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GAME OF THRONES: THE QUEER SEASON by JACK HALBERSTAM (HOUSE OF NEMO)

8 Apr
Live by the sword and die by the sword

Live by the sword and die by the sword

Every couple of seasons, like warriors of an ancient cult or like the antagonists in Games of Thrones, scholars arm themselves for battle over the ownership of the term “queer.” These battles have pitted historians against literary critics, empiricism against abstract theory, those with investments in the normative against those with investments in resistance; Foucaultians against Deleuzians, boys against girls, gender queers against cis-genders, people who watch Project Runway versus people who watch women’s tennis, Broadway musical lovers against performance art fans, people who want the freedom to marry against people who want freedom from marriage, pet lovers versus pet haters and so on. It seems to be a queer rite, in addition, to claim that, queer is over! Or, no, it has just begun! We might also hear that: it has not yet arrived; it will never arrive; it would not be queer if it did arrive; it has not been queer and so never was here and cannot therefore be over; it will never be over; it cannot be over nor can it ever begin…to be over. You get the picture.

photo_17522_wide_largeJust last year in the Chronicle of Higher Education, a perennial warrior, Michael Warner (House of Queer Publics), took stock of the state of queer theory on the occasion of the ending of Duke’s famed Series Q and used Jasbir Puar’s work to signal “queer theory’s ambivalence about itself. ” While he accepted the ambivalence as part of a sign of the vibrancy of the field, Warner still took time to land a few well-placed jabs at a critical queer theory that had, according to his calculations, gone beyond ambivalence and that reveled in a “queerer-than-thou competitiveness” while investing in “postures of righteous purity.” Such a model of queer theory could be found, he claimed, in a special 2006 issue of Social Text titled “What’s Queer About Queer Studies Now?” This special issue, edited by myself, fellow Bully Blogger José Esteban Muñoz, and David Eng, was itself an attempt to make a survey of the field, and its mission was to highlight new work in queer theory—by Martin Manalansan, Gayatri Gopinath, Jasbir Puar, Hiram Perez and others of the House of Poco Queers—that saw the intersections of race and sexuality to be axiomatic rather than marginal to another larger narrative centered on the sexual identity practices of white males. Such a project, for Warner, was evidence of a whiny competitiveness and perhaps indicated, as far as he was concerned, that queer studies might be over.

Game-of-Thrones-Infographic-Houses-OnlyAnd so it goes, like an episode of the fantasy HBO series Game of Thrones, there are more battles between more houses than the human brain can keep track of! This house sets up against that house, old feuds carry over into new feuds, battles are won and lost and, to quote a Game Of Thones saying, “what is dead can never die.” While Game of Thrones is a remarkable study of power, sovereignty, territoriality, terror, kinship, sex and violence, it also offers a close reading of fantasy and desire in a possibly medieval but at any rate distant historical time. While the action, the political machinations, the sexual intrigue and the multiple forms of perfidy might be transhistorical, the success of the series actually hinges upon its ability to render the past in all, or at least some, of its pastness. The question of what constitutes the past, what relation it has to the present and how it can be read from a historical remove is the subject of one of the most recent skirmishes between queer theory households and it merits a closer look if only so that we can get back to the queerness of Game of Thrones, having settled some thorny historical questions about anachronism, teleology, chronology and genealogy.

In January 2013 issue of PMLA, Valerie Traub, queen of the House of English Studies at Michigan in Game of Thrones speak, takes aim at the “new unhistoricism in Queer Studies.” Traub, who has not, in her earlier work, ever been mistaken to my knowledge for a Marxist (House of UMass Amherst), begins her polemic with a familiar phrase: “Since around 2005 a specter has haunted the field in which I work: the specter of teleology” (21). We all know of the mythical creatures in Game of Thrones that lie beyond the wall and scuttle in and out of the kingdoms creating fear and mischief. But Traub is not worrying about what lies beyond the walls of her kingdom; rather, she is casting her own brand of historical scholarship and that by her merry band of characters, many located in Michiganlandia, as the specter, that, like communism in the mid-nineteenth century, apparently haunts queer studies.

In a weird twist that places teleological thinking—or the belief that the past can be read as an inevitable drift towards a fixed endpoint in the present—in the position of the radical threat offered by communism, Traub raises her flag for genealogy, periodization, chronology and the work of David Halperin. traub-halperin_gay_shameShe dedicates her essay to Halperin and she defends his genealogical historical methodology from the hoards at the gate that come to “undo” his “history of homosexuality.” Along the way to mounting this defense, Traub also implicitly argues, as other queer houses have recently (the House of Anti-Anti-Normativity for example –see the bullyblogger account of their recent MLA panel), that we need to return to some key foundational texts by David Halperin but also by others such as George Chauncey, Steve Epstein and Janet Halley in order to counter this “unhistoricism” with empirical research, real, authentic scholarship, in other words, grounded in proper disciplinary locations with appropriate methodologies and canonical archives of evidence. Thus, using a neo-liberal logic by which the hegemonic (teleological historicism) characterizes itself as the marginalized and outlawed, Traub allows her enterprise of historicizing to be cast as an upstart methodology which uses radical methods to bring down the prevailing order. In fact, the historical methods she defends are far from either radical or Marxist (although Marxism does have a teleological spin to it), far from a specter that is haunting anything, her periodized historical narratives, with their investments in normative temporalities, disciplinary regulation, continuity and destinations, constitute a castle on the hill, the manor house, the oldest and most royal house of all. Traub pretends to be the rebel at the gate but in actuality she is sitting safely and warmly inside, on the throne, and at the very heart of power.

How Soon Is...

How Soon Is…

Traub, reasonably enough, wants in this article to undo some of the logics that have cast two houses of queer history at odds when she thinks that they may potentially share some projects: “My aim then,” she writes even as she lifts her crossbow, “is to advance a more precise collective dialogue on the unique affordances of different methods for negotiating the complex links among sexuality, temporality, and history making” (23). A noble aim, we might add, but one that nonetheless, for all of its tone of moderation, takes no prisoners. The main targets of Traub’s “aim” indeed are Carla Freccero (House of Mid Century Modern), Jonathan Goldberg (House of Sedgwick) and Madhavi Menon (House of Queers Off Color but also House of Edelman). Traub also throws Carolyn Dinshaw (House of Queer Medieval and House of NYU) under the bus charging that while all of these scholars do interesting work on temporality, “none of these scholars set themselves the task of writing a historical account that traversed large expanses of time” (26).

And this gets to the heart of Traub’s critique – the House of Unhistoricism, according to Traub, challenges periodization and genealogical history but itself remains bound to one, or in a few instances two, time frames making it impossible for this work to track either changes or continuities across time. Ultimately, Traub seems to be saying, the anti-teleological queer histories are too invested in deconstructive readings (“readings, however, are not the same thing as history” [30]), too quick to dismiss empirical research and periodization, wedded foolishly to “analogical thinking” and “associational reasoning” (which works through presumption, according to her, rather than argumentation), and too critical of the tools of the trade (chronology and periodization). Once they have offered their readings, undone teleologies, made the present strange and the past multiplicitous, rejected periodization and sequence in favor of “multitemporality, nonidentity and noncorrespondence of the early modern” (Traub’s characterization of Goldberg), Traub offers, these scholars are left with a murky understanding of history under a tarnished banner of queer critique that has become so “free-floating” and “mobile” as to mean everything and nothing. Traub clearly feels that the House of Unhistoricism has declared war on the House of History and she charges that they have “demeaned the disciplinary methods employed to investigate historical continuity,” charged historians with “normalization,” and disqualified “other ways of engaging with the past” (35).

In past skirmishes between queer houses as much as in this one, a name is used over and over to guarantee the honorable intent and rhetorical superiority of one house over another: that name, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, is used here by Traub both to signify a critique of genealogy that she rejects and to indicate a “generative legacy” to which she paradigm-shift-cartoontethers her steed. Sedgwick, she tells us early on, had critiqued Lord Halperin (House of Homosexuality and House of Joan Crawford) for investing in a Foucaultian model of genealogical thinking that placed too much emphasis on the notion of the clean break, or the Great Paradigm Shift. Sedgwick, in her emphasis on the coexistence of different models of sexuality, obviously leans more to the house of Unhistoricism than that of Historicism. But because Sedgwick is such a powerful player in the Game of Thrones, she cannot so easily be ceded to the other side. And so, Traub both acknowledges the critique of Halperin in Sedgwick and yet claims that “Sedgwick did not endorse a particular form of historiography” (25) – in other words, she may have been opposed to the House of Halperin but she did not therefore stand with the House of Unhistoricism. And so the essay ends by folding Sedgwick back into the House of History and Geneaology by claiming her multiple legacies as part of this essay’s genealogical reach, and it also marries that legacy to the bounty that Lord Halperin has bestowed upon the field: “No less at stake is how this debate bears upon David Halperin’s evolving contributions to queer theory and queer history” (36). While the House of Unhistoricism is more interested in a haptic history made up of anonymous figures brushing up against emergent categories of being, the House of Traub would trace a line of kings and queens and find their true and authentic bloodlines in order to make sure that at any given moment, the right person is on the throne.

Jay-Z-Kanye-West-Watch-the-Throne-Behind-the-ScenesBut, as Jay Z and Kanye remind us in their joint album, you always have to “Watch the Throne” because no king/queen is safe, no house is secure, no wealth lasts, no love is past, no success is sure, no church in the wild and the wild things are always just outside the door. The House of Michigan can hold onto History with a capital H; it can have disciplinarity, chronology and sequence; it can misspell the names of its postcolonial critics (footnote #12) and still make a claim on accuracy; it can cast aside the analogical thinking of the queers who come to undo history, but it cannot police what lies beyond the walls and scuttles around the edges of the House of MLA – the creatures outside the walls are the real specters haunting the field and what is dead can never die.

Jack Halberstam (House of Nemo)movies-finding-nemo-3d-poster-gallery-8

Friends With Benefits + The Kids Are All Right = Friends With Kids

29 Apr

By Jack Halberstam

We all know that Hollywood movies emerge out of a, shall we say, limited gene pool of ideas; and when that pool runs dry, the stumped screenplay writers just shuffle the jigsaw puzzle pieces of accepted story lines around until they come up with apparently new narratives. This is clearly what happened with the recent Jennifer Westfeldt film Friends With Kids. Touted as an independent, edgy ‘ensemble comedy,’ this film actually shows what happens when very straight, very sheltered straight people get a hold of a few strands of rather radical queer ideas about love, intimacy and reproduction!

Touted by David Edelstein in a feature in the New York Magazine as “the best breeder movie in years” (we might also dub it the only breeder movie in years and hey, when did “breeder” become a part of the hetero lexicon?), Friends With Kids asks a question that queer people have asked often and with much more curiosity for years: namely, do people have to be married to have kids or are marriage and child rearing actually like oil and water, a recipe for a greasy mess with the capacity to neither lubricate nor hydrate!

 This film comes up with a solution to the separation of sex and reproduction problem by offering us Julie (played by Westfeldt) and Jason (Adam Scott), good friends who enjoy a wide-ranging and affectionate friendship with each other while dating others and watching their friendship circle drift off into marriage and child rearing. When neither Julie nor Jason falls in love with an appropriate partner at the designated time of life for such things, they watch with horror as their friends’ relationships fall apart and their sex lives wither on the vine under the pressure of child rearing.

 One night, after a particularly unpleasant dinner party with their coupled and bickering pals, Julie and Jason ask whether it could be possible to have babies together without the intimacy, marriage and bickering. An idea is born and since they have affirmed many times that while they love each other, they are not attracted to one another, what could possibly get in the way of this perfect arrangement? They will get to date promiscuously but still have some stability in their lives; they will get the baby and the chance at parenthood without dragging the diapers and the spit up into their sex lives; they will get to have their cake and eat it too.

While this idea strikes Julie and Jason and their rather humdrum friendship circle as wild, original, evil and impossible, in actual fact the notion of the companionate marriage is as old as the hills.  The reason it is on no one’s radar is because it is one of those many under-studied forms of lesbian sociality where we will find it under the heading of the Boston marriage.

The Boston marriage, which is essentially what Jason and Julie propose to have – was a term used in the late 19th century to describe households made up of women living together independently of men. Whether or not these relationships were sexual has been a topic of much debate, but they were certainly long lasting, amicable and they allowed women financial, emotional and practical independence at a time when middle class women were defined by their relationships to their husbands.

Because of the ways in which heteronormativity assigns credit for all things good to heterosexuality and blame for all things bad to the gays and lesbians and trannies, heterosexual marriage has been cast as unquestionably right and good, even when it lacks sex and includes physical violence, and lesbian companionate relations have been cast as unquestionably wrong even when they are sexual and stable. Also, as we saw in The Kids Are All Right, one of the formulaic films that provides plot pieces for this mash up of rom coms and social issues movies, when lesbian long term relationships lose their libidinal energy we talk of “lesbian bed death” (not just bed death notice, lesbian bed death), but when hetero couples run out of steam, as the Jon Hamm and Kristen Wiig couple do in Friends With Kids, this is simply a failed marriage – leaving us with the impression that most marriages succeed!

Jon Hamm and Kristen Wiig as Ben and Missy are actually the most convincing couple in the film – they enter the movie panting from mid-dinner coital exertions and they exit alone and bitter. Sounds like a Tennessee Williams play except that when queer relationships fail, even in dramas penned by queers, it affirms the essential corruption of the queers. When straight people fail, they are just not trying hard enough. And so, Ben and Missy, whose relationship falls apart with as many sparks as it initially came together (so to speak), are represented as a bad combination of the bitchy woman and the resentful male partner – that this combination is actually the foundation of most forms of domestic white heterosexuality is never confirmed by the film which wants to desperately hold on to the idea of a perfect union of man and woman, good and bad, black and white, domestic and wild.

