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You Are Triggering me! The Neo-Liberal Rhetoric of Harm, Danger and Trauma

5 Jul your_trigger_warnings_are_triggering_me_by_meiharu-d5j2mey

by Jack Halberstam

I was watching Monty Python’s The Life of Brian from 1979 recently, a hilarious rewriting of the life and death of Christ, and I realized how outrageous most of the jokes from the film would seem today. In fact, the film, with its religious satire and scenes of Christ and the thieves singing on the cross, would never make it into cinemas now. The Life of Brian was certainly received as controversial in its own day but when censors tried to repress the film in several different countries, The Monty Python crew used their florid sense of humor to their advantage. So, when the film was banned in a few places, they gave it a tagline of: “So funny it was banned in Norway!”

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Humor, in fact, in general, depends upon the unexpected (“No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!”); repetition to the point of hilarity “you can have eggs, bacon and spam; spam, eggs, spam and sausage; or spam, spam, spam and spam!”); silliness, non-sequitors, caricature and an anarchic blend of the serious and the satirical. And, humor is something that feminists in particular, but radical politics in general, are accused of lacking. Recent controversies within queer communities around language, slang, satirical or ironic representation and perceptions of harm or offensive have created much controversy with very little humor recently, leading to demands for bans, censorship and name changes.

feminist_humor_fbDebates among people who share utopian goals, in fact, are nothing new. I remember coming out in the 1970s and 1980s into a world of cultural feminism and lesbian separatism. Hardly an event would go by back then without someone feeling violated, hurt, traumatized by someone’s poorly phrased question, another person’s bad word choice or even just the hint of perfume in the room. People with various kinds of fatigue, easily activated allergies, poorly managed trauma were constantly holding up proceedings to shout in loud voices about how bad they felt because someone had said, smoked, or sprayed something near them that had fouled up their breathing room. Others made adjustments, curbed their use of deodorant, tried to avoid patriarchal language, thought before they spoke, held each other, cried, moped, and ultimately disintegrated into a messy, unappealing morass of weepy, hypo-allergic, psychosomatic, anti-sex, anti-fun, anti-porn, pro-drama, pro-processing post-political subjects.

Political times change and as the 1980s gave way to the 1990s, as weepy white lady feminism gave way to reveal a multi-racial, poststructuralist, intersectional feminism of much longer provenance, people began to laugh, loosened up, people got over themselves and began to talk and recognize that the enemy was not among us but embedded within new, rapacious economic systems. Needless to say, for women of color feminisms, the stakes have always been higher and identity politics always have played out differently. But, in the 1990s, books on neoliberalism, postmodernism, gender performativity and racial capital turned the focus away from the wounded self and we found our enemies and, as we spoke out and observed that neoliberal forms of capitalism were covering over economic exploitation with language of freedom and liberation, it seemed as if we had given up wounded selves for new formulations of multitudes, collectivities, collaborations, and projects less centered upon individuals and their woes. Of course, I am flattening out all kinds of historical and cultural variations within multiple histories of feminism, queerness and social movements. But I am willing to do so in order to make a point here about the re-emergence of a rhetoric of harm and trauma that casts all social difference in terms of hurt feelings and that divides up politically allied subjects into hierarchies of woundedness.

 

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At this point, we should recall the “four Yorkshire men” skit from Monty Python where the four old friends reminisce about their deprived childhoods – one says “we used to live in a tiny old tumbledown house…” the next counters with “house!? You were lucky to live in a house. We used to live in a room…” And the third jumps in with: “room? You were lucky to have a room, we used to have to live in a corridor.” The fourth now completes the cycle: “A corridor! We dreamed of living in a corridor!” These hardship competitions, but without the humor, are set pieces among the triggered generation and indeed, I rarely go to a conference, festival or gathering anymore without a protest erupting about a mode of representation that triggered someone somewhere. And as people “call each other out” to a chorus of finger snapping, we seem to be rapidly losing all sense of perspective and instead of building alliances, we are dismantling hard fought for coalitions.

