The Queer Art of Failureby Judith Halberstam
The Queer Art of Failure is about finding alternatives—to conventional understandings of success in a heteronormative, capitalist society; to academic disciplines that confirm what is already known according to approved methods of knowing; and to cultural criticism that claims to break new ground but cleaves to conventional archives. Judith Halberstam proposes “low theory” as a mode of thinking and writing that operates at many different levels at once. Low theory is derived from eccentric archives. It runs the risk of not being taken seriously. It entails a willingness to fail and to lose one’s way, to pursue difficult questions about complicity, and to find counterintuitive forms of resistance. Tacking back and forth between high theory and low theory, high culture and low culture, Halberstam looks for the unexpected and subversive in popular culture, avant-garde performance, and queer art. She pays particular attention to animated children’s films, revealing narratives filled with unexpected encounters between the childish, the transformative, and the queer. Failure sometimes offers more creative, cooperative, and surprising ways of being in the world, even as it forces us to face the dark side of life, love, and libido.
A lively and thought-provoking examination of how the homogenizing tendencies of modern society might be resisted through the creative application of failure, forgetting, and passivity, actions generally deemed of little value within today's capitalist models of success. . . . [A]s a close reader of popular culture, she is exemplary, and as a valiant attempt to find value in positions and attitudes such as negativity that our modern success-oriented society disdains, this study is never less than thrilling.” - Publishers Weekly
“Queer Theory using Spongebob Squarepants? Totally there... Underdogs and shoddy queers can take wordy, erudite solace in Halberstam’s words.” - Gay Times
“[H]ere is a book well worth the time and attention it takes to read it and to consider its implications. Most especially in that Judith Halberstam writes not only with authority, but also with genuine wit, which leaves the reader laughing out loud from time to time, something quite unknown until now in books of queer theory. Further, Ms. Halberstam presents her case with deep insight into human nature, and into our deepset cultural need to simplify our definition of the word success—and, up until now, our seeming need to ignore the creative implications of failure.” - Vinton Rafe McCabe, New York Journal of Books
“‘All losers are the heirs of those who have lost before them.’ The Queer Art of Failure narrates hilarious and swerving outlaw comedies of refusal, absurdity, and exuberant being, acting in solidarity with its resident artists—from SpongeBob SquarePants to Yoko Ono. But the book hums a dark tone, too. The arts of normative style, playing out on sexual, racialized, gendered, and colonial bodies and landscapes, are painful to witness, even here. No artist or critic can repair the damage, erasing history, but Judith Halberstam wields all of the weapons that intelligence (and cartoons) can bring against the harsh work of conventionality.”—Lauren Berlant, author of Cruel Optimism
“The Queer Art of Failure is a manifesto for cultural studies. It self-consciously risks being dismissed or trashed in order to rescue alternative objects of analysis, methods of knowing, and ways of communicating. Its stakes are clear. It’s not attempting to argue for the recovery of its materials from obscurity; it values forgetting and obsolescence. It’s not claiming to retool our understanding of major work; it traffics unapologetically in the minor. And it doesn’t pretend to comprehensive scholarship; it offers up plot summaries and allegorical readings with glee.”—Elizabeth Freeman, author of Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories
“The Queer Art of Failure is inspired, provocative, and hilarious. More significantly, it is a deft evisceration of the regulative rigidities of disciplinarity and the pretensions of ‘high theory.’ Judith Halberstam’s advocacy of ‘silly archives’ and ‘low theory’ is much more than a carnivalesque skewering of the earnest self-seriousness of much academic scholarship; it is a populist clarion call for expansive democratic visions of what it is we are writing about and for whom we think we are writing.” —Lisa Duggan, author of The Twilight of Equality? Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on Democracy
“Failure abounds all around us: economies collapse, nation-states falter, and malfeasance rules. In the face of our dismal situation, Judith Halberstam distills and repurposes the negative in order to think outside the tyranny of success. The Queer Art of Failure finds a new vitality in not winning, accumulating, doing, or knowing. Both counterintuitive and anti-anticipatable, this compelling book pushes beyond many of the impasses and blockages that limit our critical horizons today.”—José Esteban Muñoz, author of Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity
“[H]ere is a book well worth the time and attention it takes to read it and to consider its implications. Most especially in that Judith Halberstam writes not only with authority, but also with genuine wit, which leaves the reader laughing out loud from time to time, something quite unknown until now in books of queer theory. Further, Ms. Halberstam presents her case with deep insight into human nature, and into our deepset cultural need to simplify our definition of the word success—and, up until now, our seeming need to ignore the creative implications of failure.”