And so, to that end, we are offered an ideal couple in this not so romantic and not so funny rom com: Leslie (Maya Rudolph) and Alex (Chris O’Dowd). Leslie may be a tad bitchy and naggy but Alex absorbs all darts and arrows that she flings his way and does the manly thing – he fights fire with love and compassion. Because he yields and bends to her need to blame and nitpick, and because she accepts his limitations, ineptitudes and laziness, they are the perfect couple and they even have sex!

So, if Friends With Kids steals one set of narrative arcs from The Kids Are All Right – alternative domesticity, Boston marriage, the separation of child rearing from heterosexual domesticity—it steals another from Friends With Benefits. Another gay film masquerading as a straight film, Friends With Benefits asked whether two hot young things could have sex but not intimacy, a good time at night and beat a hasty retreat in the morning, blow jobs without blow backs…? The answer of course was…sure they can…for a while… and then guess what? Mother nature takes over and what man and woman has put asunder, nature will reunite – and so if Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis just want to roll around in their undies looking hot for and hour and 20 minutes, that is all well and good, but a rom com demands a marriage and so sex leads to intimacy leads to love leads to….

And so it goes in Friends With Kids – the couple with no chemistry, no interest in each other sexually, no grounds for love or marriage, the couple who were so cold on each other sexually that they knew they could raise a kid together without any complications…guess what…they fall in love! Despite having subjected the audience to one of the most awkward and therefore actually interesting sex scenes in cinema during their insemination romp, the couple who couldn’t suddenly become hot for one another, just like that! For the viewer who has suffered through long spans of dialogue offering up one watered down queer critique after another of domesticity, heterosexuality, long term relationships and nuclear parenthood, the resulting romance is offensive, insincere and totally unbelievable. And this, ultimately, is why straight people should leave the queer theory to the queers – once they have boarded the runaway train of alternative desire, they realize that they desperately want to go home and leave everything exactly the way it was.

Ok, so in a perfect world, where I had a sabbatical, time to spare, no deadlines, I would pen the perfect masterpieces: The Friends Are All Right and Kids With Benefits. In the first, a queer culture of friendship replaces domestic marriage and nuclear families and new experiments in social world-making pop up everywhere. Friends share space, homes, kids, resources, health care access and probably sex…And in the second, kids cease to be the precious and pampered pets that this society demands and produces and they fight for their independence from families! Or else we could just settle for Kids Are Ok, Friends Are All Right and Go Get Your Own Benefits, a rom com involving space aliens who settle on earth and try to date lesbians…actually that IS the plot of an awesome film I just saw titled Co-Dependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same by Madeline Olnek…try coopting that Hollywood!! Watch this space for a quick take on lesbian space alien films…coming soon. Peace out.

Bullybloggers on Failure and the Future of Queer Studies

2 Apr tumblr_lp8y1blynn1qjek14o1_500

On March 26, 2012, Gayatri Gopinath at NYU convened a panel of queer scholars to discuss “Failure and the Future of Queer Studies.” Using Jack Halberstam’s new book, The Queer Art of Failure (Duke, 2011) as an occasion to think about negativity, failure, anti-disciplinarity and other bully-ish topics, the panelists all provided commentary on the past, present and potential futures of queer studies. We reproduce the presentations here in order and we add another commentary by bullyblogger extraordinare, Tavia Nyong’o.

Jack Halberstam

Our aim tonight is to be bold, provocative, polemical and preposterous. We come to bully not to please, to bludgeon not to persuade, to renege on politeness, rigor, the reasonable, the rational, the enlightened and the un-invested. I am honored to share a space with these colleagues in this space, here and now. From each, I have learned valuable lessons not just about how to think but also about what to think and why. They have each, in their own way, and through their innovative and risk-taking work, taught me and taught us all how to fail and why we should and must fail in order to not establish ourselves as a new institution:

Gayatri Gopinath – Gayatri’s work, with its bold refusals of the static and normative relations between nation and diaspora has given us new and vital formulations of space, race, migration, mobility, sexual ecologies and cultural production. The diaspora after Gopinath is not the inability or failure to reproduce the nation elsewhere, it is a refusal of the diaspora as always a shadow of the nation, as its inauthentic other, its lost and loser child.

Lisa Duggan – Duggan’s body of work over the last two decades has changed completely the ways in which we understand relations between the economy and the sexual, the state and the individual, violence and identity, marriage and queer activism. A quintessential public intellectual, Duggan has trained a whole generation of scholars in modes of writing history beyond the discipline, against the grain and in and alongside the contradictions of sex, politics and activism.

Tavia Nyong’o - Tavia’s latest work has brought punk to queer studies, queerness to punk and has examined all of the fertile intersections engendered by queer punk in relation to race relations and radicalized cultural production. Nyong’o’s work manages to produce and nurture crucial links between brown and black aesthetics and queer practice and he writes a mean bully blog!

Ann Pellegrini – has allowed us to think about sexuality alongside, through and against various states of devotion, spiritual callings and religious feelings. Rather than accepting a clear connection between queer communities and the secular, she finds contact zones that link the passion of religious calling to the intensity of alternative queer communities.

Jose Muñoz – Muñoz, perhaps more than anyone here tonight, has taught me personally how to fail well and fail better. With his virtuoso readings of eccentric queer culture through and with eclectic archives of continental philosophy, Muñoz has actively, relentlessly, wildly refused to stay in the playpen of queer culture and he insists on dragging white dead philosophers into the mix—Althusser, Heidegger, Agamben, Jean Luc Nancy—to name a few, to create fabulous blends of imaginative archives and sophisticated theoretical models.

The Queer Art of Failure

My book: to the extent that my book makes an intervention, it does so by cleaving to counter-intuitive ways of thinking, anti-disciplinary forms of knowledge production, uncanonical archives and queer modes of address. The basic interventions are:

1) The naming of failure not as the negative space opened up by normalized modes of success but as a habitable space with its own logic, its own practices and the potential for new collectivities: success is individualized but failure is collective – 99 %!

2) The book understands failure as a practice that builds upon queerness in the sense that queerness is always a failure to conform, to belong, to cohere. Rather than reorienting queerness, we should embrace failure.

3) The Queer Art of Failure tracks an aesthetic through works by queer artists who focus on awkwardness, limits, disappointment, loss, losing and it identifies an archive not in relation to generic specificity but in relation to the theme of failure itself.

4) Failure suggests a historiographical method within which we must write queer history not simply as a record of heroes, martyrs, forebears, but also as a record of complicity, cowardice, exclusion and violence – in other words, any history, LGBT history included, contains episodes that are shameful, racist, complicit with state power, orientalist, colonial and so on. To leave that history out is to commit to normative models of self, time and the past/future.

5) Anti-Social: Finally, failure as theorized by my book alongside work by Jose, Rod Ferguson and many people here tonight, pushes the so-called anti-social strand of queer theory to a place it never wanted to go. And so, if Edelman, Bersani, Tim Dean et al really wanted to follow a negative strand of queer thinking, we are saying, they would have to make peace with the denizens of the dark side who are not the masterful heroes of theory and high culture but are motley crews of gender deviants, misfits, punks, immigrants, the dispossessed, the disinherited, the uninvited, the down and outers. Our work makes a collectivity out of that motley crew and speaks the anti-social as a kind of curse or protest.

The Death of Queer Theory?

While some people, no names, have been pronouncing queer studies dead and done, there are meanwhile a whole slew of amazing new books by younger scholars that prove this pronouncement to be premature and even immature! Not only is queer studies not dead, but it was never trying to be the kind of thing that would eventually be bypassed or made redundant later. That notion of a set of ideas that have currency until they are replaced is part of a straight temporality that queer studies has tried to upend and decenter.

Queer studies has failed to coalesce into a discipline – it has failed to produce programs, MA’s, PhD’s, majors, minors; and in this failure, the failure to formalize our relations, our procedures and our productions, we see, to quote Muñoz, horizons of possibility. And so, what now for queer studies? If indeed another version of queer studies has “passed,” has been declared dead, what new forms will rise in its wake?

New books include: Chandan Reddy’s Freedom with Violence; Jafari Sinclair Allen’s Venceremos; Dean Spade’s Normal Life; Omi Tinsley’s Thiefing Sugar; Karen Tongson’s Re-Locations and many more. These new books have completely reconceived of queer studies and shifted the focus away from identity, textuality and community to time/space, relations to the state, globalization, the suburbs, immigration and so on.

Queer studies of the variety that the people gathered here today have created was always a dynamic set of conversations; a set of mentoring practices; a rehearsal without a performance; an improvised and ephemeral cluster of ideas that form and deform, circulate and collapse around a shifting un-canon of cultural objects and a constellation of subjugated knowledges.

Queer studies as practiced by myself, Lisa Duggan, Gayatri Gopinath, Tavia Nyong’o, José Muñoz and Ann Pellegrini was never supposed to “succeed” in the terms established for success in the academy – it was doomed to fail and happily so and in the wake of our often dazzling and deliberate failures, new forms of knowledge can flourish and grow. In fact, it is all too often the success of an area of knowledge, its development into programs and disciplines, that cuts off the next generation and that, like a wave of gentrification in a formerly impoverished but happening neighborhood, stabilizes what was dynamic and seizes what was common to all.

And so, here tonight at NYU, the center of a certain strand of queer diasporic critique and queer of color theory, we announce not an end but a new beginning and we do so as surly, grumpy, weathered survivors of an old order that has declared itself dead—and that we are happy to bury—and as the happy benefactors of new intellectual movements, as the supporters of younger rebellious colleagues and as the instigators of forms of disciplinary ruin.

My colleagues and I practice queer failure daily and we refuse to commit to a model of queer theory that demands success, institutional recognition, longevity and the centering of identity. And so, I would like to name a new queer theory that does the following:

1) Promises to never declare itself dead in the face of the impending irrelevance of its senior practitioners. In other words, if a senior group of queer theorists becomes outmoded, then hurray for the onward march of knowledge and innovation – know when to step aside and let others through.

2) Practices what Stuart Hall calls “Marxism without guarantees” but what we can call “queer theory without a safety net” – this means taking risks, maintaining queer thinking as an open field – open to new forms, outside influences, broad transformations, unknowing, undoing, unbeing.

3) Collaborates rather than competes – queer studies should not only be about raw ambition, the race to the top, elbowing everyone else out of the way. Hopefully we can learn better how to collaborate, share authorship, circulate ideas rather than branding them, copyrighting them and jealously marking them as property.

4) Thinks in terms of collectivities rather than just individuals, multiplicities rather than singularities, new modes of associating as well as the inevitability of division, differences, disagreements.

5) Survives: We have all been doing QS for a long time now and we are all in some way survivors of the various struggles that have engulfed the field. So I conclude here by turning to one of my favorite films of all time, a film with much wisdom about desire, struggle, queerness and survival –  and one I have now committed to quoting whenever I give a talk, yes, you guessed it: Fantastic Mr. Fox.

 

This film is not only about fighting the law and the farmers, it is also about stopping and going, moving and halting, inertia and dynamism; it is about survival and its component parts and the costs of survival for those who remain. But one of the very best moments in Fantastic Mr. Fox, and the moment most memorable in terms of queer theory and survival, comes in the form of a speech that Mr. Fox makes to his woodland friends who have outlived the farmers’ attempt to starve them all out of their burrows. The sturdy group of survivors dig their way out of a trap laid for them by Boggis, Bunce and Bean and find themselves burrowing straight up into a closed supermarket stocked with all the supplies they need. Mr. Fox, buoyed by this lucky turn of events, turns to his clan and addresses them for the last time:

“They say all foxes are slightly allergic to linoleum, but it’s cool to the paw – try it. They say my tail needs to be dry cleaned twice a month, but now it’s fully detachable – see? They say our tree may never grow back, but one day, something will. Yes, these crackles are made of synthetic goose and these giblets come from artificial squab and even these apples look fake – but at least they’ve got stars on them. I guess my point is, we’ll eat tonight, and we’ll eat together. And even in this not particularly flattering light, you are without a doubt the five and a half most wonderful wild animals I’ve ever met in my life. So let’s raise our boxes – to our survival.”

Not quite a credo, something short of a toast, a little less than a speech, but Mr. Fox gives here one of the best and most moving–both emotionally and in stop motion terms–addresses in the history of cinema. Fantastic Mr. Fox is a queerly animated classic in that it teaches us, as Finding Nemo, Chicken Run and so many other revolting animations before it, to believe in detachable tails, fake apples, eating together, adapting to the lighting, risk, sissy sons, and the sheer importance of survival for all those wild souls that the farmers, the teachers, the preachers and the politicians would like to bury alive.

Like Mr. Fox, and I hope I can always try to be the Mr. Fox of queer studies, I too would like to say: “And even in this not particularly flattering light, you are without a doubt the four most wonderful wild and queer animals I’ve ever met in my life. So let’s raise our boxes and drink to our survival.”

