[unfinished rough draft]
Though it was published in 2002, Ellen Peel’s Politics, Persuasion, and Pragmatism: A Rhetoric of Feminist Utopian Fiction is particularly relevant in the sudden upswing of the “me too” movement roughly a decade and a half later. Fueled by the apparent cirque-du-folie of socio-economic isolationism or separatism in both British and American politics—informed primarily by “Brexxit” and the US presidency of Donald Trump—this public surge of attention toward the foibles of historical patriarchal leadership in general and sex crimes against women in particular with its ensuing outcry for government, community, and corporate institutions to do something to protect and secure justice better, has contributed palpable clouds of atmospheric tension super-charged in a climate of identity politics and the considerable tensions between sects of different sorts of “feminism” pitted either for or against other social justice and civil rights movements.
It is an historical storm system that has gained considerable momentum.
Specifically, Peel closely examines three novels: The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five by Doris Lessing, The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin, and Les Guérillères (The Women Warriors), by Monique Wittig, drawing attention to the tendency for feminist analysis to focus more on criticism of how patriarchal texts work, rather than giving that same sort of attention to how feminist texts work. Her earnest and insightful observations on the value of belief-bridging and persuasion (especially “feminine” persuasion as it differs from ideological imperatives and assertions) as a means of change offer a source of well-grounded sagacity and breaths of clarity quite unlike what is often to be found on the virtue-signaling frontlines of social media platforms and even most Women’s-and-Gender-Studies Departments, where many are chewing upon and regurgitating scripted rehearsals of the disdainful machinations of white male heteronormative cis-gendered privilege—to which the sin of being a white hetero cis-gendered female is bound and subjugated with discursive chains. By asserting that all texts exert persuasive power, Peel neutralizes political dynamics in a manner that allows for a fresher look at the mechanisms by which these particular texts generate their feminist influence.
Peel’s theoretical treatment of the novels is uniquely grounded in a pluralistic amalgam of approaches. Peel describes it thus herself in a line that offers a wonderful sample of the sort of playful and light-hearted tonality that laces even her ethical considerations (which form a primary principle of her analysis): “while purists in particular camps might decry my effrontery, as a bricoleuse I believe we can pick and choose among the tenets of various theories—indeed, that making such choices is the only responsible method” (xx). The plurality she employs is essentially “feminine” in that it evades and scampers in and out, around and about the patriarchal linearity that can shape even the most ardent of feminist ideology. That which escapes ideological “purity” precisely is the properly “feminine” aesthetic. Pragmatic, persuasive feminism does not attempt necessarily to take down the Master’s house, but it does play with his tools, intentionally and transparently. Any theoretical approach—whether or not it calls itself feminism—that insists on its particulars becomes an illusion: like in some fairy tale, the Master’s tools might become enchanted with a new appearance, and yet when used they cannot help but perform their same essential work. Peel explicitly sets up the way she uses seemingly contradictory theoretical concepts (such as deconstruction and structuralism) in tandem, and she employs these tools expertly to excavate new truths rather than to dismantle old ones.
Her development of the term “protean metaphor,” which she defines as “a type of metaphor, found in narratives, that undergoes a series of changes that take readers step by step through a persuasive process as an argument would” (43), and its application in the geographical settings of the texts as a method of feminist persuasion provides the basic palette from which one can get a sense of her particular style of explication, critical analysis and argument—one that forges something novel from what has already been otherwise separately established. This echoes the conclusions she draws from each of the three novels, where male and female are embodied in intentionally symbolic and juxtaposed landscape regions only to have their initially organized differences challenged and deconstructed.
Most importantly she draws attention to and even forecasts the chaos induced by the deconstructive tendency to dissolve words of their meanings and makes an anticipatory nod toward a number of alarming current trends and their ensuing practical and political implications: “for example, if ‘women’ and ‘subordination’ are drained of meaning, it is hard to fight the subordination of women” (xxii). She cleverly refers to herself as a post-poststructuralist and makes a compelling case for theoretical work that exhibits both accessible clarity and the complexities of nuance, an aesthetic that shapes the whole of the work itself.
An entire chapter of the novel is dedicated to building a “multifaceted” (xxv) and systematic definition of both patriarchy and feminism that describes a basic logical framework upon which the multiplicity of feminist considerations emerge; and the ways in which different feminist approaches compliment and/or problematize one another via overlap and contradiction. Her grounding of feminism as an essential rejection of patriarchy, though near-universally accepted as the mutually uniting factor for all the many types of feminism, creates an ironically ideological tension with her otherwise dialectical approach. Her own methodology and analysis of the works themselves demonstrates not the stark contraries of rejection, but rather the more gradual and persuasive action of resistance, undertow, and revolution. This is one of the very few but poignant shortcomings of logic in an otherwise mindful and thoroughly well-considered treatment of material that today is being subjected to much worse violations of good sense and basic ethics.