an inner awareness of the truth, which must always be concealed. The end result is a population of docile sheep, who lack any faith in their own opinions and common sense, and who can be pushed around by those who claim to know better.

Wilfred Davis
Wilfred Davis
2 years ago
Reply to  John Callender

Correct. It’s the humiliation of knowing it’s lies and nonsense – but not having the courage to raise objections – which brings about the loss of morale, which makes the population realise that it deserves to be lied to. If we have been this craven, thinks the population, we are already long defeated, and by our own shameful acquiescence. Defeated by ourselves.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
2 years ago

Maybe it’s just a commercial approach:
The intellectually lazy will buy it for their favourite fashionable high-level memes (which the MSM can easily quote/promote in reviews).
The more intellectually curious can have something to tax their brains with.
Its probably not easy to sell a book to both markets.

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

“Werkers of the werld, untie!”

Galeti Tavas
VS
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

““Werkers of the werld, untie!””

Sharon Graham (the new leader of the UNITE union) is a real old school Marxist, and replacing McLusky now – and she says “I approve of this Message”.

Paul Scannell
Paul Scannell
2 years ago

Although I have not read the book, I must say your way with words is uniquely engaging. I value your take increasingly.

Mike Bell
MB
Mike Bell
2 years ago

Defund Woke academics. Create minimum standards of evidence before public money is spent on ‘research’.

D Hockley
SM
D Hockley
2 years ago

Men are born with XY chromosomes, women with XX chromosomes. There are there alone is sex defined.

It is hard to fathom the idiocy of the modern world.

Camus once said ‘Man is the only creature who refuses to be what he Is’.
Mankind is headed in the wrong direction, yet again and the likes of Amia Srinivasan belong in a mental health institution not a University.

Last edited 2 years ago by D Hockley
Tom Krehbiel
Tom Krehbiel
2 years ago
Reply to  D Hockley

I’m afraid that you got the situation reversed. Men and boys have the XY configuration, women and girls the XX.

D Hockley
D Hockley
2 years ago
Reply to  Tom Krehbiel

LOL…you are right

michael stanwick
MS
michael stanwick
2 years ago
Reply to  D Hockley

Also, sex is not defined by chromosomes per se. Sex is defined as two discrete, reproductive strategies. These are physically distinguished by the differences in gamete size and their functionality (anisogamic) and the bodily phenotype (machinery) that supports each strategy.
So at birth the markers used to determine sex are the discrete external manifestation of that ‘machinery’ – external genitalia – that is coupled with each reproductive strategy(sex).
Another interesting notion is that the existence of two discrete sexes is not confined to humans but extend across most species in both higher order plant and animal Kingdoms. So, for example, most flowering plants are hermaphroditic with both sexes in the same plant – but there are still two discrete sexes.

Dawn McD
DM
Dawn McD
2 years ago

Maybe if Koko the gorilla were still alive we could ask her how she “identifies” and what pronouns she would like to use.

JILL HUDSON
JILL HUDSON
2 years ago
Reply to  D Hockley

How does such a seemingly weak book get published? I understand that it is difficult to have a book published. Even J K Rowling found that I believe. Is it not what you know, but who you know? Well, yes, obviously!

Christopher Barclay
CB
Christopher Barclay
2 years ago

At least Ms Srinivasan acknowledges the probability of miscarriages of justice, if women are unquestioningly believed when they make accusations of sexual assault. There are worse!

Hector Mildew
HM
Hector Mildew
2 years ago

I think you missed something. What the author wrote was:
Can we chart a course between believing women who make sexual assault accusations and avoiding miscarriages of justice — which might disproportionately impact minorities?
The way I read this is: Miscarriages of justice don’t matter if the person falsely accused is a white man.

Alan Hawkes
Alan Hawkes
2 years ago

I would add Jordan Peterson’s argument that the post-modernist refusal to recognise the sovereignty of the individual is based on a fear of the accountability that comes with being an individual.

