Feminist theory has a problem with its 'others'. Bluntly stated, this is the gambit of Janet Halley's Split Decisions. More specifically, the theory in question is feminist sexual subordination theory, which has dominated left thinking about sexuality and politics since approximately the late 1970s. Sexual subordination theory identifies sexuality as the principle site for the subordination of women primarily, but has progressively expanded its scope to subordination in terms of orientation, race, class and colonialism, thus theorizing a complete, integrated system of oppression. Effectively, a kind of feminist 'theory of everything'.
If this sounds implausibly sweeping, then perhaps Halley's argument to limit feminism's theoretical span is on target. Rather than a single total theory, she sees advantages to what she terms a 'politics of theoretical incommensurability', in which the responsible use of power requires decisions to be made in the splits between competing theories which illuminate different interests, and which need to be balanced against each other. (3-4) Hence her title.
The chief impediment to promoting this approach, Halley found, is the current place feminism occupies within left politics. (4) Feminism is taken to be the only adequate theory of sexuality, gender, and all their concomitants. Further, the consensus on theorizing assumes that a single, universal theory is preferable to many disparate theories, and that this theory will provide a complete analysis of oppression and a prescription for emancipation. And finally, there is a commitment to subordination theory as the model for understanding gender and sex. (4-5) Taken together, these fuel a considerable urgency to reject the validity of any approach that denies some or all of the feminist picture of things.
The 'others' in question, of course, propose to do exactly that. The main source of opposition comes from Queer Theory as written by men, since gay males may well have reason not to regard male sexuality as equivalent to the subordination of women, but any approach that rejects the theoretical centrality of a male/female distinction, that complicates power relations between men and women, or that even suggests problematic costs to feminist programs of emancipation, will do as well. Indeed, opposition will also come from any suggestion that a 'unified feminist theory' may not be possible or desirable.
Against total and totalizing feminist theory, Halley argues that these splits from feminism (literally, as these alternative theories are the offspring of feminism itself – no men's rights advocates appear here) are valuable for the competing interests that they make visible. Halley acknowledges that feminism now finds itself in a position of power in many fields – family law being just one example – and even has a will to power, a desire to rule. (22) This she terms 'governance feminism', the feminist-informed exercise of power. No doubt, this admission likely smacks of heresy to some – isn't feminism really the outsider in a world of male power? But Halley insists that the responsible exercise of power requires one to throw out one's theoretical blinders. Much better would be an open-eyed consideration of the diversity of benefits and harms that will fall out from one's policies, and this requires a different approach, one more diverse and hypothesizing than uniform and totalizing. Hence, her subtitle: How and Why to Take a Break from Feminism.
The main body of the book focuses on presenting a genealogy of two trends in feminist theory from the late 1970s through to the present, a trend of convergence and a trend of divergence. Convergence represents the ambition to bring all theory of sexuality and gender under feminism's aegis, while divergence expresses doubt over the possibility and value of resolving all theoretical difference into one encompassing theory. Total feminism vs. its prodigals. Halley's close readings of the central texts of power feminism (Catharine MacKinnon), cultural feminism (Robin West), postmodernist feminism (Judith Butler) and queer theory (Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Leo Bersani), among others, document the seminal statements of sexual subordination theory, the emergence of splits and divergences, and the counter-actions against splitting by convergentists. These make fascinating reading for any observer of gender politics over the last three decades. There are no doubt numerous figures neglected (Andrea Dworkin for one), and of course, many important trends in feminism through this period simply fall outside the scope of the book. But Halley's aim is not to produce a compendious history of contemporary feminism, and the figures she does cover are central to the debate. Her genealogy serves to reveal the play of forces within and without feminism that have brought about the impasse that motivates her recommendation to 'take a break from feminism'.
Halley terms this impasse 'feminist paralysis': the rigid, despairing repetition of the demand for convergence when confronted with divergence from any of the presumptions of total feminism, accompanied by heated accusations of heresy, betrayal, and co-optation by patriarchy. (Crucial section: 187-207) In other words, 'circle-the-wagons' feminism. While totalizing feminists project the blame for this paralysis outward onto the rebels, Halley's analysis locates it much closer to home, in the demand for convergence itself. The convergentists fear that revealing any chink in the armour is tantamount to the elimination of feminism and the silencing of women, so, of course, no good feminist could allow that. Therefore, feminism must be pressed exclusively and at all costs, a hyper-moralized demand for convergence that Halley goes so far as to call 'paranoid'. (Well, someone had to say it.)
In the final section, Halley goes on to list the possible costs and benefits of taking a break from feminism. Here she tries to answer some of the concerns of feminists who have bought into the paranoia. Many of the costs seem to be generated by the very totalism in question: for example, if you don't already regard dissent as a threat, you will find little motivation to identify theoretical divergence as an act of violence in itself. (309) The benefits are primarily the benefits of having a less extreme approach to doing theory: for example, if you are able to admit to your own use of power and its costs, you will be more likely to avoid the bad faith of refusing to admit to anything but male harm, female innocence of harm, and female injury -- what Halley calls the 'Injury triad'. (341-2) Finally she applies her cost/benefit analysis to re-reading a couple of legal trials in which feminist influence on law around sexuality played a major role. Again, these re-readings are likely to be branded 'heresy', but they are very revealing of the perversity and the costs of totalized feminist theory.
A closing note of evaluation. A book such as Halley's is a bold breath of fresh air, welcomed by many, but treasonous to many others. In clear and plain-speaking prose, with eminent reason, she lays out the case for a more self-critical feminism, one that does not immediately react to criticism as if it were 'playing into hands of patriarchy'. Nevertheless, in spite of the progress the book represents, there remains a somewhat irritating feature. Anyone reasonably informed by the scattered fragments of what might be termed (with extensive charity) the 'men's movement' will find it perplexing that when Halley needs to identify the limits of feminist theory, she turns to queer theory. However, exactly the sort of concern with total feminism she airs has been widely discussed for decades among a collection of male and female outsiders, who have been doing alternate analyses of gender and sexuality as a matter of course. Many of these will certainly not be left political thinkers (and hence outside her scope), but that could not be said of Warren Farrell, for example. But alas, to even mention what a male heterosexual might think on these matters is to give comfort to the enemy, and no doubt, Halley is quite aware what a strategic error this would be. Little sympathy for the devil to be found here.
Ultimately, Halley is saying what only a woman of impeccable feminist credentials could say. But even so, anyone familiar with the bitterness of feminist in-fighting must be pessimistic that even a balanced book such as this will be at all well-received, but rather is likely to be ferociously reviled and trashed.
© 2007 George Williamson
George Williamson, University of Saskatchewan