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Triggering Me, Triggering You: Making Up Is Hard To Do

15 Jul

by Jack Halberstam

30 Rock - Season 7

I was re-watching 30 Rock the other day (yeah, right after I finished my Monty Python marathon) and I came across the episode where Liz Lemon’s show, TGS, is accused of “hating women.” Liz Lemon is outraged, and reminds her crew that their last episode was all about women – cut to Jenna as Amelia Earhart crashing her plane because “oh no! my period.” And then cut to Jenna as Hilary Clinton messing up a press conference because “my period!” Liz Lemon explains: “that was an ironic appropriation of…oh, I don’t know anymore.” The skit continues with another humorous twist of the screw with which I won’t bore/amuse you but perhaps this is a good place to start: we often don’t know anymore, when something is an ironic appropriation of…and when it is just more of the same.

The responses to my recent Bully Bloggers piece “You’re Triggering Me: The Neo-Liberal Rhetoric of Harm, Danger and Trauma” have pretty much polarized people (at least those who have responded publicly) into camps that break along that kind of division – people who hear humor and irony in the piece and are in favor of “ironic appropriations,” and people who think that the humor is just fancy dressing for odious and hurtful dismissals of real experiences of harm and pain. Obviously the wide range of responses to the post suggests the virality of the topic in the first place and perhaps justifies my attempts to make an intervention. And obviously I wrote a polemic so I cannot claim now to be surprised when the polemic polarizes!

But I was surprised by some mis-readings and dismayed by some of the more vicious responses, and I was very sorry, in particular, that some of my characterizations smacked of a dismissal of disability rights claims or discourse.

Some of the best responses to my piece include:

  • Andrea Smith’s wise “Beyond the Pros and Cons of Trigger Warnings: Collectivized Healing” (not a direct response to me at all) where she asks: “How do we create spaces to experiment with different strategies, as well as spaces to openly assess and change these strategies as they inevitably become co-opted? How do we create movements that make us collectively accountable for healing from individual and collective trauma?”
  •  Another excellent post that did directly respond to mine, and critiqued it, came from Natalia Cecire who offers that I am missing the way that neoliberalism also counsels us to “suck it up” in relation to harm and pain that we may feel. And she usefully points to the ways that the modes of expression that I critique are often associated with the feminine and therefore draw out a sexist response that she associated with my article. Finally, Cecire proposes that it is ridiculous to point to and intensify a generational split, one that older people have in many ways created and exploited and then blame it on a younger generation and all while accusing people of lacking a sense of humor. Fair enough.
  • Julia Serano, the author of the fabulous Whipping Girl, a book I regularly teach, calls my blog a “kitchen sink” piece and reminds us that activism can be messy and difficult but that the quarrels over language and feelings are ultimately worth the effort. She also memorializes her dead parrot while trigger warning the memorialization and joking about her own trigger warning. And she has funny inter titles, and is always worth a read, even if she is ripping you a new one!whipping_girl
  • Finally, Valéria Souza’s excellent blog on “Triggernometry” charts the history of some of these debates and she situates triggering as an almost necessary part of learning and something that we cannot shield ourselves from but that we should not ignore either.
  • You can also read other great posts by Brandy Daniels, and Matthew Nelson.

In response, and quickly because I know people are somewhat sick of this topic by now:

  • warning-humor
    1. I apologize to all those offended by my article. And to those who were not offended, it was not for lack of trying (joke).
    2. In trying to express frustration with some of the ways in which we engage each other in public around safe space, trigger warnings and appellations/pronouns, I realize that I made a straw person out of the environmentally sensitive people who object to perfume in public spaces. On this point, I have been re-reading Anna Mollow’s excellent article “No Safe Place” in Women Studies Quarterly (2011). My point was not to critique people who have environmental allergies  but to question how we make room for each other, or don’t, how we interact in public spaces and how important it is to find ways to communicate our needs without shouting each other down. This is something that I believe disability rights groups have done gracefully  and not simply by yelling at others in spaces fouled up by toxic odors. It may also be a good time to return to Todd Haynes brilliant film, Safe (1995), which managed to situate environmental illness not as a metaphor but as a part of an emergent landscape of differentiated vulnerability to all kinds of social and chemical toxicity. safe
    3. Generational conflict is an important topic. In my book, In a Queer Time and Place back in 2005, I actually wrote about the potential for emergent queer youth groups to pit old and young against each other in queer communities that were not actually organized along generational lines. This kind of conflict, I said then, is organized within Oedipal structures that make one generation see the other as their rivals/replacement. Consequently, these Oedipal structures substitute for other more queer, fluid and entwined relations between young and old, relations moreover that were often intimate and that, in the past, allowed for knowledge (prior to the internet) to be passed on from one generation to another. I still think that some of the impact of queer youth groups comes in the form of Oedipal conflict and I am committed to thinking with others about how to communicate, exchange and theorize beyond that Oedipal frame. I reproduced the framework in my essay for sure, but that is an inevitable consequence of struggling over a term like “tranny” that many people in their 40’s and 50’s use and other younger people often detest.Emperor-Penguins
    4. After reading through many responses to my original piece, I also agree that “censorship” might be too strong a word for the work that trigger warnings do, but censorship can mean not simply preventing someone from speaking but also insisting on what they say when they do speak. Trigger warnings originated in more local contexts and certainly warrant more conversation as and when they move from those contexts to public discourse. On this front, we might want to think about the provincial nature of these trigger warning/safe space debates and their specificity within North America – as several people pointed out in comments to my original blog, perhaps it is worth considering how American the demand for and expectation of safe space really is and whether we should dialogue about the centrality of injury to political claims made here in the US as opposed to elsewhere. But also we might consider how demands for safety in the US all too often come at the expense of others within a security regime.
    5. Julia Serano’s parrot is an important reminder of the stakes in these debates. Serano suggests that while she did lose her parrot in a way that was sad for her, she would not claim “that I was “traumatized” by her death. Nor am I “triggered” these days by watching Monty Python’s “Dead Parrot” sketch. But,” she continues, “do you know what would upset me? If somebody tried to dismiss my feelings about Coby and the grief that I felt after her passing.” I can very well understand that, no one wants their feelings dismissed but we should not confuse sad feelings with uncontrollable grief and so, I want to validate Julia’s feelings about her pet, Coby, and I want to propose that if I was at a play or performance where someone’s parrot became an ex-parrot and it was part of a humorous sketch about our attachment to animals, we should not have to have a town hall meeting about the performance later on account of the fact that it was disrespectful to those who have suffered the loss of said avian companions…if you catch my drift.monty_python_dead_parrot_sketch_by_seekerarmada-d5muzjm
    6. And if you don’t, no worries, to follow in Julia Serano’s footsteps, I will now be known as Whipping Boy or Jock Halberslam or, as my favorite tweet put it, “ the sports dad of queer theory.” Or we could all move on and work harder to understand each other, to trust each other and to believe that even if we cannot shield each other from harm, we can at least make the odd dead parrot joke in good humor and with impunity.67Z94Svt



