[prelude] My boy child has a school entrance exam that he easily could pass (and easily could not). It will span five hours; unemployed (Halberstam’s rouge scholar?) and anxious, I bring a new(ish, 2011) theory text to keep me diligently displaced during the wait (well, yes, I guess I do believe in trying to succeed, even while admiring Halberstam’s critique of the il/logic of success). The cover is uninspiring, but apparently we don’t choose books by them anymore and the title, The Queer Art of Failure, seems apt. The introduction is good, tantalizing even:
What comes after hope? . . . [W]hat’s the alternative, in other words, to cynical resignation on the one hand and naive optimism on the other? . . . This simple question announces a political project, begs for a grammar of possibility . . . and expresses a basic desire to live life otherwise (1-2).
The alternative, she suggests, “involves the acceptance of the finite, the embrace of the absurd, the silly, and the hopelessly goofy. Rather than resisting endings and limits, let us instead revel in and cleave to all of our own inevitable fantastic failures” (187). As, she argues, “success in a heteronormative, capitalist society equates too easily to specific forms of reproductive maturity combined with wealth accumulation” (2). Halberstam looks instead to some of the rewards discoverable in not-succeeding (3), offering “an extended meditation on anti-disciplinary forms of knowing specifically tied to queerness . . . [making] the case for stupidity, failure, and forgetfulness over knowing, mastering, and remembering in terms of contemporary knowledge formations” (147). I like how Halberstam applies such thoughts to the academy and knowledge production, for
Being taken seriously means missing out on the chance to be frivolous, promiscuous, and irrelevant. The desire to be taken seriously is precisely what compels people to follow the tried and true paths of knowledge production around which I would like to map a few detours, indeed, terms like serious and rigorous tend to be code words, in academia as well as in other contexts, for disciplinary correctness; they signal a form of training and learning that confirms what is already known according to approved methods of knowing, but they do not allow for visionary insights or flights of fancy (6).
That said, I finished reading this book and wondered whether my reading ability, outside of the academy, had simply failed; I didn’t get it—could hardly say just what I had spent the last few hours of my life deciphering (apart from a few new perspectives on queer readings of blatant Disney ‘successes’); there was no aftertaste. On one level, theory wise, that is perhaps the point; the motion toward a feminism that does not do, or say, anything (new) at all. Chapter four outlines a feminist politic intentionally aligned with not-doing, one that
issues not from doing but from a refusal to be or become woman as she has been defined and imagined within western philosophy . . . an anti-oedipal feminism that is nonetheless not a Deleuzean body without organs. This feminism, a feminism grounded in negation, refusal, passivity, absence, and silence, frees spaces and modes of unknowing, failing, and forgetting as part of an alternative feminist project, a shadow feminism which has nestled in more positive accounts and unravelled their logics from within. This shadow feminism speaks in the a gauge of self-destruction, masochism, an antisocial femininity, and a refusal of the essential bond of mother and daughter than ensures that the daughter inhabits the legacy of the mother and in doing so reproduces her relationship to patriarchal forms of power (124).
I wondered about this refusal (Halberstam is “proposing that feminists refuse the choices as offered”  yet isn’t that what earns almost all existing feminist politics the f word anyway?) and stumbled, repeatedly, over her invocation of a feminism grounded in “passivity, absence and silence” for isn’t that why feminisms are necessary in the first place? She “propose[s] a radical form of masochistic passivity that not only offers up a critique of the organising logic of agency and subjectivity itself, but that also opts out of certain systems built around a dialectic between coloniser and colonised” (131), one that “does not speak in the language of action and monumentum but instead articulates itself in terms of evacuation, refusal, passivity, unbecoming, unbeing” (129). Here Halbertsam offers little guidance, except maybe in positioning skin-cutting as a queerly feminist performance. “Cutting is a feminist aesthetic proper to the project of female unbecoming . . . masochism is an underused way of considering the relationship between self and other, self and technology, self and power in queer feminism” (135). I cannot accord with Halberstam’s assessment of cutting as a “masochistic will to eradicate the body” (136). What of those women who cut to become u/into their own bodies, to mark their selves upon their selves? What if it just feels too darn good not to? What of those women who do not cut, or of those who might find it icky, or whose personal values render it an impossible aesthetic? But it was the opting out thing that stayed in my mind.