“Queer Theory using Spongebob Squarepants? Totally there... Underdogs and shoddy queers can take wordy, erudite solace in Halberstam’s words.”
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The Queer Art of Failure
By Judith Halberstam
DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2011 Duke University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAnimating Revolt and Revolting Animation
The chickens are revolting! —Mr. Tweedy in Chicken Run
Animated films for children revel in the domain of failure. To captivate the child audience, an animated film cannot deal only in the realms of success and triumph and perfection. Childhood, as many queers in particular recall, is a long lesson in humility, awkwardness, limitation, and what Kathryn Bond Stockton has called "growing sideways." Stockton proposes that childhood is an essentially queer experience in a society that acknowledges through its extensive training programs for children that heterosexuality is not born but made. If we were all already normative and heterosexual to begin with in our desires, orientations, and modes of being, then presumably we would not need such strict parental guidance to deliver us all to our common destinies of marriage, child rearing, and hetero- reproduction. If you believe that children need training, you assume and allow for the fact that they are always already anarchic and rebellious, out of order and out of time. Animated films nowadays succeed, I think, to the extent to which they are able to address the disorderly child, the child who sees his or her family and parents as the problem, the child who knows there is a bigger world out there beyond the family, if only he or she could reach it. Animated films are for children who believe that "things" (toys, nonhuman animals, rocks, sponges) are as lively as humans and who can glimpse other worlds underlying and overwriting this one. Of course this notion of other worlds has long been a conceit of children's literature; the Narnia stories, for example, enchant the child reader by offering access to a new world through the back of the wardrobe. While much children's literature simply offers a new world too closely matched to the old one it left behind, recent animated films actually revel in innovation and make ample use of the wonderfully childish territory of revolt.
In the opening sequence in the classic claymation feature Chicken Run (2000, directed by Peter Lord and Nick Park), Mr. Tweedy, a bumbling farmer, informs his much more efficient wife that the chickens are "organized." Mrs. Tweedy dismisses his outrageous notion and tells him to focus more on profits, explaining to him that they are not getting enough out of their chickens and need to move on from egg harvesting to the chicken potpie industry. As Mrs. Tweedy ponders new modes of production, Mr. Tweedy keeps an eye on the chicken coop, scanning for signs of activity and escape. The scene is now set for a battle between production and labor, human and animal, management and employees, containment and escape. Chicken Run and other animated feature films draw much of their dramatic intensity from the struggle between human and nonhuman creatures. Most animated features are allegorical in form and adhere to a fairly formulaic narrative scheme. But as even this short scene indicates, the allegory and the formula do not simply line up with the conventional generic schemes of Hollywood cinema. Rather animation pits two groups against each other in settings that closely resemble what used to be called "class struggle," and they offer numerous scenarios of revolt and alternatives to the grim, mechanical, industrial cycles of production and consumption. In this first clip Mr. Tweedy's intuitive sense that the chickens on his farm "are organized" competes with Mrs. Tweedy's assertion that the only thing more stupid than chickens is Mr. Tweedy himself. His paranoid suspicions lose out to her exploitive zeal until the moment when the two finally agree that "the chickens are revolting."
What are we to make of this Marxist allegory in the form of a children's film, this animal farm narrative of resistance, revolt, and utopia pitted against new waves of industrialization and featuring claymation birds in the role of the revolutionary subject? How do neo-anarchistic narrative forms find their way into children's entertainment, and what do adult viewers make of them? More important, what does animation have to do with revolution? And how do revolutionary themes in animated film connect to queer notions of self?
I want to offer a thesis about a new genre of animated feature films that use CGI technology instead of standard linear animation techniques and that surprisingly foreground the themes of revolution and transformation. I call this genre "Pixarvolt" in order to link the technology to the thematic focus. In the new animation films certain topics that would never appear in adult-themed films are central to the success and emotional impact of these narratives. Furthermore, and perhaps even more surprisingly, the Pixarvolt films make subtle as well as overt connections between communitarian revolt and queer embodiment and thereby articulate, in ways that theory and popular narrative have not, the sometimes counterintuitive links between queerness and socialist struggle. While many Marxist scholars have characterized and dismissed queer politics as "body politics" or as simply superficial, these films recognize that alternative forms of embodiment and desire are central to the struggle against corporate domination. The queer is not represented as a singularity but as part of an assemblage of resistant technologies that include collectivity, imagination, and a kind of situationist commitment to surprise and shock.