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Much of the recent discourse of offense and harm has focused on language, slang and naming. For example, controversies erupted in the last few months over the name of a longstanding nightclub in San Francisco: “Trannyshack,” and arguments ensued about whether the word “tranny” should ever be used. These debates led some people to distraction, and legendary queer performer, Justin Vivian Bond, posted an open letter on her Facebook page telling readers and fans in no uncertain terms that she is “angered by this trifling bullshit.” Bond reminded readers that many people are “delighted to be trannies” and not delighted to be shamed into silence by the “word police.” Bond and others have also referred to the queer custom of re-appropriating terms of abuse and turning them into affectionate terms of endearment. When we obliterate terms like “tranny” in the quest for respectability and assimilation, we actually feed back into the very ideologies that produce the homo and trans phobia in the first place! In The Life of Brian, Brian finally refuses to participate in the anti-Semitism that causes his mother to call him a “roman.” In a brave “coming out” speech, he says: “I’m not a roman mum, I’m a kike, a yid, a heebie, a hook-nose, I’m kosher mum, I’m a Red Sea pedestrian, and proud of it!

And now for something completely different…The controversy about the term “tranny” is not a singular occurrence; such tussles have become a rather predictable and regular part of all kinds of conferences and meetings. Indeed, it is becoming difficult to speak, to perform, to offer up work nowadays without someone, somewhere claiming to feel hurt, or re-traumatized by a cultural event, a painting, a play, a speech, a casual use of slang, a characterization, a caricature and so on whether or not the “damaging” speech/characterization occurs within a complex aesthetic work. At one conference, a play that foregrounded the mutilation of the female body in the 17th century was cast as trans-phobic and became the occasion for multiple public meetings to discuss the damage it wreaked upon trans people present at the performance. Another piece at this performance conference that featured a “fortune teller” character was accused of orientalist stereotyping. At another event I attended that focused on queer masculinities, the organizers were accused of marginalizing queer femininities. And a class I was teaching recently featured a young person who reported feeling worried about potentially “triggering” a transgender student by using incorrect pronouns in relation to a third student who did not seem bothered by it! Another student told me recently that she had been “triggered” in a class on colonialism by the showing of The Battle of Algiers. In many of these cases offended groups demand apologies, and promises are made that future enactments of this or that theater piece will cut out the offensive parts; or, as in the case of “Trannyshack,” the name of the club was changed.

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As reductive as such responses to aesthetic and academic material have become, so have definitions of trauma been over-simplified within these contexts. There are complex discourses on trauma readily available as a consequence of decades of work on memory, political violence and abuse. This work has offered us multiple theories of the ways in which a charged memory of pain, abuse, torture or imprisonment can be reignited by situations or associations that cause long buried memories to flood back into the body with unpredictable results. But all of this work, by Shoshana Felman Macarena Gomez-Barris, Saidiya Hartman, Cathy Caruth, Ann Cvetkovich, Marianne Hirsch and others, has been pushed aside in the recent wave of the politics of the aggrieved.

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Claims about being triggered work off literalist notions of emotional pain and cast traumatic events as barely buried hurt that can easily resurface in relation to any kind of representation or association that resembles or even merely represents the theme of the original painful experience. And so, while in the past, we turned to Freud’s mystic writing pad to think of memory as a palimpsest, burying material under layers of inscription, now we see a memory as a live wire sitting in the psyche waiting for a spark. Where once we saw traumatic recall as a set of enigmatic symptoms moving through the body, now people reduce the resurfacing of a painful memory to the catch all term of “trigger,” imagining that emotional pain is somehow similar to a pulled muscle –as something that hurts whenever it is deployed, and as an injury that requires protection.

k5715Fifteen to twenty years ago, books like Wendy Brown’s States of Injury (1995) and Anna Cheng’s The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation and Hidden Grief (2001) asked readers to think about how grievances become grief, how politics comes to demand injury and how a neoliberal rhetoric of individual pain obscures the violent sources of social inequity. But, newer generations of queers seem only to have heard part of this story and instead of recognizing that neoliberalism precisely goes to work by psychologizing political difference, individualizing structural exclusions and mystifying political change, some recent activists seem to have equated social activism with descriptive statements about individual harm and psychic pain. Let me be clear – saying that you feel harmed by another queer person’s use of a reclaimed word like tranny and organizing against the use of that word is NOT social activism. It is censorship.