ON QUEER FAILURE

Lisa Duggan

            Jack Halberstam assures us that queerness offers the promise of failure as a way of life, then goes on to provide us with unique insight into why Zizek is so wrong about Kung Fu Panda.   And this is just the tip of the iceberg of risk The Queer Art of Failure takes:

1) The risk of the ludic.  There has been a lot written from Marxist materialist quarters about the ludic nature of much of queer theory.  The definition for ludic that I found at Dictionary.com is “playful in an aimless way,” as in “the ludic behavior of kittens.”  What could be a more ludic archive than animated films for children?  Halberstam’s “silly archive” walks right up to this charge spoiling for a claymation fight.  What, after all, is mutually exclusive about silly archives and political economic analysis?  As the text of Chicken Run clearly shows, cartoons can launch calls for collective resistance to labor exploitation.  But there is a particularly queer angle to this kind of political economic analysis.  As Jose Munoz has so eloquently argued in Cruising Utopia, imagining and creating alternative life worlds is central to the project of social change.  It isn’t enough to critique neoliberal capitalism’s devastating impact on the quality of life of the 99%, as OWS has shown at Liberty Plaza and elsewhere, beginning to actually live otherwise is crucial to generating a sense of political possibility.   Imagining alternative life worlds–other ways of living, being, knowing and making, beyond conventional arrangements of production, intimacy and leisure–is the primary work of queer politics and queer theory.   Given these goals, it is not surprising that the arts are central sites for queer imaginings—the commercial arts in their experimental or populist modes as well as the fine or alternative arts.

But if we can establish that this kind of queer work is not aimless, what about the charge of playfulness?  There does seem to be a division on the left between those continually suspicious of imaginative playfulness—and thus of postmodernism, queer interventions reductively described as “lifestyle” politics “utopianism,” and sometimes “cultural studies”—and those engaged in play *as* politics.  Halberstam tags Zizek as the former kind of left intellectual, but we have to include many others including David Harvey here too.  Such left intellectuals dismiss the ludic rather too quickly as universally unengaged with political economic analysis—their critique is shallow.  But there’s more.  There is a suspicion of playfulness or silliness on the male dominated left that I would indentify as a rejection of the feminine.  The emphasis on seriousness, on rigor, on hard reasoning, on difficulty and mastery in general, strikes me and my queerly feminist comrades as a variety of masculinism.  And as we know the masculine among us are not to be concerned with “lifestyles,” these are attended to by the women, or with the sillier realms of culture, as these are inhabited by the flagrant homosexuals. 

So the risk that The Queer Art of Failure takes is the risk of condescending dismissal by the Real Men of the Left and of the Academy (some of whom are women and gay people, of course).   But here we have a challenge to that kind of dismissal issued from the quarters of queer masculinity, from someone not interested in competing in the manufactured shortage economy of smartness.  Masculinities against masculinism!  Must be confusing to some…….

2) The risk of anti-disciplinarity.  The disciplines are the zombies of intellectual life right now—like capitalism, they keep coming back from devastating crisis and critique.  We are encouraged to describe our work as interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary or transdisciplinary, so that the disciplines may survive alongside our critical practices, fundamentally informing them.  The Queer Art of Failure dares to be postdisciplinary and anti-disciplinary instead.  It also evades another major boundary that cross cuts the disciplines—that between the advocates of theory, and the practitioners of “plain language.”  In our classrooms in SCA, we often have a rift between students who wish to read and make use of “theory” and those who want to write in ways designed to reach a wider audience.  The Queer Art of Failure exposes this division as a false dichotomy through its deep engagement with cultural and social theory (Benjamin, Gramsci, Foucault, among others) alongside its silly archives and evasion of discipline.  The audiences for this kind of work are multiple—Halberstam has presented it at art conferences and museums, feminist and queer activist settings like Bluestockings book store, as well as in a wide variety of academic settings (probably in dungeons and discos as well).  Sometimes it is the non academic audiences who are hungriest for theoretical engagements, and academics who can be most anti-theory in the name of a “public” imagined somewhat condescendingly as unable to understand more abstract formulations of political thinking.  Here we have an example of promiscuous relations between the “high” and “low” without resorting to a bland linguistic and analytic middle.

3) The risk of betrayal.   Following on the groundbreaking example of Licia Fiol-Matta, whose book A Queer Mother for the Nation first demonstrated how queerness could be deployed in the interests of domination and inequality (specifically, racial nationalism in Latin America), Halberstam’s Queer Art of Failure takes on the volatile subject of gay Naziism.  The appeal of fascism to romantic masculinism has included an historical relation to both gay and lesbian masculinism.  Big surprise.  Halberstam’s foray here helps expand the critical reach of queer studies, as it catches up with the transnational feminist critique of historical feminisms aligned with empire and war.  This betrayal of allegiance to an identity formation is required, if we hope to engage in left political alliances.  LGBT populations are not the subjects of queer politics, any more than women are the subjects of feminist politics.  Queer politics is about dissent from normalization, so it must include a critique of normalizing masculinism that applies to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender figures.  Though LGBT sites are privileged sources of queer critique and invention, the solidarity that we mobilize is ultimately on the ground of politics, not identity.

In conclusion, despite various declarations of the death of queer theory, The Queer Art of Failure is a clear sign of continued vitality.  It occupies a place amidst a continuing stream of new engagements for queer scholarship and politics.  There are three overlapping areas of particularly lively ferment and publication right now:

1) Queer of color critique.  Following on now classic texts by Jose Munoz, Roderick Ferguson, Martin Manalansan, Licia Fiol-Matta, Gayatri Gopinath and others, we now have new work by Nayan Shah, Chandon Reddy,  Karen Tongson, Kara Keeling and others.

2) Global political economy.  Earlier work by Ara Wilson, Jacqui Alexander, Beth Povinelli and Arnaldo Cruz-Malave is joined by new work by Jasbir Puar, Tavia N’yongo, Scott Morgensen, Jenny Terry, Eng-Beng Lim, new work by Judith Butler and others.

3) Economic austerity and queer feeling:  Lauren Berlant is setting new standards here all the time, in company with Ann Cvetkovich, Jose Munoz, Sara Ahmed, Heather Love, and others.

In addition, work is pouring forth now on trangender politics (ref. Gayle Salomon and Dean Spade) and on queer disability (Robert McRuer, Eli Clare, David Serlin).

If a certain kind of queer theory, emanating primarily from the English departments of elite universities, is dead, we need not mourn.  What we have now is a plenitude of promiscuous engagements across disciplinary and institutional boundaries now remaking fields and politics in ways the queer theory of 10 years ago could not have imagined.

Never Mind the Buzzkills:

Here’s The Queer Art of Failure

 Jose Muñoz

In Negative Dialectics Theodor Adorno explains that thought as such is, before all particular contexts, an act of negation.  Its function is to enact a resistance to that which is forced upon it.  Adorno makes the case that thought is always risking failure.  He explains that philosophy can always go astray, but that going astray lets it move forward.  So we can conclude that if we aren’t failing, we aren’t going anywhere or doing much of anything.  He also doesn’t think that philosophers should impose a rational take on the world—because that is too violent in its totalization—echoing man’s violent domination of nature.  Adorno is of course famous for being the key proponent of the Frankfurt School’s withering critique of the culture industry as a mechanism that lulls the masses into malleable passivity. For these reasons and others, Adorno is regarded as something of a buzz kill.  (More on that term later.)

By commencing my comments on my comrade Jack’s excellent new book The Queer Art of Failure through an invocation of Adorno, I don’t mean to totally cast him as our new queer Adorno.  They aren’t totally alike.  But they do share some characteristics.  I think its safe to say that both Halberstam and Adorno share an interest in the power of negation.  Both thinkers respond to the smugness of rationalist thought through a robust skepticism.  Both aren’t afraid to write failure and have it clearly demarcated as something that not only happens, but also needs to happen for us to think otherwise.  That thinking otherwise, an attentiveness to the potential of a non-identity that Adorno proposed, resonates with the weirdness of Jack Halberstam’s “silly” archive of cartoons, “bro” movies and other kid’s stuff.  Adorno instructed his readers in how to look out for the many ways that beauty and representations of nature can be scams that are meant to keep us from grasping the severity of the present moment.  Halberstam is always turning away from the natural–nature for Halberstam is a stop motion animated were-rabbit–to look to the absurd and the comical to tell us something else.

Adorno, as many of the readers of his work can testify, was kind of hilarious and cranky.  The same can be safely be said of Halberstam, a scholar who isn’t afraid to go for the laugh when he is deadly serious.  Certainly the plot summaries of Chicken Run are quite replete with humor as Halberstam describes the animated “classic claymation” feature Chicken Run’s opening sequence.  But we also hear this tone when Halberstam describes himself debating a colleague in Sweden at lunch. The topic of the discussion was the fascist tenets of Tom of Finland’s work. Halberstam reports that “In [his] typically subtle and diplomatic way” he proposed that any reading of Finland’s über-masculine leather daddies that made a detour around a discussion of Fascism was skirting a general component of the work.” Halberstam’s interlocutor shot back that such a proclamation was nonsense since Tom of Finland is “pure eros.”  Jack responds in his “gently persuasive way” that the eros was linked to a politics. And the back and forth persists. This moment in the book is indicative of Halberstam’s authorial voice in the project, the way in which he is willing to play with irony, poke fun at himself, but also never lose the trajectory of the argument.  Halberstam’s point is summarized as this: “This is not to make a Catherine Mackinnon-type argument that sees power-laden sexual representations as inherently bad.  Rather I want to understand why we cannot tolerate linking our desires to politics that disturb us.” In this passage Halberstam isn’t only what Sara Ahmed would call a feminist killjoy, he is also, in that tradition of Adorno, a full on buzzkill.  Not so much in that he is simply trying to shut down the Tom of Finland fan’s erotics or make him feel guilty about them, but instead because he is asking his lunchtime companion to own up to the more disturbing aspects of his erotic attachments.  In the same way Adorno would call out the insidious politics of authoritarian irrationalism that is bred in a seemingly harmless interest in Astrology.  Adorno is not going to let us off the hook and not think about our complicity in the escapism of astrological thinking.  This is harsh.  No Rob Bresny for you!  If you love your astrology it’s a buzzkill.  This is what Halberstam is doing too to some degree.  Not so much because Halberstam wants to shame the Tom of Finland devotee, but because he wants to insist on a very real linkage between desire and history.  Halberstam’s lunchtime debate is a pretty apt example of playful self-effacement running parallel to a critique or an engagement with the real imbrications of desire and politics.

In an article published The Chronicle of Higher Education Michel Warner remarks on the title of a special of issue of Social Text that Jack and I edited along with David Eng.  He sites our title, “What’s Queer About Queer Studies Now?” as displaying bitter  “queerer than-thou competiveness” that is borne from a typical scarcity of resources. He points out how ironic it is that queer theorists can strike such “postures of purity.” We ourselves have a few critiques of our issue, most prominently the absence of scholars not based in North America.  But I think one of the things about that issue that my co-editors and I are most happy about was the way it helped foster a lot of queer of color theory.  Many of our contributors did what Jack did when talking to his Swedish colleague.  They insisted on linking desire and politics, often in the form of thinking about sexuality as coterminous with race, empire and few other modes of particularity.  Our purpose in publishing the issue was to provide an auto-examination of the field, an attempt to take critical stock of where the conversation was headed. Participating in this kind of critique opens one up to a little name-calling. You can’t please all the queers all the time. In this way queer failure is in the cards.  We must just cop to being buzzkills in the cranky tradition that I see Jack and Teddy Adorno belonging to.

One of the more moving moments in The Queer Art of Failure occurs when Halberstam closes out chapter three by citing a line from Benjamin: “[E]mpathy with the winners invariably benefits the rulers.” Benjamin and Adorno shared a rich twelve yearlong correspondence. But they had very different styles. There is a melancholic sadness that runs through Benjamin’s prose that I don’t hear in Halberstam.  I think of Adorno as being kind of proto punk, despite his passion for classical music. Punk in that he was willing to fail, interested in a certain infidelity to form and genre. This is another reason I link these cranky buzzkills beside each other. But let’s be clear, I have stretched this comparison to the limit.  Jack and Teddy are very different.  As any reader of The Queer Art of Failure can attest, they have very different relationships to the culture industry. But beyond that, I think it’s pretty clear that if we had a time machine, brought Adorno to the present and forced him to have lunch with Halberstam, they would hate each other. That lunch would be a splendid failure.

“We’re gonna die”: Not not an ending

Ann Pellegrini

“Failure loves company,” Jack Halberstam proclaims midway through The Queer Art of Failure.  The new directions in queer theory charted across these blog entries not only refute the obituaries some others have proclaimed about the end of queer theory; they also show just how richly varied the band of scholars remaking queer theory for today and towards tomorrow are.  The question, then, is not whether or not “queer theory” is dead (it isn’t), but why some have apocalyptically conflated a change in focus, analytic orientation, (inter)disciplinary location with the end of the world as they know it.   C’mon people, let’s practice losing, and loosing, the reins.

Failing is not as easy as it seems.  So, for some additional help, let’s even turn, as Jack Halberstam did early on in The Queer Art of Failure, to Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” with its famous assertion that “the art of losing’s not too hard to master.”  Bishop’s poem is an exercise in as-if: practice losing often enough (“Lose something every day….Then practice losing farther, losing faster…”), and you’ll discover that the greatest blows are survivable.  And the poem even presents writing itself—Bishop writes: “though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster”—as one of those practices through which we master the loser’s art.  Bishop’s parenthetical exhortation—“(Write it!)”—and that second “like” are a kind of stutter-step in the poem’s movement, belying the asserted ease with which the art of losing can be mastered.  Because it can’t.  That’s the poem’s lie, and its bluish ray of hope: to act as if loss can be mastered is, paradoxically, to let go of fantasies of mastery.