Let's begin by asking some questions about the process of animation, its generic potential, and the ways the Pixarvolts imagine the human and the nonhuman and rethink embodiment and social relations. Beginning with Toy Story in 1995 (directed by John Lasseter), animation entered a new era. As is well known, Toy Story, the first Pixar film, was the first animation to be wholly generated by a computer; it changed animation from a two-dimensional set of images to a three-dimensional space within which point-of-view shots and perspective were rendered with startling liveness. Telling an archetypal story about a world of toys who awaken when the children are away, Toy Story managed to engage child audiences with the fantasy of live toys and adults with the nostalgic narrative of a cowboy, Woody, whose primacy in the toy kingdom is being challenged by a new model, the futuristic space doll Buzz Lightyear. While kids delighted in the spectacle of a toy box teeming with life, reminiscent of "Nutcracker Suite," adults were treated to a smart drama about toys that exploit their own toyness and other toys that do not realize they are not humans. The whole complex narrative about past and present, adult and child, live and machinic is a metacommentary on the set of narrative possibilities that this new wave of animation enables and exploits. It also seemed to establish the parameters of the new genre of CGI: Toy Story marks the genre as irrevocably male (the boy child and his relation to the prosthetic and phallic capabilities of his male toys), centered on the domestic (the playroom) and unchangeably Oedipal (always father-son dynamics as the motor or, in a few cases, a mother-daughter rivalry, as in Coraline). But the new wave of animated features is also deeply interested in social hierarchies (parent-child but also owner-owned), quite curious about the relations between an outside and an inside world (the real world and the world of the bedroom), and powered by a vigorous desire for revolution, transformation, and rebellion (toy versus child, toy versus toy, child versus adult, child versus child). Finally, like many of the films that followed, Toy Story betrays a high level of self-consciousness about its own relation to innovation, transformation, and tradition.
Most of the CGI films that followed Toy Story map their dramatic territory in remarkably similar ways, and most retain certain key features (such as the Oedipal theme) while changing the mise-en-scène—from bedroom to seabed or barnyard, from toys to chickens or rats or fish or penguins, from the cycle of toy production to other industrial settings. Most remain entranced by the plot of captivity followed by dramatic escape and culminating in a utopian dream of freedom. A cynical critic might find this narrative to be a blueprint for the normative rites of passage in the human life cycle, showing the child viewer the journey from childhood captivity to adolescent escape and adult freedom. A more radical reading allows the narrative to be utopian, to tell of the real change that children may still believe is possible and desirable. The queer reading also refuses to allow the radical thematics of animated film to be dismissed as "childish" by questioning the temporal order that assigns dreams of transformation to pre-adulthood and that claims the accommodation of dysfunctional presents as part and parcel of normative adulthood.
How does Chicken Run, a film about "revolting chickens," imagine a utopian alternative? In a meeting in the chicken coop the lead chicken, Ginger, proposes to her sisterhood that there must be more to life than sitting around and producing eggs for the Tweedys or not producing eggs and ending up on the chopping block. She then outlines a utopian future in a green meadow (an image of which appears on an orange crate in the coop), where there are no farmers and no production schedule and no one is in charge. The future that Ginger outlines for her claymation friends relies very much on the utopian concept of escape as exodus, conjured variously by Paolo Virno in A Grammar of the Multitude and by Hardt and Negri in Multitude, but here escape is not the war camp model that most people project onto Chicken Run's narrative. The film is indeed quoting The Great Escape, Colditz, Stalag 17, and other films whose setting is the Second World War, but war is not the mise-en-scène; rather, remarkably, the transition from feudalism to industrial capitalism frames a life-and-death story about rising up, flying the coop, and creating the conditions for escape from the materials already available. Chicken Run is different from Toy Story in that the Oedipal falls away as a point of reference in favor of a Gramscian structure of counterhegemony engineered by organic (chicken) intellectuals. In this film an anarchist's utopia is actually realized as a stateless place without a farmer, an unfenced territory with no owners, a diverse (sort of, they are mostly female) collective motivated by survival, pleasure, and the control of one's own labor. The chickens dream up and inhabit this utopian field, which we glimpse briefly at the film's conclusion, and they find their way there by eschewing a "natural" solution to their imprisonment (flying out of the coop using their wings) and engineering an ideological one (they must all pull together to power the plane they build). Chicken Run also rejects the individualistic solution offered by Rocky the Rooster (voiced by Mel Gibson) in favor of group logics. As for the queer element, well, they are chickens, and so, at least in Chicken Run, utopia is a green field full of female birds with just the occasional rooster strutting around. The revolution in this instance is feminist and animated.
Building new worlds by accessing new forms of sociality through animals turns around the usual equation in literature that makes the animal an allegorical stand-in in a moral fable about human folly (Animal Farm by Orwell, for example). Most often we project human worlds onto the supposedly blank slate of animality, and then we create the animals we need in order to locate our own human behaviors in "nature" or "the wild" or "civilization." As the Chicken Run example shows, however, animated animals allow us to explore ideas about humanness, alterity, and alternative imaginaries in relation to new forms of representation.