In a post-affirmative action society, where even recent histories of political violence like slavery and lynching are cast as a distant and irrelevant past, all claims to hardship have been cast as equal; and some students, accustomed to trotting out stories of painful events in their childhoods (dead pets/parrots, a bad injury in sports) in college applications and other such venues, have come to think of themselves as communities of naked, shivering, quaking little selves – too vulnerable to take a joke, too damaged to make one. In queer communities, some people are now committed to an “It Gets Better” version of consciousness-raising within which suicidal, depressed and bullied young gays and lesbians struggle like emperor penguins in a blighted arctic landscape to make it through the winter of childhood. With the help of friendly adults, therapy, queer youth groups and national campaigns, these same youth internalize narratives of damage that they themselves may or may not have actually experienced. Queer youth groups in particular install a narrative of trauma and encourage LGBT youth to see themselves as “endangered” and “precarious” whether or not they actually feel that way, whether or not coming out as LGB or T actually resulted in abuse! And then, once they “age out” of their youth groups, those same LGBT youth become hypersensitive to all signs and evidence of the abuse about which they have learned.

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What does it mean when younger people who are benefitting from several generations now of queer social activism by people in their 40s and 50s (who in their childhoods had no recourse to anti-bullying campaigns or social services or multiple representations of other queer people building lives) feel abused, traumatized, abandoned, misrecognized, beaten, bashed and damaged? These younger folks, with their gay-straight alliances, their supportive parents and their new right to marry regularly issue calls for “safe space.” However, as Christina978-0-8223-5470-3_pr
Hanhardt’s Lambda Literary award winning book, Safe Space: Neighborhood History and the Politics of Violence, shows, the safe space agenda has worked in tandem with urban initiatives to increase the policing of poor neighborhoods and the gentrification of others. Safe Space: Gay Neighborhood History and the Politics of Violence traces the development of LGBT politics in the US from 1965-2005 and explains how LGBT activism was transformed from a multi-racial coalitional grassroots movement with strong ties to anti-poverty groups and anti-racism organizations to a mainstream, anti-violence movement with aspirations for state recognition.

And, as LGBT communities make “safety” into a top priority (and that during an era of militaristic investment in security regimes) and ground their quest for safety in competitive narratives about trauma, the fight against aggressive new forms of exploitation, global capitalism and corrupt political systems falls by the way side.

Is this the way the world ends? When groups that share common cause, utopian dreams and a joined mission find fault with each other instead of tearing down the banks and the bankers, the politicians and the parliaments, the university presidents and the CEOs? Instead of realizing, as Moten and Hearny put it in The Undercommons, that “we owe each other everything,” we enact punishments on one another and stalk away from projects that should unite us, and huddle in small groups feeling erotically bonded through our self-righteousness.

I want to call for a time of accountability and specificity: not all LGBT youth are suicidal, not all LGBT people are subject to violence and bullying, and indeed class and race remain much more vital factors in accounting for vulnerability to violence, police brutality, social baiting and reduced access to education and career opportunities. Let’s call an end to the finger snapping moralism, let’s question contemporary desires for immediately consumable messages of progress, development and access; let’s all take a hard long look at the privileges that often prop up public performances of grief and outrage; let’s acknowledge that being queer no longer automatically means being brutalized and let’s argue for much more situated claims to marginalization, trauma and violence. Let’s not fiddle while Rome (or Paris) burns, trigger while the water rises, weep while trash piles up; let’s recognize these internal wars for the distraction they have become. Once upon a time, the appellation “queer” named an opposition to identity politics, a commitment to coalition, a vision of alternative worlds. Now it has become a weak umbrella term for a confederation of identitarian concerns. It is time to move on, to confuse the enemy, to become illegible, invisible, anonymous (see Preciado’s Bully Bloggers post on anonymity in relation to the Zapatistas). In the words of José Muñoz, “we have never been queer.” In the words of a great knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, “we are now no longer the Knights who say Ni, we are now the Knights who say “Ekki-ekki-ekki-ekki-PTANG. Zoom-Boing, z’nourrwringmm.”

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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

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.

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!)

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.

Credo: What the Wild Things Know

17 May

by Jack Halberstam

This credo was commissioned by Jeffrey Williams and heather Steffen for an anthology of credos they are editing based upon a 2009 special issue of the Minnesota Review. A credo is commonly defined as a “statement of belief.” My credo is about unknowing, ignorance, queerness and Fantastic Mr. Fox…

Credos have always been a little off-putting to me: first there is the religious element, the Catholic chanting of a set of beliefs during mass; second, and probably deriving from the first, credos reek of piety and self-righteousness…not that I am not self-righteous much of the time, but why advertise it? Third, I have been turned off to credos by the saccharine “This I believe” segment on NPR radio where some pious, self-righteous and quite possibly religious person tells you what he or she believes and therefore what everyone else in the world must start doing as a consequence. These “I believe” segments rarely surprise: “I believe there is still a place for love in the world….”; “I believe in the sanctity of marriage….”; “I believe that we can find a way to eliminate phosphate emissions by the end of the year…”: and the worst, “I believe that everything happens for a reason.” I always imagine myself on the show intoning: “I believe that random acts of violence really do make the world a better place” or “I believe that pet owning is akin to beastiality.” But precisely because I have imagined myself talking back to the “I believe” people on the radio, I believe I can write a credo.