Offering readings from a wide variety of fiction and performance pieces that employ cutting as strategies that “make feminism into an ongoing commentary on fragmentariness, submission, and sacrifice” (139), Halberstam remains within the said dialectic out of which she advocates opting. She asks “is this passively political mode of unbecoming reserved for the colonized and the obviously oppressed? What happens if a woman or feminine subject who occupies a priviledged relation to dominant culture occupies her own undoing?” (133) and maybe this book can be taken as a self-conscious route to answering this question, yet on these ‘obviously oppressed’, I can’t help but wonder why she didnt mention the gag, too. I guess what ‘cut’ me here was something about method, about the promiscuous perusal of texts, [re]sources, and feminism/s. Reading from any point on the productive dialectic is easier to do from within an academy, where not speaking up appears as a desirable option, because it is one of many attainable options. Perhaps the potent underside of the proposed ‘shadow feminist’ project remains the too, too many humans outside academies who are already gagged by myriad power structures.
Maybe I’m just too serious to get it (or maybe I want to be able to be in whatever seasons I choose—serious and silly and frivolous and irrelevant, and still hopeful that feminist projects can [and do] do things) but am left wondering on color, method, privilege and positionings; this collage method (from skin-cutting to collages, Halberstam’s method closely echoes Jasbir Puar’s in Terrorist Assemblages [16, 136-145]) includes Yoruba proverbs, an abundance of non-white writers and theorists, and some piercing snippets of analysis of (certain layers of) queer cultural production yet it raises more questions around privilege/s than it answers. Maybe I’m not a ‘proper’ enough masochist, or feminist, or maybe I’m hanging out with the wrong activists, but in some sites feminism is kinda, vaguely, used as still relevant, in its potential to do something, to do many things.
Or maybe I’m just annoyed that Halbertam evokes certain binaries and does not speak up on them.
Anti-immigrant gay politics arses out of clumsy characterizations of Islam as deeply homophobic and assumes a relationship between gay tolerance and liberal democracy. As scholars such as Joseph Massad, Fatima El-Tayib, and Jasbir Puar have shown, these characterisations of Islam misread the sexual economies of Islamic countries on the one hand and join gay and lesbian respectability to neoliberalism on the other. They also allow for strange political couplings of right-wing populism and gay rights (161-162).
These couplings are a lot of things, but are they strange, after all? As the writers mentioned here, and many others, have carefully documented, they are almost predictable outcomes of multiple colonial-crafted social scriptings.
[not really a conclusion] . . . So not a proper book review. But so yes, bring on queer theory and theories that revels in how often mere mortals do not succeed, in so many uncountable ways, engagements with different genealogies, appreciations of ‘low culture’ that can, or could, make us more joyous, less success-obsessed, at least, even if not rendering us better people (20). And what if, after all, my child does not tick the right boxes, does not pass a school exam, it is no biggie . . . he has enough confidence to be just fine, whatever he does, but just as significantly, is already positioned in a system where bright-eyed white boy children have boxes ticked for them. The thing is (maybe I should reread Edelman on futurity) I want him to pass so he can choose his own terrains to succeed or, artfully, revel in failure. More, I want a feminism that does speak, because there is so much that happens that needs calling out.
Sigh. Perhaps this is the missing piece in my coffee shop hours with Halberstam; in the (multiply nefariously) screwed system/s that we appear to live in, feminism can only be spoken of in multiples, plurals; from my disunity, it seems clear that the desirability of a feminist politic that does not speak or activate is dependent on positions of privilege within the silencing system in the first place.
Dervla Shannahan is an independent researcher who has published a variety of works in a variety of places. She has a MA in Islamic studies (from the University of Wales, Lampeter) and in Queer studies in arts and culture (from Birmingham City University). Her research interests include Islam, feminisms, queer theologies, and postcolonial theory. Since completing her last MA she has taken time out from formal study to focus on writing, parenting, and psychotherapeutic training. She has done bits of activism around gender and sexuality in Islam, and is currently involved in the Inclusive Mosque Initiative. She is intending to start her PhD (at Goldsmiths, London) soon.