Sunday, March 11, 2007

Review: Split Decisions

[Janet Halley. Split Decisions: How and Why to Take a Break from Feminism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006.]

The place to start with this review, I think, is by acknowledging that there is a lot of book in this volume's 402 pages. I found it all a little bit overwhelming. So this is going to be a long response.

The Book

If all I had to go by was its title, I would never have bothered reading this book. I do my best to be pro-feminist in my politics, and I doubt it would have occurred to me that it would be possible to write a book with this title that was not just some tired restatement of the anti-feminist feminism of the likes of Camille Paglia, Wendy Shalit, or Christina Hoff Sommers, or worse. I would imagine some of its critics probably lump it in the same boat anyway, but I think it is a much more subtle and powerful intervention into theory, and one that poses important questions and problems.

I first encountered this book in the multiple enthusiastic postings on a blog known as Bitch|Lab (or, more recently and for awhile, Queer|Dude, a temporary shift in the spirit of this very book). The owner of this blog is a theory junky who often has interesting things to say, and the impact this book had on her made an impression on me. As well, I have mentioned before that my work will involve doing some writing that touches on topics that are subject to bitter struggle within feminism, and I am still reading widely to figure out how I can most appropriately write this stuff. What B|L/Q|D had to say about this book made me think it might be useful in this regard. And finally, I have a longstanding personal interest in theory related to sexuality, as a source of potential insight into my own particular instances of the issues around sexuality that plague almost all of us in this culture in different ways.

The basic structure of the book is simple enough. It begins with an extended introduction that summarizes the book's argument, defines some terms, and describes how it is going to proceed. Then the bulk of the book uses a genealogical approach to look at theories of sexuality described by the author as "left-of-center" in the last three decades in North America, including numerous feminisms, Foucault, gay identity theory, queer theory, trans theory, and a few other bits and pieces. The author is a legal scholar, so the book closes by applying the idea of Taking a Break From Feminism to legal analysis and evaluating the potential costs and benefits of such a break.

There are a few ideas that are central to this book that I think have the potential to be very useful, regardless of where you fall with respect to the challenge implicitly posed in the subtitle. For one thing, there is her minimal definition of feminism as it has existed in North America over the last four decades: m/f, m>f, carrying a brief for f. That is, that there is a meaningful difference between "m" and "f", that "m" currently is positioned as having more power than "f", and that feminist politics means working for the liberation of "f". Exactly what these letters stand in for -- maleness, men, masculinity, etc., or femaleness, females, femininity, etc. -- and how they relate to biology, the social, and discourse all vary greatly among feminisms. But those three basic propositions do seem to apply to everything identifying as feminism in the time and place under study, from the most straightforward structuralist theory to the most obscure postmodernist approach.

Another important distinction is between theories that are "convergentist" and those that are "divergentist". Is a theory's approach an attempt to invalidate or incorporate all other theories, to be normative, to be prescrptive (now or in intent), and does it claim to have or claim to want to have (or to underly) all the answers? Or does it recognize limits, focus on being descriptive, and incorporate a sense that there are probably other valuable ways of approaching the same problem? Any given theory, and any given user of theory (person or movement), probably incorporates elements of both of these at different times and places. No theory is immune to either approach. And if, as Halley argues, the problems that feminist theorists have identified within feminism in the last two decades have their root in commitment by many feminists to uncritiqued convergentism, there are also plenty of examples of feminist divergentism. And if queer theory styles itself as being fundamentally anti-normative and divergentist, a close reading of key texts in queer theory show that it has plenty of convergentist moments at its core as well, and at least part of why this has not been quite so apparent may just have to do with the fact that it hasn't been around as long.

I find this binary to be very powerful. Though the terms were new to me, I think I have always had a serious distrust of at least the strongest versions of convergentism. The initial generation of this distrust within me came not with respect to feminism but with respect to Marxism. I suspect that an instinctive distrust of the orthodox Marxist claim to explain anything and everything, even in the face of decades of argument demonstrating that it (again, particularly in its more orthodox forms) does not, might have been part of what pushed me towards an instinctive anarchism during my early politicization.

