To Live Is to Fail
Perhaps the best reading in the book, certainly the funniest, is her densely textured interpretation of Dude, Where’s My Car?. Halberstam is having fun here, and she invites her readers to laugh with her at taking the stoner comedy seriously: As she puts it, “I attempt to inhabit the genre of Dude the lexicon of Dude, the Inspirational idiom of Dude in order to not know what it does not know, in order to forget what it forgets, in order to lose myself in its avenues of charming ignorance and spectacular silliness.”
Halberstam is sharply critical of the ways the film reproduces the structures of racial and gender privileges, the ways that white male stupidity is sentimentalized and deployed to make the hapless pair saviours of the universe. And yet, reading for other possibilities such stupidity might enable, Halberstam delights in those moments of forgetfulness that allow Jessie and Chester to escape their own clichés, to forget that they shouldn’t be aroused by a transsexaul stripper, or forgetting that they shouldn’t prove their masculinity to Fabio by french kissing one another. But if in the end the Dudes too often merely reflect masculinity back to one another, failing to realize the alternatives their forgetting makes possible, the film nonetheless shows the power of forgetting to disrupt the seemingly natural reproduction of particular identities or institutions: “For women and queer people, forgetfulness can be a useful tool for jamming the smooth operations of the normal and the ordinary.”
Halberstam is of course not exclusively interested in mass market animation and stoner comedies. What’s remakable about the work is her ability to move between Hollywood and high art, popular culture and high theory. In the eponymous chapter “The Queer Art of Failure”, she approaches again the subject of failure as a way to alternative lives, but this time with a far more serious canon: the novels of Irving Welsh, the lives of Quintin Crisp and Gertrude Stein, the work of Walter Benjamin, the photographs of Brassaï, Cecil Beaton, Diane Arbus and Monica Majoli. She argues forcefully the insight of many queer theorists, that those uninterested in reproducing heterosexual norms were consigned by hetero culture to lives named failure by that culture.
However, by living out other desires queers invented new lives and new cultures, though they are often tinged with a multivalent darkness: “the queer artist works with rather than against failure and inhabits the darkness. Indeed, the darkness becomes a crucial part of the queer aesthetic.” Halberstam reads this darkness in multiple ways, from Brassaï”s photographs of lesbians in Paris at night to the melancholy that suffuses much queer art and queer life. While refusing to reduce queer life to such melancholy, Halberstam writes “the social and symbolic systems that tether queerness to loss and failure cannot be wished away,” which is perhaps a way of saying that failure is in many ways even more demanding and difficult to achieve than success.
Halberstam is not content to question only the most obvious kinds of success. If she has a biting analysis of contemporary culture, she is equally hard on intellectuals, particularly those on the left. In a counter-intuitive reading calculated to provoke, she argues that even feminists should embrace failure. She traces a history of “shadow feminisms,” which she describes as “a feminism that fails to save others or to replicate itself, a feminism that finds purpose in its own failure.”
Halberstam turns to figures like Valerie Solanas and Jamaica Kincaid, pointing out that rather than trying to secure success through stable identities, their work refuses metaphors of the mother and generational continuity. They offer radical alternative in their refusal “to think back through the mother” and instead “produce a theoretical and imaginative space that is ‘not woman’ or can be occupied only by unbecoming women.” (125).
Remarkably, Halberstam finds an exemplar of this negative feminism in the character Babs from Chicken Run, who refuses to believe feminist character Ginger, who declares “We either die free chickens, or we die trying.” (129). Halberstam writes: “Like Babs, and indeed like Spivak and Mahmood, I am proposing that feminists refuse the choices as offered—freedom in liberal terms or death—in order to think about a shadow resistance, one that does not speak in the language of action and momentum but instead articulates itself in terms of evacuation, refusal, passivity, unbecoming, unbeing.” (129)
The radical power of her claims will be contested by many unwilling to abandon a more affirmative vision of political struggle, but her argument demands that readers consider the power of negation, which is another way of saying failure might make possible a mode of life not readily imaginable now.
While most of the book celebrates forgetting, in an ironic turn Halberstam’s penultimate chapter scolds queer scholars for making heroes and martyrs of homosexuals from the past that were victims of oppression by the Nazis, while forgetting about the complex ways in which homosexuality was imbricated in fascism. In bringing up this hidden history, Halberstam hopes to complicate the dominate narratives of queer life: “I think it is important to say that there is no single way of describing the relationship between Nazism and male homosexuality, but also that we should not shy away from investigating the participation of gay men in the regime even if we fear homophobic fallout from doing so.”
Through a careful reading of much contemporary popular culture and high art that focuses on homosexuality and fascism, Halberstam concludes with her interpretation of a photograph by Collier Schorr: “We cannot reduce Schorr’s Night Porter (Matthias) to a reclamation of an offensive image or to a repudiation of the fascination of fascism; it is in fact an inscrutable image, a visual contradiction, irreducible, seductive, terrifying, and sexy all at once. If it says anything, it says “The killer in you is the killer in me” and lets no one off the hook.
The high art world of Schorr’s photography comes together with the popular music of Smashing Pumpkins as Halberstam tries to unsettle every identity—to not let anyone rest comfortably in one place or in success, however it might be defined.
The Queer Art of Failure is a book that thinks with and through culture, but it isn’t always consistent. For example, Halberstam never makes a convincing case about the endings of those Pixarvolt films. The power of the often conservative, “successful”, and more often than not heteronormative narrative conclusions to overwhelm all the other possibilities in these films is acknowledged but then dismissed. Isn’t this a much larger and more intractable problem? The power of negation is constantly invoked and celebrated with little acknowledgement of the critiques of this postmodern position—that such a radical position dilutes the kinds of resistance that can only come through identity and organization? In her essay “Postmodern Blackness”, bell hooks writes about a critique of identity that seems almost at one with Halberstams idea of failure, at least in its most radical articulations:
“The postmodern critique of ‘identity,’ though relevant for renewed black liberation struggle, is often posed in ways that are problematic. Given a pervasive politic of white supremacy which seeks to prevent the formation of radical black subjectivity, we cannot cavalierly dismiss a concern with identity politics. Any critic exploring the radical potential of postmodernism as it relates to racial difference and racial domination would need to consider the implications of a critique of identity for oppressed groups.”
Halberstam’s utopian call to failure seems most problematic when she insists on de-centering, negating, and refusing the “role”, the “success”. In this, she never fully answers to the immediate material, political problems raised by an ethos and aesthetic of failure for organized resistance, and hooks’s critique still resonates. Indeed, while Halberstam celebrates the prospect of the collective in her readings of animation, her examples of queer failure in the human world tend to be lone figures who lived radical but profoundly individual lives: Quintin Crisp, Valerie Solanas, even Gertrude Stien. Halberstam is of course fully aware of all this, but like her dismissal of narrative conclusions to totalize meaning, too often she sidesteps what critics like hooks are saying. Perhaps this is because the two positions are simply irreconcilable, or perhaps identity and “success” are such dominate forces there isn’t really a problem at all framed in these terms, or she might argue I’m demanding a kind of consistency that stops new modes of thinking dead in their tracks.
Nonetheless, there is the tremendous intellectual energy animating this book. Whatever its faults, Halberstam’s engagement with the popular, her willingness to think through the popular, is exhilarating, and will spur readers on to rethink their everyday encounters with the contemporary spectacle and all conceptualizations of success. While anyone will have objections to any number of Halberstam’s pronouncements about failure or negation, or with her readings of individual works, this books stands as a model for the most useful and enjoyable kind of engagement with the popular. If it too often slides into the rhetoric of a kind of manifesto, it’s good to remember that manifestos spur us to new relations with the world, and sometimes unqualified, declarative rhetoric succeeds in sweeping us away:
“To live is to fail, to bungle, to disappoint, and ultimately, to die; rather than searching for ways around death and disappointment, the queer art of failure involves the acceptance of the finite, the embrace of the absurd, the silly, and the hopelessly goofy. Rather than resisting endings and limits, let us instead revel in and cleave to all our our own inevitable fantastic failures.”