For José

20 Dec

by Tavia Nyong’o

 

José, I’m calling up thunder.

Through so many tears

Today, I’m knocking on your door.

Can you hear?

I’m listening for your laughter through the wall

That separates and connects your office and mine.

I’m eavesdropping for the murmur

of your quiet counsel.

Give me that counsel today.

 

Gimme, gimme the words,

help me name

what you were to us.

Because there are no words

without you here to help me find them.

 

José, I’m totally fucked up

In a way that especially you could see.

I’m calling up thunder

for you, for us

for the punk rock commons

whose unauthorized entry

into the Ivory Tower

tooks its stolen wealth

And sold it in the streets for love.

 

José, you know me:

Most days I go for something pretty

Something pretty and well-spoken

And tomorrow,

I’ll say something pretty

but today,

for you José

I’m calling up thunder

to say something true.

 

12.7.2013

 

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José Esteban Muñoz – 1967-2013

6 Dec

José Esteban Muñoz, 1966-2013

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This week, we lost a fierce friend, a comrade, a wry and trenchant critic, a brave and bold queer voice and a true utopian in a world of pessimists. As we try to reckon with his absence and learn to live with the loss of such a magnificent thinker, such an enormous spirit, we can find all kinds of solace in the work that José left behind. “Queerness is not yet here,” he cautioned us at the beginning of Cruising Utopia, and he continued: “The here and now is a prison house. We must strive, in the face of the here and now’s totalizing rendering of reality, to think and feel a then and there.”

These words are strangely comforting now that José is truly no longer in the here and now but dwells instead in a then, a there, a new world that we cannot reach from here, this prison house of life, the body, the present. José’s work, his craft, his social worlds, his teaching all reached out for the “forward-dawning futurity” that, he felt, harbored other ways of being, other forms of life, other worlds. These other worlds, alternative forms of life, could be glimpsed only through the cultural landscapes that queer people create out of love, desperation, hilarity, performance, perversity, friendship, sex, feelings, failings, pain and communion. And so José made it his life’s work to live in and with and alongside the brilliant, talented, queer performers about whom he wrote and with whom he collaborated: Vaginal Davis, Carmelita Tropicana, Nao Bustamente are just a few of the gorgeous, glittering talents who built worlds with him and made crazy, hilarious, expansive performance spaces with him, spaces where he could find his “then and there” at least for an evening.

And let’s not tame José as he leaves us – he was brilliant, sweet, loving, for sure, but he was also bitchy, camp, and tough. He knew well how to tease and be teased, how to give as good as he got, how to pick a fight and how to step out of the way once the fight really got going. José, as so many people have said, was socially promiscuous – he was friends with everyone – people who did not speak to each other remained best friends with José, so much so that when he came to Los Angeles, he would have to negotiate his time between the “Lesbian Warlords” who all set up camps that could include him but not each other!

José would often quote Jack Smith’s barb about Maria Montez (or was it Allen Ginsburg?) that they were “walking careers”: this was a high ranking insult from José and it was reserved for people who could not remember why they were in academia – people who sought out the “stardom,” the attention and forgot the pleasure, the collaborative potential, the sheer joy of writing, thinking and being in proximity to performance – those people were ‘walking careers.’ As for José, rock star and legend as he was, he was not in it simply for the career, the profession, the attention – José really did believe in something bigger than personal acclaim and that was the queer utopia he continued to cruise until his death.

“We must vacate the here and now for a then and there…” he wrote at the conclusion to Cruising Utopia. “What we need to know is that queerness is not yet here but it approaches like a crashing wave of potentiality…Willingly we let ourselves feel queerness’s pull, knowing it as something else that we can feel, that we must feel. We must take ecstasy” (185). I am pretty sure that José knew plenty about taking ecstasy and about feeling something beyond the here and now. And, because he taught us all how to feel “queerness’s pull,” we are all here now, sitting on the shore, alone, bereft from his loss, squinting towards the horizon and hoping to see the shape of the queer world to come that he insistently pointed us towards. José we miss you, we love you, nothing will ever be the same without you.

Bully Bloggers

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Bully on Forever

5 Dec

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Atlas Shrugging

21 Oct

By Lisa Duggan

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The government shut down has ended and the threat of default has passed.  Ted Cruz and the House Republicans have been defeated.  But they don’t seem to know that.  According to recent press reports, Cruz is being greeted in parts of Texas as a hero for fighting the good fight.  Despite widespread suffering during the shutdown and global fear and trembling over the threat of default, Tea Party Zombies walk the land.  Denying the death of their scorched earth strategy, they declare victory and vow to fight on.