Interestingly, this past fall, because of a course I was auditing, I participated in sustained engagement with John Holloways text, Changing the World Without Taking Power (of which I wrote a very incomplete review). It was my first serious encounter with heterodox marxism. There was lots about it that I liked. In fact, one way to summarize what I liked is that it is very effective in extracting from Marxism powerful ideas and tools while dispensing with many of the features I have always found more objectionable. However, as I expressed it during the session in which we provided a final sort of feedback on the book to the teacher of the course, there was still something about it that I found "totalizing." I worried that my use of that word was a bit unfair, because it is extremely open to autonomously derived struggle and articulations based on that struggle, and it does not presume to close off different ways of doing things in the same way as more orthodox marxisms. At the same time, it still claims to explain everything, to have the key to tying all of these disparate sites together, and that makes me wary. And now I would label that of which I am wary as being Holloway's convergentist aspirations (however loose they might be).

I think, again at a level I could never quite articulate, this distrust of at least the more obvious and total versions of convergentism have shaped my reaction to some approaches to feminism as well. A few strands of feminism seem to have adopted some related unsavoury-to-me features of orthodox marxisms (even while being quite critical of Marxism's patriarchal content), including their own version of convergentism. I would also suspect that an instictive yearning towards divergentist approaches explains a part of my rather rosier initial view of Richard Day's Gramsci is Dead than I hold now, after reading further critiques of the work (though I think my view of it is still more positive than those critiques themselves).

At the same time, I also know I am very capable of convergentist approaches, as are we all. My response to in noticing the absence of consideration of a particular political consequences of an analysis or action (e.g. unanalyzed racism) will often be/seem to be a moralizing prescription to converge in an absolute way rather than a situational management of/response to divergence. And, frankly, I think there are definitely times and places where that is a good thing (especially times and places where convergence is clearly possible, where ways to do it have been clearly demonstrated in the past, and failure to do so and thereby exclude or remarginalize whole groups of people is a political decision based in indulging privilege rather than a result of necessarily incommensurable theory).

For an interesting discussion of convergentism and divergentism by Bitch|Lab, aka Queer|Dewd, see here.

In some ways, perhaps the most useful part of this book to me was the genealogy. It is a dangerous technique, of course, because it gives a great deal of power to authors in reading the works of others. Your ability to engage with the author of the genealogy depends in part on whether or not you have also read the material that she is presenting her own reading of. In the case of this book, I have only read very sporadically from her source material, which means I feel it necessary to be a bit more cautious about accepting her readings at face value. Nonetheless, she generally does seem willing to read in considerate ways even when she disagrees with what she is reading. And notwithstanding all of that concern, even an imperfect map is still useful as long as one is not fooled into thinking it is definitive.

Taking A Break

Halley summarizes her intent for the book as follows:

So I hope to elicit your desire to think that no one theory, no one political engagement, is nearly as valuable as the invitation to critique that is issued by the simultaneous incommensurate presence of many theories (past, present, and still to be made). We decide immense questions of social distribution and social welfare -- substantive, strategic, and tactical -- when we commit to one of these theories over another. I am promoting a left-of-center political consciousness that makes such commitment 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 critiqute.

She argues for a different way of relating political practice to theory. Because it has been a part of Halley's own journey, she does not present this argument in general but with respect to the specific case of feminism and sexuality, and most specifically with respect to the application of feminism to legal theory related to sexuality. She argues that any given theory is, by definition, going to see certain things and not others, give voice to certain experiences and realities and not others. To the extent that this is true, following one theory without the kind of Taking a Break and approaching critique from other directions that she advocates will result in consequences and distributions of benefits and harms that reflect what that single theory sees or does not see, voices or does not voice. She argues that, in the complex world we live in, this seldom comes down to anything quite as simple as just redistributing good in more just ways for the oppressed, as it is often schematically argued, precisely because of the world's complexity. She argues that, in order that we be best able to see the consequences of our political choices, we should have some willingness to see what they might look like from more than one place.

