Tag Archives: Halberstam

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

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by Jack Halberstam

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bullybloggers on Failure and the Future of Queer Studies

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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.

Justifiable Matricide: Backlashing Faludi By Jack Halberstam

19 Oct

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Girl Who Played With Queer Utopia

6 Aug

By Jack Halberstam

Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander

So, once the commotion about the lesbian non-event of the year – the release of The Kids Are All Right – blows over, and the dust settles, and those who want to defend it are now stuck with it, the rest of us can finally move on to something bigger and better. Indeed, those of us who were searching for something more in terms of representational drama, narrative excitement, queer fantasy and edgy cinema would do well to look to Sweden and to the rapidly unfolding global phenomenon of Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander in the Millennium series. For those of you who don’t know who Lisbeth Salander is, or anyone who has spent the summer in a cave, Salander is the awesomely queer, righteously violent and stunningly smart anti-heroine of a brilliantly plotted crime series by the late Stieg Larsson, now made into a series of films. Larsson, author of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, died in 2004 and he never knew just how mega-successful his mini crime franchise was to become. Larsson left a mess in his wake involving his estate and his long-time girlfriend, Eva Gabrielsson, has been pitted against his brother and father in competing claims for the money that comes pouring in from the books. Larsson himself was an intriguing character: a part-time journalist, a socialist, a libertarian anarchist, a feminist and a writer, Larsson spent considerable time researching Sweden’s right-wing extremist groups and uncovering a longer tradition of Swedish Nazism. This research makes its way into the Millennium trilogy and ties contemporary corporate greed, sex trafficking and domestic violence, in really interesting ways, to the long aftermath of European fascism.

The crime novel and its contemporary cousin the techno-thriller tend not to be vehicles for lefty politics and more often, in the last few decades, these have been fairly conservative genres pitting good guys (Americans) against bad guys (Russians, terrorists, etc.). This is a vast simplification of these genres and yet conservative writers like Tom Clancy and Michael Crichton tend to dominate the field with conspiracy theories and leftover Cold War politics. And the movie-plexes are similarly full of action features pitting double or triple American agents against bad Russians or nefarious middle-easterners. In fact, in this summer’s dreadful Angelina Jolie blockbuster, Salt (byline: Who Is Salt? Answer: Who Cares?), the twists and turns of the crazy Russian brainwashing plot are laughable and Jolie’s anorexic frame and mono-syllabic acting made her seem less like a high-powered super agent and more like jet-lagged, starving and washed up super model …especially after seeing Noomi Rapace bring Lisbeth Salander to life in the first of the Millennium books to hit the big screen: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Stieg Larsson’s heroine and her sidekick, the cool Mikael Blomkvist (played by Michael Nyqvist), are not fighting imaginary commies or North Koreans, they actually have some real fish to fry. In the first novel in the series, Blomkvist goes after a fraudulent businessman and then he gets hired to investigate the murky past of a prominent Swedish family who have murder, incest and Nazism hidden in their family closets. In the second novel (and then film), Salander becomes more central and the scene shifts from international finance and domestic violence to international sex trafficking and patricide.

Mån Som Hatar Kvinnor

The original title of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo in Swedish was Men Who Hate Women (Män Som Hatar Kvinnor) and indeed this title, one to which Larsson was totally committed, could easily be the master title for the whole series. Salander, a slightly autistic hacker with a violent past, repeatedly goes after the individual men who have screwed her over in her own life but also the organizations and institutions that support them (psychiatry, banks, the law just to name a few). Indeed, these novels seem to thumb their noses at the ridiculously elaborate conspiracy theories of a Dan Brown novel and they seem to say that if you want a good conspiracy theory, just start with a radical feminist take on patriarchy! Critics have debated just how feminist the Millennium series actually is given how much rape and violence and incest is represented here but Larsson’s point in showing so much violence against women is to underscore how ubiquitous the violence really is. The feminist component to the trilogy rests partly with the character of Salander and partly with the complex plotting which repeatedly links family violence to larger systems of political and economic violence and which implies that any resolution to the plot has to seek social justice by connecting the intimate and personal politics of the home to the public and transnational politics of the economy. The Swedish films made from the novels retain all the complexities of the plot but apparently American versions of the films are in the works and who knows how that will go – maybe they will star Angelina Jolie and the corporate criminals will suddenly all be Russian double agents!

Anyway, while we have a moment to revel in the manic, caffeine induced mayhem of Millennium before the American versions appear, let’s celebrate Salander, a queer utopian and feminist vigilante. In Valerie Solanas style, Lisbeth Salander tries to take down the men who hate women one at a time and with a variety of tools and weapons. Noomi Rapace, who plays Salander in the Swedish films series, shares a very slender build with Angelina Jolie and like Jolie, she does a lot of scowling and pouting (although Jolie often tries to do both at the same time to hilarious effect in Salt). But Rapace as Salander brings a genuine sense of rage to her role and in The Girl Who Played With Fire, she channels her rage into a few well-executing scenes of punishment! Indeed, in the film version of The Girl Who Played With Fire, in addition to a truly feminist plot, we also see excellent lesbian sex between Salander and her hot femme girlfriend, kickboxer Miriam Wu. We also learn about the intricate connections between government, police forces and international sex traffickers, and there is some good old patricide thrown in for good measure. Like I said, The Kids Are All Right begins to look like an after school special in comparison!


The real appeal of both the Millennium books and the films made from the books is definitely the queerness of Salander. And while Salander has sex with men as well as with women, her demeanor, her politics and her attitude in the books and the films is determinedly queer. What’s more, she manages to hate men (as in the meaning of men in a male-dominated world) without losing the ability to have interesting friendships and occasional sex with men (as in individual people living in masculine gendered bodies). Salander is a perfect queer heroine in terms of the intensity of her commitments, the flexibility of her sexual orientation and her gender and her complete commitment to a world beyond the conventional family. In moody scenes of Salander staring out of her Stockholm apartment window, drinking coffee and kicking her boots up onto the window seat, Salander seems to be rooted in the real world of corporate crimes and domestic violence but always looking across the cold city towards some other realm of vigilante feminist violence, queer dark clubs and cyber worlds of misfits and loners. Like Neo in the Matrix, Salander knows that the line between the real and the virtual is fast disappearing; like Ripley in Alien, Salander imagines herself as the last line of defense between masculinist corporate greed and the little people; and like a queer comic book hero come at last to save the world, Salander reaches into her bag of tricks and always manages to pull out the right tool for the job. In his depiction of Salander and her struggles, Stieg Larsson has single-handedly redirected the techno-thriller away from conspiracy theories about incipient world socialism and away from narratives bashing the very idea of global warming, and he has pointed clearly to the true potential of the genre: the techno-thriller, after Larsson, can be and must be a vehicle for some weird customized combination of postmodern radical feminism, queer sociality, anti-fascist anti-capitalist neo-anarchist ass-kicking, and some “in your face” doses of what Jose E. Munoz in Cruising Utopia calls “critical idealism.” And now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to the last book in the trilogy…

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