Judith (Jack) Halberstam argues in The Queer Art of Failure (QAF) that in order for thought, indeed, even theory, to be liberated from the affliction of positivity thinking, the grammar of success, of winning, of living up to the disciplinary norms of activity, of productivity, of consumption, even of desire, it must embrace failure. In doing so, it invites an irrationality, an illogical and disorderly art of existence that is always already ‘otherwise than being’, and as such, enacts alternatives and possibilities outside the dominant scripts. There is something paradigmatically childish, unruly, silly, forgetful, dissident—queer even—about failure, says Halberstam. The reward of failure is negative: it frees us, certainly, from hetero-patriarchal norms, from adult rules of behavior, the disciplinary boundaries of knowing and acting that constrain the range of human vitality and creativity, and so on, but offers no consolation, no pragmatic solutions, on the other side. As we learn from the essays that make up this symposium, failure as a critical ‘style of life’ is incubated within queer existence, and as such, makes little sense within the well-worn scripts of practicality, usefulness, and activity. In Halberstam’s vision, failure is neither resignation nor an optimistic alternative snuck in through fete of postmodern jargon. Instead, its question, which is as political as it is theological, is “what comes after hope?” (1)
In this symposium, we presented four essays that attempt to answer this question in ways inspired from Halberstam’s work in QAF. What possibilities are there for breaking free? What can be done about this mess of things? What are the alternative ways of being, of becoming, the modes of acting and thinking opened up by Halberstam’s understanding of failure, an understanding which is distinct as it is from other queer thinking on the subject? (e.g., Ellen Armour’s essay lists many of these, and Halberstam helpfully engages many of them in directly in QAF). One way of organizing these four unique and wide-ranging essays is to see how they all offer, even if in oblique and roundabout ways, reflections on various “sites of failure” where the queer art of existence is enacted and repeated to great critical effect. For Kate Ott, it is the lifeworld of children’s media (or the participative activity of ‘co-watching’ such media); Isherwood, the holy fool; Crawley, the organic intellectual who can neither read or write, and Armour, the “homo-normalizing” actor-character.
This assemblage illustrates how (and why) Halberstam’s description of failure is theorized out of a ‘low’ position: constellations and configurations of various attachments and affects that promise to engender alternatives to discipline, order, power, and compliance: the liberal tactics of knowledge production and regulation of the success matrix, which is deeply invested in heteronormativity, capitalism, liberal democracy, consumerist attitudes, and xenophobia. As we will see in Halberstam’s brilliant response, this is why visual media (animated films, photographs, painting) often labors as the queer loci of analysis; they are ciphers of failure that make any theological appropriation of them very hard to accomplish.
While Kate Ott agrees that childhood and accompanying childish ways of thinking, processing information, and interacting with the world, afford us with a number of prototypical tactics for “low theory”, Ott is concerned about the “rather monolithic view of children” presented in Halberstam’s interpretation of animated media (produced by adults for children, and so still caught up in that imaginary). In response, she develops a kind of coda from the insights of QAF—one that even with its distinctly ethical focus, might help us avoid the teleology Ott discerns in Halberstam’s project. This points us, Ott argues, towards “co-viewing” as an ethical activity that helps us all learn from childish ways of viewing, imagining, and constructing worlds without reifying or over-determining the child or its childish ways. These participative acts of “watching with” can provide the kind of dialectical encounters that prove to be the counter-hegemonic moments where queerness is found in “relational interaction with children”. This relational approach is echoed—and theologically developed—by Lisa Isherwood whose self-identified “incarnational stance” becomes radicalized when failure becomes the lived rubric through which the fully relational life, the diverse ways of being counter-cultural, is understood. She turns to ‘the holy fool’, whose unruly and disobedient skylarking illustrates how memory can be understood within the rubric of failure. It is possible that the holy fool’s way of holding on to memory inaugurates possibilities in the way Halberstam envisions forgetfulness, in that it stubbornly “remembers that another world is possible.” Ellen Armour suspects that there are missed opportunities in Halberstam’s reading of films like Dude, Where’s My Car? and Finding Nemo, in that there is both untapped critical potential in the visuality of the archive and that Halberstam misses some opportunities to thicken “the style of living” and “the style of looking” that is performed and enacted by failure.
In perhaps the most theological of the essays, Ashon Crawley reflects on the possibilities of illiteracy to construct and support an intellectual perspective of freedom that is otherwise than that ordered around reading and writing. How does the inability to read free the individual into alternative social ways of gathering, of loving, of speaking publicly, of being together; that is, into affective attachments and social relations that are unbeholden to strict boundaries of failure and success, of knowledge or stupidity, of illegibility or visibility, but instead to something unrealized and yet always already inaugurated? The promise of failure, surmises Crawley, is in the way it opens up the possibility of the otherwise, a troublesome and dangerous idea when you consider the interests some powers have in keeping things precisely as they are. The effect of this ‘otherwise thinking’ is that its eschews the drive towards inclusivity and the hospitality that come about when the liberal impulse to “widen the circle of thought to chinned the once excluded” is triggered by the contrast experience of failure. But can theology be incorporated into this queer art of failing? Can it be trusted to perform styles, modes, and scripts of ‘otherwise thinking’ engendered by experiences of failure, of loss, or rejection? Is it not a mode of thought that only makes sense within the success matrix of mastery, sense/coherence, and memory? (11–15)
The point of failure as ‘otherwise thinking’ when it comes to theology, Crawley argues, is not that it corrects theology for its complicity in the success matrix, in its knowledge production or regulation, or in the hegemonic force of normality that marginalizes the figure of the child and the queer as the deviant. Instead, the effect that failure has on theology is rigorously critical. It undoes theology immanently; that is, “by paying attention to those it fails.” Theology then cannot be used as a source or example that legitimatizes, or redeems, failure, that celebrates it, that models it in some unexpected way. (‘Look at all these biblical narratives that portray failure!’) What theology can learn from failure is not just how and who it has failed, but rather how this failure negatively circumscribes its usefulness for queer social struggles. Crawley dramatizes why the failure to live up to a demand of success (‘Can one be both queer and religious?’) illustrates why “success itself cannot be the antithesis of failure”; failure is and cannot be thought of as a sideways, backdoor, or alleyway track or tunnel towards a ‘different kind’ of good life. Failure is not pretty, fun, or sanitary. There is an excessive cost, a recurring disappointment, a ‘sadness’ to failure, Crawley reminds us. Because, after all, failure is indeed a queer art.
