The Queer Art of Failure

October 13, 2011

A writer who begins a book by citing the children's TV character SpongeBob SquarePants, who makes the amnesiac fish Dory from Finding Nemo a central figure, and who describes the animated film Chicken Run as "one of my favourite feminist texts of all time" runs the risk of being seen as twee, fannish or backhandedly patronising.

Here, Judith Halberstam is none of these things: she is insightful and intellectually brave in places, and makes a significant intervention in the development of queer theory. The Queer Art of Failure is also utterly charming.

One of the problems for forms of knowledge and thinking (in Halberstam's case, queer theory) that set themselves up in an opposition to more established hierarchical scholarship is that, as time goes by, they can become just as successful, established and hierarchical as the things they opposed.

And if a theory is based precisely on questioning and subverting, as queer theory is, this establishment seems to mark some kind of an ending.

Consequently, Halberstam turns to failure in order to maintain a sense of the "queerness" of queer theory.

Walter Benjamin provides the secret source for this tactic: "empathy with the victor invariably benefits the rulers", he writes, and Halberstam tries to find the "kinds of reward" that failure can offer. But by failure, she doesn't mean a fall on the road to eventual success, but something harder to focus on.

The politically active and feminist Ginger (yes, a chicken, from Chicken Run) declares "we either die free chickens, or we die trying!" To which Babs (yes, another chicken) replies with (faux?) naivety: "Are those the only two choices?" Halberstam's book explores the ways in which Babs' questioning refusal is lived, explored and examined.

Dory, for example, who cannot remember anything for long, is - precisely because of this - able to articulate one new queer model of being in the world: she helps find Nemo without desiring "payment or remunerative alliance" because (of the failure) of her forgetting. She is not a substitute mother or new wife - both roles one might expect her to play - and is open to all forms of hope and friendship (even from predatory sharks) because she cannot remember and must make each relationship anew continually.

While Halberstam makes much of her use of the current golden age of children's animation, describing herself as intentionally silly, in this she overeggs her pudding. She writes with just as much insight, seriousness and thought about W. G. Sebald, Jamaica Kincaid and, in a really striking chapter, about a sort of masochism-as-failure in the work of the Austrian Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek.

However, it is precisely this sort of mixing ("Sebald to SpongeBob") that she calls "low theory", following where it will and moving "under the radar" of more traditional theory and criticism - although I am not entirely convinced by her long and politically radical reading of the film Dude, Where's My Car? But that's OK, because neither is she: "low theory" allows for uncertainty, humour and suggestion in place of a rigid hypothesis.

The chapters of The Queer Art of Failure are linked thought experiments that do not avoid controversial subjects (a discussion of the representation of Nazis in gay erotica, for example) or pull punches (there's an attack on Slavoj Zizek's work on similar CGI films that accuses him of simply plugging his Lacanian theories into them and pillorying "postmodernism, queers and feminism").

For all the humour in its content and in its style, this is a very serious work.

The Queer Art of Failure

By Judith Halberstam. Duke University Press. 224pp, £58.00 and £14.99. ISBN 9780822350286 and 0453. Published 13 September 2011

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