Taking a Break from Upper Case

Split Decisions: How and Why to Take a Break from Feminism By Janet Halley
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006, 402 pp., $29.95, hardcover

Reviewed by Lisa Jervis

I admit I was predisposed to dislike Janet Halley’s Split Decisions. After all, as a confirmed, lifelong feminist, I have no interest in being convinced to “take a break” from a mode of understanding the world that I see as a crucial platform from which to fight for social justice. And as a critic, I’m all too used to faux feminists such as Camille Paglia and Christina Hoff Summers trying to spin misogynist analysis and antifeminist misinformation as constructive criticism—and garnering massive mainstream attention for doing so. Halley anticipates this stance, and doubtless she would appreciate that I am disclosing it early in this review, in what she would call, with one of her many annoying writerly tics, a “cards-on-the-table moment.”

My ultimate conclusion about Halley’s work, though, is not bound up in these concerns. Her take is at once too bloodless to inspire much defensive anger, and too obscure to sway the general public. Instead my assessment comes down to this: Split Decisions is built on a tautology, uses sexuality as a lens that distorts more than it clarifies, and cares more about high theory and academic categorization than about real women or actual feminist activism.

In her introduction, Halley sets out the terms of her argument:

Feminism today in the United States…is persistently a subordination theory set by default to seek the social welfare of women, femininity, and/or female or feminine gender by undoing some part or all of their subordination to men, masculinity, and/or male or masculine gender.

She abbreviates this idea, in another one of those tics, as “m/f, m > f, and carrying a brief for f.” This is a concise and occasionally useful description of sectors of both historical and contemporary feminism, and Halley claims to be using such formulas because they constitute a stripped-down “feminist minima” that stand for a broad array of ideas. However, they also exclude nuance. The result is a stark portrait of the movement and its intellectual engines—and a very convenient way for Halley to “prove” her point: Theories that don’t Take a Break from Feminism (she insists on those caps) are rigid, narrow, and sometimes even ridiculous; therefore, Taking a Break is the only way to achieve a vital, intellectually engaged, complex set of ideas about sex, gender, and sexuality.

For example, Halley says,

The “hybrid” feminisms—socialist, antiracist, postcolonial feminisms—are often claimed to depart from the three essential characteristics I’m offering here. I agree that they sometimes do this; but I contend that they do so only by diverging from and thus suspending their feminism. That is, they Take a Break from Feminism.

 

Or alternatively, “Divergentist antiracist and postcolonialist feminisms verge on Taking a Break from Feminism, but they maintain feminist aims.” Halley expends a considerable amount of energy resisting a rather obvious conclusion: that the concept of Taking a Break is artificial and arbitrary rather than meaningful or useful.

Halley claims that

Cultural feminism…knows things like “lesbians should not wear strap-ons” and “people having sex should be required to ask permission for every new intimate touch” and “a husband who introduces his penis into the vagina of his sleeping wife has raped her and should be prosecuted.” It can’t stand to listen to Randy Newman’s “You Can Leave Your Hat On.” It thinks that a man who would joke to his female subordinate at work about pubic hairs appearing on his Coke can has shown himself unfit for high office. It is easily offended; it is schoolmarmish, judgmental, self-righteous.

Now, I agree with Halley that cultural feminism gets it wrong in a lot of ways, but this caricature either distorts or trivializes several important political points. Does Halley really believe that Clarence Thomas’s Coke-can comments were feminists’ primary concern? In fact, Thomas’s treatment of his subordinates (of which the pubic hair conversations were but a small part) cast serious doubt on his trustworthiness to decide, among a great many other issues, just what kind of workplace behavior might be grounds for a lawsuit.

Even more important, Halley’s “minima” leave no room for solidarity; instead, they make everything into a zero-sum formula. For example, she says, “certain alternative projects have constituencies that can’t be described as f,” and “each [constituency] would imagine and thus wield power differently.” She fails to perceive the vast possibilities for mutual aid or support that can arise from different ways of wielding power and thus misses a crucial point of feminism: that it is above all a struggle for social justice.

Early on, Halley notes, “Most feminist work over the last several decades has given great prominence to sexuality or reproduction as the key term for articulating m/f, m > f, and carrying a brief for f,” and that she has chosen the former as her focus. “This book—it’s about sex,” she writes. This would be all well and good—except she then must make sex do all sorts of political work that it simply cannot do. She says,

The self-shattering that [Leo] Bersani finds in our sexual intensities is to be valued as a political project because it gestures to a state of being in which the self/other structure of social life is suspended and the political will to dominate rendered inarticulate and helpless.