Inspiration Among the Oddities
IN THE QUEER ART OF FAILURE, Jack Halberstam turns an astute queer eye toward the possibilities opened up by failing to conform to neoliberal and biopolitical normalization. Halberstam is not the first queer theorist/thinker to seek ways to bypass the inexorable demands of contemporary social, political, economic, and affective life. Think not only of the work of Lee Edelman, José Muñoz, Lisa Duggan, Leila Ahmed, Elizabeth Freeman, and Lauren Berlant, but Judith Butler, Elizabeth Kosofsky Sedgwick, and Michel Foucault—all of whom put in appearances in Halberstam’s book. If these familiar queer friends occupy the hallowed halls of high theory, less familiar queer friends show up in a variety of low (cultural, theoretical, and/or historical) places. Halberstam’s queer underworld features sites silly (the cartoon sea-world of Finding Nemo, the inane buddy movie Dude, Where’s My Car?), beautiful (fine art photography and painting), and disturbing (Nazi Germany and its aftereffects). With the academic alacrity and mix of wit and wisdom we’ve come to expect, Halberstam exposes them as sites of the queer as productive failure or of failure productively queered. Keeping company with Dory and Marlin, Jesse and Chester, in particular, gives us silliness, stupidity, forgetfulness, and failure to conform as routes to being and doing otherwise. Rather than giving ourselves over to the pursuit of individual economic, academic, psychological, and success as defined by biopolitical neoliberalism, Halberstam invites us to consider these sites of failure as openings to new forms of political and affective collectivity.
My response to The Queer Art of Failure will say as much about my own current preoccupations as anything else, I’m sure. Fortunately, though, those preoccupations are not far removed from Halberstam’s. I, too, am interested in the political and affective dimensions of biopolitical failure. That interest has led me, too, to (more banal) visual media—photographs and stills from a home movie, in my case—as central sites of analysis. Like Halberstam, I am particularly interested in the political import of these forms of visual media; how they both reinforce and disrupt normative ways of knowing, being and doing. That commonality makes me particularly attuned, perhaps, to what Halberstam does with the specific visual artifacts discussed in this volume and thus to dimensions of this project that might otherwise go unremarked.
Given what I’ve just said, a reader might expect my comments to revolve around some of the photographs that Halberstam considers. But (trust me on this!) that would take us deeper yet into the realm of high theory and away from the low places—and particularly the silly places—that Halberstam brings to our attention. So instead, I will focus my comments on two films that anchor the first two chapters: Finding Nemo, an animated feature film aimed primarily at children, but designed to keep adults entertained too, and Dude, Where’s My Car? a live action comedy aimed at an adult audience.
The narratives embodied in each of these films are the primary conduits of Halberstam’s analysis; their queer failures manifest primarily through plot and character. So, e.g., the fact that Dory (the clownfish of Finding Nemo) has short-term memory loss is essential not only to the film’s humor but to the plot’s progression; Marlin finds Nemo not in spite of Dory’s forgetting, but in and through it. So also the misadventures of Jesse and Chester: that they remember nothing of each adventure moves the plot forward in ways that disrupt, if not fully subvert, white masculine dominance, Halberstam argues.
That narrativity matters so much is appropriate. These are “movies”—moving pictures—after all; narrative comes naturally to them, in a sense. But these are also moving pictures. The narrative is carried forward in and through light and sound. The medium may not be (all there is to) the message (to recall Marshall McLuhan), but it surely informs it. How and where do elements of sound and light, of genre and format, figure in these films’ queer political import? In how these pictures not only move, but move us—affectively and politically—or fail to?
Halberstam produces a persuasively queer Nemo in part by contrasting it with two other films about animals—penguins rather than fish—one animated (Happy Feet), one a documentary (The March of the Penguins). All three films anthropomorphize the animals they represent, but to different effects. Whereas both penguin films reinforce heteronormative narratives of family at the expense of elements of actual penguin social life that queer it, Nemo presents us with refreshingly different (fictionally aquatic, but authentically human) forms of relationality and communality. Moreover, where anthropomorphism simply reinforces anthropocentrism in March, it yields a potent critique of anthropocentrism in Nemo. As Halberstam notes, the humans in the film—a father and son who think nothing of subjecting fish to life in aquarian captivity simply for their own visual pleasure—come off as boorish, selfish, cruel, and even stupid. They contrast sharply not only in character, but visually, with the fish-y humanity exhibited by Marlin (Nemo’s anxious father), Nemo (the naive and willful son), and Gill (the wise older mentor). Indeed, the character contrast is realized through a visual and vocal contrast. We “see” the film from a fish-y perspective throughout. For much of the film, the camera allows us to (virtually) share the ocean with Marlin and Dory and their fellow sea-denizens who appear in full, colorful fish-y regalia. We also “see” the humans from the same fish-y perspective—now, not from a spacious shared ocean but from the confined space inside the aquarium looking out, a perspective we share with Gill and Nemo and their aquatic-denizens. The human father and son jut intrusively into view as a disembodied voice, a pale looming face or a hulking arm poking randomly but dangerously around the aquarium. These visual renderings make palpable the threat these humans pose to these fish moving viewers (some at least) to see in it the threat humans as a species now pose to all fish.
That these films should deploy anthropomorphism to such divergent ends calls attention once again to narrative, now as a driving element of films regardless of their genre. But Halberstam’s read also requires attention to differences in genre as they impact queer failure’s working through. We expect documentary films to tell us the “truth,” in some sense. That March tailors the “truth” it tells to fit a heteronormative narrative violates that genre convention. On the other hand, that Nemo presents us with anthropomorphized fish is well within the conventions of the animated children’s film and central to its appeal. (Animated films can also trade in a form of realness. Consider, e.g., the way the animated film Up! plays off of real dogginess: the weirdness of wearing what Up!’s animated dogs call “the cone of shame”; the immediacy with which they are distracted by a “Squirrel!”) In both Nemo and March— animated and documentary—queer failure aligns with (filmic) conventional success.
If the visual moves us in positively queer directions in Nemo, its effects are more ambivalent in Dude. Take, for example, a scene in Dude when Jesse (played by Ashton Kutcher) plants an open-mouthed kiss on Chester (played by Seann William Scott). One reviewer claimed that this kiss “did more to advance the cause of homosexuality than 25 years of gay activism” (67). Halberstam (rightly) expresses some skepticism about this claim questioning, for one thing, what precisely the reviewer means by this “cause.” (I’ll return to that question in a minute.) Whatever it means and no matter how dubious a claim it may be, following it out exposes another dimension of the visual—a peculiar kind of “reality effect,” to riff off of Roland Barthes, that inheres in Hollywood movies thanks in part to the celebrity culture that surrounds them. Characters come to life on screen in and through the actors who play (or voice) them. Much of the time, we viewers are able to suspend disbelief, as it were, and allow the actor to disappear into the character being played. That’s harder to do when the actor is really famous—as these two actors are—and not thoroughly disguised. Through other media (People, talk shows, etc.), we are given access to the (supposed) “real lives” of famous actors. That this scene might move viewers to embrace the cause of “homosexuality,” I’ll suggest, relies on viewers seeing on screen at one and the same time the characters being played and the actors playing them.
