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…


Why I can’t get excited about same-sex marriage

When David Cameron addressed the Conservative party at the October 2011 conference he assured them – ‘I don’t support gay marriage despite being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I’m a Conservative.’ This statement could be mistaken for spin, but on closer inspection it reveals the truth of the logic behind Cameron’s championing of same-sex marriage. Whilst the Marriage Bill may appear to be a progressive piece of landmark legislation granting gay couples equal recognition, it is best understood as part of a conservative agenda to shrink the state and confine the burden of care to the (married) family unit.

The struggle for same-sex marriage diverts our more radical energies and instead leaves us hankering after the privileges of straight folks. In all the excitement about what ‘gay weddings’ might be like (they’ll be swans and sequins, rainbows and unicorns!) we might forget about the way in which LGBTQ youth are disproportionately affected by cuts to housing and social services (check out Queers Against the Cuts for more info) or the way in which Britain demands gay asylum seekers ‘prove’ their sexuality or risk deportation (as reported in this recent Guardian article).

Let’s not forget that the Marriage Bill still needs to go through the House of Lords and there are still a few issues to be ironed out. Namely, the highly gendered and heterosexist definitions of consummation and adultery in law. There was a well-written and well-humoured piece in Autostraddle on this subject which I recommend you read for the sheer pleasure of the title ‘Faulty Deflowerings’ 

If you want to draw up a contract of legal obligations for your love, then fine. Ideally, everybody would be free to draw up their own contracts specifying what commitments they wish to make to whoever they wish to make them too. I, however, do not want lawyers, religious figures, or the state involved in my love; the tangled web of connections that I hold dear.

And that is what bothers me about the same-sex marriage debate, the idea that it is all about love. The word ‘love’  is frequently used as synonymous with ‘marriage’ and the main campaign group for same-sex marriage and heterosexual civil partnerships calls itself ‘Equal Love’. Yet, as far as I am concerned this is not about love but the economies of intimacy that structure our society.

A friend of mine used the following three words in favour of same-sex marriage – ‘Taxes. Visas. Banks.’ Same-sex marriage might make your life admin easier. Woohoo! But does that really sound like liberation to you? I don’t think so.

Somebody who does have a radical vision of a liberatory queer politics is Amber Hollibaugh, Executive Director of the freaking fabulous organization Queers For Economic Justice. I’ll leave you with some of her deliciously wise and inspiring words.