Is feminism obliged to produce a global account of social reality? For Janet Halley, the possibility of entertaining such an obligation, and so working to reconcile feminist insights and truth claims with the insights and truth claims of other radical movements, should always be considered alongside a second possibility: that of allowing that there may be situations in which feminist analysis can only go so far. “Taking a break from feminism”, in this context, means identifying boundary conditions, break points beyond which the feminist axiomatic (m / f, m > f, and “carrying a brief for” f) is no longer able to name and take hold of the kernel of the situation. A “split decision”, indeed, is one in which the axiomatic-feminist response to some situation must coexist with a non-feminist (if not anti-feminist) response, one oriented by a different set of preoccupations and employing different analytic instruments. (The obvious example here is queer theory, whose history of differences with feminism Halley tracks through an avowedly tendentious and characteristically illuminating account).
For Halley, such moments of “splitting” are essential to her own erotics of thinking: the point at which narratives fail to converge, to intersect cleanly, is experienced as a kind of productive confusion, a moment of suspension and disorientation in which new ways of linking one narrative to another must be found. These moments Halley identifies as “postmodern” in their demand for an irregular, creative and perhaps logically precarious response. When a split decision arises, we enter the territory of what Lyotard calls “legitimation by paralogy”, where the legitimating authority of existing narratives falters and we are obliged to entrust our thinking to the retroactive authority of logical inventions.
Halley further identifies a split within feminism between two moral tendencies, which she labels “convergentist” and “divergentist”. The convergentist tendency holds the production of consensus to be a moral and political imperative: feminist theory must be successfully articulated with queer theory, with critical race theory, with disability theory (and so on) in order to give a full account of social reality, one that is capable of measuring up to the manifold character of oppression. The failure to produce such an articulation would cause feminism to default to being the “feminism of the oppressors”: of bourgeois, white, straight, cissexual, able-bodied (and so on) women. The underlying anxiety here is perhaps that of failing to manifest an appropriate awareness, and of being ensnared by prejudicial assumptions of which one had remained unaware; “privilege theory” costumes this anxiety with an ensemble of standpoint epistemology and somewhat tortuous etiquette (the exhortation to “check your privilege” being an exemplary expression of the latter).
“Divergentism” is perhaps tricker to define, since it does not frame an antithetical moral imperative so much as simply suspend the convergentist imperative in the interests of inhabiting and exploring the spaces between discourses. Halley’s polemical animus here is fairly clear: it’s not so great to be “moralistic”, worse still to be seized by “ressentiment”, and self-evidently both more grown-up and more fun to be comfortable with dissensus and contradiction, to be at home (but never too comfortable) in the milieu of a partial, unsettled, positionally undecidable caesura of “awareness”. There is a note in all this of an old, familiar, soi-disant “postmodernist” triumphalism, which found cause for celebration in the condition of dissensus diagnosed by Lyotard, and sought in the thematics of incommensurability and undecidability an alibi for relinquishing, in the name of a joyful Nietzschean dance of metaphors, all manner of onerous ethical and political commitments. Halley herself shows an alarming willingness to simply drop the “brief for f” and stick the boot in to opponents she sees as insufficiently liberated from moralism, gleefully stigmatizing one woman who has had the temerity to seek legal redress for her ex-husband’s patently abusive behaviour as a “Valkyrie” intent on stamping his sexually deviant desires under the boot of state-backed, injury-centred moral authority.
The contemporary reactivation of identity politics is perhaps an indication that the postmodernists’ triumphal parade has finally passed, and that “positionality”, together with the identitarian narratives that assist in locating and articulating specific subject positions, is back on the agenda. The moral claims of “intersectionality” and “kyriarchy”, two key terms which concern the commensurability of such narratives, are evidently convergentist in character: they simultaneously assert the intrinsically “interlocking” nature of oppressions, and the desirability of producing a faithfully “interlocked” theory with which to confront them. (That is, they suture an ontological claim, concerning the composition of social reality, to an epistemological claim concerning the best way to “map” or “reflect” this reality).
Against this, one might join with Halley in recommending that feminism, queer theory and so on be treated as local procedures of investigation and analysis, with their own separate commitments and intrinsic limitations, and be prepared to suspend the requirement that they be brought into theoretical lockstep. As against a composite, coherent, consensus-oriented image of political identity, we might want to reserve space for split identities which are not so much “intersectional” as generatively antagonistic, fundamentally entangled with the unnameable Real. But we may also wish to split from Halley at the point where her Nietzschean inscription of her own pleasures and rancours draws her into an instrumentalisation of “divergence” as a tool for discrediting claims for collective injury and redress. A “hedonics of critique” so relentlessly attracted by the gravitational pull of erotic self-interest produces its own effects of convergence, its own streamlining of complex realities, its own heedless conversion of others’ lives and harms into the banal figures of the solitary imagination.