Following this claim out brings us up against queer failure that is simultaneously political and visual. The reviewer’s comment is problematic in many ways—for one thing, the bro-kiss would not be in such a film (nor would the actors, as Halberstam reports, be taking credit for “how gay” the film is) were it not for the twenty-five years of “gay activism” that has rendered “homosexuality” much more acceptable than it used to be. But let’s follow Halberstam and dig a little deeper into “the cause of homosexuality.” Whatever the reviewer (thinks he) means, to speak in these terms is to speak in the vernacular of our current regime of sex/desire, a regime laser-focused on normalization, as Foucault has taught us. “Homosexuality” can name (however awkwardly) a political cause because this regime has established “homosexuality” as having a cause in another sense: an origin. We may not yet know what it is (Nature? Nurture? Lifestyle choice? All of the above?) but we (think we) know it has one.
The “cause of homosexuality” this bro-kiss advances is (homo)normalization. This advance (such as it is) depends upon a certain double vision. Jesse kissing Chester is at one and the same time Ashton kissing Seann. That double vision is necessary to the bro-kiss’s political effect. Without Ashton and Seann, there would be no kiss between Jesse and Chester. That Ashton and Seann—two hot straight male celebrities—kiss each other accounts for much of the bro-kiss’s normalizing effect, I would argue. But, insofar as we viewers (think we) know who they “really are” (two hot straight celebrity males), this double vision is also threatens to undo the kiss’s (homo)normalizing effect.
Which returns us, finally, to Halberstam and the art of queer failure in another Foucaultian vein. It is indeed an art; a style of living, if not a lifestyle. It’s perhaps also a style of looking. The Art of Queer Failure reminds us to look for inspiration for living otherwise not in the obvious places, but among the oddities, the flotsam and jetsam of (so-called) normal life.
Recovering a Different Way of Remembering
THIS BOOK WAS A great joy to read and took me at times into unfamiliar territory, which was a challenge. A further challenge came when I realised that much that was said in unfamiliar disciplines was very familiar to me and indeed with which I agreed for the most part. I had wondered what the title was hinting at and felt a slight sense of alarm at the words queer and failure in the same phrase but should in fact have taken courage at the word “art” between them. I was interested in the idea that failure could be viewed as a way to propel us beyond existing boundaries (3) through placing us outside the disciplines of behaviour management that delivers us to society as moulded adults within the bounds of what society requires of us. For Halberstam, failure in this context means we retain some childhood anarchy and with it the ability to queer many “clean boundaries” such as those between winners and losers. Embrace of failure, we are told, overcomes the mass delusion of positive thinking within which the good thrive and the bad fail. At its most extreme the cult of positive thinking is not unlike the worst type of religious fundamentalism in that it “blames” people for their own ill health rather than, as the book points out, examining what may be environmental causes that trigger the epigenetic hand one is dealt. Personal responsibility, for this in many cases read blame, looms large in this view of the world. Certainly, this view of life, which also lets the real bad guys, such as the environmental destroyers of industry and the bankers who only see money off totally free of all responsibility, needs questioning and over turning. However, I found myself at once agreeing with the argument and also wondering if failure is the best tactic, even taking in to account the book’s meaning of failure.
As a radical Christian theologian I start my own examination of questions from an incarnational stance. That is, I take the message of incarnation laid out in the life of Jesus as something that speaks of the reality of all, human and non-human alike. This is not a prissy, perfection seeking prescription but rather a challenge to live seeking fullness of life for all living creatures. By its very nature this calls for counterculture living in the present day and, further, does not prescribe one way of doing this; acknowledging each person as human/divine means that there can be no one way beyond each seeking to live full relational lives; a flourishing of diverse ways of being seems possible. There is no end utopia to this challenge because as the margins become the centre, the new margins create new questions and challenges to be addressed. No heaven awaits the perfect who have achieved some form of positive living, which I suppose suggests that it does not create winners and losers but rather just people in the messy realities of life with all its ups and downs. Nevertheless, I felt challenged by the use of failure in this work, as from my own perspective even death on a cross when seeking to live a justice-seeking life was never thought of as failure. For me this was not in the traditional sense of it being what God required as the ultimate sacrifice, but instead as a good man facing death rather than capitulating with oppressive powers. Nonetheless, this word failure hit me hard and made me wonder whether even what I had considered a radical incarnational stance was no more than another form of positive thinking, albeit one that seeks to overturn the existing order based in its dualistic thinking and hierarchies.
It seems that both Halberstam and liberation theologians such as myself are striving to live outside the confines of existing knowledge and understandings of self and the world, but I am haunted by disciplinary memories that place what might be called positive failure within a frame of humility and seeking greater self-understanding. It is therefore extremely enlivening to see a use of failure as something that challenges the status quo but for my discipline countercultural living will need to be used for quite some time yet to signal much the same meaning.
As we are reminded Quentin Crisp suggested failure could be a style, and this triggered for me two issues that are dealt with in the book and that have been bugging me for some time. They are the stupid, “inadequate” white males portrayed in films who almost demand our sympathy, and more, our mothering/lovering emotions. Far from finding them annoying we are meant to find them cute and sexy, the sexy accompanied by our desire to save them from themselves. The second issue is the rejection of butch women as an embarrassment due to their total failure to represent anything slightly resembling female. This complete failure at femaleness in the societal mind has become, even within the lesbian world, something to reject as non-representational and not what nice girls do.
I have wondered for some time if the representation of the inadequate male is a response to some feminist success amongst young women. Have we not seen it before in Western culture in the mythology surrounding the strong goddess Hera who would not be conquered by male gods and remained her independent self, fighting off, both physically and emotionally, all attempts to dominate her. Her final downfall coming when a god turned himself into a pathetic, helpless bird that settled on her window ledge, she took him into her lap to comfort him and he overcame her. Is this what we have in front of us in the stupid white guy films, the same will to power of males simply overlaid with a performance of stupidity? Or is this the immature response to women who are seeking adult males who can live alongside adult females. Either way it is rather scary. Halberstam shows how in Dude, Where’s My Car? the characters unwittingly overturn expected norms through their stupidity—they are too clueless to have picked up expected, normal behaviour. But is this really the case? Are they just the pre-adolescents that males are allowed to be for much of their lives safe in the knowledge that these behaviours will not ultimately damage their privileged place in society (see, for example, George Bush Jr)? They are allowed to play while women are expected to be caretakers without showing too much intelligence, they need to exhibit an almost instinctive ability to work things out not requiring the use of their brains. In many of the films that have annoyed me the most, love, seems to be the trigger for this instinctive rescue of the stupid male, which beautifully serves the purpose of both saving him and not making him feel intellectually challenged.
