For the readers and writers of PopMatters, Judith Halberstam’s new bookThe Queer Art of Failure might well be taken up as a manifesto. She argues that the entire field of culture—from the “silly archive” of Pixar to the most radical works of queer artists—provides the materials for imagining alternative worlds: “Academics, activists, artists, and cartoon characters have long been on a quest to articulate an alternative vision of life, love, and labor and to put such a vision into practice.”
Rather than dismissing the popular as something irrelevant, or simply too silly or corrupt to offer more than distraction, for Halberstam pop does indeed matter. To read and realize the alternatives culture offers, we need modes of interpretation that take advantage of academic insights but also move beyond its ideas of rigor, seriousness, and institutional constraint. Halberstam wants us to read more playfully and inventively in a mode she names “low theory”:
“Any book that begins with a quote form SpongeBob SquarePants and is motored by wisdom gleaned from Fantastic Mr. Fox, Chicken Run and Finding Nemo, among other animated guides to life, runs the risk of not being taken seriously. Yet this is my goal. Being taken seriously means missing out on the chance to be frivolous, promiscuous, and irrelevant. The desire to be taken seriously is precisely what compels people to follow the tried and true paths of knowledge production around which I would like to map a few detours.”
Halberstam’s first detour is an emphatic embrace of failure as profane enlightenment. This may be a difficult concept for some readers to accept, but it is key to her entire project. She introduces her commitment to failure as the first step towards another world in a careful reading of Little Miss Sunshine (2006). Its climatic moment of failure is the spectacle of little Olive bumping and grinding to the sounds of Rick James’ Super Freak. Halberstam writes”
“... this failure, hilarious in its execution, poignant in its meaning, and exhilarating in its aftermath, is so much better, so much more liberating than any success that could possibly be achieved in the context of a teen beauty contest. By gyrating and stripping to a raunchy song while heavily made-up and coiffed little cowgirls and princesses wait in the wings for their chance to chastely sway in the spotlight, Olive reveals the sexuality that is the real motivation for the preteen pageant. Without retreating to a puritanical attack on sexual pleasure or a moral mode of disapproval, Little Miss Sunshine instead relinquishes the Darwinian motto of winners, ‘May the best girl win,’ and cleaves to a neo-anarchistic credo of ecstatic losers: ‘No One gets left behind!’”
Not to succeed in the markedly pathetic contest is one thing, but Halberstam wants us to read just about every contemporary notion of “success” as similarly impoverished: individual financial success which must be premised on exploitation, nationalist success that refuses to acknowledge its massive violence and complicity with a pernicious capitalism, sexual success in unthinking and uncritical embrace of the nuclear family and the cult of the child at the expense of queer lives, and even success as an academic when it means giving up a world beyond the institution. For Halberstam, refusing such successes by attending to the fates and inventions of those who fail is the best way into something else: “The queer art of failure turns on the impossible, the improbable, the unlikely, and the unremarkable. It quietly loses, and in losing it imagines other goals for life, for love, for art, and for being.”
She argues that failure in this sense might be called a “queer art” because it avoids the trap of what might be called straight failure—the mere envy of the “successful” when one finds such “success” unobtainable. Rather then envy or resentment, queer failure invents new forms of life unavailable and unimaginable to the so-called successful:
“Renton, Johnny Rotten, Ginger, Dory, and Babe, like those athletes who finish fourth, remind us that there is something powerful in being wrong, in losing, in failing, and that all our failure combined might just be enough if we practice them well, to bring down the winner. Lets leave success and its achievement to the Republicans, to the corporate managers of the world, to the winners of reality TV shows, to married couples, to SUV drivers.”
Halberstam’s book is at its best when she reads the utopian possibilities in failure as key narrative threads, particularly in contemporary animated movies that she calls “Pixarvolt”, films like Fantastic Mr. Fox or Bee Movie. The narratives structuring these films are most often about coming-of-age, and as Halberstam writes,“a cynical critic might find this narrative to be a blueprint for the normative rites of passage,” however, “A more radical reading allows the narrative to be utopian, to tell of the real change that children may still believe is possible and desirable.” By ignoring the conservative themes of adulthood and family in these films, Halberstam points out their radical visions of alternative lives and relations.
In her reading of Over the Hedge, the alpha male racoon, R. J., cannot respond to the human threat on his own, so he “must join forces with the other creatures—squirrels, porcupines, skunks, turtles, and bears—in a cross species alliance.” Moreover, almost all these films present humans as “empty, lifeless, inert—in fact unanimated” (45). Halberstam points out that films for children are easily dismissed, since their visions of rebellion can always be cast as mere childishness, something that must be put aside on the way to being a successful adult.
However, she hopes that we might read against such conclusions and instead pay serious attention to what failing to become an adult, or even a human, can bring to light. In the Pixarvolt film Robots (2005), reproduction happens not sexually but through a collage of parts, some new and some old. For Halberstam, the spectacle of the “father” and “mother” robots assembling a “child” might offer a radical vision:
“The labor of producing the baby is queer in that it is shared and improvised, of culture rather than nature, an act of construction rather than reproduction. In a final hilarious note of punctuation, the mother robot asks the father robot what he thinks the “spare part” that came with the kit might be. The father responds, “We did want a boy, didn’t we?” and proceeds to hammer the phallus into place. Like some parody of social construction, this children’s film imagines embodiment as an assemblage of parts and sees some as optional, some as interchangeable; indeed later in the film the little boy robot wears some of his sister’s clothes.”
These films might also have something quite profound to say simply because they can access an imaginative space underneath the adult, though it takes a forceful interpretation to actualize it. In Monster’s, Inc., for example, fear generates revenue for corporate barons, and the screams of children actually power the city of Monstropolis. The film offers a kind of prophetic vision of post 9/11 life in the US, where the production of monsters allows the governing elites to scare the population into quietude while generating profits for their own dastardly schemes. This link between fear and profit is more pointed in this children’s feature than in most adult films produced in the era of postmodern terrorism.
While animation presents the revolts of failures—children, animals, and fantastic creatures— another way to fail is by being stupid. Interestingly, Halberstam observes that being stupid hardly guarantees failure. Indeed, the stupidity of contemporary white men often functions today as a new mode of straight success: “since at least the year 2000 and the election of George W. Bush, Americans have shown themselves to be increasingly enamoured with the heroic couplet of men and stupidity.” This kind of male stupidity is read as vulnerability and, most of all, sincerity, though it is actually the grinning mask of a voracious grab at power and privilege.
However, some forms of “stupidity”, particularly forgetting, can short-circuit normative roles and narratives that enable and reproduce success. In a magnificent reading of Finding Nemo, Halberstam observes that the forgetful Dorie lives in a kind of eternal present, with only flashes of long term memory, but her very stupidity, her inability to remember, keeps her from reproducing certain kinds of “successful” roles: “She is not Nemo’s mother substitute nor Marlin’s new wife, she cannot remember her relation to either fish, and so she is forced, and happily so, to create relation anew every five minutes or so.” Forgetting what we should be being or doing can open up a space to invent those other kinds of life, love, and labor that films and other forms of culture might help us imagine.