The Queer Art of Failure picks up this exhortation and runs with it.  It is a clarion call to and for failure.   Halberstam proffers failure as a vocation.  As he powerfully and poignantly reminds us at book’s end: “To live is to fail, to bungle, to disappoint, and ultimately to die.”  I found this strangely uplifting—what this says about me, I leave to your discretion—especially as it was followed by: “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.”

And The Queer Art of Failure is a very goofy book with an unabashedly absurd archive of failure: Finding Nemo, The Fanstastic Mr. Fox, and other animated feature films (in a genre Halberstam identifies as “Pixarvolt”) appear alongside the work of such visual and performance artists as Tracey Moffat, Yoko Ono, and Collier Schorr.  SpongeBob Square Pants does a duet with the Sex Pistols.  This is not your grand-pappy’s archive nor your gay uncle’s, and that’s precisely the point.  In the place of canonized texts and disciplinary—and disciplining—knowledge-formation, Jack takes us on a wild goose chase (or should I say chicken run?), lingering and malingering in the detours, the chance arrivals, the libidinal pulse of the useless, and the highways and by-ways of stupidity.  I suppose this is the moment to rev up my engine and cue Dude, Where’s My Car. As Wittgenstein (a great lover of the silly) writes in Culture and Value: “Our greatest stupidities may be very wise” (qtd in Landy and Saler, The Re-Enchantment of the World, 67).  Wittengenstein would have found this book very wise.

The diversity of Jack’s archive and its willful reclamation (not the same thing as redemption) of the junked and jettisoned reminded me of the “garbage-picking or ‘reusing and recycling’” that Jane Bennett practices in her 2001 book The Enchantment of Modern Life as well as her more recent Vibrant Matter.  In both books, Bennett mines the leftovers of the world, the everyday, for sites of enchantment and vibrant possibility.  Bennett is interested in cultivating wonder and joyful attachment, moods that could not, at first glance, be more different from the negativity tracked (and even solicited) in The Queer Art of Failure.  What all three books both share, though, is an orientation to the discarded and overlooked—to the refuse of the world.  So many possibilities are contained in that word refuse.  Throughout The Queer Art of Failure we can hear its variants: the trash pile of refuse, the negative force of refusal, the new assemblages courted (re-fused), and, of course, the slow burn of the fuse ticking down 3-2-1, to a whimper, not a bang.

This is low theory; but, don’t confuse that with frivolity.  At its playful heart, The Queer Art of Failure is also a very serious book, with life and death stakes.  If  Halberstam concludes by calling for queer failure as a way of life, he also calls attention to the unequal terrains on which failure operates.  All failures are not equal.  Throughout the book he thus moves to deconstruct failure, to show how failure as a badge of shame is, in his words, “levied by the winners against the losers.”  At an historical moment when some of the biggest losers in economic history are getting public bail-outs, the public, as Lauren Berlant puts it and as Halberstam underscores, the public itself as living breathing bodies and not as some Habermasian abstraction has become too expensive for the state.  Structural failures and structural inequalities are recast as the bad moral choices of whole populations (those lazy Greeks) and individuated classes (the white working class is “coming apart,” to cite the title of Charles Murray’s new book, because of serial bad choices: out of wedlock births, crime, and joblessness).

And death is the ultimate failure.  Still, if we will all face the ultimate failure that is death, this does not make death the great equalizer.  I want here to link Halberstam’s beautiful closing observation—which I cited earlier but which bears repeating—that “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.”  This queer art of ultimate failure is not a solo performance, even if, ultimately, no one can die for us—heroic pieties of giving one’s life for one’s country to the contrary.

These questions were very much on my mind as I was preparing for the NYU panel on The Queer Art of Failure.  It took place on Monday, March 26, the very day the U.S. Supreme Court began its extraordinary and, as it turned out, extraordinarily distressing, three days of arguments about the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, a law that is not nothing, even if it is not enough.  Recall that one of the first and most potent rhetorical bulls eyes scored by opponents of the law was to circulate the absolute fiction that President Obama’s health care reform would institute “death panels.”  Sarah Palin decried the “downright evil”of the entire health care law, asserting that the elderly would have to appear before a “death panel so [President Obama's] bureaucrats can decide … whether they are worthy of health care.

In fact (if facts still matter in an age of truthiness and thinking from your gut), what the offending provisions (a mere 10 pages out of a 1,000-page bill) would have done (and they were stripped from the bill before it reached the President’s desk) was to reimburse doctors for sitting down and talking to their elderly patients, every five years, about their wishes for end of life care.  These “advanced care planning consultations” were not about faceless bureaucrats coercing helpless Granny and Gramps onto the iceberg.  They were about giving elderly people some kind of agency about their own end of life care.  And yes, the consultations and reimbursement structure were also, as Jill Casid points out in a forthcoming essay, about “put[ting] at center stage the reassuring prospect of the doctor with a better bedside manner, even as this traditional image of doctor re-dressed as empathetic performer also works to keep off-scene the larger and less easily salved problematics of care under the austerity state and within the ostensibly new immaterial economics of sensations and affects.”

These new economics are only ostensibly immaterial, because behind the scene of the medicalized deathbed stands an array of workers, some paid (barely), some not, whose affective and material labor, Casid stresses, carries and cares loved ones as well as strangers to their death.  The slow and living deaths enforced both by the withdrawal of state care and by the imperative to choose life at all cost (especially when the state passes the cost on to others) blocks possibilities for imagining and enacting the good death, the dignified death.

Halberstam’s discussion of queer negativity and the inevitability of failures, large and small, is thus in important conversation with the still unfolding queer work on precarity by scholars like Jasbir Puar, Lauren Berlant, Judith Butler, Martin Manalansan, Casid, and others.  The art of losing, to return to Bishop’s poem and to borrow from Casid again, also entails the art of “letting go and being let go” (Casid).

To Halberstam’s archive of the queer art of failure I accordingly want to add—and I think he is explicitly inviting us to continue making a necessarily incomplete and “failed” archive—New York-based artist Young Jean Lee’s hilariously harrowing shout-out to death in her 2011 performance piece cum cabaret “We’re Gonna Die.”  The piece was developed and performed with her goofy band of male hipsters Future Wife. You can watch the entire performance on line at Lee’s website; I especially recommend fast forwarding to the rousing final number, the song “I’m Gonna Die.”  Start the video at the 39:50 mark and listen to the way Lee sets up the song.  The song transforms from being a solo number into a goofy and barely synchronized group dance.  Watch it all the way through, and behold the awkward, silly, and plain beautiful propping of one body upon another as Lee and her band show us how luminous and vital failure can be.

Young Jean Lee & Future Wife at Joe’s Pub

Sometimes the best way not to fail or—more to the point—the best way to fail well is to know when to quit.

Let’s Pretend that Everyone’s Dead

By Tavia Nyong’o

I wasn’t on the panel, but from where I stood in the standing-room only audience, queer failure was a contagious idea, drawing more people to listen and react to it than I have seen attend an academic talk in awhile. Perhaps this was because, as Lisa noted to me afterward, and as the above posts make clear, the tone of the evening was decidedly open and unstuffy; we were in but not of the university.

Precarity has gone from an exotic European theoretical import to a recognized identity for politically self-conscious American twentysomethings. The queer art of failure — with its use and abuse of library privileges, its creative mishandling of high and low theory, its predilection for fierce polemic of the “shit is fucked up and bullshit” variety, and its antisentimental refusals of equality and rights politics — is precarity with a twist, a flagrantly homosexual skill-set for when you are strapped to the roof of a society quickly careening off the edge.


In Q&A the question was raised whether the tenured professoriat should be extolling failure. The query is pertinent, but mostly as a means to clarify that failure is not something to be aspired to. The queer art of failure is not success on opposite day. Indeed, Jack’s book is positioned alongside other recent feminist broadsides including Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-sided, books that detect an air a pervasive contempt for failure around our self-help, self-improvement, and positive thinking gurus. Professors, insofar as we are thought to recuse ourselves from the rigors of the market and the blandishments of God’s, can be seen as just another variety of failure, in society’s terms. So it is less a question of choosing failure than choosing what to do with the failure that has chosen us.

Jack partly agrees with the abuse heaped on professors, insofar as he points out the only rationale for the protections of academic freedoms are to take risks, including the risk of failure. The unpalatable alternative is to let queer studies settle into a secure set of theoretical protocols that obtain what political relevance they claim from the rapidly receding moment of its emergence. Much as queer theory destabilized the lesbian and gay studies that preceded it (albeit destabilizing it in such a way that intersected with a brief publishing boom) it in turn needs to be destabilized in content, form, and location. By this I mean to second the calls made above to see queer critique take on new topics and methods (although I’d like to keep formalist methods and literary topics among them), to experiment with new forms of dissemination (like that meme and this blog but also ideas and arguments posted to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and, hopefully someday, their open source non-profit alternatives), and to relocate the practice of queer criticism inside and outside the academy, and across the Global North/South divide.

Queer studies is, as Jasbir Puar asserts, an assemblage. And while Deleuze’s original conception of that term holds a sense of overall effectivity, I like the shambolic connotations of the English translation. An assemblage (unlike, for instance, an assembly) is a sort of mess, easily dismissed as a failed attempt at streamlined coherence. Even this overlong, multi-authored blog entry, with its unnecessary, repetitious and excessive conclusion by me, is kind of a shambles.

With the image of assemblage as a shambles in mind, let me stumble towards my conclusion by evoking the punk spirit that animates many of us, and that also resonates in some respects with the insurrections and occupations that have pockmarked the face of our new Gilded Age. Punk is obviously aligned with failure, art, and a certain alternative conception of the future that begins (but does not end) with the performative utterance “No future for you!” What comes after that realization cannot be prescribed in any single vision, but I find one clue in punk film auteur Bruce La Bruce’s recent zombie flick Otto: Or, Up with Dead People. I find it specifically in the films rollicking theme song, “Everyone’s Dead” by the Homophones (performed below “live” as an even more laconic shambles than in the version in the film):

The Homophones have a thing or two to teach us about life after the death of queer theory as we knew it. Sure, their anthem — “There’s no one around, except the policeman in our head” — extols a certain romantic conception of gay male public sex and cruising that might not exactly measure up to the pervasive reality of surveillance and privatized “public” space today. After all, we live in a moment where even an app transparently designed to assist anonymous hook ups has to pretend it is about anything but sex. But it is precisely in the midst of this depressing and dystopian present that the homophonic power of a negative assertion — “let’s pretend that everyone’s dead” — is a necessary hammer in the toolkit for making what José is calling a punk rock commons. In drumming out the policeman in our heads we also hear the creaking sounds and shambling swerves of the queer zombie, that is to say the de-zombified zombie, the zombie quickened by the silly, and somewhat disgusting literalization of same-sex sex as embodying the death drive. But if the future is kid stuff, then the zombie precariat doesn’t so much disavow as disembowel it, and play in its entrails. Swing sets and lollipops and very unsafe sex acts combine to form a queer assemblage indeed, one that sets the art of failure to a tune that might just prove infectious.

Riots and Occupations: The Fall of the US and the Rise of The Politics of Refusal

19 Oct

BY JAYNA BROWN AND JACK HALBERSTAM

If there was an Arab Spring, it has been followed by a US Fall, not simply an autumn of increased political protest and widespread dissatisfactions but also literally, the fall of the US. When some demonstrators decided to sit down on Sept. 17 in Zucotti Park to protest corporate greed and the continued looting of US working people by investors and bankers, a certain North American propensity for indifference, ignorance, obedience was punctuated at last by a multi-racial alliance against a ruling class that sometime around the mid-90’s began its latest assault on global peace and domestic shared prosperity. In this spliced parallel conversation, Jayna Brown and Jack Halberstam exchange ideas about the London Riots, Occupy Wall Street/Occupy LA, Anarchy, uprisings, looting and the folly of Zizek.

JAYNA BROWN (JB): 

August of this year there were a few days of looting, burning and general chaos in London. These events, as with previous upheavals, were called ‘riots’ in Britain, but here in the US,  Left wing commentators  tried to use other terms like rebellion or insurrection. But thinking about these riots, Brixton and Handsworth in 1981, Broadwater Farm in 1985, and the banlieus of France in 2005, I’ve taken to actually preferring the term “riot” after all. It is bleak, it understands what it means to live in conditions of permanent and violent oppression. After all, ask any black person, “No Future” was not a sentiment first articulated by Sid Vicious!

(Handsworth Songs, part 1):  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L3jPGI3uIWQ

The term ‘riot’ provokes something different than the more euphemistic and hopeful ‘uprising’ or ‘insurrection’, both of which capture the spirit of irrepressible resistance, but seem to me infer the eventual need for centralized political and tactical organization and carry with them a nascent militarism. What I embrace about the term riot in our current moment is that it points away from a politics of resistance to a politics of refusal. The boys in the streets refused to behave, or even to complain properly. They were not demanding the state fulfill its promises or mend its ways, for riots are not about state recognition or redress, in fact they refuse a dialogue of any kind with authority.