One of the first credos that actually appealed to me appeared in the unlikely form of Kevin Costner in Bull Durham (really unlikely! I know….) where, in a pitch to win over Susan Sarandon (a worthy goal), he lays down his credo for her, a list of life lessons he has learned from being “a catcher in the minor leagues” – a metaphor for some kind of smart but down-trodden masculinity.

“I believe,” says Crash Davis, “in the soul, the cock, the pussy, the small of a woman’s back, the hanging curve ball, high fiber, good scotch, that the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent, overrated crap. I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. I believe there ought to be a constitutional amendment outlawing Astroturf and the designated hitter. I believe in the sweet spot, soft-core pornography, opening your presents Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve and I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days.”

Ok, there is so much that is wrong with this credo: let’s start with the obligatory hetero pairing of “cock” and “pussy,” two words you do not want to hear Kevin Costner say by the way, and then we can move down to the rejection of Susan Sontag’s “novels”…hmm, she was not noted for her novels but for her incisive and clear-headed essays and so why even bring up her novels? But the idea of outlawing Astroturf and the designated hitter and living for the hanging curve balls and the sweet spot, these seem like worthy goals. So, if I were to rewrite Crash Davis, what would I say? The short version would be something like this: “I believe in the queer and the freak, dying quickly and for a good cause, the long ball, the short book, strong coffee; I believe that high school students deserve better than The Catcher in The Rye; I believe that Bush lost. I believe that artists should let others speak about their work, that the push for gay marriage is a betrayal of earlier generations of queer activism, that Finding Nemo is one of the best films ever made. I believe in slow food, fast dialogue, hot baths, cold swimming pools. I believe that Ivy League schools tend not to be the places for intellectual innovation and I do believe that anarchy, creative or otherwise is possible, preferable and perfectly doable. I believe that Lady Gaga is a genius, that Justin Bieber is a lesbian and that Prince is Lady Gaga. I think we should abolish English departments, change disciplines every few years, go back to school, get rid of standardized tests, all speak 3 languages and I believe in the living wage. I also believe that straight men don’t try hard enough, gay guys try too hard and butches should catch a break.”

Well, maybe not, but that is what came to mind when I was asked to write a credo. So, having offered the quick and dirty version of my credo, let me draw out a few of my hastily offered rules to live by. In our line of work, professional scholars, there are lots of benefits and not a few downsides. The benefits include flexible hours, working without an onsite boss, summers without teaching and job security. But the problems in academia are sometimes a consequence of those benefits: namely, complacency (produced by job security), laziness, absenteeism (flexible hours), elitism, nepotism, intellectual snobbery and cronyism. I really do believe that many academics need to buck up and remember how to learn – many people teach the same classes over and over, repeat the work they did years ago in “new” scholarship and then jealously guard the gates of their discipline from intruders and newcomers who might shake things up to such a degree that their own work becomes irrelevant, anachronistic or at least in need of an update. Let’s remember what tenure is supposed to be for while we ponder some of the stagnancy of the university: tenure was supposed to protect scholars while they pursued possibly unpopular or at least counter-intuitive ideas; it should provide a shield behind which socially useless along with socially useful work can be completed. Tenure, in its ideal form, allows scholars to take risks, try out daring theses and innovate. But, in a university where senior people often deny tenure to junior folks much more talented, skilled and qualified than they are, we have to begin to question the validity of a system that protects the mediocre from the brilliant. And so, I believe in shaking down the big disciplines once a generation, replacing dinosaur forms of knowledge production with improvised programs and reinventing curricula, disciplinary knowledge and knowledge clusters every decade at least. I believe that administrators are too often failed and bitter academics and that the university needs to dance carefully along the thin line between raising funds and becoming a corporation.

