restricted access The Queer Art of Imperfection
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The Queer Art of Imperfection

In The Queer Art of Failure, Judith Halberstam considers the critical potential of aesthetic and cultural moments of failure. She writes, “Under certain circumstances failing, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing may in fact offer more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world. Failing is something queers do and have always done exceptionally well” (1). It is indeed easy to think of the many ways queers can be said to fail: we fail to live up to a certain heteronormative relational ideal, often eschewing marriage, monogamy, and traditional family forms; we frequently fail to perform gender according to socially prescribed scripts; we even fail to grow up, instead “growing sideways,” as Kathryn Bond Stockton describes it, into lateral relations and erotic attachments that defy linear models of development (11). There are moments in Halberstam’s book, however, where her articulation of failure’s constitution becomes muddied. She writes, for example, that “The concept of practicing failure perhaps prompts us to discover our inner dweeb, to be underachievers, to fall short, to get distracted, to take a detour, to find a limit, to lose our way, to forget, to avoid mastery” (120–21). Do these strategies for practising failure—falling short and getting distracted, for example—necessarily constitute failure, which seems to suggest a kind of [End Page 13] finality, failure as endgame and not a momentary lapse? Or is the queer art of failure perhaps better described as a queer art of imperfection? And more broadly, does the idea of imperfection as distinct from failure yield anything of interest, or are we simply looking at two sides of the same flawed coin?

The Oxford English Dictionary provides three definitions of failure: “1. Lack of success, 2. The neglect or omission of expected or required action, and 3. The action or state of not functioning.” All definitions of failure evince a sense of the final, a temporality slightly at odds with the oed’s delineation of “imperfect” as “1. Not perfect; faulty or incomplete” and notably, in its grammatical context, imperfect “[denotes] a past action in progress but not completed at the time in question.” It is this sense of incompleteness, this lack of finality, what José Esteban Muñoz describes as a queerness “visible only in the horizon,” that is of most interest to me: it seems that the temporality of imperfection is what makes its queerness possible (11).

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick theorizes sexuality as an incomplete, imperfect thing, describing “projects precisely of nonce taxonomy, of the making and unmaking and remaking and redissolution of hundreds of old and new categorical imaginings concerning all the kinds it may take to make up a world” (“Introduction” 23). Sexuality for Sedgwick, in other words, is a past action in progress but not completed. We do, however, tend to think of sexuality as a teleological narrative that aspires to a kind of completion: either the normative progression through childhood into heterosexuality or a trajectory of diversion that culminates in self-discovery and “coming out” into an lgbt identity. And many queers also play with the idea that you can achieve a state of non-heterosexual perfection: we jokingly praise the “gold star” gay or lesbian, she or he who has never had sex with someone of the opposite sex, who never bothered trying and failing at heterosexuality before joining the dark side. But this leads us to another issue with Halberstam’s argument: in her terms, failure for whom? And in whose eyes? The gold star gay might fail by heterosexual standards but is nonetheless awarded a mark of queer perfection. So if ostensible failure leads to success, even if it is a queer kind of success, is it ever really failure at all?

Instead of trading in failure, doesn’t queerness via queer theory suggest that everyone lives their own sexuality and gender imperfectly, incompletely, in perpetuity? That there is a messy strangeness at the core of all sexuality that will always fit imperfectly with our existing taxonomies? As Sedgwick explains, “‘queer’ can refer to the open mesh of possibilities, [End Page 14] gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances...