If at First You Don’t Succeed, Failure May Be Your Style: ‘The Queer Art of Failure’

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.

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.”

Rather then envy or resentment, queer failure invents new forms of life unavailable and unimaginable to the so-called successful.

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.”