She says,

To do that we (or at least some of us) have to be willing to Take a Break from Feminism. Not kill it, supersede it, abandon it; immure, immolate, or bury it -- merely spend some time outside it exploring theories of sexuality, inhabiting realities, and imagining political goals that do not fall within its terms.

This is, obviously, explosive stuff.

I think what I need to do now is talk some more about my own gut-level relationship to the ideas in the text. At the risk of putting words in her mouth and/or assigning identities to her body that aren't necessarily articulated as she would, my sense of the more personal level of the source of B|L/Q|D's enthusiasm is that this text helps provide conceptual tools for theorizing her own experiences as a working-class white queer woman who has often found her experiences of sexuality not voiced or even actively opposed in many conventional feminisms. (See her talk about this powerfully here. For lots of reasons, I do not approach the book from anything close to the same place.

I would argue that in my experience, for me, Taking a Break From Feminism is never a choice -- by definition (or, perhaps more accurately, in order to abide by certain basic political responsibilities that I am not able to see as optional): I can never Take a Break, but at the same time I am always Taking a Break.

Let me explain. I do (and have always) identified as male, so the kind of relationship I can have to feminism is quite different, it seems to me, than if I were a woman. There are debates about semantics, but it seems to me that there needs to be some sort of conceptual distinction between those whose liberation is directly tied to a movement (or theory), and those who that movement or theory sees as privileged in some way. To put it in terms derived from Halley's book, if what you are relating to is defined by m/f, m>f, and carrying a brief for f, if you are m then even if you support carrying a brief for f you are still coming at it all from a different place than if you are f. This is actually a very complicated statement because exactly whose "liberation is directly tied" to feminist movement, and who and what "f" really is, has always been a subject of debate and struggle -- surf around and have a look at debates around radical women of colour and feminism or transwomen/genderqueer people and feminism in the feminist(ish) blogosphere, for example. But as it applies to me, it is not complicated at all. Which is not to deny that the systems or structures or relations or discourses that feminism struggles against don't injure men as well, because they do in certain ways, and understanding that is very important, but they give us power even as they injure us. The way I see it, though there is definite self-interest (of a very particular sort) involved in me supporting feminist goals, at the core of what it means to be pro-feminist is the decision that it is necessary or important to be politically accountable to others, in this case feminist women, in both a generalized way and in very concrete, specific ways. For someone for whom feminism is (or claims to be) a description of their experience and a central resource for their own journey towards liberation, the choice to Take a Break is a choice about one's own interests, one's own liberation. For somone like me, whose relationship to feminism is in a sense one step removed and includes as a core component political accountability to other people whose demands my actions are a response to whether I want them to be or not, Taking a Break would mean something very different -- it would, in fact, mean abandoning people, abandoning commitments, abandoning being accountable for privilege which shapes my life. That is politically unconscionable. Hence never. (Keeping in mind, of course, that I have a lot of power to decide what my accountability means functionally and how it is enacted, so perhaps the politics of Taking a Break might have some (dangerous?) impact there.)

On the other hand, there is always. This also turns on the fact that I am someone who engages in political activity on the basis of being privileged in almost every way -- not quite, but almost. This means that not only is feminism not something that can be "home" to me because it is not, at its heart, about my liberation -- in no sense do I qualify as "f" -- but neither can anything else. I have never felt a natural, comfortable, seemingly total "home" of that sort, where I could say, "this movement and its theories speak to and for me" in some sort of comprehensive way. Again, I don't want to deny that progress in struggles against patriarchy or white supremacy would allow me space to be more fully human, so there is definite self-interest in supporting such struggles, but the relationship is very different. There is also the fact that even middle-class men are not owners of capital and so, in the broad sense of "working class" used in some heterodox marxisms, it is reasonable to say that the struggle is for/about me, but that has always felt to me like a bit of an excuse (even though I don't entirely disagree). Also, I don't want to pretend that privileged men have not found ways around this -- there is a long history of privileged men assuming a faux worker identity, for example, and a somewhat shorter history of us attempting to assume a primary relationship to feminism. These are deeply problematic stances, it seems to me, because apart from being somewhat dishonest, they also involve the implicit idea that we cannot or should not engage in politics from where we already are and that we must somehow pretend (in an abstract political sense) to be who we are not. Which seems dubious and silly.