Back to Dude, within the Christian tradition there is the holy fool; this is the person who appears to be naïve and not understand the ways of the world, the one who simply lives outside the boxes of respectable living. This fool actually lives in another reality, one supported by a different starting point for a view of reality, and one engaged in constant reminders of that alternative form of knowledge, the repetition of prayer and liturgy. The holy fool often accompanied high ranking church men and even kings, displaying their alternate takes on matters of church and state. Sadly, I am not sure they were always heeded but that is another argument. I find this figure interesting; they could be male or female, and they did not base their foolishness in forgetting but rather in remembering—remembering that another world is possible. Interestingly, they consolidate that memory not in static forms of knowing but rather in spaces that allow for vision and enlightenment if we are to understand these words as the endless possibilities of change and unknowing. These holy fools, like the mystics, often speak of unknowing, which is not at all the same as the dark night of the soul, where the person appears lost and at sea but is rather a transcendence (that is moving across and within not above and beyond) to another space within the physical world that allows other ways of being.
I suppose I favour the holy fool, who at times may outwardly resemble the stupid white male, mainly because of the part played by memory. While I agree with Halberstam that we have to kick against the form of memory that is engrained and makes us react instinctively to the way things should be, I also wish to argue for the place of a different way of remembering that allows for a deep embodied knowing of alternatives. One that some would argue is as close to us as our maternal beginnings, one in which the becoming of one is intimately involved with the becoming of the other, a place of life giving co-operation not hierarchy and competition, a border space of creativity where nothing is decided but many things are possible.
The other issue I want to take up is that of the place of the butch in lesbian society. Like Halberstam I was surprised by the lack of butch characters in the L Word—as well as older and larger women, two other types who fall outside the heterosexual success matrix. But as is pointed out, we need not have been, since the series had as a central theme the consuming young, successful, and beautiful people, those who were meant to be consumed by male and female gaze alike while consuming all that makes a successful life. When the “slightly more butch than Shane” characters did arrive they were of colour and did not demonstrate the same level of success as the rest of the cast. There was one exception, a suit-wearing white lawyer who made the occasional appearance. This is where I wish to add a slightly different take to that of Halberstam: the white lawyer did appear in Gucci, or was it Armani, suits and the butch lesbians of colour did have their own style that often involved designer wear. So perhaps the modern day butch is influenced by consumer culture in a way the butches of old found limitations. It was not an option for many to walk into men’s outfitters or tailors to buy their clothes. Most did so via catalogues that could not be said to have top of the range wear. So perhaps despite the fact that the lesbian community in part wishes to distance itself from the butch, it seems in an odd way that more societal acceptance has opened up more opportunity for consumer capitalism to grab another market.
So what was this series meant to do? Is it a corrective for younger women who now feel there is permission to be lesbian—is the correct type being put before them? I feel outrage when I consider such a thing and further that a lesbian community might agree with such out-casting. Halberstam suggests that the butch is the ultimate failure, within her understanding of the word. A failure as she threatens the hetero-gaze and construction of womanhood, she just does not fit. She is beautiful in her own way without the need to buy in to the “because you are worth it” trappings of consumer culture. She produces her own sense of self outside the expectations of the culture, and despite what is perceived as a failed masculinity she is attractive to women who heteronormativity recognises as such. This is an outrage! I believe the butch is one of the most embodied countercultural beings in the lesbian community—or is this just my discipline speaking again. I say this as within early Christianity we find many women who are baptised into the faith cutting their hair and putting on male attire. Why? There was much speculation in the days before queer theory entered the theological realm; they did so for safety was one favoured argument. These days it can be argued that we perhaps see women who were highlighting for a community the narrowness of gender stereotyping and literally living beyond its boundaries, as they did not just change their appearance, they also changed their prescribed roles in a tightly bound society. Importantly of course they also took on lives beyond the “normal” bounds of consumer society as well. Who knows what their sexual desire was, but it is obvious that their embodied desire was to demonstrate that in baptism they were free from the narrow constraints of hetero-patriarchy.
I am not suggesting any religious motivation for contemporary butches, but am saying that they do signal a moving beyond narrow constraints of hetero-patriarchal roles and gender performances. The important place of butches in community that I see makes me concerned at the number of gender reassignments that seem to be taking place—particularly those started through hormones with young children. It seems to me that what we might be witnessing is the “correcting” of gender—not allowing what might be understood in the societal sense as failure, that is failure to conform. Of course, I am not questioning people’s right to make decisions about their own embodiment rather I am concerned about the pressure of narrow heteronormative society that is applied to some of those choices. The magnificent failure of hetero-femininity that is the butch is a cause for celebration, as in my view she stands not just against gender stereotyping but also against aggressive and destructive consumer capitalism.
I loved this book! More please, Jack, much more!
If you believe that children need training, you assume and allow for the fact that they are always already anarchic and rebellious, out of order and out of time (27).
SUNDAYS AFTER THE MORNING church service was our time. We would come home, parents retreating to their bedroom because of fatigue, and my brother and I would decide to “play church.” What this mainly involved for two Blackpentecostal children was us parroting the people we had become familiar with from multiple observations. Sister Morgan’s howl from the organ, Sister Wallace’s singing of “Traveling Shoes,” Deacon Scroggins’s very consistent, unchanging testimony about how he got saved at the Grand Canyon with his wife in their van, mommy’s pacing the pews speaking in tongues, daddy’s foot shuffle shout when he became excited. Playing church meant slipping into performance, into intentional restored behaviors of churchgoers we knew. My brother and I decided on our roles: he‘d testify, I’d sing a congregational song, we’d collect an offering, and I’d direct the choir. We were elaborate in our play. We wore choir robes, screamed “you betta sing!” and “you betta preach!” We banged on child-appropriate keyboards for music. When it was time for the choir to sing, we would play phonograph recordings of our favorite songs. My brother, because he was older I suppose, was almost always the preacher.
Certainly, my brother and I know something about failure—a series of failures to be precise—that emerged from play. And this because almost each time we played church, without fail, after a couple minutes of listening to him play preach, I’d excuse myself to use the bathroom. Still in our shared bedroom preaching about literally only god knows what, he’d find that I’d made my way to the living room to watch television. Maybe thirty minutes previous. Of course I’d hear him in the room preaching but whatever was on television was more intriguing. Years later and we laugh about this, his desires to preach, my boredom and this ultimately, his failure. And it was the reading of Jack Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure that provided for me an opportunity to think about the efficacy of the imaginative worlds of children and, perhaps selfishly, my own failures with regard to the Blackpentecostal tradition.
That such a mundane thing could be productive of joy, that something we did multiple times weekly would be the occasion to imagine otherwise possibilities, stays with me still. I sometimes listen to the recordings of us at play—yes, we recorded some of these events—and it takes me to another when, another where. We not only reproduced “what really happened” during “real” church services. We also imagined songs that were never sung, sermons never preached, modes of exuberance and praise otherwise. To know a social world with both breadth and depth, to understand its nuances, its language, its modes of performative exchange, its vitality enough to both imagine its delimitation and beyond it, to know worlds and to become duly bored by them, is what prompts me the most in The Queer Art of Failure.