The current zombie phenomenon echoes the astonishing aftermath of the post 2008 financial crisis and recession.  At the time, it seemed that neoliberal rhetoric and policies might be thoroughly discredited almost overnight.  How could extensive deregulation and privatization be defended in the wake of a serious crash so clearly related to the failures of those policies?  How could the social safety net be further shredded with so many people newly jobless and impoverished?  Well, surprise!  Neoliberal rhetoric bounced back on steroids, underwriting ferocious efforts to defeat new regulations of Wall Street, attack Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, and especially to defeat President Obama’s mild mannered, market oriented health care reform bill (itself a thoroughly neoliberal piece of legislation, without even the public option supported by a majority of Americans).

These radicalized zombie versions of neoliberal capitalism have not triumphed, but they have lived on to fight another day, and then another, powerfully shaping debates on the political and cultural fronts in ways that can seem, well, puzzling.  We’re way past Tom Frank’s plaintive 2004 question, “what’s the matter with Kansas?”  To ask now “what’s the matter with congress?” is only barely to scratch the surface.

There are many paths of analysis useful for understanding how we have arrived here, with a thoroughly dysfunctional end-of-empire mode of government by manufactured crisis.  After careful attention to Marx, Foucault and company, I would like to suggest that we all turn our attention momentarily to…  the plot of Atlas Shrugged.  Many of us read this cartoonish tome in high school, when its portrayal of sexy heroic rebels going on strike against mealy mouthed corrupt controlling weaklings had the capacity to thrill.  But as recent biographies of Ayn Rand by Jennifer Burns and Ann Heller, along with journalist Gary Weiss’ Ayn Rand Nation have shown, the influence of this pulpy novel extends far beyond the kind of adolescent fandom that has energized the Twilight series.  Surveys and sales figures reveal Atlas Shrugged as a broadly read and deeply influential text.  In 2009, sales of the novel tripled over the year before, and GQ magazine called Rand the year’s most influential author.  In 2010 a Zogby poll found 29% of respondents had read the novel, and half of those readers said it affected their political and ethical thinking.  David Frum noted that the Tea Party was reinventing the GOP as “the party of Ayn Rand.”

Numerous journalists have outlined the influence of Rand’s writings on politicians from Rand Paul and Paul Ryan to Ron Johnson (who defeated beloved progressive Russ Feingold in the 2010 Wisconsin senate race) and Mike Lee of Utah, a collaborator with Ted Cruz in the recent shutdown/default strategy.  But if we go a bit beyond tracing Rand’s “influence,” to tracking the feelings and fantasies drawn from her fiction, we may be able to further illuminate the energies propelling our current zombie infestation.

Recall:  In Atlas Shrugged, the mighty producer class upon whom the welfare of all depends is drawn into a fierce war with the moochers, looters, corrupt bureaucrats and crazen corporate sellouts.  All the latter are sucking on the tit of the creative titans, the job creators.  Finally, the only way to win this war is for the producers to withdraw from the political and economic landscape controlled by the moocher hordes and their enablers.  In a reversal of the labor theory of value and an appropriation of the workers’ strategy of the strike, the producers prove that all value is ultimately generated by the titans.  As the world collapses, pushed along by producer sabotage and violence, chaos and widespread suffering ensue.  The crucial point here is:  how are readers to feel about this fantasy scenario?  Does the collapse and the suffering and death tar them as immoral, and lead to reader shock and abhorrence?  Well, no, of course.  This is a Rand novel.  Readers are meant to cheer the apocalypse, because it is deserved by the stupid and weak masses and those who pander to them.  The destruction is thrilling, as are the sexy heroic titans who have caused it.  Atlas shrugs, and we are left panting lustily at the spectacle of his (or her, Rand includes female titans) glittering muscularity, while the boulder smashes those who would hold him back.
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Of course Rand didn’t invent any of this.  She was an especially canny appropriator and combiner of social darwinism and Hollywood romance (she was herself a screen writer for a time).  And the readers and politicians who take up her banner do so with massive inconsistencies—rejecting much of her version of atheist libertarianism, her support of abortion rights and opposition to drug laws, her contempt for marriage and positive portrayal of adultery, her penchant for sadomasochistic imagery.  But it’s not really her ideas that are most in play in current political dramas, it’s the affect and images drawn from her fiction that suffuse the Tea Party zeitgeist.  Were people hurt by the government shutdown?  Might a default, or even serious threat of default on the debt of the U.S. government generate a global economic crisis?  YES!  For some on the radical right, the Bible is the source for imagining the worst and finding it good—the End Times and the Rapture are here!  But for others, the relevant book is Atlas Shrugged.  The titan heroes will stand sexy, heroic and tall as the world around them collapses, as it should if “Obamacare,” sign of the world historical disastrous dominance of collectivism, remains the law of the land.

Henry and Grover, Drowning in a Bathtub

12 Oct

hes-funny

By Tavia Nyong’o

“I’m not in favor of abolishing the government. I just want to shrink it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” — Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform

“My thoughts are murder to the state.” — Henry David Thoreau, 19th century American writer, conservationist, and proto-anarchist.

Teaching Thoreau’s great essay on ‘Resistance to Civil Government‘ during a partial shutdown of the US federal government is an occasion for feelings of great ambivalence. The scholar Henry Abelove has called Thoreau’s prose persona seductive. And I, like Abelove, very much want to be seduced. But how can I extol the worldview of this fearless forerunner of queer anarchism while the anti-government wing of the governing party allows the sick and needy to go uncared for, the statistics on the jobless to go uncollected, the safety of our food supply to go unverified? There is a great deal of interest today, post-Occupy, in anarchist political philosophy and horizontal modes of organizing and action. This anarchist resurgence inspires me, even as it disquiets. I wonder: could I be mistaken in my conviction that, however much leftwing anarchism can sound like rightwing libertarianism, they ultimately form distinct and opposed political traditions?

Thoreau

For answers, I turn to Thoreau, and his queer little errand into the wild a century and half ago. Every American school child knows how Thoreau went to live in a cabin by a pond in Walden forest, and how he epitomized the search for a more basic and independent way of life. But, if we take too literally his descriptions of how he lived, and what he lived for, we can sometimes forget that the society he temporarily distanced himself from was, by today’s standards, itself incredibly spartan. Even those enjoying the heights of antebellum civilization that Thoreau rejected, did so without electricity, telephones, televisions, cars, the highway system, airplanes, or the internet. There was no federal income tax, no Social Security, no FBI or NSA. So, lest we be hopelessly anachronistic in our reading, we must keep in mind all that Thoreau could not have meant, when we try to recover what it meant for him to dwell apart from his society, what prompted him to utter his famous animadversions against government and to pronounce our individual duty to resist it.

The famously combative opening sentence of his essay on Civil Disobedience is memorable. “I heartily accept the motto–“That government is best which governs least”…Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe–“That government is best which governs not at all.” These are words to thrill a modern Tea Party activist. But just a page later we find Thoreau reformulating: “But, to speak practically and as a citizen, unlike those who call themselves no-government men, I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government.” This idea is different: Thoreau’s expectancy for improvement, his call to better government, is less often heard, even from left anarchist circles, than his call to do without it.

Thoreau was unlike the “no-government men” or at least, he wanted to be. Much rightwing rhetoric today pronounces itself with vitriol equal to Thoreau’s against government programs they oppose, like health care, public education, and regulation (versions of government Thoreau scarcely knew). But vehemence alone does not establish a shared affinity. Libertarians like to claim him, but Thoreau’s experiment in Walden was not so much a “going off the grid” like today’s survivalist fringe, so much as it was an effort to find a way to live against state-thinking. The right forgets that when Thoreau went to jail rather than pay his poll tax, he was motivated by outrage against specific state actions: the war against Mexico and the Fugitive Slave Law, a law that made the entire union hunting grounds for slavecatchers, and mocked the vaunted freedom of states like Massachusetts. It was against the states crimes against humanity and its imperial wars specifically, not government as such, that Thoreau theorized his proto-anarchism.

Consider this: today’s “government shut down” is itself actually an act of state. It was planned and put into action by a governing party at the behest of its radical Tea Party fringe. Shutdown is, as Malcolm Harris noted, a euphemism for accelerating the ‘austerity‘ being implemented across the world currently. It is not a shutdown of all state functions, least of those having to do with the conduct of wars or surveillance, and many of even the “non-essential” have been ordered back to work, sometimes without pay. Threatening to send the nation into insolvency if pet agenda items are not enacted is not “getting the government off our backs.” It is the pursuit of neoliberal governmentality by other means. As with austerity elsewhere, the target of the shutdown is not ‘government,’ but the social welfare state and popular sovereignty. Just ask the people of Detroit, who have had their elected government suspended in order to allow predatory creditors and lawyers to loot their remaining assets.

A sectional interest abusing constitutional mechanisms to hold the nation at ransom to forward a divisive agenda built, around the protection of a form of property, even at the cost of ruining lives. That describes the Fugitive Slave Law of Thoreau’s day, and it describes the attempt to defund the government and Obamacare now. The real comparison to be made is not between libertarianism and anarchism, but between the reactionary agenda, then and now, to withdraw protections from those who are seen not to matter — slaves and Mexicans then, the sick, poor, people of color and marginalized today — and to instead focus the resources of the state on the policing and imprisonment necessary to keep this drastic upward distribution of wealth from exploding into violence. It was this sort of state, the very one dreamt of by the likes of Grover Norquist, that produced thoughts of murder in Thoreau. This was the sort of state he called on us to resist through direct action.

Thoreau

I am not among those who imagine queers and other anarchists can simply recreate Thoreau’s wild way of life. Anyone who sought to live in such precise antagonism to his own particularly day as Thoreau did can hardly have thought highly of those present day communities who idealize an arbitrary point in the past, beyond which they refuse to develop. True, Thoreau scorned the pursuit of wealth, the coveting of consumer items, the longing for marriage and family. He even scorned reading the newspaper: keeping up too closely with the revolting deeds of his fellow Americans was, he remarked, like a dog returning to its vomit. His idea of revolutionary action was certainly individualistic. But what he meant by individualism was different, almost antithetical, to the possessive, endlessly flexible individual so valorized today. There is an astonishing image at the end of his essay “Slavery in Massachusetts,” where Thoreau directly links wildness, contemplation, and anarchist belief with a profound sense of entanglement with affairs of state:

I walk toward one of our ponds, but what signifies the beauty of nature when men are base? We walk to lakes to see our serenity reflected in them; when we are not serene, we go not to them. Who can be serene in a country where both the rulers and the ruled are without principle?. The remembrance of my country spoils my walk. My thoughts are murder to the State, and involuntarily go plotting against her.

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As Pete Coviello points out in a fine new book on Thoreau and his era, Thoreau’s discontent with society was paradoxically motivated by powerful desires to connect, to love and be loved. The persona of his journals is different from the persona of his essays and Walden, but they are recognizable facets of a single, complex being. Thoreau’s queerness lay in his determined avoidance of the love, marriage, family, and property accumulation that were then, as now, extolled as the principal aims of white, bourgeois life. He refused to be heteronormative then, and would have not tried very hard to be homonormative now. But even as Thoreau rejected institutionalized forms of relationality, Coviello insists, he did so in order to allow himself the lifelong struggle of articulating another form of being, one that was, like friendship itself, forever without institution. Coviello quotes from Thoreau’s Journals:

Ah, I yearn toward thee my friend, but I have not confidence in thee. I am not thou—Thou are not I…Even when I meet thee unexpectedly I part from thee with disappointment… I know a noble man; what is it hinders me from knowing him better? I know not how it is that our distrust, our hate is stronger than our love…Why are we related—yet thus unsatisfactorily. We almost are a sore to one another (Coviello, 30-31).