Andrew D
Andrew D
2 years ago

Then your mother shouldn’t have let you out on your own

Nic Thorne
Nic Thorne
2 years ago

With this piece Mary Harrington proves herself to be an even better writer than I’d thought.

Stephen Rose
Stephen Rose
2 years ago

Pity poor Vogue magazine, fashion has never been ethical, so radical chic must be worn season after season. Patriarchy pants,Trans trainers and feminism by Fendi.

Chris Brown
CB
Chris Brown
2 years ago

‘Ground-zero of gender-woo fog weaving’ deserves a prize for best description of Judith Butler’s so-called scholarship

Christian Moon
Christian Moon
2 years ago

How does the esoteric meaning arise in the text though?
Is it a conscious exercise in dissimulation and covert communication with those on your side?
Is it a rhetorical device deliberately to lead those in the grip of the orthodoxy to start to question it?
Is it something that just emerges sideways from a mind that is borne down by the constraints under which we work?
Is her editor likely to be in on any such calculation of these layers of meaning?

Katalin Kish
KK
Katalin Kish
2 years ago

There were some positive aspects of trusted positions in authority being awarded in communist countries to politically trustworthy persons irrespective of aptitude. Content “between the lines” was usually missed by apparatchiks after the Stalinist paranoia faded. We had song lyrics that still make me cry, while remaining permitted to perform, because of the cluelessness of censors.
It is possible of course that we were allowed to sing cryptic songs because the powerful knew, there was nothing we could do beyond weaving true meaning between the lines of poetry, prose and song-lyrics, and documenting what life really was like in communist countries in paintings’ backgrounds. We learned in 1956 and in 1968 the price to pay for trying to rise up. The Soviet Union had more soldiers than the population of Hungary or Czechoslovakia.
One example of a loaded song is below is in its original Hungarian. It is too meaningful and too precious for me to try to translate it to English to be read by people who are unlikely to understand what this really meant for us behind the Iron Curtain:

Ha én zászló volnék, sohasem lobognék,

Mindenféle szélnek haragosa volnék,

Akkor lennék boldog, ha kifeszítenének,

S nem lennék játéka mindenféle szélnek.

mrbarrymarshall
BM
mrbarrymarshall
2 years ago

Bloody love this review. Mary Harrington is one of the most perceptive minds on the planet right now. This review is so brilliantly cheeky ironic and dialectical – with more than enough nous to back it up – that I don’t think the author of thee book in question could ever recover.

Last edited 2 years ago by mrbarrymarshall
mrbarrymarshall
mrbarrymarshall
2 years ago

Bloody love this review. Mary Harrington is one of the most perceptive minds on the planet right now. This review is so brilliantly cheeky ironic and dialectical – with more than enough nous to back it up – that I don’t think the author of thee book in question could ever recover.

Last edited 2 years ago by mrbarrymarshall
Richard Parker
Richard Parker
2 years ago

Just wanted to say thank you for that, Terence, since I can’t give you 2 up votes. Spot on.

Last edited 2 years ago by Richard Parker
Karl Juhnke
Karl Juhnke
2 years ago

♡ Mary

Neil MacInnes
Neil MacInnes
2 years ago

Actually from my point of view you can scrap all the philosophy, philosophers, professors, theories, journalists, books, articles etc etc – when it comes to male, female, transsexuals, sex and sexual relationships the only thing we are all ever going to agree on is that it’s “clarity in theory, amoral mess in practice.”

David Morley
David Morley
2 years ago

Read in this way, The Right To Sex is an accurate critical summary of woke feminism: clarity in theory, amoral mess in practice.

I haven’t read the book, only the article on which it is based. But I would agree with the above. It’s greatest strength is that it illuminates very clearly the particular rabbit hole we have been taken down. And it unwittingly opens feminism to clear critique. Most feminists are slippery and inconsistent, they believe what it suits them to believe, when it suits them – and don’t worry to much about whether that is credible.
That aside though I found the thinking pretty underwhelming for an oxbridge don. It’s the same old same old – just with more clarity and examination.