So that leaves two choices for constructing your politics: You can just remain oblivious to it all and go about doing, doing, doing without much reflection. This is generally where young privileged men who are politicized while in university start, and it is where I started. Many never see any reason to do anything else. I don't think this is a good solution because you end up hurting a lot of people and reproducing power-over in lots of ways. So the other option is that you can base your politics very heavily on listening, both to specific people and to texts, as an ongoing approach to making your politics (understood as ideas and actions, not just ideas) responsive to experiences that you do not have while not pretending to be someone or something that you are not. I'm not claiming any great success in doing this, and I'm not claiming it leads to Truth in some absolute sense -- it is just a process or path. But it is where I try to work from.

Now, to tie this back to always: If that sort of listening is central, and if you are (like me) privileged on most axes, then you have a lot of different people and ideas to listen to. And it becomes clear very quickly that these ideas do not always fit easily together, they are often mutually inconsistent or at least in local conflict, and that you (I) have no right to make decisions about how these inconsistencies and conflicts should be resolved in any but the most provisional, situational, personal, context-dependent ways. You can't stop listening, you can't claim some sort of authority to decide once and for all "X trumps Y", you can't fail to exercise political judgment, you can't fall back into uncritical liberalism through claiming "it's not up to me", and you can't just sit back paralyzed and refuse to act in the world. You just have to muddle through.

In other words, if the path that I have outlined as the only reasonable one I've been able to discover for doing politics from a place of privilege means I can't not listen to feminism in an ongoing and respectful way, it also means I can't not listen to a bunch of other things that may or may not be feminist, too. I have no choice but to "flicker" (to use a term that Halley borrows from Denise Riley's usage in a different context). (And if all of this sounds like I'm saying, "Oh, poor me," it shouldn't, because I'm not. This is not trying to set up some beleagured, backhanded "poor middle-class white guy" argument. In fact, this is privilege in a very fundamental sense -- being able to bracket, even for a moment, one particular approach to liberation while listening to another, without, even for a moment and even just in your own head and body, having to risk reentering a space where one's own desires for liberation are not visible.) This means that I started my reading of this book from a position where the "politics of theoretic incommensurability" (p. 5), though I had never articulated it in that way, were something that I have long decided at a practical level I have to recognize and navigate all the time. And they are also something I am in a place to navigate without feeling much in the way of risk, a privilege obviously not available to everyone.

All of which is to say that, the general relationship between political practice and theory embodied in this book is one that I have a great deal of sympathy for because, in my own practice, I do something similar all the time anyway, even if the form of Break advocated by Hally is not necessarily relevant to my circumstances.

As for Taking a Break at the level of feminist legal theory, I am much more hesitant about what that might mean in practice. In general, the idea of listening to many different theoretical approaches is one that would appeal to me, but I'm not sure I feel able to weigh in on the issue of how and when and why and for who that listening should occur. In the book's final section, Halley applies a divergentist approach to rereading multiple times a number of court cases related to sexuality. I find this fascinating and it was certainly educational for me. But because I've never engaged in the doing that is legal analysis and law-related political practice in this way, I have trouble assessing its pros and cons. The idea of being able to see broader ranges of experience and consequence seems positive to me, but where I feel unable to comment is that I do not have enough independent experience to be able to fully commit to Halley's analysis that feminist legal theories tend to erase, in general, certain kinds of experiences and consequences that we perhaps should be considering.

Frankly, some of her rereadings of cases left me quite uncomfortable. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and it certainly should not be taken in and of itself as a problem with rereading in this way -- at least some is a product of my own struggles around sexuality, gender, power, desire, and repression as experienced by me directly. However, some of it is a visceral recognition of the risks involved in Taking a Break, risks that she acknowledges but that I'm sure many other people would evaluate in different ways. I don't know if I could defend this view, but I did have gut reactions that perhaps she underplays the risks on occasion.

