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Author: Michael Barry
Title: Book Review
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
Summer 2001

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Source: Book Review
Michael Barry

vol. 3, no. 1, Summer 2001
Article Type: Book Review

Michael Barry

University of Detroit Mercy

Maria Pia Lara. Moral Textures: Feminist Narratives in the Public Sphere. Berkeley: U of California P, 1998. 280 pp. $45.00

Maria Pia Lara's conclusions in Moral Textures are very much to my taste, but I still cannot recommend it to readers. Lara broadens Jurgen Habermas's discourse ethics—procedural, public sphere ideals of communication—to account for narratives as well as rational argumentation. What she highlights, then, is the interrelationship between the aesthetic sphere of validity and the moral sphere of validity. She hopes to temper political philosophy with a glance toward art, toward autobiographical narratives in particular, and she credits feminism for showing that these autobiographies change the public sphere, and change what-counts-as-public. At first I thought that my reservations about this book were reservations about the style of political philosophy in general: its headlong pursuit of what's good, what's right, and what's true. What really keeps Lara up nights is that smart people like Charles Taylor, Bonnie Honig, and Iris Marion Young do not offer a criterion for showing that some narratives are wrong, wrong because they are exclusionary. Lara insists, over and over again, upon the need for a normative moment in political philosophy. For me, this normative moment is paradoxically the least rhetorically successful area of political philosophy. Lara does not seem to have discovered that people do not very often win arguments. Nor does she appreciate that our pointing to the categorical imperative and saying that it is universal is likely to be futile if our opponents in the argument say "No it isn't." As I said, it may be that I have differences about matters of style with this whole subarea of philosophy. On the other hand, Lara draws heavily on Habermas, Hannah Arendt, Seyla Benhabib, and Paul Ricoeur, and I admire the work of all four. So my recommendation is as follows: Don't read this book; go back and read Arendt or Ricoeur.

My criticism is not just with the style of argumentation, but with the clarity of the writing. Lara hopes to describe the desirable interpenetration between several categories, several spheres of validity, several key terms. They are, for example, justice and the good. Autonomy and authenticity. Self-determination and self-realization. These roughly map to the terms "moral" and "aesthetic," respectively, so she would like our comprehensive social theories to modulate their interest in the first category by considering the second.

But her definitions of the terms often come much later than her deployment of them, and she mixes them up enough that one is hard pressed to know how each binary relates to another. Furthermore, when she substitutes "solidarity" for "the good life," and "expressive" for "aesthetic," there is no telling how important the substitution is. The difficulty is only partly in the material itself. Let me give examples of what I see as troubled writing. Here is Lara:

It is in defining the 'authenticity' of one's own moral project, as an expressive and moral validity-claim, that self-determination becomes linked with self-realization. An individual subject acquires an identity by situating herself in a performative act of disclosure. We connect authenticity with self-realization in order to find recognition from others, and, at the same time, to stress the uniqueness of our identity claims. (83)

A few pages later, she asserts that

The recognition that autonomy is not achieved by the rightness of one's decisions, but is subject to public recognition, allows one to relate the idea of authenticity directly to the process of autonomy, now linked to the dimension of disclosure. (85)

There is a lot of "connecting" and "linking" and "relating" here that is not well defined. Moreover, we run into inordinate difficulties if we too quickly think that "self-determination" belongs with "autonomy" and "self-realization" with "authenticity," or if we too quickly accord authenticity a place under expressiveness or aesthetics. Admittedly, Lara is conscious of what she is doing: she is quite committed to the methodological difference between blurring categories, on the one hand, and maintaining theoretically separate categories that interpenetrate one another, on the other hand. This means that readers should be on the lookout for seeing authenticity, for example, show up as a "moral" category even though it at first was maintained as a category distinct from the moral sphere.

And still I have many reasons to like this book. It makes the underreported point that selves are best understood as participants in dialogue rather than as individual psychologies. It is sensitive to the self-referential nature of feminist narrative: that the news that it brings is of its own importance. The book's chapter on recognition—"A Critical Revision of Three Models"—provides helpful summaries of the work of Taylor, Axel Honneth, and Ricoeur. Lara explains that Taylor's recognition goes beyond Kant's formal definition of justice, but a little too far, so that there's no way for Taylor to distinguish between good demands for recognition and bad ones (from racist groups, say). She gives credit to Honneth for suggesting that the "I," whose very nonconformity can be ethically crucial, is imbued with social recognition, and is formed with idealized others in mind; then she criticizes Honneth for his belief that lack of recognition, almost by itself, is responsible for social pathologies. Oppressed people do not necessarily lack confidence, she suggests. Finally, she says that Ricoeur in Oneself as Another models participation in the public sphere on an Aristotelian definition of friendship, and on a person's appreciation of the grammatical reciprocity of the Golden Rule: at some point we realize the relationship of "doing" to "being done to." Lara's problem with Ricoeur is that his world is insufficiently public. What we learn from its friendships and its religious outlooks, Lara argues, may not be especially applicable to a larger dialogue. I think this is an excellent criticism of Ricoeur.

There are some considerations that I would like to have seen Lara deal with at greater length. I am thinking especially of a materialist explanation of feminism and other social change, and of a square confrontation with the fact that in the best public space, some will pay a higher price for admission than others. Let me take these one by one. First, Lara describes the progress of feminism as if it has been a contest exclusively of rhetoric. As feminist narratives trickled down to more and more people in the public sphere, she contends, the public sphere was redefined to include an even greater array of voices. This account does not convince me. For Lara, it is as if the birth control pill was irrelevant. There is not a glimmer of recognition that women's gains sometimes resulted from warfare or accident. There is no mention, for instance, about how women were accorded control over property in the U.S. largely because creditors could not abide the fact that capital was so often tied up until an heir came of age. [1] Little wonder that her consideration of the public sphere does not include computers.

A second consideration: the price of admission to public debate, or better yet, the distance one needs to walk to get to the agora. Choosing women and feminists as her model makes the problem a little easier: in a very practical way, because boys and girls are at least sometimes socialized together, women and men speak the same dialect; their verb endings will be maintained or dropped, and their shibboleths of class will appear or disappear together with those of their siblings of the opposite sex. Once we consider race, ethnicity, or nationality, on the other hand, the dialogue must be conducted in somebody's language. And we all know which languages will be deemed the convenient ones for matters of state. I have to support an effort to theorize methods of inclusive dialogue, especially the self-correcting methods Lara advocates, but she does not adequately address the intractability of this problem.

1. I am drawing this idea from a lecture by American historian Sandra VanBurkleo, delivered at the University of Detroit Mercy Law School, Winter, 1998.