THE QUEER ART OF FAILURE. By Judith Halberstam. Durham: Duke University Press. 2011.
Neoliberal politics of contemporary America glorifies success as a (if not “the) way of being in the world. What space, then, does failure occupy and open up? The Queer Art of Failure is a groundbreaking book that retheorizes failure and its relationship to the process of knowledge production and being in the world.
The Queer Art takes us to the “silly archive” of animated films from Chicken Run, to Toy Story, to Penguin Love, to Monsters, Inc., to Robots, to Finding Nemo, to Bee Movie, among other fascinating films, to introduce us to the notion of “Pixarvolt”: animated feature films with CGI technology that “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” (29).
Adding non-animated films to the silly archive in the subsequent chapter, Halberstam invites us to understand the logic of (particularly white male) stupidity “as a map of male power” (58). Halberstam points out that stupidity and forgetfulness, such as in the film Dude, Where is My Car?, may provide us with a different way of knowing because it challenges the traditional route of disseminating knowledge that relies on positivism and its reliance on memory (69). Looking at yet different archives of “failure”—how it is represented in different forms of representation from a novel, to photographs, to a TV show such as The L Word—, Halberstam reframes failure as “as a way of refusing to acquiesce to dominant logics of power and discipline and as a form of critique. As a practice, failure recognizes that alternatives are embedded already in the dominant and that power is never total or consistent; indeed failure can exploit the unpredictability of ideology and its indeterminate qualities” (88). Failure is, therefore, subversive and productive.
If failure has its function as an opposition to the dominant power, then, where does feminism figure in this landscape of failure? In chapter four, via her exploration of female masochism, Halberstam introduces the notion of “anti-social feminism,” “a feminism grounded in negation, refusal, passivity, absence, and silence, [which] offers spaces and modes of unknowing, failing, and forgetting as part of an alternative feminist project” (124) and traces its genealogy to “queer, postcolonial and black feminisms” such as those found in Toni Morrison’s and Jamaica Kincaid’s works (126). Shifting gears to history, Halberstam challenges gay history by acknowledging the “imagined and real relationship between homosexuality and Nazism” (171). To do so, she recognizes, would be perceived as a form of gay betrayal, which, nonetheless, can function as yet another site of retheorizing failure. This book takes us in a brilliantly rich, playfully hilarious, and intellectually stimulating journey through the realms of the stupid, silly, and failure, to provide us with new and productive (or not) ways of being and thinking in the world. This book is a must-read.
L. Ayu Saraswati, University of Hawai’i at Manoa.