Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand

Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand



It is not surprising to read Robert Mayhew's criticisms of Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand, given his long association with The Ayn Rand Institute, which has come to represent an orthodox, "proprietary" Objectivism.  A recent Lingua Franca article suggests that this "proprietary" Objectivism treats the philosophy as "a piece of property   . . . not available for unlicensed use."  It is as if Objectivism itself has been fetishized by the orthodoxy ("orthodox" meaning, in classical Greek, "orthos doxa," or "correct belief")--owned and viewed as if it were a reified thing, rather than a living system of thought, open to many different applications, and appreciated from many different vantage points.  The article shows that this "proprietary" Objectivism is now on notice:  independent scholarship on Rand is growing exponentially in spite of the best efforts of those who would suppress it.  [Lingua Franca is not the only publication criticizing the "proprietary" Objectivists:  Interestingly, The Economist ("Ayn Rand:  Still Spouting," 27 November - 3 December 1999:  89) became aware of the current "website battles between academics dissecting Rand's every utterance and acolytes out to embalm her intact for eternity."  The magazine criticizes "the proprietary Ayn Rand Institute, the remnant of 'The Collective' which now collects royalties on Rand's books and distributes the official Rand ideology from offices in Marina del Rey, California. The ARI sued to block the auction of Rand memorabilia from a private collection last year, claiming that it held title to any object from Rand's life. Independent scholars who doubt Rand's infallibility are treated like traitors and denied access to Rand's papers."]

Though this orthodox framework helps to explain Mayhew's context, his criticisms demand a point-by-point response:

1. Mayhew rejects the editors' praise of the "impressive" credentials of the contributors, claiming that none of the contributors is a professor of philosophy or a Ph.D. in philosophy.  Apparently, Mayhew did not read the biographies of our contributors:  Barry Vacker holds a Ph.D. in philosophy, law, and communication (an interdisciplinary degree).  But our biography section also lists Ph.D.'s in the following disciplines:  psychology, anthropology, English, linguistics, humanities, and political science.  The "Re-reading the Canon" series is not restricted to Ph.D.'s in philosophy.  It is an interdisciplinary series devoted to feminism.   Many other volumes in the series lack contributors with Ph.D.'s in philosophy:   Feminist Interpretations of Hannah Arendt boasts a single Ph.D. in philosophy (most of its contributors hold Ph.D.'s in political science), while Feminist Interpretations of Mary Wollstonecraft does not include any Ph.D.'s in philosophy.   More than half the contributors to volumes on Foucault and Hegel come from disciplines other than philosophy.  One does not have to hold a Ph.D. in philosophy in order to critique the works of Ayn Rand.  One would think that a person as knowledgeable of Rand's interdisciplinary corpus as Mayhew would not express so openly such a bias toward philosophic imperialism.  Indeed, Rand herself did not have a Ph.D. in philosophy, and she did just fine.  (It is interesting that Choice itself has defined Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand not as a "philosophy" book, but as a "humanities" selection with an emphasis on "Language and Literature."  Given that standard, our volume rates high:   six of our contributors are associated with English, the humanities, or linguistics, including two former chairs of English departments at respected universities.)

2.  That our contributors come from so many various disciplines also speaks to the wide scope of their interpretations of Rand.  Our essays encompass everything from Rand's epistemology and ethics to her aesthetics and politics.

3.  In our introduction, Mimi Gladstein and I do not argue that the meanings of "Objectivism" and "feminism" can be "stretched" to infinity.  What we argue is that neither Objectivism nor feminism is a monolith.  There are many different variations among those who claim to be either Objectivists or feminists, and this is fairly typical of how ideas evolve.   But we carefully define the framework of Objectivism -- in a section of the introduction derived from my own "American Writers" essay, an essay praised by the Ayn Rand Institute itself as "objective."  In that section, we also point out the orthodoxy's objections to "polylogism," to the belief that gender, or race, or ethnicity biases our perception of reality.  We state unequivocally that Rand would have rejected any notion of a feminist epistemology.  Suffice it to say, Mayhew believes that Objectivism is, indeed, monolithic, because he subscribes to the belief that Objectivism is a closed system.  That our volume has been published is proof enough that Objectivism will not be confined to an intellectual ghetto.

4.  The volume does deal extensively with Rand's views on women -- so does every other volume in the "Re-reading the Canon" series deal with the views on women of a given thinker.  Rand's work deserves to be treated in many different contexts; by viewing her corpus thru shifting contexts, we might emerge with a more enriched understanding of Objectivism, and its applicability and relevance to many different problems and disciplines.  Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand begins that long overdue quest; I suspect that other publications will provide a forum for treating Objectivism in other contexts.  (And with the birth of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, this project has been advanced considerably.)

5.  Charges that some contributors rely on psychological analysis are quite beside the point; Rand herself frequently relied on an integration of psychological and philosophical insights in her analysis of various thinkers throughout intellectual history.  The question is not whether psychological analysis is appropriate -- it certainly might be appropriate in our efforts to understand Rand's own proclamations on femininity, masculinity, and the role of fiction in giving life to her fantasies of male dominance.  The central question is:  how might a particular psychological analysis help explain any number of paradoxes in Rand's corpus?  Alas, even in this very small review, Mayhew gives no indication of having read the volume with this degree of care.

The CHOICE review raises all sorts of questions about the politicization of Rand scholarship.  Sandy Thatcher, Director of Penn State Press, drafted the following letter to Rebecca Ann Bartlett, the Humanities Editor of CHOICE Magazine:

In the September 1999 issue, CHOICE published a review of our book edited by Mimi Gladstein and Chris Sciabarra entitled FEMINIST INTERPRETATIONS OF AYN RAND, which is part of our multivolume series "Re-reading the Canon," edited by Nancy Tuana. The reviewer slammed the volume, making all sorts of derogatory accusations, and it seemed to me that there must be some explanation. I therefore asked the volume's co-editor, Chris Sciabarra, who is also the author of our best-selling (and very well-reviewed) AYN RAND: THE RUSSIAN RADICAL (1995), if he could cast some light on the reviewer, Robert Mayhew, whom I suspected to be a strong partisan in the Rand debates. Below you will find his reply.

[In addition to what he says above, Sciabarra emphasizes "that CHOICE needs to be made more aware of the highly politicized nature of Rand studies. . . . As an orthodox Objectivist, [Mayhew] rejects feminism per se. . . . I think it is remarkably ironic that the orthodox Objectivists, who have [also] rejected professional philosophy as a 'sewer,' and who praise Rand as an 'outsider' -- now insist that critics of Rand have a Ph.D. in philosophy. . . . I can only hope that readers will be able to discern Mayhew's obvious bias, and draw their own conclusions."]

To this I would only add that Mayhew's remarks concerning the lack of the contributors' credentials in philosophy is off the mark in another respect as well. The general editor of the series, Nancy Tuana, is a well-known and highly respected philosopher at the University of Oregon, who is the editor also of one of the principal journals in feminist philosophy, HYPATIA, and she would hardly permit a volume to appear in this series that was not philosophically respectable. We also had another philosopher review this manuscript prior to publication, although I am not at liberty to reveal that person's identity, and that philosopher rendered a very favorable verdict on the volume as well.

I realize that it would be too much to expect CHOICE's editors to be aware of every source of bias in the academic world in assigning books for review, and there is presumably nothing that can be done now to rectify this error.  But I hope that this information . . . will make you doubly careful about commissioning reviews [in] the future . . .

Sanford G. Thatcher [Former Director, Penn State Press]

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