The Queer Art of Failure
by J Halberstam
Amazon, Barnes and Noble
I’ve been a little leery about including scholarly texts on this blog because I want it to be as accessible as possible, and many scholarly works aren’t interested in being accessible to the average person. They’ve all got interesting and important ideas in them, but many expect their readers to ‘learn the language,’ so to speak, and not everyone has time for that. Fortunately Jack (formerly known as Judith) Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure is geared as much towards the average reader as it is towards academics, which is fitting given the subject matter. As an example of this, it opens with a quote from Spongebob Squarepants.
Halberstam’s purpose, as evidenced in the title, is to explore what failure means in a modern society so enamored with success:
What kinds of rewards can failure offer us? Perhaps most obviously, failure allows us to escape the punishing norms that discipline behavior and manage human development with the goal of delivering us from unruly childhoods to orderly and predictable adulthoods. Failure preserves some of the wondrous anarchy of childhood and disturbs the supposedly clean boundaries between adults and children, winners and losers. And while failure certainly comes accompanied by a host of negative affects, such as disappointment, disillusionment, and despair, it also provides the opportunity to use these negative affects to poke holes in the toxic positivity of contemporary life. (3)
To do this, Halberstam offers close readings of films and texts often considered to be ‘low’ culture, ‘un-serious’ works too popular or simple to be considered intellectual such as Finding Nemo, Chicken Run, or Dude, Where’s My Car? But he also explores other forms of failure, as in his chapters on “Shadow Feminisms” or the relationship between homosexuality and facism (I admit this chapter fell a little flat for me). And all of this analysis is written in a fairly straightforward, if verbose, style, complete with jokes and even pictures. It is in my opinion exemplary of the kind of public-facing scholarship academics have the responsibility to produce. That doesn’t mean you won’t have to bust out the dictionary occasionally, but you don’t need to immerse yourself in Lacanian thought the way you might for a text like No Future.
Halberstam’s title alone evoked a certain reaction from me. I felt I already knew, intuitively, what the queer art of failure was. Because aren’t all queer people failures in the eyes of mainstream society? Failures to marry (correctly), failures to reproduce (naturally), failures to conform to binary gender? It seems to me that this is something all queer people struggle with on some level, whether they’re aware of it or not. We lost the game before we ever had the chance to play. Coming to terms with that is a big part of accepting who we are, which is why books like The Velvet Rage have been so impactful as they guide readers to that realization. But once I got there, I found queer failure to be supremely liberating. My identity is no longer built around a desire to achieve an unattainable, heternormative model of success, and I’m much happier for it. I am free, in my failure, to define success for myself, to create a new game or attempt to change the old.
I wanted to offer up my own anecdote on the benefits of failure. I like to play Dungeons and Dragons, a fantasy roleplaying game (yes, that one). Part of the game is about defeating monsters, but another part is about collaborative storytelling, and that’s the part I really care about. Very often in these games there is a type of player that always frustrates me. This type of player is concerned almost exclusively with how powerful they can make their character. They want to be the strongest, the best, and to never lose. But I think losing, failing, is the best part of D&D. We know how the story is ‘supposed’ to go: the good guys beat the bad guys and save the world. That’s what we’ll get if we always win, and that’s a painfully boring and predictable story. What’s the point of having this complex role playing system if we never make proper use of it? Victory really only has one outcome, but failure has many. Who knows what will happen if we fail to break a door down or to trick the guard into letting us by? Failure demands more from the players than does victory. It forces us to think on our feet, to be creative and to subvert expectations. It takes a two-dimensional story about good and evil and makes it into a three dimensional one with twists, turns, and fleshed out characters. The game is better with failure, in fact, there’s no game without it. When you win, it’s over, and if there was ever an activity where the journey is more important than the destination, it’s D&D. Halberstam wants us to see failure as more than just an obstacle to success, and I think that’s an attitude worth taking with us into whatever it is we’re doing, whether it’s D&D or life.