- Succeeding at Failing and Other Oxymorons: Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure
The Queer Art of Failure is a tour de force of a peculiar kind. It promiscuously and unapologetically pursues questions of failure, stupidity and forgetting from “low theory” to “high theory,” from Pixar films to queer art, to the Olympics and fascism. Using an array of tools, most notably the long-forgotten plot summary, Halberstam charts a course through the difficult terrain of popular culture. With what, in a generous reference, might be termed Foucauldian “hammer blows,” Halberstam takes apart established readings of queer history and identity. And while truly epiphanic at moments, at others Halberstam’s analyses readily collapse into defensive tautologies and non-sequiturs: the claim to failure is at once the work’s virtue and vice.
Halberstam opens by staking out a space from which the confines of disciplinary knowledge might be challenged and argues for the merits of “low theory,” drawing on Stuart Hall and Antonio Gramsci to discuss the possible rewards of failure. Halberstam invites us to “consider the utility of getting lost over finding our way,” in a prelude to the embrace of failure over paradigms of success. In getting lost, we enable ourselves to find that “dominant history teems with the remnants of alternative possibilities, and the job of the subversive intellectual is to trace the lines of the worlds they conjured and left behind” (19). This statement serves to orient Halberstam’s project as one which seeks alternative narratives embedded in popular culture and other unlikely sources, while also engaging less mainstream sources as a measure of criticality. It is not just any form of failure that Halberstam has chosen to explore, but specifically queer failure, which comes with the critique that “success in a heteronormative, capitalist society equates too easily to specific forms of reproductive maturity combined with wealth accumulation” (2). This distinction becomes important later as Halberstam differentiates between, for example, the model of failure and negativity exemplified in novels such as Trainspotting, and the negativity and disavowal of the mother in the work of Jamaica Kincaid. The problem, for Halberstam, with certain canons of failure and negativity, even avowedly queer ones, is their limited range, “the excessively small archive that represents queer negativity”; the gay male archive is restricted to certain camp texts and authors (110).
However, the concept of failure becomes immediately vexed in the first two chapters, in which Halberstam turns to the commercially successful features of Pixar films and Dude, Where’s My Car as unlikely repositories of queer failure. In this gesture, Halberstam takes heart from Walter Benjamin, who “reserved a special place for the new animation art of Walt Disney that, for him, unleashed a kind of magical consciousness upon its mass audiences and conjured utopic spaces and worlds,” although he subsequently abandoned this view as the films “all too quickly resolved into a bourgeois medium” (21-22). Halberstam asks “[c]an animation sustain a utopic project now, whereas, as Benjamin mourned, it could not in the past?” (23). That is to ask, in spite of their origins in mass consumerism, is it possible that these films can have a radically queer message (or that they can be read queerly)? To answer this question, Halberstam would need to identify what differentiates the specific group of films she has chosen from other films, or alternatively, articulate a notion of queer reading that would allow for the contradictions presented by the medium of popular culture. In the subsequent analysis, Halberstam effectively does both, which leads to some paradoxical conclusions.
Halberstam begins the analysis of Pixar films by questioning the “animal” in animation and provides a comparative account of different modes of anthropomorphism, arguing that most often we project human worlds onto the animal. As such, we reinforce models of human exceptionalism, rather than drawing on the diversity of animal worlds to critically contend with the human. To exemplify this, Halberstam provides a powerful critique of the popular documentary The March of the Penguins, in which narratives of...