Saturday, January 07, 2012

Review: The Queer Art of Failure

[Judith Halberstam. The Queer Art of Failure. Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2011.]

The most useful lesson I took from this book is the importance of looking for that which runs against your expectations, of taking that which matters to you and seeking its opposite -- or, anyway, its different -- buried within it. And to do so not in a kind of theological vein, but in a very practical sense, in that you can't really predict how it will be present, or even if, until you look. All you can count on is that the world is a complicated place and that moving through it refusing to look carefully and critically and contrarily even at the most cherished or most despised or silliest or most serious things means you'll be that much farther behind in trying to understand and change it. And so Halberstam finds political value in failure and passivity, seeks to explore the intertwining of cherished and despised strands in history, unearths important political content and queerness and resistance in the silliest of movies, and extolls the virtues of stupidity. And of course it is all done with a pose and a wink, carefully performing its careless unconventionality and its disinterest in conventional academic performance. I was left with the impression, though, that rather than the more usual academic attempt to keep the performance of cleverness invisible and hope the reader is left breathless at the flow of brilliance, I felt like the performance was meant to be seen as performance, perhaps as part of a device to partially disarm the reader's reflexive refusal to consider some of the book's more counterintuitive suggestions or to prevent some of the heavier content from completely dominating the book's tone.

I found myself most engaged by the Introduction, and I'm not sure the rest of the book quite did what I was hoping based on that. It is in the Intro that Halberstam first articulates the idea that if success (or other supposedly positive outcomes) are defined in the context of oppressive social relations and practices, failure can be subversive and freeing -- it can erode the coherence of the system that defines it as a bad thing, and it can free up the one who fails from entrapment within particular norms. Many dominant views of queerness are that it is inherently failure -- failure of gender, failure of sexuality, failure of personhood. By resisting the pressures of conventional success, you can free up time and energy to do much more interesting things. In knowledge production, she argues that we need to give up on the trap of wanting to be taken seriously. We must reject producing knowledge in disciplinary ways and become enthusiastically "undisciplined." She advocates a rejection of the pull of beautiful, complete, totalizing analyses and argues for ad hoc, eccentric, do-it-as-you-go "low theory" instead. She advises that we "steal from the university" and quotes two other "subversive intellectuals" who say we should "abuse its hospitality" and be "in but not of it" (11). All of which sounds pretty sensible to me. Privilege local knowledges, take stupid questions seriously, value not knowing, be aware of how memory can trap us in an oppressive status quo.

The rest of the book contains a number of quite different elements written in the spirit of this starting point, some of which are pretty interesting. However, at least in places, the connection to lived resistance feels a step or two farther removed than the Intro lead me to expect.

For instance, I quite enjoyed its intense attention to pop cultural artifacts, especially its discussion of animated films like the early CGI films she labels "Pixarvolts." It makes a good case for such films, despite their production by massive corporations in capital-intensive processes, as having content that is politically interesting and often queer, and that offers more raw material to think about resistance than any other Hollywood products released in that era. I like this kind of excavation of pop culture. I don't do it too often but I do it occasionally, and I think it is both more useful and more real than your average "serious leftist" is likely to allow, though within limits. Plus, it's fun, and it has the potential to critically engage people for whom "blah blah Marx blah blah revolution" is of no interest.

As Halberstam no doubt expected of many of her readers, I found her turn to negativity, to the anti-social, and to "a radical form of masochistic passivity" (131) in later chapters to be considerably more difficult. Partly, I suppose, this is because these chapters draw more from a "high art" archive rather than a "silly archive," and I'm less familiar with the former. Her respectful attention to negativity I can understand, even if it isn't easy. The anti-social lashing out, rejection, refusal can be one valid aspect of the spectrum of responses to a violently oppressive world by those on the receiving end, and I acknowledge that my relationship to that perfectly understandable response is clouded and difficult and distorted by my own relatively more comfortable navigation of current social relations. Even harder, though, was the chapter on radical passivity, particularly radically passive femininity. I appreciate that it, too, can be an understandable response, and that relating to that response in useful ways requires getting past the activist tendency to dismiss it out of hand. As Halberstam points out, such self-destructive passivity, such acceptance of unbecoming, is itself a challenge to those of us who observe and who survive. It is an accusation. But it is hard not to want to argue against it, to metaphorically shake the passive subject, to yell "Do! Act! Resist!", even though I really have no ground on which to speak and my impulse to claim to know a better way to respond in a situation very unlike anything I've every experienced myself is itself integral to the oppression which produced the radical passivity to begin with. Perhaps hardest is Halberstam's insistence that we not just relate to these various negative ways of moving through the world in the mode of toleration, a not-dismissal that is patronizing and ultimately oppressive, but in a mode that is -- well, I don't think she uses the language of "respectful," but something like that, where we are radically careful to avoid imposing oppressive judgments directly or sneaking them in the back door via pseudo-compassion or what have you.

As someone who has done work on histories of struggle and resistance, I was particularly interested in her chapter on the complicated relationships between homosexuality and fascism in Europe in the second quarter of the 20th century. At various points, some strands of opposition to fascism and some kinds of anti-queer haters have posed some sort of essential connection between each and the other as an attempt to smear and belittle whichever they oppose. Not only that, claims of a connection between gay masculinity and Nazism have also been made by some feminists. Not surprisingly, queer movements have vigorously rejected this, pointing out that only one high Nazi official was gay, and that queers were harshly persecuted by the regime. Except, as Halberstam points out, it was never that simple. Yes, gay men, particularly those who exhibited feminine ways of doing gender, were persecuted in very vicious ways. But there was also a cultural celebration of masculinity, and of the extravagant masculinization of the state and the public sphere, that created space where men who desired other men, who did masculinity in ways that were not at all feminine or otherwise transgressive, and who met the racial requirements of acceptability peculiar to the Nazi context, to live and thrive and feel like they were an exemplary embodiment of attributes the Nazis valorized. I have the sense from the chapter that more work remains to be done to fully explore the dynamics of gender, oppression, and complicity when it comes to queer men and European fascism, but she make her point powerfully. That is, she warns that the tendency of movements and some historians to see sexual minorities as only and always connected to liberatory tendencies is an understandable but dangerous one. She concludes,

homosexuality is not so much an identity stretching across time as a shifting set of relations between politics, eros, and power. To capture the complexity of these shifting relations we cannot afford to settle on linear connections between radical desires and radical politics; we have to be prepared to be unsettled by the politically problematic connections that history throws our way.

Obviously the particular historical example she uses to talk about this complexity is a tricky one -- mentioning Nazis tends to shut down discussion -- and contemporary manifestations of the ways in which complicity in oppression and queer sexualities can intersect can be quite different. Still, she does point out that far-right organizations in Europe in the last two decades have included prominent leadership roles played by gay men. Moreover, many privileged queer people and some mainstream queer organizations in North America and Europe effectively give liberal support to empire and white supremacy in their politics, particularly in relation to Islam but also in relation to the world beyond the West and racialized people within the West more generally. And, of course, the complicated ways in which oppression, resistance, and complicity can play out can be seen in many other contexts, including many social movements, as well. So the need to understand "shifting ... relations between politics, eros, and power" is very contemporary in its relevance.

I think my main political concern with the book is related to a tendency that pops up in queer theory to constantly pursue, or at least venerate, transgression in a way that may end up excluding. For isntance, it may not be as easy to see that forgetting can be a fine queer way to move through the world (because it detaches one, much like the forgetful blue fish Dory in Finding Nemo, from oppressive norms and histories) when a prime element of the oppression against which you and your people are struggling is violently enforced forgetting of the past. And seeing the subversive potential of failure may be a different endeavor if you are, say, a migrant agricultural worker harvesting crops in southern Ontario. Which isn't to say that a more complicated understanding of the power, politics, and potential of things like forgetting and failure can't have broad relevance -- I think they can -- but I'm not convinced that the ways they are discussed in this book always avoid the pitfall of excluding those who approach such experiences from some place other than a white queer academic sensibility.

Anyway. This book is a real hodgepodge of the interesting and the less-interesting, the useful and the less-useful. It contains enough really neat stuff that I'm glad to have read it, and some ideas worth hanging on to as I think about my own future writing and other political and intellectual work. Certainly its insights into seeing complicity as well as resistance as you do history is important. I also like its commitment to "low theory" and to unearthing that which you do not expect or want, or that which is uncomfortable, in whatever you are thinking and writing about. Still, it is not at all an activist must-read.

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

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