Judith Halberstam ‘The Queer Art of Failure’

Judith Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure is fun. If you’re fed up of high theory from the pens of men who’d like you to think they don’t even shit (let alone watch TV) then this is for you. Highfalutin, it isn’t. Halberstam sets her stall out earlier on –

I believe in low theory in popular places, in the small inconsequential, the anti monumental, the micro, the irrelevant; I believe in making a difference by thinking little thoughts and sharing them widely. I seek to provoke,annoy, bother, irritate, and amuse; I am chasing small projects, micro politics, hunches, whims, fancies.

If that appeals to you, read on. Halberstam is a big fan of Pixar movies and frequently makes use of them in her cultural analysis.  She points to the queerness of cartoon animals, the creation of magical worlds and animation as a utopian, even revolutionary, project.  For example, Halberstam posits Pixar’s Madagascar as “an allegorical take on anti disciplinary life in the university” commenting that, “while some of us who have escaped our cages may start looking for new ways back into the zoo, others may try to rebuild a sanctuary in the wild, and a few fugitive types will actually stay lost.”  Phd funding applications as pleas to be returned to cage? Interesting.  Must find ways to feed myself in the wild and stay lost a little longer.

The Queer Art of Failure is a mish-mash of ‘high’ and ‘low’ theory, paying little to no attention to these arbitrary boundaries. At times, it really works.  Halberstam’s use of a scene from Chicken Run to illustrate Spivak’s critique of liberal western feminism that constructs an ‘other’ to save in ‘Can the subaltern speak?’ is pretty neat. Halberstam holds Babs up as a representative of’ “‘a shadow archive of 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.”

Ginger      We either die free chickens, or we die trying.

Babs          Are those the only choices?

Babs has a point – there has got to be some better options! I’d like to re-watch Chicken Run to see if Halberstam’s theories hold up, but… its a long time until Christmas.

The book grapples with a diverse range of themes from revolt, to loss, to the connections between homosexuality and fascism. Halberstam moves deftly from an analysis of the masochistic act of cutting to the artistic process of collage as a queer and feminist practice. With reference to Hannah Hoch and Kara Walker, Halberstam argues that “collage precisely replicates the spaces in between and refuses to respect to respect the boundaries that usually delineate self and others, art object from museum, and the copy from the original.” Halberstam’s take  on collage brings to mind my friend Abigail Aked‘s collage of page 3 girls and Rosanna Thompson‘s similarly brilliant work – check it out.

Intriguingly, The Queer Art of Failure is the first place I’ve encountered Critical Pet Studies (yes, it’s a thing!). What with my reputation for swearing at dogs, I welcome this new academic arena. Halberstam’s comment – ‘like adults who choose not to reproduce, people with no interest in pets occupy a very specific spot in contemporary sexual hierarchies’ – is of particular interest. As a proud member of both of these groups I can tell you this ‘specific spot’ is… rather close to the bottom.

The Queer Art of Failure is all about recognising that alternative ways of being already exist in the cracks of the current system, that “failure can exploit the unpredictability of ideology and its indeterminate qualities.” Or, in summary…