If freedom is an idea, if liberation is a desire germane to existence—to create an erotic path of one’s choice, to leave a play church service while your brother preaches at will—The Queer Art of Failure has readers journey with the whimsical, the silly, the cartoonish in order to consider other epistemological possibilities, which is also to consider otherwise modes of existence, otherwise means of being in the world together with others. When discussing the hilarious film Chicken Run, for example, Halberstam states that it “is different from Toy Story in that the Oedipal falls away as a point of reference in favor of a Gramscian structure of counter hegemony engineered by organic (chicken) intellectuals” (32). I want to consider, for a moment, not the notion of the Oedipal but the concept of the organic chicken intellectual, the organic intellectual that does not have access to a certain epistemological ordering of the world based on reading and writing. Can such an entity, can such an organic mass, be considered intellectual? Particularly urgent is this concern given the ways literacy has been privileged as the modality through which one becomes a subject in Western theological-philosophical thought. What does it mean for intellectual pursuit to come from those that cannot read? From chickens? From children? Can flesh that fails to order knowledge based on a particular epistemology know anything about freedom, about liberation?
This is to ask from where does a knowledge of freedom, to use a phrase from Fred Moten, emerge? It is to ask from where does the idea, to borrow from Jose Muñoz, of disidentification exist such that it is prompted in ones that have never had such experience? To inflect this question through Christian religiosity: Why sit in upper rooms waiting for that which you do not know exists, that which you do not know is even possible? From where does the modality of gathering with others seeking the experience of divine encounter come?
Halberstam’s text is fundamentally about the encounter of gathering with others, about the privileging of the multiple, of the multitude, as an otherwise practice of intellect, as an otherwise practice of freedom. Such gatherings, such multiplicity, are failures to establish the bourgeois subject of liberal thought, the shored up enclosed individual. Such gathers, such multiplicity, establish the necessity of failure as a modality of critique, as a force of resistance, as an act of love.
The Queer Art of Failure is about imagining otherwise possibilities. “So what is the alternative,” Halberstam asks (2). One would be to “think in terms of a different kind of society that the one that first created and then abolished slavery,” one created through recognizing that the “social worlds we inhabit, after all . . . are not inevitable; they were not always bound to turn out this way, and what’s more, in the process of producing this reality, many other realities, fields of knowledge, and ways of being have been discarded . . .” (8–9). What Halberstam calls for, in other words, is a thinking with and inhabitation of otherwise possibilities. And in imagining one finds that otherwise has been realizable already. This happens in a threefold, Trinitarian, methodology: resist mastery (11), privilege the naïve or nonsensical, (12) and to suspect memorialization (15). But like playing church with my brother, like the films Chicken Run and Finding Nemo and the fiction of Toni Morrison Halberstam recounts, we find that the otherwise is, to fail to use the phrase theologically, already but not yet.
If otherwise possibilities announce and enunciate plurality, multiplicity, irreducibility, then even when already realized as otherwise modes of social political organization, of otherwise ways of life like the horizon, such would of necessity maintain the not yet nature, a force that keeps open and at remove any declaration of doneness. The blackqueer radical tradition would be but one iteration and enactment of such doubled—and Nahum Chandler would offer, always more than double, thus always that which is excess in its grounding—force. Halberstam poses the interesting concept that failure, particularly as performed through a queer intervention, and such would always be the practice of anarchic freedom. The anarchic freedom found in the rebellious child. “[C]hildren are not coupled, they are not romantic, they do not have a religious morality, they are not afraid of death or failure, they are collective creatures, they are in a constant state of rebellion against their parents, and they are not the masters of their domain. Children stumble, bumble, fail, fall, hurt; they are mired in difference, not in control of their bodies, not in charge of their lives, and they live according to schedules not of their own making” (47). The Queer Art of Failure generously engages the life worlds of children and, through inhabiting such a zone, enunciates what Scripture has likewise recorded, that becoming as children is the only way to enter into otherwise life, life that is grounded in justice, life that is equitable. Becoming as children is an ethical way of life, where friendships both real and imagined, flourish.
Failure does not privilege the discovery of the new but the alternative. And the alternative is that which refuses a hierarchy of knowledge production. “Queer studies offer us one method for imagining, not some fantasy of an elsewhere, but existing alternatives to hegemonic systems” (89). Otherwise possibilities, the alternative, is decidedly not only, not necessarily, the new. We already have the alternative, the normative was created as a means to control that which would be called, that which would be deemed from the vantage of the state, of the law, the otherwise. It’s the anarchic thrust of children, the desire for giving and sharing in common with others. Failure simply illustrates the overwhelming ongoing plentitude of horizon, that the path to success exists previous to situation and is normativizing force and thus violent. Failure is horizonal, it is the unceasing thrust, movement and force of and to the horizon, that which gathers while also disperses. Writing about Judie Bamber’s horizon paintings, Halberstam states, “What Bamber paints, then, is the limit: the limit of vision, the limit of nature, the limit of color itself, the circumscribed imagination, the lack of futurity, or, in other words, the expansion and contraction of all our horizons” (116). Yet if failure is an ethical injunction towards the otherwise, this seems insufficient. The limit of vision, the limit of hearing, the limit of sensual response does not mean the limit of the object, it means the limit of a detection from a certain vantage; the limit opens itself up as one moves, both creating intractable limit but also covering ground that was once “beyond” such a limit. Simply, the horizon moves. The horizon plays with its refusal of being captured, though it calls out antiphonally, engages and spreads capaciously before us. Yet we fail. We fail to get there. But in such failure is produced the play, the momentum and inertia. As horizonal, the moving horizon is ever beckoning, ever calling for the movement, the choreographics, of engagement. Such that failing to ever get there, to ever reaching the point of departure, leaves open for us the ongoing possibility of discovery. The Land Before Time series calls this “the mysterious beyond.” The concept of the mysterious beyond allows us to think without having to force such thinking into predetermined ideologies and concepts.
I have resisted “reading theologically” The Queer Art of Failure. To be provocative, I would say that theology is a failed mode of thought. That is, theology as a categorically distinct modality of thought, must presume a subject—a stable, coherent identity—as that with the capacity to produce such thought. It presumes a subject that can think theologically and that can be thought by the project of theological reflection. Analyses of race, gender, and sexuality in cultural studies – Black Studies, Women and Gender Studies, Queer Studies, for example—has demonstrated the problematics of attempting to place marginalized figures within the strictures of predetermined thought. For example, Hortense Spillers, Denise Ferreira da Silva, and Sylvia Wynter each write convincingly about the foundations of Western man as predicated upon the exclusion of gendered, racialized flesh. Rather than widen the circle of such thought to include the once excluded, perhaps we should produce failure such that we can interrogate: what comes not before or after but is otherwise than theology? What Halberstam’s text allows is for thinking with nongenerativity, with negativity, with kinds of thought and objects for analyses that do not fit normative rubrics, logistics, patterns, behaviors. For example, rather than force the movies for children to be good, proper, upstanding objects, Halberstam produced analyses that allowed for the contradictions and whimsy, the wittiness and cartoonishness to remain. Rather than making the objects proper for cultural studies, Halberstam made cultural studies undone by showing the failures of queerness to live up to a predetermined project. What if, then, theology could be undone by paying attention to those it fails: the Argentinian women who sell lemons in their underwear, the black women on whom cultural evil is produced?