The boys (and girls?) also refused to shop properly, gleefully looting everything from H&M to consumer electronics stores, sorting out goods in the back gardens of neighboring houses. And, as the Situationist Guy Debord observed following the Watts Riots in 1965, “Looting is a natural response to an unnatural and inhuman society of commodity abundance. It…exposes what the commodity ultimately implies: the army, the police and the other specialized detachments of the state’s monopoly of armed violence.www.mara-stream.org/think-tank/guy-debord-the-decline-and-fall-of-the-spectacle-commodity-economy/

These were not, as Zygmunt Bauman described them, “defective and disqualified consumers,” gratifying a “longing” to be part of the system, but snatchers, defying the terms of appropriate accumulation. (Zygmunt Bauman, On Consumerism Coming Home to Roost) http://www.social-europe.eu/2011/08/the-london-riots-on-consumerism-coming-home-to-roost/

JACK HALBERSTAM (JH): 

New theorizations of political protest emerged after the riots in the French banlieu in 2005, and took the form of a pamphlet called The Coming Insurrection authored by an anonymous group called The Invisible Committee. In The Coming Insurrection, the group dissected the revolts that had just happened and mused about revolts still to come. They blamed the collapse of the global economy for the revolts and suggested that “the economy is not the CAUSE of the crisis, it IS the crisis.” They critiqued conventional forms of political protest and called for wide recognition that everything must change – that everything has changed and that work, social life, the economy, aspiration, hopes, dreams, melancholia are all ready to be reinvented through new relations between people and between people and institutions. They also named political domination as less a logic or a set of actions and as more of a “rhythm that imposes itself, a way of dispensing reality.” To offset the rhythm of domination then we need, they said, an insurrection that gathers form after it flares up and resonates: “it takes the shape of a music, whose focal points, though dispersed in time and space, succeed in imposing the rhythm of their own vibrations…”

It is this model of political (in)action that manifests in the riots of London and the occupations in US cities – a set of vibrations rumble through urban zones and gathering force they emerge in a blast of sound.

The exhaustion of conventional forms of protest has left people with a few different options out of which to craft a viable, dynamic and show-stopping movement: people can riot and literally block up the city; and, they can loot in the aftermath of the riot as a way of taking back the wealth that has been stolen from them; people can exchange information on facebook, twitter and other social networking sites and find new ways of flooding the media with our discontent; finally, people can simply “be there,” show up, show off, refuse to leave.

And while commentators like Slavoj Zizek in his piece titled – “Shoplifters of the World Unite” – http://www.lrb.co.uk/2011/08/19/slavoj-zizek/shoplifters-of-the-world-unite – have criticized the London riots and the looting that followed for “expressing Zero-degree protest,” it is more likely that the message is clear and loud, but Zizek, saddled as he is with his nostalgia for a more binary mode of leftist politics, cannot hear it.  “The UK rioters had no message to deliver” he said. And it is true, the rioters, like the OWS movements around the country, have no succinct and unitary message to deliver: instead they speak in a babble of voices all rising in volume and intensity to say “no.”

JB: 

The riots in London have been referred to repeatedly as “pure anarchy” in the conservative British press (Michael Nakan). Anarchy is a perfect term in fact because itis always in process: anarchy depends on improvisation, and creates fluid decentralized forms of organization. It is against not just economic exploitation, as with Marxism, but of all forms of domination. “Anarchy is not society without rules — it’s society without rulers,” writes Thomas L. Knapp at the Center for a Stateless Society, “If true anarchy is present in the riots, and I believe it is, it’s to be found in ad hoc mutual aid societies springing up in affected neighborhoods.”  This is an exciting idea, as it gestures to the ways disenfranchised communities, especially black people, already live in alternative relationship to the state, embrace anti-state practices, and engage in creative forms of cooperation.

JH: Are the Occupy Wall Street/Boston/Los Angeles movements participating in a new mode of political protest, one more closely aligned to anarchism than to conventional leftist protest politics? Are they truly multi-racial or do we find a split between racialized rioters in London and Paris and white protestersin the US? Can we find new forms of revolt registering in the lack of a list of demands, the mode of occupation and the preference for general assemblies and no leaders? Is the “human microphone” technique of amplification a brilliant metaphor for the multitude or a sign of the propensity for consensus politics to weed out eccentricities while centering pragmatic and “reasonable” statements? The markers of this new form of politics are the lack of a clear agenda or list of demands and the strong presence of a clear belief in the rightness of the cause. In other words, the occupation groups do not need an agenda, their pain and their presence isthe agenda. They do not want to present a manifesto, they actually are themselves the manifestation of discontent. The 99%’ers simply show up, take up space, make noise, witness. This is a form of political response that does not announce itself as politics, instead it enters quietly into the public sphere, sits down and refuses to leave.
JB:  On October 17, we celebrated one month of the Wall Street occupation. Like the riots, its decentralized organization, its refusal of spokespeople or leaders, suggest a movement that is as Jack says, “more closely aligned to anarchism” than any traditional Leftist models. But this is about as far away on the ground as you can get from a riot. Visiting the LA branch of the occupation, I was struck by how calm and orderly everything was. People were lounging around, reading, silk screening t-shirts. There are sign-up boards for volunteers, even a library. I was fine until the band started up with warmed over Woody Guthrie songs, and the Oathkeepers tried to hand me a leaflet.Despite the few brown and black faces amongst the crowd, there is a divide, most of those disproportionately affected by the vagaries of global capital are not here. And btw, who is this poster meant to speak to, exactly?

A frail, pale ballerina, en pointe atop a raging bull, my god, Adbusters, you couldn’t get much whiter).

Apart from Cornel West’s performance, perhaps we should remember that there is a lot more at stake for black people in getting surveilled and/or arrested, considering the history of blood and terror that has accompanied black protest. Julianne Malvaux says that black people are generally more concerned with concrete causes, such as the execution of Troy Davis and other cases of police brutality than an abstract, general protest of the financial system. But this sounds condescending to me. No doubt black people are more than aware of the larger picture, yet not that interested in joining in the somewhat smug, and grubby, Woodstock of it all.

Perhaps the disproportionate absence of people of color also speaks to their very different relationship to money and the financial system, one that is much less intimate, less expectant and less entitled than most white people’s. For African Americans, as Greg Tate writes in his “Ten Reasons Why So Few Black Folk Appear Down to Occupy Wall Street,” it’s “no newsflash here” that elites will sell you (out). Yet I often lament the deep grain of economic and social conservatism in my communities as well. The last era of black conservatism substituted the financial success of a few for actual social change.

JH: While pundits and mainstream media puzzle over the Occupy Wall Street/LA movements and wonder about what they want and about whether the whole thing is just a side-show to some “real political movement” still to come, the occupiers, many of whom are now without occupations, are standing witness to the crime of the millennium: while we were all sleeping in homes we could not afford, the investors and brokers were draining the bank accounts of the professional class and sending the service classes into ruin and onto the street; they then recruited the government to the role of lookout and getaway driver while the Goldman Sachs Harvard graduate coolly wandered through the digital vaults of the nation’s banks and investment firms, pocketing the cash as he goes and called his activity “work.” When poor people rob banks they get life imprisonment, when Harvard grads do it, they get bonuses.

There is no doubt that the riots in London and the new Occupation movements are filled with opportunists as well as sincere activists, drunks as well as revolutionaries, people who want new goods as well as people who want to break down the structures of capitalist greed. But there is also no doubt that after the occupations have dispersed and the parks have been cleaned, the rhythm will continue, the vibrations will spread, the song will rise and the message will be, will always have been, the noise of many voices not speaking as one but speaking all at once the language of refusal.



The Summer of Raunch

16 Jul

By Jack Halberstam

Did anyone else notice how comedies, I hesitate to call them “romantic,” let’s say “sex comedies,” have become absolutely pornographic nowadays? And I don’t really mean pornographic in a good way, as in “no holds barred, sexy, fun, overturn a few taboos and have a good laugh” pornographic. I mean teenage boy, obsessive dick humor with fart jokes, erection jokes, shit jokes and period jokes thrown in for good measure. While critics and bloggers are celebrating the new “bra-mances,” the female equivalents to the bro-mances that received a boost this summer with Bridesmaids and Bad Teacher, the bra-mances are as low as the bromances when it comes to sexual humor. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not mounting a prudish objection to low, low-w-w-w, humor in general, I was as amused as the next dude by the penis sight gags in Austin Powers, the off-color jokes of Borat (“I want to have a car that attract a woman with shave down below”), even the hair-gel scene in Something about Mary tickled my fancy. But, in the genre of sex comedies, a little bit a raunch goes a long, long way. Nowadays, we have graduated from a few nudge nudge wink winks with a bit of how’s your father to a lot of fingering, blow jobs, cock rubbing and ball licking!

No doubt the Judd Apatow comedies are in part to blame for the new raunch and for the rise of the nerd as sex god. But there was something very sweet (if unbelievable) about 40 Year Old Virgin and at least in Superbad the adolescent humor belonged to adolescents rather than 40 year old men.  But Apatow is definitely to blame for opening the floodgates from subtle sexual innuendo to all out porno-comedy.

The new sex comedies are formulaic in every way (not in and of itself a bad thing) and they build on character archetypes, broad raunchy humor, bad guys and worse guys, bad girls and clueless girls, lots of drugs and alcohol and some kind of far-fetched scenario (guys wake up in Vegas with a tiger in the room; guys try to kill their bosses; girls try to engage in some female bonding; father in law inadvertently take a super-viagra drug etc. etc.) that allows everyone to engage in lots of extra-marital, perverse and often homo-sex before everything returns to normal again.

Every film in this genre has to build to a “laugh until you cry scene” that provides a payoff for the cycle of gross, porno jokes. These scenes have to be way over the top – they consist of envelope pushing scenarios in an extended play format, replete with bodily fluids and long gross-out sequences. Think of the nude wrestling scene from Borat as the quintessential “laugh until you cry” scene. And then look at its counterpart in Bridesmaids, which strove to be the mother of all gross-out scenes and but maybe went over the top at going over the top. In Bridesmaids, the gross-out scene played with the tropes of disordered female embodiment in general, and focused therefore on food, on binging and purging and with a kind of involuntary bulimia – following an ill-advised dinner for their hen night, the bridesmaids head for a dress fitting and in the pristine chamber of virginal white gowns, they, one by one, throw up and shit uncontrollably in the grips of mass food poisoning. While audiences busted a gut at these scenes of digestive mayhem, for me they were beyond grotesque and humiliating to boot. While there was lots to laugh at in Bridesmaids, this scene did not deliver for me on a comic level.

And of course, as some critics have already commented, the bra-mance is not exactly leveling the playing field of hetero-sex comedy. While the bromance is all about the bros being bros with their hos and not with their whiny wives, the bramance is also all about the bros – the ladies all talk about guys, whine about them, bitch about not getting laid, bitch about how they get laid and mostly, they bitch about each other. The bromance allows the guys to snuggle up together while figuring out how to get out of whatever dilemma confronts them. The bramance provides a stage for bride wars, for out and out girl hates girl battles with a few romantic interludes thrown in for good measure. Which is not to say that some of the bramances are not very, very funny; just that the humor continues to come at the expense of women and not men. And of course, as per usual, there is plenty of off-color humor in these films in the form of racial stereotyping (see the Jamie Foxx character in Horrible Bosses or the Asian gay hysteric in The Hangover) all of which adds to a kind of post-political correctness expression of gloves-off white male anger and disappointment.

So, in case you think I am being too easily shocked by the new raunch, here are a few lines from recent sex comedies:

Guy to friend: “you know what the best part about having gay dads is?

Friend: “What?”

Guy: “They are never gonna eat out my ex-girlfriends?”

Friend: “You and your dad are tunnel buddies, huh?”

Or…

Woman to Guy she is having sex with: “Your balls are so smooth…!”

Guy to Woman he is having sex with: “Cup my balls…oh yeah!”

Guy to Woman: “I made you this to help sooth your womb” – hands her a CD

Woman: “It’s a mix…Even Flow, Red Red Wine!”

Friend: “Sunday, Bloody Sunday.”

Woman: “You made me…a period mix?”

Friend: “That’s so romantic.”

Woman: “I am gonna suck your dick like I am mad at it!”

Guy: “I am gonna rock your vagina.”

Father in law to son in law: “Focker, there is no way I’m going into an ER room with this thing. Now you need to stick me and you need to stick me now! I’m having a dick attack! Stick me!” (Son in law sticks a needle into his father in law’s erect penis while watched by his 7 year old son who has come to see what is going on!)

It is not just that the material is crude and made for youporn, it is also that these new sex comedies imagine men as the victims of unwanted sexual attention from voracious women. And so, Jennifer Aniston recently played a sexual harasser in Horrible Bosses (“Come on, slap my face with your cock!”). Melissa McCarthy played a butch sexual harasser of men in Bridesmaids (“I’m glad he’s single because I am going to climb that like a tree.”) And when they are not playing sexual harassers, very hot women in sex comedies are begging for sex “with no strings attached” or playing “bad teachers” and begging for sex or being flattered into a quick hook up by guys who feed them outrageously flat lines like: “Are you a model?” It is as if we have gone through the looking glass here from a world where a wardrobe malfunction led to massive national paroxysms of outrage and horror to a world where a wardrobe malfunction will humorously lead to a lots of boob shots, a quick blow job followed by some anal and a few jokes about poop shoots.

These films raise a lot of questions for me: have we gone too far? Are they funny? Do heterosexual people really talk like this on a regular basis (“your balls are so smooth!” really? “I am gonna rock your vagina!” Vagina?? “I’ve made you a period mix…” Awesome)? Is Hollywood, in a last ditch effort to reach the much desired 15-25 year old males group, manning its script writing sessions with 15-25 year old males? While the gays are getting married, singing duets to each other on Glee and other mainstream TV shows, the straights are telling each other about how they want to “hit that,” and dumping marriage for some lost weekends with foul-mouthed sluts. It’s a topsy turvy world and while I am all for some raunch, for lots of raunch even, is it too much to ask something be left to the imagination?