In recent years, I have been deeply interested in the politics of knowledge and in thinking through what some have called oppositional pedagogies. In pursuit of such pedagogies, I have come to realize that, as Eve K. Sedgwick once said, ignorance is as powerful a force as knowledge and that learning often takes place completely independently of teaching. In fact, I am not sure that I myself am teachable! As someone who never aced an exam, who has tried and tried without much success to become fluent in another language, and who can read a book without retaining much at all, I realize that I can only learn what I can teach myself and that much of what I learned in school left very little impression upon me at all.I thought about this while watching the extraordinary French documentary about a year in the life of a high school in the suburbs of Paris, The Class (Entre Les Murs, 2008, dir. Laurent Cantet). In the film, a white schoolteacher, Francois Bégaudeau (who wrote the memoir upon which the film is based) tries to reach out to his disinterested and profoundly alienated mostly African, Asian and Arab immigrant students. The cultural and racial and class differences between the teacher and his pupils make effective communication difficult and his cultural references (The Diary of Ann Frank, Moliere, French grammar) leave the students cold while theirs (soccer, Islam, hip hop) induce only pained responses from their otherwise personable teacher. The film, like a Frederick Wiseman documentary, tries to just let the action unfold without any voice of God narration and so we actually experience close up the rage and frustrations of teacher and pupils alike. At the end of the film, an extraordinary moment occurs. Bégaudeau asks the class to think about what they have learned and each write down one thing to take away from the class, one concept, text or idea that might have made a difference. The class disperses and one girl shuffles up to the front. The teacher looks at her expectantly and draws out her comment: “I didn’t learn anything,” she tells him without malice or anger, “nothing…I can’t think of anything I learned.” The moment is a defeat for the teacher, a disappointment for the viewer who wants to believe in a narrative of educational uplift but it is a triumph for alternative pedagogies because it reminds us that learning is a two way street and you cannot teach without a dialogic relation to the learner.

“I didn’t learn anything” could read like an endorsement of another French text, a book by Jacques Ranciere on the politics of knowledge. This book was another revelation to me, a reminder that I too require a different model for knowledge transmission and reception. Jacques Ranciere’s inspired speculations on “intellectual emancipation” in The Ignorant Schoolmaster (Ranciére 1991) consists of a short series of essays in which Ranciere examines a form of knowledge sharing that detours around the mission of the university with its masters and its pupils, its expository methods and its standards of excellence, and that instead endorses a form of pedagogy that presumes and indeed demands equality rather than hierarchy.Drawing from the example of an 18th century professor who taught in French to Belgian students who spoke only Flemish, Ranciere claims that conventional, disciplinary pedagogy demands the presence of a master and proposes a mode of learning within which the students are enlightened by the superior knowledge, training and intellect of the schoolmaster. But in the case of Joseph Jacotot, his experience with the students in Brussels taught him that his belief in the necessity of explication and exegesis was false and that it simply upheld a university system dependent upon hierarchy. When Jacotot realized that his students were learning to read and speak French and to understand the text Télémaque without his assistance, he began to see the narcissistic investment he had made in his own function. Jacotot was not a bad teacher who became a “good” teacher, rather he was a “good” teacher who realized that people must be led to learn rather than taught to follow. Ranciere comments ironically: “Like all conscientious professors, he knew that teaching was not in the slightest about cramming students with knowledge and having them repeat it like parrots, but he knew equally well that students had to avoid the chance detours where minds still incapable of distinguishing the essential from the accessory, the principle from the consequence, get lost” (Ranciere, 1991: 3). While the ‘good’ teacher leads his students through the pathways of rationality, the ‘ignorant schoolmaster’ must actually allow them to get lost in order for them to experience confusion and then find their own way out or back or around.

In a less lofty vein, I believe in knowledge both practical and obsolete, knowledge that fosters collective forms of being and knowledge that breaks with conventional wisdom. To that end, I want to close my credo with my favorite film of the moment, a film from which I have learned much about masculinity, life, risk, wildness, love, loss and survival. Based on a Roald Dahl novel, Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009, dir. Wes Anderson) tells the story of an aspiring fox who gives up his wild ways of chicken-hunting to settle down with his foxy lady in a burrow.

As the film begins, we find Mr. Fox striving for something more, looking for excitement in his life, wanting to move above ground and out of the sedate world of journalism and into the wild world of chasing chickens. From his new above-ground home in a tree, Mr. Fox can see the three farms of Boggis, Bunce and Bean and they present him with a challenge he cannot refuse. “Who am I?” he asks his friend Kylie, an eager but not gifted possum, and he continues: “why a fox? Why not a horse, or a beetle, or a bald eagle? I’m saying this more as, like, existentialism, you know? Who am I? And how can a fox ever be happy without, you’ll forgive the expression, a chicken in its teeth?” How indeed?