What if we refuse to justify queer sociality through theology as a mode of reflection? Such a failure would presume that theology is constituted by exclusion, an exclusion that seems to run alongside queer phobia, but would also illustrate the ways failure to live up to such a demand—and it is a demand with the various, vociferous, vagrant calls to “show me in the Bible where it says it’s ok for two men and two women to be together!”—is generative for the practice of queer freedom without regard to what theology posits as in necessity of being demonstrated to prove ethical moral good. What if we fail, what if we hesitate and resist rising to the occasion of the normative, not as success’s opposite but as ethical commitment? This means that the otherwise makes an ethical demand on us to be restive, to never settle. It also means we must displace the concept of success as the antithesis of failure, for if one succeeds at successive failures, left in place is the normativity of doing well, even if it is doing the thing one would rather not do. In the current epistemological ordering of Western theology-philosophy, success has one path while failure has, like that disgusting candy, good and plenty.
The frustration ended up being a bit too much. I sat in my apartment office in front of my computer waiting to hear a notification from Adam4Adam. Waiting to hear a buzz from my silenced phone from Grindr, Tinder, Growlr, Jackd, or Scruff. In between, checking OKCupid for bright pink. It’d been a very long time waiting for something of sustenance to come to fruition. It had already been months since I went intentionally and regularly to a gay bar without missing it—or missing it a lot less than I thought I would—so deleting all the profiles and apps seemed like a part of the narrative arc. Indeed. So there I sat, frustrated at the perpetual failure, the continued beginnings of conversations never leading to more than maybe a drink, maybe coffee, maybe a hookup. Not having a narrative of becoming a pretty pretty princess nor a knight in shining armor has meant attempting to create, from the ground up, a way of being, a form of life, in the world, this world, while also attempting to not be of it. What when the failures are a series of relational possibilities, if such possibilities seem continually thwarted? This to assert that otherwise possibilities are not always romantic, are not always easy, are not always whimsy. They can be filled with fluttering flirtations or evacuated of erotic excesses. That is the point of The Queer Art of Failure, though, no? That otherwise possibilities, in their plentitude and manifold witness, can certainly mean fulfillment but can also lead to other sadnesses.
What can we make of being perpetually disappointed? And this disappointment can emerge as the lack of dating or deep bonds of erotic relationality as much as disappointment can be evinced by walking out of rooms during play sermons to eat cookies and drink milk while watching cartoons. These varied disappointments are not unlike my own failure to live up to, and a subsequent desire to live into such failure, the Blackpentecostal doctrines of salvation and sin, of holiness and homosexuality of my youth. This emerged from a disappointment in how these worlds full of complexity and joy could also be the source of so much complexity and pain. But in Halberstam, we find not only the ethical force of failure but when considering the work of horizonal movement, we find that there is otherwise than success, otherwise than winning. Halberstam opens up the way to ask what comes after failure but the realization that failure was ever only the ruse of the proper, of property, of a metaphysics that presumes enclosed life, the antithetical agitational rub against flourishing, against child’s play and anarchic rebellion. Having failed to fit in, having failed to become what was presumed is normal, produces dense spaces of performative excess, excess of the otherwise, the otherwise of failure, the failure of the normal. But to not be normal is the key, to not fit in is child’s play. And so we return, again and again, to becoming children as a queer way of life.
THE SUBJECT OF CHILDREN rarely materializes into the elusive enactment of child subjectivity. For that reason, I admire Jack Halberstam’s turn toward children as a means to unthink progressive, developmental flows that silence children.
In The Queer Art of Failure, Halberstam suggests that embracing and engaging failure allows us to potentially “escape the punishing norms that discipline behavior and manage human development with the goal of delivering us from unruly childhoods to orderly and predictable adulthoods”(3). Children, or more accurately, films developed for children provide the fodder for low theory—“the theorization of alternatives within an undisciplined zone of knowledge production” (18). Such films contain characters that demonstrate the three tactics for counter hegemonic knowledge production: they resist mastery (11), privilege the naive or nonsensical (12), and hold memorialization suspect (15).
Many religious studies scholars who write about childhood and children would agree with Halberstam’s assessment of childhood as disruptive and in need of greater attention. In most religious history, children have been used as theological pawns and tropes of innocence or evil rather than as fully human, complex individuals (the same can be said about women).1 Halberstam describes childhood as “a long lesson in humility, awkwardness, limitation,” and quoting Kathryn Bond Stockton, a “growing sideways” (27). This description of childhood illustrates desires (perhaps latent in adults) to resist heteronormativity, capitalism, and to some extent speciesism. Such desires are seen, literally, in media created for children, Halberstam writes:
Rather than be surprised by the presence of patently queer characters and narratives in mainstream kids’ films and by the easy affiliation with failure and disappointment, we should recognize the children’s animated feature as a genre that has to engage the attentions of immature desiring subjects and which does so by appealing to a wide range of perverse embodiments and relations. . . . we should use them to disrupt idealized and saccharine myths about children, sexuality, and innocence and imagine new versions of maturation, Bildung, and growth that do not depend upon the logic of succession and success (119).
In other words, to eschew a developmental, disciplining narrative we (adults) should take clues from animated films and theorize in ways that integrate fairy tale time, mythic space, nonlinear and non-Oedipal development, and disrupted and forgotten histories.
In general terms, I find Halberstam’s argument compelling as I, too, would advocate we consider the ways in which children as desiring subjects also live out ethical lives that contribute to, disrupt, reify, and provide alternatives to dominant and oppressive narratives (or cultural systems). However, as readers, we are given a rather monolithic view of children, that similar to Halberstam’s claims about scholarship regarding facism and homosexuality requires we ask more questions (148). Here are a few questions for low theory methodology that turns to children: Does the use of movies created by adults for children really break free from the “use of children” as objects for adult knowledge production? How might scholarship that proposes children as queer subjects grant them subjectivity? How can queer studies avoid positing children/childhood in developmentally reversed logic as an antithetical category to disciplined, heteronormative adulthood (which of course never breaks us out of the notions of development whether to signal progress or failure)?