CESA 2011: Critical Ethnic Studies and the Future of Genocide: Settler Colonialism/Heteropatriarchy/White Supremacy: A Major Conference UC Riverside, March 10-12, 2011

20 Mar

Anatomy of an Anti-Disciplinary Riot

By Jack Halberstam

1. Des(s)ert Of The Heart


This past weekend in Riverside California, with little edible food close at hand and desert winds blowing in from the East, some 1500 people gathered to scavenge for food, look for shade and discuss new intellectual and political formations loosely associated with a “Critical Ethnic Studies.” While the grumbling began before the conference about whether there was such a thing as an “uncritical” Ethnic Studies and whether this was perhaps just an oedipal uprising of the new against the old, the conference itself showcased a wide variety of work from scholars young and less young and certainly offered up multiple models of new disciplinary forms and new paths to follow without discarding all that had come before. Some people also found food at notable local haunts with wistful names like The Salted Pig, Phood on Main and Subway Sandwiches.

2. High Heels, Long Drop

The grumbling after the conference, the post mortem of an anti-disciplinary riot if you will and even if you won’t, seems mainly to have focused upon the endurance aspect of the meeting – the dawn til dusk scheduling, the 2 hour long plenaries, the uncomfortable seating, and the conference fashion trend of very high heels, worn by women type people as well as men type people this not being a queer conference after all – but also, predictably, about the star power of the plenary sessions and the divisions between academics from prestigious institutions and those from community colleges, the ethnic diversity of the speakers and the aforementioned shoe choices.

3. Can The Sub-Lectern Speak?

The plenary sessions consisted of 5 or 6 speakers, all of whom were asked to speak for 15-19 minutes each, and, on every plenary, after the last speaker finished, whether with a whimper or a bang, the event was over. In other words, there was no Q and A, no discussion and no opportunity for people who had been sitting and listening for over 2 hours to speak back to the panel. With audiences of 800 plus people, perhaps Q and A was inevitably a doomed enterprise to begin with – would the questioners just be drawn from that odd genre of people who use the Q&A mike as a place to give their own mini lectures? Would the size of the audience intimidate the more interesting respondents? Would Q&A quickly degenerate into a cataloguing of what was missing from the plenary panel? Would anyone get a word in edgeways once the question had been posed and the panelists all rushed to answer it? We will never know the answers to these questions, or others like them such as how does Ken Wissoker seem to manage to tweet your talk even before your give it?

Conference attendees Melissa White and Dan Irving, who traveled from Ottawa to be at the conference, had strong feelings about the plenary events: “the forming of an alternative “we” within the Academic Industrial Complex,” they write, “was compromised significantly by the way that the plenaries were organized” with no opportunity for the give and take of exchange through Q&A sessions. They continue: “This complicity with the good old fashioned neoliberal notions of professional expertise and entrepreneurial “risk”-taking—or alternatively, perhaps, Revolutionary Vanguardism Part Two (everyone knows the sequel is never that good)—was in stark contradiction the spirit of social justice, radical democracy and queer disruptions of business as usual that we thought this conference was supposed to facilitate.” Others, however, felt differently and thought that the plenaries were a real draw and that everyone, for once, seemed prepared and took the event very seriously.

4. Provocations, Manifestos, Questions

Despite all the complaints about the “star system” that circulated before and after the conference, undoubtedly many people showed up for it precisely because it was jam-packed with people doing notable work, on and off the plenary panels. Some of the speakers on the plenary panels used their time to issue provocations and to try to shake us out of the complacency that universities, conferences and academia in general produces in abundance. For my own contribution to this “major” conference, I offered up a short manifesto drawn from the insights and writings of others and amplifying the calls I found there for socially relevant, intellectually electrifying and disciplinarily defiant work. My manifesto ran through The Coming Insurrection, “The University and the Undercommons” (Moten and Harney), Ranciere, Da Silva, Lindon Barrett and The Fantastic Mr. Fox in that order and concluded by seeking insurrectionist possibilities in the whimsy of stop-motion cinema and its foregounding of the wild, the unthinkable and the fantastic. Given that I had to give my talk moments after the audience gave a collective groan at the announcement by Jodi Kim (in crazy heels) that Angela Davis was sick and could not make it, the manifesto went over ok. My talk was followed by brilliance from Denise Da Silva herself (author of the immensely influential Toward A Global Idea of Race), more provocation from Sarita See on the corporate university and a warning about environmental degradation, misuse of the land and issues around sovereignty from Dakota scholar and Indigenous studies professor Waziyatawin.

Several plenary speakers tried to speak to the insurrections in the Middle East and both Lisa Hajar and Nadine Naber used powerful and controversial images to call our attention to the impact of US backed wars in the Middle East, and to the violence in Gaza, Egypt and Lebanon. Hajar focused on torture in her plenary and Naber tried to bring some formulations from contemporary queer theory to bear upon activism by queer Arab groups. There was much discussion after each presentation about whether it was ethical to leave up disturbing images of violated bodies as backdrop to a lecture.

Some of the plenaries were very coherent – the queer plenary for example, and the plenary on Settler Colonialism and White Supremacy – and others were more disjointed. The queer plenary was a kind of love fest at the start, with each speaker on the panel (Ferguson, Gopinath, Camacho, Naber, Munoz, Cohen) receiving a fabulous introduction by Jayna Brown followed noisy and boisterous applause. The event at that point felt more like an episode of American Idol than anything and the speakers did not disappoint, each one singing their favorite song while looking poised and fabulous.

It was Jose Esteban Munoz, however, bullyblogger and bull dogowner extraordinaire, who had to ask the question that was on the tip of everyone’s tongue but that remained unspoken until now, half way through this marathon conference: as he rounded the corner from a brilliant critique of the much-cited argument byWendy Brown from States of Injury about wounded attachment (resentment, ressentiment and wounded attachments had also received a blistering critique from Glen Coulthard earlier in the day), Munoz began a gentle appraisal of the rise and fall of performance artist Nao Bustamente in her recent participation on Bravo TV’s “Work of Art” reality show. He paused for a moment and then dropped the bomb: “What do you wear to “The Future of Genocide”? The conference attendees held their collective breath and then moved from nervous laughter to applause. Tweeters grabbed the question, held on for dear life and then gave a range of answers to this sartorial conundrum, many focused upon Jody Kim and Jayna Brown and their shoes.

Other highlights from the plenaries included: Andrea Smith’s blistering indictment of the attempt to eliminate Ethnic Studies in Arizona – Smith reminded us that Ethnic Studies is what we are and what we do and cannot be “eliminated” by any legislation; Lisa Lowe’s elegant formulations of new genealogies for a Critical Ethnic Studies (Benjamin, Fanon, Sylvia Wynter); Dean Spade’s insightful remarks on transgender issues, neo-liberalism and white supremacy; Laura Pulido’s brave exposure of USC’s attempt to dismantle American Studies and Ethnicity and, last but not least, Dylan Rodriguez’s moving round-up of the event on the last day, the last plenary – his impassioned plea to look beyond the rhetoric of inclusion and agreement, his evocation of intellectual ancestry and his call for dissensus and collectivity through difference.

And the brilliance, needless to say, was not at all exhausted by the plenary presentations: notable panels included a discussion of Critical Ethnic Studies in relation to activism in Detroit with Shana Redmond, Sarah Haley and Stephanie Greenlea; lots of panels on the Occupation of Palestine; workshops on Prison Abolition; LGBT Politics and Deterritorialization; a powerful discussion of “Racial Neoliberalism, Necropolitics and the Question of Violence” featuring Grace Hong, Chandan Reddy and Jodi Melamed; an intriguing panel on “Mobility, Settlement, Belonging and Coloniality” featuring a powerful presentation by Katherine McKittrick on racial geographies and a controversial paper by Nandita Sharma that raised the question of whether the rubric of “settler colonialism” flattens out distinctions between different kinds of migrants and whether indigeneity might sometimes be a site for the production of racial antagonism.

On Saturday, there was an exciting panel on “Culture, “Racisms and War” featuring Paul Amar (who has blogged around the world about the Egyptian revolutions) on Brazil, Macarena Gomez-Barris on the Mapuché struggles in Chile and Jayna Brown on violence and Black diasporic creative resilience. Environmentalism, youth, the academic industrial complex and the histories of radical movements rounded out the packed agenda.

5. The Afterparty


So, you kinda get a sense here of how big this conference was, how wide its range and how ambitious its scope. What you cannot know is how hard everyone worked to make it happen, how stressed the plenary speakers were given the stakes of the event, how uncomfortable it was to sit for so long in a gym and how much energy the conference generated even as it left people tired and hungry by its end. As the conference attendees drift back to life as usual in places far from this hub of suburban mini-malls, the question of “what now” still hangs in the air – what forms of intellectual mayhem can stall the corporate university’s emphasis on profit? What can renegade knowledge forms tell us about prisons, settler colonialism, white supremacy? Are these the most useful categories with which to confront the challenges of our historical moment? What are the relations now between knowledge and power? And, of course, the still unanswered question, from now on to be known as the “Munoz Paradox,” “What does one wear to the future of genocide?” (Tweet this kwissoker!)

The Bully Awards, 2010

15 Feb

And the Bully Goes To…2nd Annual Bully Awards

by Jack Halberstam

Yes folks, it really is that time again. It is time for the second annual Bully Awards for the best and worst in motion pictures for the past year. I know there has been a lot happening in the world recently, what with so much commotion and upheaval, so many upsets and ousted leaders…and that was just at the Grammy’s. But now that Gaga is out of her egg, Mick Jagger is out of his retirement home and Justin Bieber is out of short pants, let’s turn to an adult level awards show…the Oscars. This year, as you know, the sacred ceremony is to be hosted by Ann Hathaway and that learned English PhD scholar, James Franco. Yup, all around the country, English departments are congratulating themselves for being cool, for finally being the right discipline at the right time and for providing a home for aspirational actor/academics.

While this time last year, we were bemoaning apocalyptic pics (2012), bromances (I Love You Man!), gay films masquerading as straight films (A Single Man and Up in the Air) and chipmunks (Alvin and the…) this year we witness a return to the quote unquote smart film, talky pictures with lots to say – smart films about fast talking guys at Harvard changing the world (The Social Network), slow talking kings in the British Monarchy saving the world (The King’s Speech), chatty hiking nerds (127 Hours), mouthy fighters (The Fighter), garrulous toys (Toy Story 3), expressive dancers (Black Swan), hell we even had a film about conversational bourgeois lesbians (The Kids Are Alright) and an animated film about super intelligent beings (Megamind). All in all, the films this year were smart, dark, darker, and downright depressing.

While last year the mood was goofy (Brüno), mock serious (Avatar), mock goofy and chirpy (aforementioned Chipmunks), this year, there was little humor to leaven the slide into bankruptcy, chaos and death. Last year’s animated winner was Up, which pretty much summed up the overly optimistic late-decade predictions about the economy, this year’s sure thing is Toy Story 3, a dark film about redundant toys put out to pasture, abused old toys, sad Big Baby toys abandoned at birth, bitter toys that try to crush each other. Last year, James Cameron created a 3-D world in Avatar in which blue indigenous peoples crushed white imperial forces, this year David Fincher in Social Network created a virtual world in which pricks from Harvard fought over millions of dollars while bonking stupid girls and showing not an ounce of social responsibility. Last year Brüno stuck his fist up various arschholen on screen, this year James Franco in 127 Hours stuck his fist in a rock and could not get it out again. And just in case you thought it couldn’t get any worse, Javier Bardem, who two years earlier had won an Oscar for the deadpan depiction of a Latino serial killer of white people, this year in Inarritu’s Biutiful, dies a slow painful death from cancer while his ex wife goes crazy and his kids look on in horror. Oh and never let it be said that the English don’t know how to do misery – Another Year by Mike Leigh brilliantly depicts the breakdown of human sociality facilitated by the imperial domination of the intimate form popularly known as “the couple.”

Yup, it’s cold out there and getting colder. Even the comedies were dark in 2010 – did anyone see Cyrus? Whaaaat? Mumblecore my ass – this was Oedipus wrecks, a wretchedly weird film in which Marisa Tomei is romanced by the singularly unappealing John C. Reilly only to be thwarted in her sexual escapades when her twenty-something son expresses his Oedipal objections to the match. In a romantic comedy with few jokes, little romance and a massive incestuous “ick” factor, so little was appealing that the reviewers tried to rescue it by inventing a new genre to explain this and other navel-gazing not very funny rom-com, sex-with-mom, ho-hum films – mumblecore? No, I don’t think so, try Dumbocore – dumb films pretending to be smart films, but what these films really do is provide a justification for a new form of parasitical masculinity.

The Mumblecore films by the Duplass Brothers (Cyrus), Andrew Bujalski (Funny Ha Ha), but also inspired by Judd Apatow (Knocked Up) give this Mumbler guy meaning – yes, he may be a loser, may lack a job, a purpose in life, ambition, charm, likeable qualities, this may all be true, but Mumblecore imagines beautiful women throwing themselves at these men not despite their shortcomings but because of them. If there weren’t plenty of evidence in the real world for this phenomenon of smart women/ slacker men couplings, Mumblecore would be truly offensive. As it is, the films are depressingly accurate and we can expect many more of the same.

