In a world of hokey motivational posters and cheap self-esteem peddlers that encourage us to learn from our mistakes and strive toward self-improvement, Judith Halberstam turns toward the wisdom of gay memoirist Quentin Crisp who quipped, “If at first you don’t succeed, failure may be your style.” The Queer Art of Failure (Duke University Press) re-examines how we conceive of the idea of failure in our society, not so that we may correct ourselves, but so that we may see how our various “failures” may actually produce a preferable alternative to conformist lifestyles and the status quo.
Halberstam investigates how “low culture,” popular films and media not normally thought of as “high art,” can produce incisive critiques of a mass culture that privileges conformity and complacency and marginalizes those who do not fit its ideals.
Asking, “what kinds of reward can failure offer us?” Halberstam responds that it “allows us to escape the punishing norms that discipline behavior and manage human development with the goal of delivering us from unruly childhoods to predictable adulthoods.” The privileging of the child and the childish does not rehash the cliché of childhood innocence or Whitney Houston’s cheesy “I believe that children are the future” mantra, but instead argues that the child’s anarchic, unorganized vision of the world around them sees the flaws in our society that we normally ignore.
Halberstam counterintuitively yet convincingly argues that “childish” media such as animated films depend on the child’s attentiveness to these hidden absurdities deep in the foundation of adult society and exploit them for comedic value. The hen house revolt in Chicken Run and the communitarian ethics of Bee Movie and A Bug’s Life become our 21st century heirs to Marx’s critique of capitalism and patriarchy. By analyzing the motley crew of anthropomorphic species, monsters and objects that band together in these kid films (Monsters Inc, Toy Story, Over the Hedge, etc.) Halberstam stresses that modern advances in animation have allowed us to more vividly imagine and depict alternative structures of kinship and subjectivity.
In subsequent chapters, Halberstam broadens the theme of failure to encompass different forms of resistance to homogenizing culture. Halberstam uses the idiocy of Dude Where’s My Car as an “extended meditation on the precise terms of the relationship between whiteness, labor, and amnesia.” The film demonstrates how dominant culture strategically uses “forgetting” in order to ignore the racism, sexism, and homophobia of the past. Halberstam then illustrates how queer individuals can use the amnesiac fish “Dory” from Finding Nemo as an example for tactically forgetting and thereby subverting the expectations of society. Later, Halberstam argues for practices of “shadow feminisms” where the perceived “failure” of women to rise up and agitate for rights a la the feminist movement of the 70s could actually be an opportunity to use passivity as a weapon for self-control. An analysis of masochism in the art of Yoko Ono and the novels of Elfriede Jelinek re-envisions submission not as victimhood, but as a way that the individual can exercise power from a position low on the social hierarchy.
Yet, The Queer Art of Failure is not inherently optimistic or laudatory. In what will be considered the most controversial chapter, Halberstam uncovers the repressed history of homosexuality’s interest in and collaboration with the politics and aesthetics of fascism. Halberstam recalls the history of early German gay organizations in the 20s and how the perceived failure of effeminate homosexual men to become properly masculine state subjects encouraged other gay men to embrace the misogynistic, hyper-masculine ideals that the Nazi party would later promote. Although this image of gays collaborating with the Nazis against other gays is unnerving and Halberstam’s later exploration of how fascist aesthetics influenced queer artists like Tom of Finland is going to make some readers uncomfortable, this fearless inquiry is nonetheless vital to composing an ethical, comprehensive vision of GLBT history.
Readers of Halberstam’s previous work will immediately see how The Queer Art of Failure dovetails perfectly with the scope and archive of 2005’s In a Queer Time and Place, while newcomers will be guided gently into to the often abstruse world of queer theory by Halberstam’s comprehensible writing. The book’s prose style is deeply intellectual, yet playful, ironic, and most importantly, accessible to even those with no background in literary theory. Because Halberstam uses pop-culture examples, The Queer Art of Failure is an ideal text for introducing queer theory to beginners. The politics of heteronormativity and sexual dissidence has never appeared as lucid as it does now that we have SpongeBob SquarePants as our guide.