At the same time, I think it is good for me to confront the discomfort that comes from the complexities that she presents: Certainly her rereadings gave me a lot to think about in terms of a number of situations of threat or injury pertaining to sexuality that have been related to me by women that I know, situations which I have sometimes instinctively read into fairly simplistic domination-subordination frames. They, who are all feminists of one sort or another, have often reacted to framings of their experiences in this way as erasing their agency in the situations -- not absolute, abstract, liberal agency, but situated, contextual, limited-but-still-real agency -- and have had analyses of their own experiences that were much more nuanced and willing to understand power in more complicated ways (even though invokation of a theory of power in these discussions was usually implicit rather than explicit). In other words, the kinds of rereading and rethinking that Halley describes as Taking a Break have the potential, along with whatever else they might do, to make me better at listening to feminist women I know.

Perhaps the biggest concern I had with this book is the same concern I have with every book which tends to separate theory from the political practices associated with it. That tendency was not absolute in this book. Certainly the discussion of some of the early feminist material in the genealogy felt at least lightly connected to a movement and its tribulations. However, that feeling was lost as the book dealt with later material. Perhaps this is a sign of the changing relationship between movements and theories (feminist, queer, and others) over that time, and a reflection of the disconnection between high theory produced in the academy and what people are doing on the ground. Though, on second thought, I don't think it is exactly disconnection, but rather transformation of connection -- perhaps greater distance, but not infinite distance. In any case, when she was relating the many ways in which U.S. feminist academics in the '90s were extremely concerned with the perceived "paralysis" of feminism, it left me kind of puzzled precisely because the discussion never escapes the domain of high feminist theory in the U.S. academy. I became politicized on a Canadian university campus in the mid- to late-'90s, and I saw around me lots of feminist women of various generations involved in lots of different kinds of things, making choices, taking action, and it is not at all consistent with my experience to attribute a blanket "feminist paralysis" (or inaccurate feminist self-perception of paralysis, which is how Halley reads the situation) to that time period.

At the same time, I don't want to swing too far the other way, and to seem to be engaging in some sort of anti-intellectual, anti-theory argument. I, sometimes to my shame, quite like theory, and I do think it can be quite important to political practice, provided you have an expansive understanding of what theory is and who produces it and how it can be/is used. In fact, for Xmas I got a book that is a collection of ten years of cultural criticism from Bitch magazine, and I have been sporadically reading pieces from that magazine before and during my engagement with Halley's text. As well, I read feminist and pro-feminist blogs all the time. And it seems to me that, though complaints of paralysis may not reflect the broader movement or broader society, a lot of the same sharp-knived battles going on within/among/between feminist theory and its feminist and non-feminist offspring can be seen in the pages of a popular magazine like Bitch and in blogs, albeit usually in muffled, mystified forms. It seems to me that that the frequent inability or refusal (on all sides) to map the divergences in these conflicts in terms of things like different theories of power, of agency, and of the social leads to articulating these differences in terms of the stupidity and cupidity of those who do not share your views rather than in terms of the content of the differences. To that extent at the very least, more theory used more widely would be valuable. And I think well beyond that, too.

That said, I think discussion of Halley's analysis would benefit immeasurably from detailed analyses of the ways in which these various theories have been taken up in practice by real human beings in their individual lives and in collective political settings, beyond just the rather restricted domain of the writing of legal theory. What has all of this looked like on the ground? What scope is there for a "politics of theoretic incommensurability" as we try and reinvigorate social movements? How might that weaken us? Or, how might it provide greater clarity in trying to engage in coalition and alliance across difference infused with power?

As for me personally, I am very glad to have engaged with this book. As I have already discussed, approaching it from where I do means it does not feel like an invitation to change, as it would be for many, but rather it helps me articulate more clearly where I already am -- I began at never and always, and there I remain, but I have better language to say so now. But that clearer articulation and the tools involved in making it have the potential to be more broadly useful to me as I go on my way muddling through conflict at the level of discourse and dilemmas in political practice, not because they offer pre-packaged answers but because they can help me see a little more clearly what is going on.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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