And of course, Mr Fox (voiced by George Clooney) cannot be happy without that chicken in his teeth and he reminds the viewer that the difference between a fox in the hole and a fox in the wild is just one hunting trip away. While this stop-motion animation marvel seems ultimately to reinforce the same old narrative of female domesticity and male wildness, in fact it tells a tall tale of masculine derring-do in order to offer up some very different forms of masculinity, collectivity and family.

But the best moment in Fantastic Mr. Fox, and the moment most memorable in terms of credos, comes in the form of a speech that Mr. Fox makes to his woodland friends who have survived 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.”

Maybe it is 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 addresses in the history of cinema. Like Mr. Fox, I believe in detachable tails, fake apples, eating together, adapting to the lighting, learning not to learn, risk, sissy sons, and I believe in the raw importance of survival for all those wild souls that the farmers, the teachers, the preachers, the parents and the politicians would like to bury alive.

Youth in Revolt

21 Nov

By Tavia Nyong’o

What’s more punk than youth in revolt? Fed up with outrageous cuts to staff and faculty salaries — and an unbelievable 32% hike in tuition at a public university that used to be free (thanks Ronald Reagan) — students recently took over a campus building and re-named it after two Black Panthers who were assassinated at the same spot back in 1969. If that weren’t bad-ass enough, the occupiers put out an audio declaration that boldly proclaimed their unwillingness to issue “demands”. Luckily they recognize that listing acceptable compromises with an unacceptable situation is the first step to a crumbling resistance. Someone’s been reading (or more likely writing?) the Communiqué from an Absent Future.

There is no future in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s dream!

Save California’s Universities

4 Oct

By Judith Butlerberkleyprotest460

(originally published in The Guardian Oct. 4, 2009)

The promise of affordable higher education is dying. The University of California’s students and faculty demand answers.

It may seem that the thousands of people on September 24th who converged on the University of California at Berkeley’s famous Sproul Plaza, home of the free speech movement, were simply upset about money.  Where has all the money gone? Who has taken it away? And perhaps there is no one to blame. The University of California finds itself with a shortfall of $1.15 billion for the next two years, the result of an $813 million cut in state funding and another $225 million increase in costs for student enrollment. Everyone knows that the state government is dysfunctional, that public funding decreased by 40% between 1990-2005, and this year alone brought another 20% reduction, accelerating the abandonment of the premiere public university by a California state government fully paralyzed by minority rule (two-thirds of the legislature is required for sealing any budgetary deal) and Proposition 13 (the 1978 ban on increasing property taxes that strangleholds any attempt to increase revenues for public services).   It would seem like the UC is in the same situation as other public services and institutions: lay-offs, cutbacks, decreased services and the prospect of a seriously compromised education for undergraduates and graduates alike. So what’s the problem?

Mid-summer when no one was around, UC president Mark Yudof invoked “emergency powers” to implement furloughs on staff and faculty, and sent word to campuses that drastic cuts had to be made in operating expenses. Claiming that the UC system has no unallocated or unreserved funds from which to draw in such dire moments, Yudof proceeded after brief consultation with other administrators within the system, to devise a plan, which includes a graduated salary reduction program for all staff and faculty who make more than $40,000 a year. One might have expected faculty and staff to understand the dire circumstances that led to these lamentable cuts. But it became clear that certain cuts actually devastated some programs, while others absorbed the setback with ready reserves.  Any set of cuts to basic funding involve decisions about how to allocate the funds that remain, how to set priorities, including decisions about whose livelihood will be maintained, and whose will not.  The administration did not wait to reach a settlement with unions; the faculty briefly canvassed were certainly not party to the decision.  As a result, the bad news that deans handed down at the beginning of the semester eliminated 2,000 positions, gutted programs that trained high school teachers in science education, closed courses in East Asian languages and advanced Arabic, overburdened classrooms, shut students out of their majors, let scores of lecturers go, and closed the university library on Saturday. In addition, the administration then demanded of students tuition and fee increases of nearly 40%, imperiling the very notion of an affordable public university, forcing many students to leave the university or scramble for  full-time jobs.