Well forget mumblers then, what about stutterers? The King’s Speech has won the hearts and minds of many an anti-monarchist on account of its whimsy, its humanization of the sovereign and the arch acting skills of one queenly Helena Bonham Carter. But is this really the right film for our times? Do we really need to cathect now, at this moment in history, on to a story about a soon to be monarch who has lost the confidence of his people and who allegorizes the faltering of sovereign power and then its recuperation on the verge of World War 2? Right now, as dictators begin to fall in Tunisia and Egypt, we cleave to a narrative of good monarchy, kind and gentle, frail and vulnerable monarchy; we apparently want the story of the good king, the sweet king who finds his voice and leads his people out of the darkness…plus, there is not a little hint of mumblecore/stuttercore here in the tale of male incompetence propped up by female ambition…

And speaking of female ambition…How about those Black Swans? Darren Aronsky gives ballet the same treatment he applied to wrestling in The Wrestler a few years ago. In both films, the protagonist sacrifices his/her body to the call of the discipline but Black Swan has the added, horror element of the toxic mother-daughter bond. Barbara Hershey plays a creepy Tiger mother to Natalie Portman’s anxious over-achieving daughter and the two drag each other down into the muck of estrogen fuelled competitive destruction. In fact this was the year of bad parenting as The Kids Are Alright, Toy Story 3, Megamind, Biutiful, Black Swan and Winter’s Bone proved; but at least heterosexual films about bad parenting actually admit that the whole enterprise is fucked and wrong. The lesbian bad parenting film had to try to salvage something good and meaningful from the failing family unit. Even Toy Story 3 had the decency to toss the bad parent, Lotso Bear, into the incinerator at the end. And at least Black Swan, for all its mother-daughter drama, had a tremendous lesbian sex scene between Portman and Mila Kunis.

Oh well, onto the predictions such as they are for the 2011 Bullies/Oscars:

Best Actress: I predict that everyone will want Annette Bening to win best actress despite her cringe-inducing, potentially career-ending improvised Joni Mitchell number in the lesbo-phobic The Kids Are Alright. But in the end, the historionics of Natalie Portman in the creepily awesome Black Swan will and should win. The Bully goes to Portman for going over the top and reminding us that inside every good girl is a black swan.

Best Actor: And while Javier Bardem should add another gold man to his collection, for his harrowing depiction of a dying, desperate man, this year our academy voters will go for heartwarming over heart stopping and the stuttering king, played by Colin Firth, will win best actor. But the Bully goes to James Franco for giving the best castration performance of the year – the gruesome amputation of a vital body part with a small knife was a perfect metaphor for the process of getting a PhD in English at Yale and no doubt his experience there really helped him with this role…

Best Director: Probably will go to David Fincher, The Social Network or Tom Hooper for The King’s Speech but who cares.

Best Animated Film: Of course, the best animated film Oscar will and should go to Toy Story 3, a dark parable about the dangers of aging in a world committed to the young, the new and the expendable. But keep in mind the wondrous lessons of How To Train Your Dragon and Megamind: namely, dragons are pretty nice actually, as are blue men with big heads, not to mention Vikings, but beware of heroes in tights, especially if they sound like Brad Pitt.

Worst Film of the Year: And the Bully goes too…well, it is a toss up actually. I really hated Sophia Coppola’s continued and extended meditation on male boredom inSomewhere. I disliked the durational shots of male fatigue, the quick takes on male inertia, the lingering shots of Stephen Dorff falling asleep during sex, during conversations, during life. But I also really hated Cyrus, not sure if you got that from my comments on it above. Both of these films are actually Mumblecore, although Dorff mumbles more than anyone in Cyrus. Yogi Bear and Furry Vengeance are of course in contention for this coveted award but with no mumblecore elements anywhere to be found they cannot seriously compete. Plus I did not see them… This bully (did you ever doubt it?) goes to Cyrus.

Best Film:  The Oscar will continue its love fest with the royals and give the award to The King’s Speech, I think. I could be wrong and it could go to The Social Network, for making Americans look smart at a moment when the education system goes belly up. But the truth is—Hollywood, are you listening?—talking fast does not equal intelligence! The worn out trope of the nerdy white guy dropping everything to rush off to his computer to type away at high speed while chatting at an even higher speed needs to be retired after this film. And by the way, the representation of Harvard as a world where smart chatty guys date dumb silent women returns us to Mumblecore but makes me think again about how much I preferred watching Franco self-amputate over Jesse Eisenberg self-pleasuring by writing code frantically.

No matter, the Bully goes to Never Let Me Go – the other British film of the year, which, along with Mike Leigh’s Another Year, eschews royals and high society in favor of the dirty little secrets of a British post-empire, post-life, post-war landscape. In this deeply affecting, flatly melancholic film, the eugenic imperative of neo-imperialism finds its fullest expression in the children who, like the toys in Toy Story 3, realize that they are expendable, that their organs will be harvested and that their “completion” represents the darkest conclusion to the dark ages we have now entered.

Runners Up: Four Lions – under appreciated British comedy about terrorism without Mumblecore story line; I Am Love – under appreciated Operatic Italian drama with Tilda Swinton mumbling in Italian about Oedipal love (Mumblecore Italian style?); Mother – Korean mumblecore; Red – Helen Mirren with a machine gun, say no more – the right response to mumblecore…

Justifiable Matricide: Backlashing Faludi By Jack Halberstam

19 Oct

The front page of Harper’s October 2010 issue says it all: “American Electra: Feminism’s Ritual Matricide” by Susan Faludi. http://www.harpers.org/archive/2010/10/0083140

Apparently, according to Faludi, American feminism has a mother-daughter problem: daughters keep fighting with mothers, mothers keep undercutting daughters, and this, ladies and gentlemen and everyone else, is the real reason that feminism never quite gets its revolutionary interventions right! Trotting through some rather predictable and tame histories of feminism (first, second, third waves; sex wars; women’s suffrage; temperance movements; Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her daughter Harriet Stanton Blatch as founding mothers; the Miss American Beauty pageant of 1968 etc.), Susan Faludi remarkably, ends up somewhere in the vicinity of our contemporary moment and winds down to a drearily pessimistic conclusion—feminism is dead, we killed it—and punctuates this sad insight with a kind of amusing send up of yours truly, bullyblogger and professor, Jack Halberstam! Well, I have kept my weapon in its holster until now but upon receiving a few emails wondering what I thought of the Faludi piece, I thought I would respond with a bit of matricidal anger – actually, though, Faludi, though she may sound like your grandmother, is actually my age, so I guess this is sibling rivalry if one must stick to familiar metaphors…

How did I come to be the bad guy in “feminism’s ritual matricide”? Well, after drifting around various feminist venues like a NOW convention for example, Faludi ended up at a conference at the New School where both she and I were speaking. The conference, “No Longer In Exile” consisted of huge panels (sometimes with 8 or 9 speakers), a couple of on point presentations (by Ann Stoler, Nancy Fraser, Val Smith and others), and a lot of slightly random talks which failed to add up to any kind of state of the union event on feminism. Susan Faludi spoke on the mother-daughter dynamic and how it undermines feminism but I honestly cannot remember much of what she said other than that she seemed to have missed several generations of theoretical works by feminist theorists. She clearly felt no need to comment on the instability of gender norms, the precarious condition of the family itself nor upon the many challenges made to generational logics within a recent wave of queer theory on temporality. Instead, as I recall and as she does in this article, Faludi cast conflict in the mother-daughter bond as transhistorical, transcultural, universal and she situated its toxicity as the reason for internal rifts in the feminist project. She never once mentioned Freud or the Oedipal, she did not differentiate by class or race, she made no mention of queer challenges to the normativity of the family and of generational thinking. Faludi had clearly missed all the other big feminist conferences in the last few decades on the theme of generationality and she thought the mother-daughter thing was big news when in fact feminists have moved on and are more likely to speak of rhizomatic schemes of association, assemblages, ruptures, and performativity than about passing the torch of knowledge from one generation to the next, from mother to daughter on into perpetuity.

The event at which Faludi and I appeared seemed loosely organized around questions about generationality, institutionalization and activist and theoretical legacies and it celebrated some institutional milestones at the New School, many pioneered by Ann Snitow, the conference organizer, herself. Like many such events, there were good talks, bad talks, indifferent talks – there was the obvious, the painfully obvious, and that was just the social science stuff…and so when I had my turn to speak, on one of the last panels of the day, I tried to mix it up a little, try a bit of humor, try a bit of provocation, make some comments about what we had heard and make a bridge to the many young people who were in attendance but seemed bored out of their skulls.

While Faludi characterizes me as a glib twit who proposed Lady Gaga as the answer to what ails feminism, I actually had tried to show that Lady Gaga’s duet with Beyoncé in “Telephone” provides an exciting and infectious model of Sapphic sisterhood that moves beyond sentimental models of romantic friendship and references a different kind of feminism, one more in line with the imaginary bonds that animate violence in Set It Off and Thelma and Louise

While no one is proposing that there is some kind of clear feminist program for social change in the world of Gaga, activists of all stripes have looked to popular culture for inspiration and have refused facile distinctions between culture and reality. The Gaga piece of my talk was just a humorous ending to a lecture that covered changing notions of gender, evolving models of institutional relevance and argued for an improvisational feminism that kept up with the winds of political change.

Why is Faludi so insistent on beating the dead horse of Oedipal conflict? First, Faludi seems to be stuck in a pre-1990’s understanding of feminism and moreover her world is a resolutely white world of middle-class women who just want the recognition they deserve. While very few academic feminists would characterize NOW as the bastion of contemporary feminist action and definition, Faludi is committed to a reform model of feminism, to the idea of feminism as a politics built around stable definitions of (white) womanhood and as a ladies club of influence and moral dignity. The mother-daughter bond, which for her is exemplified in the dynamic between Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her daughter Harriet, allows for the gains of one age to be passed on to the next. But never does Faludi question whether the gains of white women in one era actually benefit women of color in the next, or whether the goals of white middle class women reflect anything beyond their class interests.

Faludi’s blindness to race is on display in the Harper’s article in the section where she reports on a shift in leadership at NOW while attending their annual conference. As she herself puts it, the leading candidate for president of NOW at the annual meeting she attends is a young Black woman, Latifa Lyles who is a “charismatic speaker attuned to a youthful sensibility, a black woman who insisted on a more diverse constituency, a technologically savvy strategist who had doubled the organization’s Internet fund-raising and engaged the enthusiasm of a host of feminist bloggers.” Lyles’ opponent is Terry O’Neill, a fifties something old style feminist who embodies the frustrations and fears of a group of older white women who see younger feminists as ungrateful, apolitical and unresponsive to the generation who came before them. While Faludi implies that this presidential contest may have something to do with race, ultimately she seems to think that racial struggles always give way to generational rifts and when the young woman loses the election and charges that O’Neill had “recruited older Hillary Clinton turned-Sarah Palin supporters to throw the vote at the last minute,” Faludi quickly shifts the blame back onto Lyles and her supporters and implies that their lack of insight and the callous indifference to the concerns of older women had led to Lyles’ defeat.

Even though the defeat of Lyles is a filicide and not a matricide, suggesting that if generational struggle is the real problem with feminism then it goes both ways, Faludi doggedly pursues her thesis that “a generational breakdown underlies so many of the pathologies that have long disturbed American feminism.” Billing me, in the article’s final section, as the butch matricidal maniac who casually dismisses early models of feminism and then blithely offers up Lady Gaga in exchange, Faludi tidily but not very convincingly wraps up her vapid take on “ritual matricide” with an apocalyptic image of an older woman sitting in the emptied conference room wondering what happened to feminism. Depicting this woman as the last living feminist at the New School and characterizing her as “knowledgeable and enthusiastic about recent developments in critical feminist theory” (which is more than one can say for Faludi), but still rendered redundant by the recent moves against gender studies at The New School, Faludi gives the misleading impression that a) there are no gender studies professors at The New School and b) that the expulsion of this lone older woman was the main chapter in a story of institutional erasure. Anyone who has read Jacqui Alexander’s excellent chapter in Pedagogies of Crossing, however, about a coalition of faculty, staff, students and security guards who led a political protest at the New School in NYC in the mid 1990’s, knows that there have long been struggles at the New School about politics, practice and theory. Jacqui Alexander was at the heart of the mobilization to protest the contradictions between the New School’s rhetoric of diversity and its practice of creating and supporting structural inequalities. The decision made by the New School not to hire Alexander as permanent faculty after employing her as an adjunct professor sparked the creation of a protest movement and allowed the protesters to make structural and historical links between the New School’s employment practices in regards to service employees, its past history of radicalism and its current failed promises of diversity. These are precisely the connections that Faludi fails to investigate, probably does not know about, probably does not want to know about and with their omission, she is able to clear the ground of all distractions from the big event of the momma-daughter fight that bloodies the daughter, slays the mother and brings all of feminism down with it.

If I hadn’t taught work by Faludi in the past and found her insights into gender often illuminating, I wouldn’t be so annoyed by the complacency and myopia of this article in Harper’s. I did try to talk to Faludi at the end of the New School conference to explain why I thought the mother-daughter conflict was a red herring but she just takes one piece of this interaction (where we discuss rumors of Lady Gaga’s hermaphroditism) and leaves the rest (where we discuss the redundancy of familial metaphors, the chaos of all generational transmission and the need for better models of both change and consistency). Mainstream feminism deserves better spokespeople than it currently has  – the Camille Paglia’s and Susan Faludi’s, the over-paid, under-experienced phalanx of elite ladies to whom the press returns again and again. Honestly, if these are the contemporary “mothers” of feminism, then matricide might be justifiable.

