June 3rd Jack Halberstam the Queer Art of Failure (Born a Loser wyd)
At a party in New York in 2017, unfortunately called Battle Hymn, I had a moment of clarity on the dance floor. In between the blaring House music, oppressive small talk, and wayward glances of men looking, I wanted to do my own thing, dance on my own. I thought I had found my little slice of heaven on the dance floor to close my eyes and feel the beat. As I stood there trying to get into music that frankly, was not my jam, I lost focus. The lights hit me right as I opened my eyes to take stock of the situation. And then I saw it. As the strobe lights danced around the room, it illuminated the shirtless bodies around me. Tan. Waxed. Coifed. Svelte. Curated. Basically, perfect. It was as if the category for the night was PERFECTION and no one told me. Me, my white polo shirt and blue jeans were clearly in the wrong category and I was SHOOK. I came to somewhere between the clacking of a fan and the fourth song that sounded like the three that had just played. In all honesty, my friends that I was with have never made me feel anything but perfect. But the image was provocative. It was a reminder that the right body, the right career, the right pedigree are not only jealously coveted forms of queer capital but also entrées into social mobility and flexible citizenship. And yet, in myriad ways, the pressure for perfection is killing us. Why desire perfection even when we know it is unattainable and will fail us? Is it possible to refuse and resist its seductiveness? To maybe fail, even just a little? That night me and my little slice of Pizza from Artichoke were PRESSED all the way back uptown with thoughts of the party, the limits of queer perfection, and perhaps my own bodily and aesthetic failures as freedom. (Image from Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s “Mussalmaan Musclemen).
“In this book I range from children’s animation to avant-garde performance and queer art to think about ways of being and knowing that stand outside of conventional understandings of success. I argue that success in a heteronormative, capitalist society equates too easily to specific forms of reproductive maturity combined with wealth accumulation” (Jack Halberstam, Queer Art of Failure, p. 2)
“Rather than just arguing for a reevaluation of these standards of passing and failing, The Queer Art of Failure dismantles the logics of success and failure with which we currently live. 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. Failure is something queers do and have always done exceptionally well; for queers failure can be a style, to cite Quentin Crisp, or a way of life, to cite Foucault, and it can stand in contrast to the grim scenarios of success that depend upon “trying and trying again.” In fact if success requires so much effort, then maybe failure is easier in the long run and offers different rewards.” (Jack Halberstam, QAF, p. 3)
“What kinds of reward can failure offer us? Perhaps most obviously, failure allows us to escape the punishing norms the discipline behavior and manage human development with the goal of delivering us from unruly childhoods to orderly and predictable adulthoods. Failure preserves some of the wondrous anarchy of childhood and disturbs the supposedly clean boundaries between adults and children, winners and losers.” (Jack Halberstam, QAF, P. 3)
If everything from people to capitalism to gender to love will fail us inevitably in one way or another, then “what kinds of reward can failure offer us?” Moving between avant-garde artists, queer performance, and “low theory” like Spongebob and Chicken Run, Jack Halberstam invites us to consider the pleasures and possibilities of failure and to refuse the disciplining and pressurized demands of success. Being a loser or sucking at life is also to occupy a position of indifference to disciplinary norms: ways of compelling and forcing people to live and be a certain way in the world (conversion therapy anyone?). Rather than accept impossible standards, exclusionary norms, or persistent self-effacement and erasure, why not just say “Fuck it all?” The Queer Art of Failure is a reminder of the cultural specificities of the binary of success and failure. Who and what falls where on this spectrum of success v. failure are not objective or value-neutral. Rather, what is defined as success (and ultimately ailure) is always already built on the same white, heterosexual, cisgendered, patriarchal, upper class, upper caste, ableist rules that structure all the games we already play. Halberstam’s extolling of the potentials of failure is not only to teach us that queers have done exceptionally well at failing, but that failure is generative because it invites us to refuse certain grammars of domination, imagine otherwise, and to build new ways of knowing and being in the world. Thus, if we are doomed to fail for one reason or another, then why not do so deliciously?
“Staying in dynamically affords one the time and space needed to evade compulsory forms of sociability that late liberalism and subsequent formations of political resistance demand in the present moment. With an attention toward staying in, we can assess how compulsory sociability at times undergirds what we deem to be productive, meaningful, radical forms of relationality and solidarity that ground minoritarian social movements, political critique within minoritarian fields of study such as Asian American studies, and the collective pursuit of social justice” (Summer Kim Lee, 2019, 33).
How can you ever feel alone on a dance floor, in a crowded club or a packed bar? There’s no crying at the club. Or is there? When Robyn says “I’m in the corner, watching you kiss her,” you feel her melodious “ohhhhhh” as agreement and also embodied knowledge: the familiar feeling of being alone in a crowded room. Her lyrics break you but the synth pop beats hold you together. Robyn’s Body Talk teaches us that it is ok to break, to be broken, and to feel ugly feelings. In spite of the vastness of solitude, heartbreak, and an ocean of sadness, “I KEEP dancing on my own”, she says. Robyn’s Body Talk is not a lament for singlehood or loneliness, but rather a queer celebration of being alone.To borrow from critic Summer Kim Lee’s essay “Staying In”, (Social Text, 2019) Robyn like Lee’s exploration of Mitski and Ocean Vuong, “enacts the ambivalent and rich aspects of solitude, of being alone with oneself.” And that loneliness is not a lack as much as the plenitude of time and space needed for one’s protection, comfort, and love” (Lee, “Staying In”, 28). Robbyn instructs us to remember that being alone and loneliness are not the same. Rather, solitude is queer pedagogy, an education in enduring pain. Robyn reminds us that ugly feelings are the stuff and substance of queerness. And rather than avoid those feelings, confronting them is generative, poetic, and pleasurable. Like the image of a stiletto on a broken bottle, fabulousness and pain are strange bedfellows that make us want to dance, if only to feel our feelings. “Dancing on My Own”, “Call Your Girlfriend”, and “Hang with Me”, like many of the songs on the Body Talk album are not happy songs, not in the least. And yet, those opening synth beats telling your side piece to “Call His” Girlfriend” spark an immeasurable joy between you and those nearest to you on the dance floor. Robyn continues to remind me that queerness then is not only about being ok with not being ok. It can also be a way of bringing disparate people, ideas, feelings, and scenes into lively and pleasurable relation, to allow sadness and euphoria, anger and solace, love and hate to share the same space, even for just one dance.