Feminist theory has taken many forms in its late stages, some thirty years after its major institutionalization in the United States academy. This review essay follows three of those strands—queer studies, affect theory, and the interrogation of feminism's academic field formation through women's studies—each emblematized by three well-established, mid-career feminist scholars in their recent books: Judith Halberstam's The Queer Art of Failure (2011), Lauren Berlant's Cruel Optimism (2011), and Robyn Wiegman's Object Lessons (2012).1 Their books occasion a pause, a critical moment to map the state of feminist studies, which all three authors have helped to shape since the mid-1990s. Halberstam has insistently bridged feminist and queer studies; Berlant continues to produce influential work at the intersection of gender, genre, and studies of affect; and Wiegman has defined the turn to institutionalization in feminist thought.
These three "divergences" in feminist thought, as Wiegman would call them (p. 91), are instructive for thinking about the field and its future at a moment when feminist studies seems to be, if not obsolete, then, to use Berlant's term, at an "impasse" (p. 4)—a pause as other objects of study, identities, and institutional formations eclipse it in their imagined urgency and relevance. To students, scholars, and activists, "feminism" may appear inadequate to read the global challenges of the digital age, the complexities of transgendered embodiment, or the trenchant critiques of the neoliberal state currently occupying the humanities, American studies, and left politics. Halberstam's, Berlant's, and Wiegman's projects do not so much deny this state of affairs as delve deeply into the forms that such obsolescence might take: animated children's film and television, art photography and installations, fascist history, the historical novel, news coverage, narrative film, legal cases, and academic practice itself. In this impressive archive of cultural texts that exemplify the waning of feminist political [End Page 187] feeling I outline above, all three authors take our stalled attachments to feminism as their twenty-first-century raison d'etre. Their revaluations of postmillennial feminist thought are distinctive and yet informed by the very failures of feminism that have shaped all three scholars' careers. In both direct and subtle invocations of feminism, these works exercise the most flexible versions of interdisciplinarity and intersectionality they can while never fetishizing difference or antinormativity as easily achieved or even recognizable goals. In doing so, they provide evidence for feminist thought's significance as a methodology of rigorous critique—especially self-critique—that can lead to a transformative politics of interpretation.
Halberstam, a pioneer of queer studies within feminism, offers the cleanest, most accessible direction for rethinking feminism here: what if we fail? Or better yet, what if we acknowledge—find critical and political value in—our failures? In our twenty-first-century moment, post-"hope" or "naïve optimism" for any radical outsiderness to the neoliberal system of global capital, can (feminist) critique be repurposed into something that does not just look like "resignation?" (p. 1). Halberstam exuberantly plunges forward with a yes, spending his first few chapters in the terrain of animated children's films and bromance stoner comedies, and the second half in a darker realm with material of queer Nazi and fascist histories and bleak high art photography and installations.
Halberstam sets the stakes early in his argument on the "animat[ed] revolt" of films such as Chicken Run (2000) and Finding Nemo (2003): "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" (pp. 27, 29). Putting queer theory broadly into the terms of resistance to neoliberal doctrine is a bold move here, especially as it claims space for...