UC president Yudof tried to explain himself by speaking on Youtube. But this began a series of public blunders that have only helped to solidify a sense of incredulity and outrage on the part of faculty, staff, students, and the wider public: the result is a profound and growing skepticism about Yudof’s ability to advocate for the future of the public university.  One does not have to be a brilliant logician to understand the folly of his logic:  (a) there are no reserves of money from which we can draw at the present time and (b) our reserves are down by two-thirds.  Those of us who were trying to develop a balanced critique of both the paralysis of the state economy and the questionable governance by University of California administrators were suddenly rocked into enraged incredulity when Yudof inexplicably gave an interview to The New York Times Magazine (9/27/09) in which he bragged about his own $800,000 salary, shamelessly displayed his anti-intellectualism, described his entry into the field of education as “an accident” and then complained that he tries to speak to faculty and staff about the budget, but it is “speaking to the dead.”

Suddenly, the problem was not only fiscal – “we don’t have the money” – but a more profound loss of confidence in the mode of governance and the figure of authority entrusted with making the case for public education to the state and federal government during these hard times.  Faculty, staff, and students are collectively outraged that the University has failed to make public and transparent what the cuts have been and will be, and by what criteria and set of priorities such cuts are made.  Rage also centers on the devastation of  “shared governance”  – the policy that faculty must be part of any decision-making that affects the academic programs and direction of the university. In its place, a “commission” was appointed by the administration with paltry representation by faculty, emphatically missing are those in the arts and humanities.

No answers are forthcoming to a set of burning questions: Why in this age of slash and burn has the administration of the University of California has bloated by 283 percent, as their own public financial reports make plain?  And why does the University of California spend 10 million a year on inter-collegiate athletics and over 123 million on a new athletic center?  During a time of corrosive neo-liberalism and rising doubts about education and the arts as public goods and worthy of state support, the administration ducks and hides when it is not boasting about its own stupidity, fails to take up the task of making its decision making process transparent, refuses to honor the mandate to bring in the faculty to share in establishing priorities, and weakens the safeguards against a rampant privatization of this public good that would undercut the university’s core commitment to offer an education both excellent and affordable.

So many skeptics murmured that the call for a Walk Out and Teach In on September 24th would come to nothing. So when over five thousand students, staff, and faculty crowded the open common of Berkeley alone (and several thousand more on the other 10 campuses), every major national and international media outlet took stock.  The vocal and theatrical demands of the demonstration were not, as Governor Schwarzenegger quipped, just noise coming from “another screaming interest group.”  On the contrary, a rare solidarity among unions, students, and faculty sought to “save the university” and their cry clearly struck a chord across a broad political spectrum. Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor, joined other faculty for a pointed speak out the night before. Faculty and students clustered into an array of groups, pursuing strategies from mainstream lobbying to anarchist display.  The administration was clearly shaken, and subtle hints of division among administrators could be detected. Some congratulated the demonstrators, and others hissed.

My wager is that the walls of the university will shake again – and again – until the message is received: this fiscal crisis is also a crisis in governance: the administration needs to make their books transparent, re-engage shared governance, and set their priorities right so that the United States might continue to claim a public institution of higher learning where a student does not require loads of money to receive a superlative education – after all, this is the promise that we see dying at this moment, and the very thought apparently sends us into the streets en masse.

Judith Butler is the Maxine Elliot Professor in the Departments of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature at UC Berkeley.

It’s the Governance Structure, Stupid

3 Jun

by Lisa Duggan

IT’S THE GOVERNANCE STRUCTURE, STUPID

Mark Taylor’s NY Times op ed, “End the University As We Know It” borrows its title from the Clintonian call to eAfter the Drag Queens' Ball December 2008nd welfare entitlements, a significant way station in the process of eroding New Deal social supports.  But to bastardize another Clintonism, Taylor’s op ed inclines me to respond, “It’s the Governance Structure, Stupid.”

The problem with ending welfare as we knew it was the failure to provide any other more adequate support for workers in a low wage, no benefit economy.  And so the problem with ending the university as we know it, along Taylor’s lines, is that the entire authority to remake the university is left in the hands of administrators and trustees.  Taylor would abolish, along with tenure, all modes of democratic accountability within university decision making structures.  Faculty governance, already in decline and never a transparent structure of democratic accountability in any event, depends on an independent faculty.  Without any form of protection from administrative whim or vengeance, faculty become insecure employees.  With the seven year contracts advocated by Taylor, faculty participation in reorganizing department structures and curriculum is effectively abolished.  And there is, of course, no attention to the employment and decision making roles of staff or students.  Nor any discussion of the funding sources that underpin any governance structure–the elephant in the room when any reinvention of the university is under discussion.