E Endrei
E Endrei
2 years ago

Mary is a gifted writer and this article is excellent. Nevertheless, being familiar with Srinivasan’s other work, I doubt very much that the ‘esoteric’ reading of her book is correct. Charity is important, but it needs limits; Mary seems to me to have overstepped them in suggesting that the book under review might be so sophisticated. Given the ways in which status is achieved in academic philosophy, the alternative reading Mary offers in her last paragraph is not so much uncharitable as sadly realistic.

Jerry Jay Carroll
Jerry Jay Carroll
2 years ago

Ah, the unclothed empress stands revealed. Thank you, Mary.

Melanie Mabey
MM
Melanie Mabey
2 years ago

I remember when I was young I wanted to marry an Oxbridge man who had been to public school (like my Dad in other words) I looked up to those institutions I thought they produced the best of the best. Thirty years on I now despise them all.

Richard Slack
Richard Slack
2 years ago

The word “Woke” appears early on and then often. The word woke I always interpret as “this person is making moral, political and philosophical views which make me feel uncomfortable so instead of critiqueing the views I will attack the writer” “Corbynite clickbait queen” makes the writers stance even clearer.
I think I might get the book and read it

Hilary Easton
HE
Hilary Easton
2 years ago
Reply to  Richard Slack

That’s not what woke means.

For information, I suggest you read John McWhorter’s recent article in the NYT to find out the history and usage of the word. Also in the Times today there’s a poll of whether people think it’s a compliment our a slur. It’s about 50/50, varying with age, of course.

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
2 years ago
Reply to  Hilary Easton

Ironically, the NYTimes has become so ‘woke’ I unsubscribed after 40 years. Interestingly, they have just signed McWhorter to write regularly for the rag, requiring that he no longer write his Substack pieces. McWhorter sent a notice out announcing his new employment deal. Maybe the NYTimes is getting the hint that they have lost the plot? – no matter, McWhorter was flattered and clinched the deal. Bye/bye.

Hilary Easton
Hilary Easton
2 years ago
Reply to  Cathy Carron

I agree that NYT is woke but the article by McW that I am referring to, is not taking an unequivocal woke position by any means.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  Hilary Easton

I then wonder how long he will last at the NYT. Bari Weiss was employed to offer a different point of view, until the point of view started to rankle.

Samir Iker
SI
Samir Iker
2 years ago
Reply to  Richard Slack

“views which make me feel uncomfortable so instead of critiqueing the views I will attack the writer”
This line tells you why the woke, “progressive”, “liberal” crowd is so dangerous – a cocktail of hypocrisy, self-obliviousness and lack of basic honesty, that their opponents can neither emulate nor counter.

For the record, check out the various camps and see which group is most likely to play the man rather than the ball, attack someone instead of arguing their views……and that same group, as you see above, has the sheer audacity of accusing others of the same. Just like they are the most likely to keep whining and accusing others about racism or sexism, while being the most guilty of those offences themselves

Last edited 2 years ago by Samir Iker
Geoffrey Wilson
Geoffrey Wilson
2 years ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

I wonder whether Mr Slack will do us the favour of explaining why he asserts the article “attacks the writer”. I have read the article again, and it clearly (to me) discusses the content of the the book, with no trace (to me) of any personal attack.

Mirax Path
Mirax Path
2 years ago
Reply to  Richard Slack

I offer you and other readers a sample of Ms Srinivasan’s dreck: google and download the pdf of her Radical Externalism. It confirms that philosophy has descended into an outpost of Grievance Studies.

Martin Adams
Martin Adams
2 years ago
Reply to  Mirax Path

Thank you for that recommendation.
I’ve done what you suggest, and completely agree with your conclusion — or, rather, I agree that your conclusion is true of many (though not all) areas of philosophy. As a retired academic, it worries me that philosophy that objects to this trend will, almost certainly be less prized than “Srinivasan’s dreck.” (Nice turn of phrase — thanks!)