Thoreau is here able to say, with pitch perfect ambivalence, that the experience of friendship is one of simultaneous expectation and disappointment, love and hate. I love him, Thoreau says of his friend, and yet I hate him. Contrast this to the stance of the libertarian who says: I hate him, and I love me (and mine)! Thoreau offers a stunning insight here, in the decades before the modern hetero/homo divide was solidified. It is one that may begin to make new sense now that there are tentative signs that divide it may be crumbling. He points out that friendship exists almost everywhere without institutional support or government sanction. Not that friendship is pathologized. Indeed, it is probably universally extolled as an anodyne to the ravages of consumerist, competitive society. But even where extolled, friendship always lacks an apparatus. Thoreau’s insight into the undercommons of the affections is at least as valuable as his demonstrations on how to grow without neighbors. Here is Thoreau’s queer path into the wilds, wilds that are as much between us, whoever and wherever we are, as they are along some romantic horizon, always just beyond reach.

Further Reading

Henry Abelove, Deep Gossip (2005)

Pete Coviello, Tomorrow’s Parties (2013)

Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons (2013)

Henry David Thoreau, Walden, Civil Disobedience, and Slavery in Massachusetts

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

Queer Genealogies (Provisional Notes)

13 Jan

By Keguro Macharia

I am seduced by the prospect of queer conference panels. I anticipate their erotic charge, their intellectual promiscuities, their fleshly abundance—so many queers in one space. I crave their sustaining energy, which enables me to inhabit less queer-friendly and distinctly queer-hating spaces. So I arrived at the MLA panel, “Queer Theory Without Antinormativity,” featuring Anamarie Jagose, Robyn Wiegman, and Elizabeth Wilson, with a deep sense of anticipation. I have been struggling to find a language to describe what I experienced as the familiar violence of a field I desire and claim, to name that stubborn attachment Lauren Berlant describes as “cruel optimism” (Berlant 2011). It is a strange thing to experience oneself being absented from view—I must, wrongly, personalize this—even as the terms “we” and “our” and “us” were used at the panel often, a lot, extremely.

The panelists mused on the limits of antinormativity as an organizing principle for queer scholarship. Antinormativity, claimed Wiegman, functions as an “engine” that drives queer thinking as intervention, permitting those who invoke the term, and who critique norms and normativity in general, to believe their work is necessarily political. The critique is well taken, for, as the panelists argued, we need to be able to think more deliberately about what constitutes the political and, also, how to distinguish between the norms with which we cannot do without and those that punish and destroy.

While their papers followed different trajectories, they all agreed that “we” needed to return to queer foundations: Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Judith Butler, Gayle Rubin, and a distant Foucault.

I was nagged by the familiarity of this archive: white women. How had we come to the (familiar) point where as a rich body of work has proliferated—known, variously, as Black Queer studies, Queer of Color critique, Postcolonial Queerness, Transnational Queerness—we are urged to go back to our (white) roots? Back to our white mothers, who, we were told, we had not yet understood, not quite. Who we had misheard, and misused in the service of something that was dismissed as “the (prematurely) political.”

In case anyone dared to raise the complications of other geo-histories, we were told that this was about the history of the West.

I want to take up this challenge of the West and its queer roots by multiplying our queer genealogies through two key figures: Frantz Fanon and Hortense Spillers. Against what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie describes, in another context, as a “single story” of queer origins, midwifed by Sedgwick, Butler, Teresa de Lauretis (an absent name), I want to offer other, complementary myths of how we enter into the space called queer. I hope the “our” and “we” and “us” produced by this complementary genealogy includes (as it must) the “our” and “we” and “us” imagined through white mothers. Learning from Sharon Holland, I want to persist “in the stubborn insistence that we do belong to one another despite our every effort at home and in the institution, to lose track of, if not forget altogether, such belonging.” (2012: 15)

*

Let us proceed with Sedgwick’s own strategy: by insisting that this is about the history of the West. Fanon’s West.

By the late 1990s, as Queer studies took disciplinary shape and gained muscle, the field had decided to abandon Fanon. While Fanon was understood as a theorist of blackness and an interruption into psychoanalysis, he was homophobic, unavailable for Queer studies. Proclaimed as such by Diana Fuss, Lee Edelman, and Kobena Mercer, Fanon became an impossible figure for Queer studies (Fuss 1994; Edelmen 1994; Mercer 1996). And here, I must borrow more language from Holland: Fanon could be dismissed with “glee” (2012: 14). While Darieck Scott (2010) has made the Fanon of Wretched of the Earth newly available, Black Skin, White Masks remains safely bracketed.

This bracketing has been strategic, as it means certain strands of Queer studies have ignored the problem race presents for something called the homosexual. If, following Fanon, the Negro represents genitality within colonial modernity, and if the term “homosexual” names a desire for genitality, then desire itself must be directed toward—or routed through—blackness understood as that which incarnates desire for/as genitality. One could claim this is a flattened reading of the homosexual within colonial modernity, but, with Robert Reid-Pharr, I want to insist that “If there is one thing that marks us as queer . . . then it is undoubtedly our relationships to the body, particularly the expansive ways in which we utilize and combine vaginas, penises, breasts, buttocks, hands, arms, feet, stomachs, mouths and tongues in our expressions of not only intimacy, love, and lust but also and more importantly shame, contempt, despair, and hate,” (2001: 85). If such embodiedness rubs the wrong way, then one might simply go with Holland’s claim that “having a right to our queer desires is a fundamental tenet of queer theorizing” (2012: 45). If one reads Fanon a particular way, desire must be routed through, worked through, approached through blackness as that which makes desire possible within colonial modernity, which is to say, modernity.

If a certain strand of Queer studies has been too willing to abandon Fanon, Fanon remains stubbornly attached to Queer studies, demanding an accounting of how blackness comes to figure within and as desire, as the portal to homosexuality as desire. And if the materiality of blackness forces a mad dash for psychic figuration, Fanon has already been there: the Negro and the Negro’s genitality are psychic figurations within colonial modernity that the homosexual cannot do without.