The Artist Is Object – Marina Abramovic at MOMA

5 Apr

By Jack Halberstam

You walk up to the second floor of MOMA and find the centerpiece of Marina Abramovicz’s retrospective – a live durational performance piece titled “The Artist is Present” featuring Abramovicz herself sitting motionless at a table across from, well, whoever decides to sit down with her. When she first performed the piece in the 1970’s, it was with her then lover and collaborator Ulay (Uwe Laysiepen). But now instead of staring intently into the eyes of a trustworthy companion, Abramovicz stares down any and all comers. The day before I visited, a young woman had dressed up exactly like Abramowicz, in a long flowing blue dress, and she sat down across from the maestro in exactly the same position, determined to wait her out. The stare down lasted the whole day and the young woman, a performance artist herself, titled her piece “Anxiety of Influence.” Unlike an earlier male performance artist who had sat across from Abramovic and tried to distract her with various antics (he called his piece “The Other Artist Is Present,”) Anya Liftig’s “Anxiety of Influence” paid homage in kind rather than  trying to share the stage. See the interview with the artist here: http://bombsite.powweb.com/?p=8919

Abramovic’s works are shocking (risking death), moving (evoking tears and anger), irritating (literally in the sense of flesh rubbing on flesh as well as figuratively in the sense of different frames of reality grinding against each other), grating (as in set your teeth on edge): they are perhaps best appreciated through re-performance in the sense that it is difficult to apprehend the degree of difficulty of any given performance simply by hearing an account of it.  Many of her pieces are re-performed at MOMA for this special retrospective by students. Some hold their poses gracefully on crucifixes and against walls, others weep with effort, grimace, sweat, grin and bear it. What makes the pieces so difficult to perform and re-perform? Sometimes the source of agony is obvious: sitting naked on a saddle projected from a wall while holding a crucifix pose seems excruciating, but sitting back to back with a partner with whom one’s hair has been plaited, seems more like a study in patience than pain. And yet, it was the woman in the latter performance who was weeping and the woman in the former who looked cool and comfortable. One student re-performer lay naked under a skeleton (“Nude With Skeleton”) looking out at the gallery goers and occasionally catching someone’s eye, she too seemed composed. Was it the fact of being able to make eye contact that helped some performances feel bearable while others, a performance where you sit back to back for example, were about the shunning of contact and intimacy? Or, as in the central performance by Abramovic herself, was it the contact with another in a mode of alienated intimacy that was painful – looking but not looking, seeing but not seeing, connecting but not connecting? Abramovic is the artist of unbecoming. What is hard is the performance that discovers disconnection through an act that should be about connection.

For me, Marina Abramovicz’s work falls into a category of thought, performance and art that I call “shadow feminism.” In this genre, we find no “feminist subject” but only un-subjects who cannot speak, who refuse to speak; subjects who unravel, who refuse to cohere; subjects who refuse “being” where being has already been defined in terms of a self-activating, self-knowing, liberal subject. We find a feminism that stages a refusal to become woman and that locates this refusal deep in the heart of masochistic pain/pleasure dynamics?

With the notable exception of work by Linda Hart’s work on Fatal Women and Gayle Rubin’s early essays on S/M, power and feminism, masochism is an underused way of considering the relationship between self and other, self and technology, self and power in queer feminism. This is curious given how often performance art of the 1960’s and 1970’s presented extreme forms of self-punishment, discipline and evacuation in order to dramatize new relations between body, self and power. Freud referred to masochism as a form of femininity and as a kind of flirtation with death; masochism is in fact, he says, a byproduct of the unsuccessful repression of the death instinct to which a libidinal impulse has been attached. While the libido tends to ward off the death drive through a “will to power,” a desire for mastery and an externalization of erotic energy, sometimes, libidinal energies are given over to destabilization, unbecoming, and unraveling – this is what Leo Bersani refers to as “self-shattering,” a shadowy sexual impulse that most people would rather deny or sublimate –if taken seriously, unbecoming may have its political equivalent in an anarchic refusal of coherence and agency.

A remarkable amount of performance art—feminist and otherwise—from the 1960’s and 1970’s experimental scene explored this fertile ground of masochistic collapse. Faith Wilding’s performance piece, “Waiting,” charts the life narrative of women as a series of unfulfilled wishes, as anticipation without end and as suspended life. Chris Burden allowed himself to be shot in his performance piece “Shoot” from 1971. In 1974 in “Rhythm 0” Marina Abramovic invited her audience to use and abuse her with 72 objects she laid out on a table. Some objects could give pleasure, some inflict pain, the weapons included a gun and a single bullet. Abamovic had this to say after the performance: “The experience I learned was that…if you leave decision to the public, you can be killed…I felt really violated: they cut my clothes, stuck rose thorns in my stomach, one person aimed the gun at my head, and another took it away. It created an aggressive atmosphere.”  In 1965 at Carnegie Hall NYC, almost ten years earlier, Yoko Ono sat on a stage, fully dressed and gave her audience a pair of scissors. Yoko Ono’s nine minute long performance “Cut Piece” involves the artist sitting on stage while members of an audience come up and cut pieces of her clothing off. The act of cutting here is assigned to the audience rather than to the artist and the artist’s body becomes the canvas while the authorial gesture is dispersed across the nameless, sadistic gestures that disrobe Ono and leave her open to and unprotected from the touch of the other. The audience is mixed but as the performance unfolds, more and more men come to the stage and they become more and more aggressive about cutting her clothing until she is left, semi nude, hands over her breasts, her supposed castration, emotional discomfort, vulnerability and passivity fully on display. How can we think about femininity and feminism here in the context of masochism, gender, racialized display, spectatorship and temporality?

While many feminists from Simone de Beauvoir to Monique Wittig to Jamaica Kincaid have cast the project of “becoming woman” as one in which the woman can only be complicit in a patriarchal order, feminist theorists in general have not turned to masochism and passivity as potential alternatives to liberal formulations of womanhood. The archive of masochism that Marina Abramovic puts on display at MOMA is also an archive of shadow feminisms – feminisms rooted in pain and desire, struggle and desire, broken relationships and desire. Like some of the images in Lady Gaga’s recent video output that Tavia N’yongo and I have analyzed here on Bullybloggers, the versions of womanhood preferred by Abramovic join lack of affect to S/M scenarios, nakedness to a refusal of truth and disconnection to an anti-identitarian set of impulses. Like Gaga’s archive, Abramoviz’s performance history is shot through with violence, pleasure and nonsense making gestures. Like Gaga, Abramovic wills herself to become an object and as an object she stands in potent opposition to all of the clichéd forms of rationality that collect around embodied subjectivity. More and more, the artist is object. Here today, Gaga tomorrow.

You Cannot Gaga Gaga by Jack Halberstam

17 Mar

 

READ MORE ON GAGA FEMINISM BY JACK HALBERSTAM: GAGA FEMINISM: SEX, GENDER, AND THE END OF NORMAL – TO BE PUBLISHED BY BEACON PRESS, SEPTEMBER 2012!!

Can you hear me? Listen up: I am gaga for Gaga. I know we all are now, and I was already gaga for Beyoncé except now Gaga is gaga for Beyoncé too so…so I am gonna have to call them both up on the t-t-telephone and find out how to get a piece of the action. And the action, by the way, has little to do with the phallus, real, imagined, lesbian or bionic. Thanks to Tavia (see below) for his brilliant and on point reading of the disappointing and disappearing phallus but from here on out, it is about phones, headsets, hearing, receivers and objects that become subjects, glasses that smoke, food that bites. If the sappy, eco-friendly message of James Cameron’s bloated 3-D off-world was “I see you,” the cooky, cocky, whacky voice-mail left by Gaga/Beyoncé is “I hear you.” The ear and the phone are neither vagina and penis nor speaker and listener, in this agenda-bending extravaganza the telephone is an Avital Ronell wet dream – electric speech served with a twist of live wire. And, by the way, what is up with divas and phones? Remember that Blondie was hanging on one, Madonna was hanging one up, even Beyoncé in “If I was a boy,” was turning one off and telling “everyone it’s broken/so that they would think I was sleeping alone.”

“It is a question of answerability,” says Ronell in The Telephone Book, “you picking it up means the call has come through.”

But what is it saying? When you get the call, who speaks and who listens? And what happens when she tells you to STOP CALLING MOTHERF#*KER!

Telephone, for the two people who missed it, is the breakout online Gaga/Beyoncé extravaganza set in a women’s prison in LA. In this ten minute mini film,  Lady Gaga wears her diet coke in her hair, her heart on her sleeve and models a series of hats made out of telephones while she and Beyoncé perform in “Thelma and Louise” meets Marcel DuChamp meets Set It Off. They dip and bob, stutter and wink across a landscape of diners and deserts leaving a trail of bodies in their wake – the crime they are punishing? Honey theft. Yes, like queen bees deciding to kick the drones to the curb while keeping their honey for themselves, Lady Gaga and Beyoncé buzz around dangerously looking for the next sucker to sting.

Watch the video here: Telephone by Lady Gaga featuring Beyoncé

In their “pussy wagon” Gaga and Beyoncé chart new territory for femme liberation, female aggression, feminine techno embodiment and instant gratification – using a Polaroid camera, Gaga captures her “Honey Bee,” (that’s Beyoncé to you) leaving the scene of the crime and promises that they are leaving and never coming back. Throwing the picture to the ground, the gesture suggests that images are cheap but check out the sound system. The telephone line goes dead, the connection is lost, the heroines are far from the law, lost to the boyfriends calling on their phones, far from home, and far from dead. Their honey is safe and their desire is as shiny and new as the glittering heels they used to walk over the corpses. Featuring cameos by female body-builders, female body artist Heather Cassils and Gaga’s sister, the video gives sisterhood a brand new name: NOISE . The prison yard kiss with Cassils, in particular, reminds the viewer that this is a queer sisterhood, a strange sisterhood and one which is not afraid to flirt with some heavy-duty butch-femme, S/M dynamics. Cassils has talked in an interview about what the video has done for her visibility:

Interview in OUT with Heather Cassils

The blogosphere is already full of readings and revelations about the video – it is a Foucaultian take on prison and “technological entrapment”; here on Bullybloggers, it has been read as the channeling of Butler’s “Lesbian Phallus”; it is obscene, murderous, cruel to animals, misogynist, man-hating, homophobic and heterophobic; and I think you could safely place it as a Deleuzian exploration of flow and affect not to mention an episode in Object Oriented Philosophy. So whether the philosophy in question is drawn from Zizek on speed, Ronell on crack or Meillassoux on ecstasy, this video obviously chains a few good ideas to a few very good bodies and puts thought into motion. So what is the “telephone” in this sonic drama and what is Gaga doing with it?

Notice many of the phones in the film are landlines – the phone in the jail (or “club” as Gaga calls it), the green phone in Beyoncé’s bedroom, the blue phone that Lady Gaga wears as she makes sandwiches – these phones are fixed in place, not mobile, wearable but also restricting – “Tonight I’ll not be taking no calls because I’ll be dancing…Stop calling, stop calling, cause I don’t want to talk anymore/Stop calling, stop calling, I don’t want to think anymore/I got my head and my heart out on the dance floor.” The push and pull of the game of telephone resembles the rhythms of hetero dating – she waits, he calls; she answers, he speaks, she yells, he hangs up. But they also resemble stalking—“stop calling, stop calling”—and they sound like the surveillance calls brilliantly dissected as part of the marriage script in Laura Kipnis’s Against Love – “Hi hon, just called to check in…where are you now?” The mobile phone is a player in the battle of lovers and so Lady Gaga and Beyoncé decide to unleash themselves from the tyranny of the phone – instead of hanging on the telephone, they become the telephone. The music pulses like a ring tone (like the ring tone it is about to anyway become), it burbles and beeps, hiccups and repeats, insistently, calling and ringing, ringing and calling and chaining us all to the charisma of the pop beat.

Like the ringing music, the choreography is also phony, phonic, supersonic – like the clipped conversations that lovers have on phones with reception and messages fading in and out, the divas strut and twist their bodies into jerking machines – in one remarkable sequence, a break in the dinette dance scene, Beyoncé, dressed in her Michael Jackson uniform complete with epaulets stands with her eyes wide open and her mouth opening and closing to the stuttering “eh…eh…eh…eh” of the music.


 Beyoncé is channeling phone here, she is the receiver, the answering machine and the dial tone all in one and all are saying the same thing – no one is home! In another sequence when Gaga is leaving the prison, she stutter steps in another homage to Jackson but also to convey the shift in time-scapes from doing time in prison to taking a dropped call from Beyoncé out in the real world. Time, in “Telephone,” ripples with queerness, stops, starts, repeats: and while time stops for the losers in their way, Beyoncé and Gaga are tripping off to a utopia of milk and honey. Beyoncé and Lady Gaga repeatedly lift their hands to their mouths to make the telephone sign and they sing into handsets and hold the phone like a dick they are about to rip off. Is this film about castration? Oh yeah baby. Your phone is going to be off the hook, your land line is now cordless, your cordless lost reception, your mobile is turned off, your girlfriend is turned on and she is escaping in a pussy wagon with another woman!

Well, so is the phone the phallus after all? Is the mobile phone a dildo? Is the old landline a kind of metaphor for male penis and the new “virgin” cell phone a metaphor for the lesbian phallus? I still think that phallic as phones may be and phunny as the connection between phone and phallus becomes throughout the video, the real sex organ in this piece is the ear, and while the phallus may well circulate, this is pussy power all the way. Lady Gaga and Beyoncé demonstrate a femininity done right and over done to the point of parody. But here is where it gets interesting – while Lady Gaga always seemed like a drag queen in her outrageous costumes, in this incarnation she reminds us that no one does femininity like a fierce femme and while you can already see the drag shows going on in a bad gay bar near you with super tall drag queens lipsyncing to Gaga and Beyoncé and cat-fighting their way across the stage, remember you heard it here first – you cannot Gaga Gaga, honey so don’t even try! She is camping camp, she is dragging drag, she is ironing irony (ok…ok), she  has done it, been it, worn it. And be warned, don’t call her, she’ll call you!

Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You

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