Halberstam, unlike Edelman who sees children as only deployed for a hetero-logic of futurity, suggests “there are alternative productions of the child that recognize in the image of the nonadult body a propensity to incompetence, a clumsy inability to make sense, a desire for independence from the tyranny of the adult, and a total indifference to adult conceptions of success and failure” (120). First, I appreciate the critique of Edelman, and would inquire are children only queer because of age and what happens when that inevitably changes? Second, while I generally agree with Halberstam’s interpretation of animated films, I am leery of equating that analysis with an interpretation of queerness attributed to childhood or any specific child. Children can be as violent, greedy, mean, and petty as adults (186).2 Rather, what I understand Halberstam to be describing is what we learn about adults when we make a turn toward children; in order to do this we (adults) often reify children as an object against which adult progress is measured or mirrored, with the possible pitfall of never really seeing children for their own ethically complex, creative being-ness.
I admit that my own ethical approach may bias me toward Halberstam’s project as anti-teleological and at times an eschatological negation. Yet, Halberstam is not providing a “value free” theory, as the work alternates between positing liberative visions and simultaneously embracing failure (which may be one in the same). Low theory has ethical aims; it relies on common sense, is politically and activist engaged, and requires working with a class of people to disentangle/understand oppressive social forces (16–19). As a “class of people” children do not participate in animated films alone. The children who know this animated genre3 are taken to films by parents, grandparents, caretakers; they watch them with adults and peers; they extend, embody, and rewrite the story through conversation, enacting, and consuming after they view (and review them multiple times). Once we move out of analyzing the films themselves, we are left to puzzle about the circumstances of creating, viewing, and extending the queerness of such narratives. In this short piece, I have space only to discuss one aspect, but would invite consideration of all.
As spectators of animated films, Halberstam, in closing remarks, notes that children are not “empty vessels . . . [they] resist ready-made meaning, ignore heavy-handed morality, and pay careful attention to details in film that most adults might pass over” (181). Maybe, maybe not. All the time, sometimes, or rarely. Regardless, they do all of this as co-viewers. Halberstam assumes that the reader knows and agrees that media are social. Yet, the description of children never goes beyond media engagement as unidirectional and asynchronous. Animated films by Pixar and Dreamworks, I would argue, are influenced by (if not possible because of) Sesame Street’s innovation. Sesame Street’s creators relied/rely upon the “forms of social engagement that are not visible in the media itself”—the social engagement that happens in the room (car, over shared meals, etc) and “are ephemeral.”4 Sesame Street is designed to engage multiple audiences and bring adults into social co-viewing with children and hopefully move adults toward instructive mediation—collaborative media use with synchronous, ongoing discussion.5
Sesame Street intends to improve children’s literacy and critical thinking skills. One might critique such a project as part of the dominant, oppressive system of heteronormative futurity if it didn’t obscure the same boundaries for which Halberstam praises Pixar and Dreamworks including rethinking collectivities, transformation, identification, animality, and posthumanity (174). Luring adults (mostly mothers and female daycare providers) into co-viewing Sesame Street with skits about the “real houseplants” or “upside downtown abbey” that parody adult popular culture are impressive strategies to get children and adults in the room watching and discussing familiar content.6 In many cases, such alterations or queering of the adult narrative creates an opening for children to engage, interpret, and re-create content within a relationship. These might be moments that deconstruct or reify dominant narratives; either way they are creative and agential nonetheless. Where creators of Sesame Street primarily viewed their task as creating circumstances for adults to be the instructional mediators, it is just as possible that it is the child who is an instructional mediator. And in current contexts, it may be all the more true with joint media engagement associated with new digital technologies where children often are experts and adults are novices.7
In a sense, I’m arguing that an equally rich location for analysis of children/childhood resides in co-viewing or joint media engagement that not only includes media with counter logics, but captures how children engage and manipulate such logics either for purposes of failure or mastery, knowledge or stupidity, forgetfulness or knowing (147). In this sense, I would locate queerness in a relational interaction with children (between peers, with adults, and/or with media)—one that takes children’s participation and mediation seriously but also does not require a teleology or predetermined eschatology. Nor would it require that children coherently represent queerness, rather these encounters might demonstrate a richness that may make sense of, resist, or comply with hegemonic dominant narratives.
During the writing of this response, I saw the Pixar film Big Hero 6 with a nine year old. It was the experience of “watching with” a child that led me to the above response and pulled me away from using Halberstam’s methodology to analyze Big Hero 6. I found Big Hero 6 compelling for many reasons, not the least of which was overlap of issues raised with joint media engagement studies and technological ethics issues. In one scene in particular, Baymax (the learning, companion robot) shows Hiro Hamada (teenage, main character) a digital display slide show of his dead brother just in the moment when Hiro has given up hope (resigned himself to failure). The invocation of memory by and through technology drew me into the question of how a generation of socially digital youth will, for better or worse, not have the option of forgetting.
Had I more space, I would have mused about the role of forgetting in an age of digital archive. What role will forgiveness play as an ethical practice in such a cultural system?8 Is forgiveness part of Halberstam’s theory of queerness and practice of forgetting (it was for Hiro in order to keep his new “chosen” family together)? What happens to “organic models” of progress and achievement when our failures are cataloged in databases? And, the primary question of Big Hero 6, as I interpreted it, who controls and or harnesses these technologies? Will it be, like Halberstam’s notion of failure, “productively linked to racial awareness, anticolonial struggle, gender variance, and different formulations of the temporality of success” (92)? At least related to animated films, technological innovation may have just such a productive ethical edge if Pixar continues with its current creative corporate management.9
See, John Wall’s work, for example, especially Ethics in Light of Childhood (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press., 2010).↩
In my own work, I have discussed peer to peer racism between children as young as preschool age, as well as children’s use of postcolonial imagination and/or countermemory strategies to resist racism by peers and adults. Such work fits well with Halberstam’s notions of memory and to a lesser extent with forgetting. The use of sociological and ethnographic research affords space for children to be subjects within the analysis. See Kate Ott, “Children as An/other Subject: Redefining Moral Agency in a Postcolonial Context” in Journal of Childhood and Religion 5/2 (May 2014) at http:/C:/dev/home/163979.cloudwaysapps.com/esbfrbwtsm/public_html/syndicatenetwork.com4.childhoodandreligion.com/JCR/Volume_5_(2014)_files/Ott%20May%202014.pdf.↩
There are in fact some children who do not know animated films. For many children, there are probably other forms of compelling stories that narrate and engage a queerness that could be associated with childhood in the same ways that Halberstam suggests. The act of imaginative play, itself as a hallmark of childhood, may be a testament to such conclusions. In that case, however, the agency/production is less clearly capitalist or adult-generated.↩
Lori Takeuchi, Reed Stevens, et al., “The New Coviewing: Designing for Learning Through Joint Media Engagement” The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop and LIFE Center (Fall 2011) 4, at http:/C:/dev/home/163979.cloudwaysapps.com/esbfrbwtsm/public_html/syndicatenetwork.com4.joanganzcooneycenter.org/publication/the-new-coviewing-designing-for-learning-through-joint-media-engagement/.↩
Ibid., 11 and 46.↩
Scott Meslow, “8 Sesame Street Parodies of Adult Oriented TV Shows,” The Week, October 28, 2013, at http://theweek.com/article/index/251797/8-sesame-street-parodies-of-adult-oriented-tv-shows.↩
Takeuchi, Stevens, et al., “The New Coviewing,” 13.↩
See Kate Ott, “The Internet, Endless Memory, and the Practice of Forgiveness,” Gathering Voices blog, July 14, 2014, at http://blog.thethoughtfulchristian.com/2014/07/the-internet-endless-memory-and-the-practice-of-forgiveness.html.↩
Caitlin Roper, “Big Hero 6 Proves It: Pixar’s Gurus Have Brought the Magic Back to Disney Animation,” Wired, October 21, 2014, at http:/C:/dev/home/163979.cloudwaysapps.com/esbfrbwtsm/public_html/syndicatenetwork.com4.wired.com/2014/10/big-hero-6/.↩
6.8.15 | Jack Halberstam
“Everything Is Awesome”
Introduction—The God of Small Things
Throughout my writing on failure, children’s cultures and philosophies, and on alternative formulations of life, love, and loss, I was haunted by questions that seem almost spiritual and possibly ethical in nature. Why, I wanted to know, do we invest in logics of success and failure that guarantee a steady supply of losers to offset the small, elite group of winners? And, in this case, what might be the potential virtue of failure and self-sacrifice. Why not embrace loss, unbeing, unbecoming, and undoing rather than striving endlessly to be something in a system based upon deeply unjust distributions of pleasure, actualization, and material rewards? Why not fail rather than succeed at the expense of others? And can we opt out of the system that requires our participation in order to persist? What are the alternatives, my work has constantly asked, to seemingly inevitable arrangements of life, love, and liberty?