Under current conditions, as Miranda Joseph notes on this blog, the sciences are generally the best funded and most inventive sites for interdisciplinary restructuring.  Meanwhile, the social sciences and especially the humanities retrench to established disciplinary structures as their funding sources shrink–however unevenly across different fields and institutions.  Interdisciplinary projects in the arts and sciences remain insecure, especially during this economic crisis.  However creative and attractive to students and faculty an interdisciplinary project (such as those on Taylor’s wish list) might be, it will likely be low on administrators’ priority lists.  Interdisciplinary programs are generally not rated the way the disciplines are, and administrative managers earn brownie points by moving up the ratings of their departmental charges.  And they seldom attract deep pockets of funding beyond the university’s budget.  As long as this is the structure within which we operate, we can imagine the New University all day and all night, but we can’t bring it into being.  New governance and funding structures will be required.  We must ask, Who will decide? How will we pay for it?  before any of our dearest wishes for reinvention can become realizable.

To make kings of administrators and trustees, while leaving the current privatization of funding for higher education in place, is to be certain of making a bad situation far worse.    To end the university as we know it, and build the university with the broadest public benefit in its place, we need more  democratic governance, and an expanded public funding base most of all.

“Educational Values” versus “Educational Value”

1 Jun

by Brian Eugenio Herrera Brian-1

Mark Taylor’s call to “End the University as We Know It” proved most disappointing for its shockingly naïve (or cruelly disingenuous) echo of a previous higher education manifesto published several years prior:  the notorious  “A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education,” authored by The Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education.  Commonly referred to as the “Spellings Report” in deference to then-Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, the 2006 study was an unlikely yet cogent harbinger of Taylor’s remarks last month.

The report expressed a belief that “change is overdue” in the realm of post-secondary education where “students increasingly care little about the distinctions that sometimes preoccupy the academic establishment” and where “this consumer-driven” landscape “demands innovation and flexibility from the institutions that serve the nation’s learners.”

A year ago in The Nation, Patricia C. Williams critiqued “the hyper-econometric model” that provided the foundation of the Spellings commission’s vision of higher education reform. Williams excoriated the report for its singular focus upon student knowledge as a commodity measurable by standards of efficiency and accountability “on a ‘value-added’ basis.”  She concluded, “Framing education as a ‘profit-maximizing’ ‘industry’ does more than just push women and bards back in the box. It takes aim at the joy, play and very love of lifelong learning as irrelevant externalities to be eliminated for their irrational, trade-penalizing transaction costs.”

I introduce the tenets of the 2006 Spellings Report, and reference Williams’s 2008 comments upon it, to underscore what I see to be a recurring problem faced by members of the professoriate when opining about (higher) educational reform.  As I see it, when pressed to comment upon what’s wrong or right with contemporary higher education, most of those inside the U.S. academy tend to emphasize the “educational values” of rigorously adventurous academic inquiry, while most everyone outside the academy fixates on the material benefits (not) conferred by higher education (or what I am calling “educational value”).

Discussions of “educational values” elaborate the moral, social, political, and cultural benefits of higher learning, while discussions of “educational value” remain more assiduously focused on the fiscal or other material advantages conferred by the educational product.  And commentators like Mark Taylor exploit the righteous rhetoric of “educational values” to gussy up reductive mandates demanding greater “educational value.”

“Tenure” is the recurring red herring in this debate.  To be sure, the ongoing casualization of academic labor, with its concomitant diminishment of tenure within the benefits package afforded by the ever-elusive promise of full-time academic employment, remains a pressing issue.  Nevertheless, I would submit that resisting the increased rationalization of educational outcomes – a trend advocated, albeit in different idiom, by both the 2006 Spellings Report and Taylor’s 2009 editorial – has emerged as perhaps most urgent struggle for teaching scholars to engage.

Higher education, both public and private, is already being aggressively re-imagined as a commodity that must be remade to meet the demands of a shifting marketplace.  Moreover, public claims of higher educational malfeasance – whether levied by Larry Kramer against “queer studies” at Yale or by State Representative Charlice Byrd against “queer theory” at Georgia State – tend to dismiss innovative models of post-disciplinary scholarly engagement as proof positive of the professoriate’s failure to sustain the core “educational value” conferred by traditional disciplinary knowledge.

Simply put, this is already shaping up to be a brutally partisan ideological battle between factions, those defending “educational values” long and dearly cultivated within the Western university on the one hand, and those demanding greater “educational value” assessed through cost-benefit, “hyper-econometric” rubrics on the other.  And I suspect we already know who is certain to have “the numbers” on their side.

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