*

If Fanon poses a problem for the homosexual, Hortense Spillers poses a problem for sex and gender. In “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Spillers complicates certain queer strategies: the distinction between gender and sex, the undoing of this distinction, the role of the performative, the distinction between subject and abject, the idea of the dominant and the marginal, normativities and radicals, and so on. To these fine, necessary distinctions, Spillers, like Fanon, poses the problem of colonial modernity as the problem of “the thing.”

Here is one instance of the problem:

The [New World] order, with its sequence written in blood, represents for its African and indigenous peoples a scene of actual mutilation, dismemberment, and exile. First of all, their New World, diasporic flight marked a theft of the body – a willful and violent (and unimaginable from this distance) severing of the captive body from its motive will, its active desire. Under these conditions, we lose at least gender difference in the outcome, and the female body and the male body become a territory of cultural and political maneuver, not at all gender-related, gender-specific. But this body, at least from the point of view of the captive community, focuses a private and particular space, at which point of convergence, biological, sexual, social, cultural, linguistic, ritualistic, and psychological fortunes join. This profound intimacy of interlocking detail, is disrupted, however, by externally imposed meanings and uses: 1) the captive body becomes the source of an irresistible, destructive sensuality [hear Fanon here]; 2) at the same time – in stunning contradiction – the captive body reduces to a thing, becoming being for the captor; 3) in this absence from a subject position, the captured sexualities provide a physical and biological expression of “otherness”; 4) as a category of “otherness,” the captive body translates into a potential for pornotroping and embodies sheer physical powerlessness that slides into a more general “powerlessness,” resonating through various centers of human and social meaning. (1987: 67)

The thing-making project of New World subject production (the “captive body” is “being” for the captor”) refuses the too-celebratory discussions of undifferentiated gender and un-gendering in Queer studies. The much-heralded “blur” and “undecidability” understood as conditions of freedom must contend with its longer genealogy in a thing-making project. One cannot uncritically celebrate gender or sex undecidability. Instead, one must work through the micro- and macro-positions created in the New World: “captive body,” “thing,” “captured sexualities,” “otherness,” “potential for pornotroping,” “sheer powerlessness.” How might these terms and their emergence from slavery provide other ways to approach Queerness? How do we work through the problem of the “thing” in that micro-transition from “captured bodies” to “captured sexualities,” where thingness becomes a mediating term, a filter, a catalyst, a door? How is sexuality within colonial modernity always (and only) approachable through the thing?

What might a Queer studies that begins with, or engages, the problem of the “thing” look like? How might the problem of the thing compel us to re-think and re-work Sedgwick’s powerful first axiom: “People are different from each other” to ask, instead, how we come to think of the term “people” and what that term brackets and makes impossible. How might the unthinkability of blackness direct our queer gazes?

*

Something radical—at the root—has happened in Queer studies over the past decade, sometimes, though not always, through Fanon and Spillers. Fred Moten (2008) has taken up the problem of the “thing” for blackness, charting blackness as “fugitive movement in and out of the frame, bar, or whatever externally imposed social logic,” including, I would add, that which governs Sedgwick’s useful distinction between homo and hetero within Western modernity. Moten tasks us to track what “escapes” that figuration of time and being. If we stay within the fiction of a hermetic West, something that Rudi Bleys’s reading of the ethnographic imagination makes difficult, but still (1996). If we stay with this fiction, then work by Christina Sharpe, Omise’eke Tinsley, Ricardo Ortiz, José Muñoz, Nayan Shah, Mark Rifkin, and many others has taught us that far from being close to exhausted, the project of reading queerness in the West remains to be done, remains radicalizing, always demanding a (re)turn to places and times we had not known to look or, having looked, we had not known how to think about.

If the paradigms we have relied on thus far—antinormavity, say—no longer suffice because of our increasingly multiply entangled and multiplying geo-histories, if we need to forge contingent tools that will allow us to keep speaking with each other across increasingly disparate times and spaces, if we must jettison everything we thought we knew to pursue the “not yet here” Muñoz so richly invokes, so be it.

But, to take language from Essex Hemphill, “don’t let loneliness / kill us” (1992:165) Hemphill’s “us” is what is at stake—the “us” I desire, the one I went to the panel seeking, the “us” that was pronounced through negation.

It could have been otherwise.

It should have been otherwise.

 


Works Cited

Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).

Rudi C. Bleys, The Geography of Perversion: Male-to-Male Sexual Behavior Outside the West and the Ethnographic Imagination, 1750-1918 (New York: NYU Press, 1996).

Lee Edelman, Homographesis: Essays in Gay Literary and Cultural Theory (New York: Routledge, 1994)

Diana Fuss, “Interior Colonies: Frantz Fanon and the Politics of Identification,” Diacritics 24. 2-3 (1994): 19-42

Essex Hemphill, “Heavy Corners,” Ceremonies: Prose and Poetry (New York: Plume, 1992)

Sharon Patricia Holland, The Erotic Life of Racism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012), 15. (Fuss 1994; Edelmen 1994; Mercer 1996)

Kobena Mercer, “Decolonization and Disappointment: Reading Fanon’s Sexual Politics,” The Fact of Blackness: Frantz Fanon and Visual Representation, ed. Alan Read (Seattle: Bay Press, 1996).

Fred Moten, “The Case of Blackness,” Criticism 50.2 (2008): 177-218.

José Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: NYU Press, 2009)

Ricardo Ortiz, Cultural Erotics in Cuban America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007)

Robert Reid-Pharr, Black Gay Man: Essays (New York: New York University Press, 2001).

Mark Rifkin, When Did Indians Become Straight? Kinship, The History of Sexuality, and Native Sovereignty (New York: OUP, 2011).

Darieck Scott, Extravagant Abjection: Blackness, Power, and Sexuality in the African American Literary Imagination (New York: New York University Press, 2010).

Nayan Shah, Stranger Intimacy: Contesting Race, Sexuality, and the Law in the North American West (CA: University of California Press, 2012)

Christina Sharpe, Monstrous Intimacies: Making Post-Slavery Subjects (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010)

Hortense Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics 17.2 (1987).

Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley, Thiefing Sugar: Eroticism Between Women in Caribbean Literature (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010)

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.

Darth Vader and Occupy Wall Street: A TwitterEssay by Ira Livingston

13 Nov 9259211-large

1.

There’s a new Volkswagen ad in which a child dressed as Darth Vader tries to use “The Force” to control objects in the world.

Dad comes home from work and, standing with mom at the kitchen window, sees his child

trying to mind-control the family car in the driveway.  The car starts as if by magic,

then you see that dad has secretly started it with a remote-control device, validating the child’s belief in his own super powers.

This is a classic postmodern ad in that the viewer is shown exactly how the trick is played but made to believe it anyway.

Presumably, even for dad (whose role is otherwise limited to going back and forth to work), starting one’s car remotely

still bestows the feeling of having superpowers.  But just ask power to do what? and you see

that what’s being sold as magical omnipotence is just the ability to start a car with a button instead of a key.

At worst, this pitch is allied with what is recognizable as the fascist tendencies of capitalism

insofar as fascism is defined by the way it offers people an inflated, mythic sense of themselves– and a phantasmatic sense of belonging–

while systematically stripping them of any real agency and political power.  Go to work. Buy a new car.  You’re a superhero!

Of course I’m not suggesting a fine company like Volkswagen could now have or could ever have had anything to do with fascism!

But there is another side of this.  What makes the ad work is its psychological validity.

Unless parents serve their children’s sense of magical omnipotence, their kids will be pathologically depressed at best, or simply dead.

The infant cries and food appears.  He squirms in frustration because he wants a toy but lacks the strength and coordination to reach it,

and mom or dad see this and magically make it happen.  The fantasy of sovereign agency and omnipotent power

precedes, is necessary to, and continues to underlie the acquisition of actual agency and power– the alternative is learned helplessness.

Given these two opposed perspectives, how can we think through this?

Even if you consider the ad a trivial matter, the contradiction is stark and the stakes seem pretty high.

To take the question to another register: do Occupy Wall Street and related actions empower people?

Do they contribute to mobilizing and opening up political discourse?  Or can they be described as simple venting, or worse,

part of some systemic damage control mechanism that offers aesthetic or symbolic shows at the expense of real political mobilization?

As if the revolution were a car and O.W.S. the remote control device that will turn it on?

2.

As you’d expect, many right-wingers but also some so-called leftists are bending over backwards to to assure us

that this is just an infantile display, that we are clutching at straws, that no sustained movement can come from it.

In the face of contradiction, or even just because it’s early days, how can they be so sure?

What makes these little Darth Vaders pretend to knowledge that one couldn’t possibly have at this stage?

As philosopher Jacques Derrida put it, “coherence in contradiction expresses the force of a desire.”

Whatever else its content, the desire seeks “a reassuring certitude” by which “anxiety can be mastered.”

The anxiety comes from “being implicated,” from being “at stake in the game”– as it seems to me we are all at stake here.

Taking off from Derrida, we can speculate that what the dismissers desire, what they have to lose,

is the structuring fantasy of a single center, a single origin or ground or goal, a single line of causality,

a single kind of political agency, a single public sphere, a single rationality and discourse, a single left and right–

all of what Occupy Wall Street defies.

A famous prayer asks for courage, serenity, and “the wisdom always to know the difference” between what can be changed and what can’t.

Better pray instead for the folly not to know the difference!

And as my old pal William Blake put it, “if the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.”

3.

What if politics–  what if the world– did not work exactly as we know?

What if things were more intricately, globally and locally networked in a complex ecology,

so that we could not necessarily predict how events in one realm might reverberate in another?

What if the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil could Set Off a Tornado in Texas?

What if a mathematician’s algorithms could trigger a stock-market collapse?

What if tiny, hyperlocalized genetic mutations could, through a process of natural selection, lead to collective evolution?

Wouldn’t that be incredibly weird?

What if Occupy Wall Street could be described as a metaphor (the usual phrase is merely a metaphor)

for the movement in which we are hoping it will participate, meaning that the occupations of particular places,

such as Zucotti Park near Wall Street, resonate with how one tries to establish a livable foothold in any inhospitable space–

whether it be the economy, the academy, the family, identity, theory?  And what if these resonances are real and contagious?

What if The Coming Insurrection will take “the shape of a music, whose focal points,

though dispersed in time and space,

succeed in imposing the rhythm of their own vibrations”?

What if what we consider solid realities– like bridges of steel and concrete– could one fine day begin to undulate and break apart?

And when we ask why, what if it turned out that the answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind?  And what if, in the present conjuncture,

we could gain more leverage not by asserting knowledge but by persistently asking questions (as that song famously does)?

What if even God appeared to his faithful out of a whirlwind and addressed them with an epic series of questions,

designed to expose their presumption to knowledge they could not possibly have?

4.

Occupy Wall Street has never suffered from a lack of rational plans and proposals, as some allege.

Here’s some for you: progressive taxes, financial regulation, health care, jobs, socialism.  Take your pick.  I have more.

If the left suffers from anything now it seems more like the lack of emotional coherence,

part of what Raymond Williams called a “structure of feeling.”   This is part of what OWS is helping to discover, to invent.

Assorted already-existing emotional coherences are available, of course.

The sober left intellectuals, with their reassuring certitude that Occupy Wall Street is a flash in the pan,

have their manly stoicism and depressive clarity.  The Tea Party has its righteous indignation,

or as historian Joan Scott translated the Tea Party stance into psychoanalytic terms, the outcry “they’ve stolen our jouissance!”

As for the rest of us: well, at least nobody has stolen our jouissance!  If you visit Occupy Wall Street,

you will hear hundreds of lively political conversations– in fact, this is one of the hallmarks of the occupation–

and among them will be careful analysis, magic thinking, policy proposals, paranoid ramblings, theorizing, new-age spiritualism, and so on,

but over them all, under them all, behind them all, running through them all is not exactly righteous indignation,

which comes from more privilege–  more wounded sense of right and dignity– than most of those present possess.

