The Queer Art of Failure (a John Hope Franklin Center Book)
“Throughout The Queer Art of Failure, Ms. Halberstam holds a mirror up to our culture, albeit one that is, from time to time, a bit fogged by the warmth of her own breath. But here is a book well worth the time and attention it takes to read it and to consider its implications. . . . Judith Halberstam writes not only with authority, but also with genuine wit . . . [and] with deep insight into human nature, and into our deepset cultural need to simplify our definition of the word success . . .”
In her thought provoking new work, The Queer Art of Failure, author Judith Halberstam suggests that perhaps it is high time that we reconsider the concepts of success and failure in our culture, this time through the filter of queer theory. Using the wit of Quentin Crisp in his classic gay memoir The Naked Civil Servant as her jumping-off point (“If at first you don’t succeed, failure may be your style.”) author Halberstam explores the notion that:
“Under certain circumstances failing, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing may in fact offer more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world. Failing is something that queers do and have always done exceptionally well; for queers, failure can be a style, to cite Quentin Crisp, or a way of life, to cite Foucault, and it can stand in contrast to the grim scenarios of success that depend upon “trying and trying again.” In fact if success requires so much effort, then maybe failure is easier in the long run and offers different rewards.”
Crisp is perhaps Ms. Halberstam’s best touchstone. Referring back to his notion that failure may be a form of personal style, she writes: “For Crisp, as for an artist such as Andy Warhol, failure presents an opportunity rather than a dead end; in true camp fashion, the queer artist works with rather that against failure and inhabits darkness. Indeed the darkness becomes a crucial part of the queer aesthetic.”
For Ms. Halberstam, the queer aesthetic can be better understood through its connection to empty swimming pools, Wallace and Gromit stop-motion animated films like The Wrong Pants and, somewhat less convincingly, Nazism.
And so, throughout The Queer Art of Failure, Ms. Halberstam attempts to “think about ways of being and knowing that stand outside of conventional understanding of success,” and argues that “success in a heteronormative, capitalist society equates too easily to specific forms of reproductive maturity combined with wealth accumulation.”
Therefore, those who find themselves standing outside the heteronormative must come to terms with the fact that they may be denied the standard accoutrements associated with success—riches, political power, etc—and must, instead, seek to find a creative value in their lack, in what might be simply referred to as failure.
Now perhaps it would be helpful for those who are unfamiliar with mid-1980s terminology associated with queer theory to extend their definition of the word queer to encompass not only homosexuality and homosexuals, but also all those who share an unconventional outlook/lifestyle—anything that might be considered an “other-ness” when viewed against the societal norm, anything or anyone who shares the “outsider” viewpoint.
And Ms. Halberstam studies the outsider viewpoint wherever she finds it in society, and reports back on her findings. As she states in her introduction, her book: “darts back and forth between high and low culture, high and low theory, popular culture and esoteric knowledge, in order to push through the divisions between life and art, practice and theory, thinking and doing, and into a more chaotic realm of knowing and unknowing.”
What sets Ms. Halberstam apart from others in her field is this very thing: her willingness to find support for her theories where she finds it, in Spongebob SquarePants, the Seann William Scott/Ashton Kutcher film Dude, Where’s My Car? and, especially, in the computer animated films produced by Pixar, about which she writes: “I call this genre ‘Pixarvolt’ in order to link the technology to the thematic focus.”
Ms. Hablerstam indicates the special impact of Pixar’s films when she writes:
“The Pixarvolt films make subtle as well as overt connections between communitarian revolt and queer embodiment and thereby articulate, in ways that theory and popular narrative have not, the sometimes counterintuitive links between queerness and socialist struggle.”
So does Toy Story play upon our Oedipal fantasies? Do cartoon penguins and chickens allow us to “project human worlds onto the supposedly blank slate of animality?” And does Bee Movie reveal that Jerry Seinfeld is a Marxist?
Throughout The Queer Art of Failure, Ms. Halberstam holds a mirror up to our culture, albeit one that is, from time to time, a bit fogged by the warmth of her own breath. But here is a book well worth the time and attention it takes to read it and to consider its implications. Most especially in that Judith Halberstam writes not only with authority, but also with genuine wit, which leaves the reader laughing out loud from time to time, something quite unknown until now in books of queer theory. Further, Ms. Halberstam presents her case with deep insight into human nature, and into our deepset cultural need to simplify our definition of the word success—and, up until now, our seeming need to ignore the creative implications of failure.