But locating an escape from “the political will to dominate” in sex is deeply apolitical—not to mention privileged, assuming as it does a world in which institutionalized sexism and racism, and any of the other systems of rapacious global capitalism, produce no material harm. Instead of motivating the dismantling of those systems, the theories that Halley insists can be used in “politically acute work” instead seem to be purely metaphorical: “Sexual abjection with its momentary disorientation of the self offers to interrupt this generation of social dominance through the self, and constitutes a vast critique of political and social power.”

This is only one symptom of Halley’s severing of theory from the lives of actual people. The bulk of Split Decisions is taken up with her exposition of a feminist genealogy, in “lavish textual detail.” She takes the reader through works by Catharine MacKinnon, the Combahee River Collective, Gayatri Spivak, Gayle Rubin, Michel Foucault, Eve Sedgwick, Judith Butler, and Bersani, as well as other, lesser-known theoretical lights, adding her own gloss and comments on where she thinks the writers do or do not Take a Break. While Halley passionately insists upon the importance of such theoretical concerns (“I am promoting a left-of-center political consciousness that makes such commitment [to one theory over another] perpetually contingent on redecision at the level of theory. I am urging us to indulge—precisely because we love justice but don’t know what it is—in the hedonics of critique”), her conclusions only highlight how meaningless they are in the context of real life.

In Split Decisions’ final section, Halley proposes a series of “thought experiments.” These explorations demand an unreasonable suspension of disbelief: “I am not denying that the real actual plaintiffs involved in the real actual litigation were victims and suffered subordination of the sort that power feminism and cultural feminism…attribute to them,” she writes. She goes on to declare, “I disavow any suggestion that the resulting formulations describe the real human beings [involved in the lawsuit under discussion].” It’s only through this dissociation that the experiments yield her desired results.

Take, as she does, the case of Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services. Joseph Oncale alleged that he was assaulted and threatened with rape while at work on an oil rig. When his complaints about unwanted sexual advances went unaddressed, he quit and then sued for sexual harassment. Halley states an intention to “put [Oncale’s] allegation of unwantedness aside”—as if the entire case were not about the very assertion of unwantedness—and then spins out several alternative analyses of the case. It’s no coincidence Halley’s analytical road of choice leads her to elevate sexual possibility above even violence prevention.

[I]t was precisely the loss of certainty about wantedness that the players were seeking. That was their desire. It’s a risky desire: acting on it places one in the way of having some unwanted sex. Things can go wrong; we need to keep one eye on the cause of action for assault. But more profoundly, if things go right, the wantedness of the sex that happens will be unknowable. The queer theoretic reading of the case reminds us that we will always do violence when we decide.

(Halley frequently mentions the inevitability of violence and blood on theoretical hands; here, however, she seems disturbingly content to accept actual violence as easily as she does the metaphorical kind.)

While attacking academic writing for impenetrability is like accusing a dog of barking—and critiques of academic feminism for inaccessibility are as old as the field itself—Split Decisions is a powerful reminder of why language should seek to illuminate rather than to obscure. Passages such as the following further isolate theory from reality, whether intentionally or not:

It is remarkable how precisely the text enacts some of the complex ramifications that ensued when strongly convergentist feminism retained a commitment to the universal and converged telos of particularized identity and to the elaboration of nonconverged forms of power and oppression. The result, to be blunt, was the unwilling production of divergence.

Describing feminism as “an evolving historical practice continually conditioned by its own preceding gestures” signals that you care more for your own turn of phrase than for simple clarity or enlisting intellectual or activist adherents.

The last line of this 350-plus page polemic is, “Very possibly this critical disorientation is an unaffordable luxury, especially in times, like these, of acute consolidation of political power. Again, I’m strongly inclined to think otherwise; and I hope my hunch turns out to be right.” Even Halley seems to know how flimsy her project is; for the reader who has slogged through the whole thing, a hunch is not enough.

 

Lisa Jervis is the founding editor and publisher of Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture. She is currently at work on a book about the intellectual legacy of gender essentialism and its implications for contemporary feminism.

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