There is the everpresent tenor of surrealism, which comes from the sense that dominant discourse is so thoroughly locked down–

so foreclosed–  and political speech so narrowly defined that one cannot restrict oneself to the use of these tools

without undermining from the outset what one hopes to accomplish.  Ultimately, as Audre Lorde said,

“the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”  But this is not only a matter of tools, of instrumental strategies.

Surrealism arises when what counts as reality itself is so impoverished,

when what passes for intelligible politics, viable social identities, reasonable careers and aspirations

are so hobbling, corrosive and suffocating as to make the reality of neoliberal late capitalism uninhabitable.

When you can’t inhabit it, occupy it!

5.

Over all the conversations, under them all, behind them all, running through them all

there is at least– a vitality.

As Brooklyn artist Dread Scott said about OWS: “there’s oxygen in the room again.”

Of course, I have to point out, you can’t recognize constructive politics by vitality alone.

I recently watched a Wagner opera and was struck by the histrionics, tragic gender politics, erotic intensities

of hierarchy and duty and family: very lively indeed!  I was mesmerized– but I also understood for the first time

something about the aliveness and emotional intensity captured by Nazism.

Much of the work of politics is affective labor, the work of translating vitality into a stance.

Lately I’ve been listening to old Woody Guthrie songs (more my style, admittedly) and marvelling at how seamlessly

the songs combine the stances of worker, empathic ally of immigrants and outlaws, socialist, proud patriot, anti-fascist–

a combination mostly unthinkable today.  But I bring this up not at all to say those were the days.

For one thing, they never were the days– and for another, they’re still the days:

Rich man took my home and drove me from my door

And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.

In any case, fascism remains and will remain one of the ongoing tendencies of capitalism, and not only as a distant spectre.

Even if you were inclined to discount clearer and nearer dangers that demagogues can be elected, scapegoats systematically targeted,

people mobilized in favor of symbolic but deadly wars, or perpetual warfare sold as Manichaean good-versus-evil struggle–

what about the demagogues, scapegoating, symbolic and perpetual wars we already have?

What about the mazes we run to get the cheese and avoid the shocks, the levers we push to get the pellets

of whatever it is, the simulacra of identity and belonging being sold to us, and behind all that, underneath it all,

the dark energy pushing all of us apart?

What if, at the most fundamental level, we are engaged not so much in an attempt to enact specific reforms

nor to foment a one-off revolution, but in an ongoing struggle against fascism, to make the world livable,

and what if, in this, we are most aligned with the everyday work of various other queers, workers, culture-crossers, women,

immigrants, and other displaced people?  What if, in our own lifetimes, we will only know small and local victories,

that resonate only faintly, sparks that crackle and wink out, glowing embers that never burst into flame?

Would that warmth be enough to sustain us?

6.

In the interests of full disclosure, let me acknowledge where I’m coming from: I’m a writer.  It’s an interesting moment for me.

The presidency of George W. Bush, as you may be aware, was also a nightmare for anyone who cares about language.

Language itself seemed to be in the process of being continually, systematically evacuated of meaning and life.

After that, to hear Obama speak with intelligence and presence– even with precise grammar– could bring tears to my eyes.

That’s not enough, but it is something.  So it’s interesting to me to discover that the discursive spaces at Occupy Wall Street

are mostly not my spaces.  Even though I make my living speaking (as a teacher, anyway), I’m not inclined to speak there,

and the intellectuals I have heard speak there seem somewhat out of their element too.

In fact, the durational performance– the occupation– at the heart of OWS seems actively somehow to disturb and displace speech,

to make it plural (like the human microphone), to make no one iteration definitive.  But although I’m not inclined to speak,

it feels good to me!  This is partly because the massive, single acoustic space of traditional protest rallies always felt to me

like Hitler or Mussolini should be haranguing the crowd from a balcony.  You really want a unified public sphere?

I experience this displacement of speech, of all that it is now possible to say, as  something more like thinking,

more like writing, a process of reaching for what wants to be said but is not yet possible to say.

You there, with your head bent down!  Why are you mumbling inarticulately to yourself?

I’m thinking.

7.

If the fantasy of magic superpowers underlies all agency, then yes, at some level I must believe the world turns around my words

and around all words that move me.  On the other hand, I know Auden was right:

“poetry makes nothing happen.”

If language can be understood as a parasite or a symbiotic entity that co-evolved with our brains, then yes,

I am one of those traitors to my species that serve the entity known as language. That’s the extreme version, anyway.

But what if writers and intellectuals are also neither servants nor traitors nor leaders but just one kind of lifeform among many,

each of which, even in the name of simple diversity, has a claim to life,

or even more simply, what if a text makes no claim at all but the bare fact of its aliveness in the moment of its being written and read?

This is why I want to say to those occupying Wall Street, and occupying and animating these words and thoughts, thank you.

As a Word Person, it’s taken me 50 years to admit– as various therapists and lots of less verbal people have been telling me–

that the words themselves are always trumped by the ways they are wielded, the feelings that animate them.

“In those days,” as Virginia Woolf wrote wistfully about the days before the First World War,

“every conversation seemed to have been accompanied by a sort of humming noise,

not articulate, but musical, exciting, which changed the value of the words themselves.”

So what is it, over all the conversations at Occupy Wall Street, under them all, behind them all, running through them all?

Perversely, one of the most notoriously difficult writers of all time, psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan,

gives me slogans for the placards with which I want to march out of here:

THE FUNCTION OF LANGUAGE IS NOT TO INFORM BUT TO INVOKE.

WHAT CONSTITUTES ME AS A SUBJECT IS MY QUESTION.

(Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Thad Ziolkowski for insight into the VW ad, Jennifer Miller for citing Dread Scott, and apologies to Jayna for the Woody Guthrie references!)

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