But what is the status of the "animal" in animation? Animation, animal sociality, and biodiversity can be considered in relation to the notion of transbiology developed by Sarah Franklin and Donna Haraway. For Haraway, and for Franklin, the transbiological refers to the new conceptions of the self, the body, nature, and the human within waves of new technological advancement, such as cloning and cell regeneration. Franklin uses the history of Dolly the cloned sheep to explore the ways kinship, genealogy, and reproduction are remade, resituated by the birth and death of the cloned subject. She elaborates a transbiological field by building on Haraway's theorization of the cyborg in her infamous "Cyborg Manifesto," and she returns to earlier work by Haraway that concerned itself with biogenetic extensions of the body and of the experience of embodiment. Franklin explains, "I want to suggest that in the same way that the cyborg was useful to learn to see an altered landscape of the biological, the technical, and the informatic, similarly Haraway's 'kinding' semiotics of trans can help identify features of the postgenomic turn in the biosciences and biomedicine toward the idioms of immortalization, regeneration, and totipotency. However, by reversing Haraway's introduction of trans- as the exception or rogue element (as in the transuranic elements) I suggest that transbiology—a biology that is not only born and bred, or born and made, but made and born—is indeed today more the norm than the exception" (2006: 171). The transbiological conjures hybrid entities or in- between states of being that represent subtle or even glaring shifts in our understandings of the body and of bodily transformation. The female cyborg, the transgenic mouse, the cloned sheep that Franklin researches, in which reproduction is "reassembled and rearranged," the Tamagotchi toys studied by Sherrie Turkle, and the new forms of animation I consider here, all question and shift the location, the terms, and the meanings of the artificial boundaries between humans, animals, machines, states of life and death, animation and reanimation, living, evolving, becoming, and transforming. They also refuse the idea of human exceptionalism and place the human firmly within a universe of multiple modes of being.
Human exceptionalism comes in many forms. It might manifest as a simple belief in the uniqueness and centrality of humanness within a world shared with other kinds of life, but it might also show itself through gross and crude forms of anthropomorphism; in this case the human projects all of his or her uninspired and unexamined conceptions about life and living onto animals, who may actually foster far more creative or at least more surprising modes of living and sharing space. For example, in one of the most popular of the "Modern Love" columns—a popular weekly column in the New York Times dedicated to charting and narrating the strange fictions of contemporary desire and romance—titled "What Shamu Taught Me about a Happy Marriage," Amy Sutherland describes how she adapted animal training techniques that she learned at Sea World for use at home on her husband. While the column purports to offer a location for the diverse musings of postmodern lovers on the peculiarities of modern love, it is actually a primer for adult heterosexuality. Occasionally a gay man or a lesbian will write about his or her normative liaison, its ups and downs, and will plea for the right to become "mature" through marriage, but mostly the column is dedicated to detailing, in mundane and banal intricacy, the roller-coaster ride of bourgeois heterosexuality and its supposed infinite variety and elasticity. The typical "Modern Love" essay will begin with a complaint, usually and predictably a female complaint about male implacability, but as we approach the end of the piece resolution will fall from the sky in the manner of a divine vision, and the disgruntled partner will quickly see that the very thing that she found irritating about her partner is also the very thing that makes him, well, him! That is, unique, flawed, human, and lovable.
Excerpted from The Queer Art of Failure by Judith Halberstam Copyright © 2011 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Judith Halberstam is Professor of English, American Studies and Ethnicity, and Gender Studies at the University of Southern California. Halberstam is the author of In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives, as well as Female Masculinity and Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters, both also published by Duke University Press.
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As a queer artist, educator, and ex-intelligentsia, this book came as a much needed destroyer. I felt like it gave me the intense satisfaction of running a bunch of old files full of old ideas through a paper shredder and happily left with a clean desk. I found myself journaling, discussing, and implementing many of Halberstam's ideas about the importance of forgetting, discontinuity, and thinking on the margins. It's helped me to frame my creative writing and poetry in a way that allows me to confidently share my work with others. It made me feel not alone. That might sound overly dramatic, but I almost came to regard this text as a self-helpy book. How to become a Fearless Artist of the queer-affect in Ten Easy Steps. I generously highlighted beautiful passages as though they were daily positive aphorisms. I felt buoyed by these explorations of queer affect and non-family representations, the queer as an idea or a tool, rather than as an identity. Thank you so much to this brave, brilliant prof who's getting academia to work for her instead of the other way around.