As the authors in this symposium have picked up on, my book, The Queer Art of Failure is preoccupied with alternative strands of being and becoming that lie dormant in the child. And the child in my work is not the agent of reproductive futurity as it is in Lee Edelman’s No Future. Rather, in The Queer Art of Failure, the child represents a potentially permanent state of rebellion and refusal that threatens to upend the whole enterprise of bourgeois stability. Because the child represents threat as much as he or she represents potential, the child must be trained, managed, oriented, and directed. My book follows childish rebellion through its archives and celebrates and embraces the small, the silly, the inconsequential.
While doing so, I thought deeply about how we train children, what we train them to become, and what we force them to abandon. Religion is one of those training grounds where the child learns to internalize an epistemology, a political orientation, and a relation to others, to the unknown and to transcendence. But it can also be a site where the child is taught to abandon the wonder and curiosity that is proper to life itself in favor of lazy systems of belief.
Religion, I believe, when it becomes part of the system that seduces children into docile compliance, when it provides answers rather than asking questions, when it presents as an unquestionable good, represents a deeply coercive system that is actually at odds with the sense of belief that it is supposed to cultivate in the first place. Religion, in other words, might not be for children at all but, rather, like a political philosophy, an ethical stance, or a recreational pursuit, or, even, like a sexual practice, perhaps religion should be freely chosen as an adult when one has access to a wealth of information and to multiple narratives about the here, the hereafter, and the beyond.
Christianity in particular can be read as a form of ideological orientation that demands fidelity to a set of beliefs that are tidily organized along a time line (birth, death, redemption), that neatly cuts out the finality of death from the equation of life (resurrection and life after death), and that demands not only loyalty but the persuasion that leads to the conversion of others. Emma Goldman, Friedrich Nietzsche, and other thinkers have cast Christianity as a slavish mentality that produces followers rather than leaders, disciples, self-sacrifice, and martyrdom. So can we bring queerness together with religion in a way that does not sacrifice one to the other? And, moreover, can we build a sense of ecstatic belief that does not require compliant children, docile adults, and an expulsion of the queer, the odd, and the failed?
Religious allegory makes an odd appearance in a recent children’s film that, while it conforms to a theological sense of purpose, also builds resistance into the master narrative. And so, The Lego Movie (2014) presents a myth of origins within which society, once upon a time, was made up of free and wild builders, Lego land denizens who were all architects in their own way and who dreamed what they might build and then used the pieces around them to make that dream a reality. But one day, the story goes, an evil and corrupt ruler sought to turn the chaos of the rule of the many into an ordered and sequential system that would allow for the tyrannical despotism of the few. The new ruler, President Business, expelled the “master builders”—dreamers, architects, visionaries—from the citadel and transformed Lego world into a place governed by rules, directions, routines, and distraction from the heavy hand of oppression.
I will return to the allegory offered by The Lego Movie a few times in the course of responding to these excellent essays that dialogue with The Queer Art of Failure in order to propose that in order to appeal to the child, children’s culture must make peace with the utopian elements of the child even as the culture casts such utopian dreams as immature, unrealistic, naïve, and futile.
“Everything Is Awesome”
In her response to The Queer Art of Failure, Kate Ott, reasonably enough, asks whether the child has become a pawn in my book for theories that are still really about adults. She also asks questions about whether movies made by adults can actually access the sense of being that is proper to childhood. And, most importantly, Ott questions whether queer analyses of the child and childhood are not accessing the experience of the child at all but are merely engaging in what she calls “developmentally reversed logic.” At stake for Ott are questions about past, present, and future as they are mediated through the figure of the child; the relations between forgetting and forgiving in the age of digital media; and questions about the reification and instrumentalization of the figure of the child, not necessarily simply as a stand in for futurity, but possibly as a vector for adult questions about ethics and conduct.
These questions are important reminders that the experience of childhood, as so many theorists have commented, is often only narrated, studied, considered and analyzed in retrospect. Children are not the theorists of their own lives, they are not the inventors of their own culture, and more often than not they serve as screens for the projection of adult desires. Sexuality and religion are good examples of the projection of adult values onto child bodies. Whether we call the child queer or presume that childhood is inevitably a way station on track to heterosexuality (a much more common projection), whether we see the child as stranded in “childishness” and therefore petty and trivial or cast the child as holy, pure, and innocent, whether we mythologize or sexualize the child, we are, as Ott implies, always misrepresenting childhood. And, perhaps, childhood can only ever be misrepresented.
Ott worries that, in my work, I make the child “queer,” and in the process I run the risk of idealizing the child or fixing the child in time and space rather than recognizing the turbulent passage that childhood represents. And she favors, therefore, the analysis of spaces of social engagement and experiences of co-viewership within which children and adults co-experience films and TV shows together. These spaces, Ott proposes, offer opportunities for exchange that can be “creative and agential” and within which children are as likely as adults to be the experts and teachers.
This is a nice idea and Ott’s example of Sesame Street is a good one, but in a world increasingly oriented towards over-parenting, or helicopter parenting as it is known colloquially, we might also ask whether co-experiencing with adults has become a corrosive norm for children. When all of reality and all of experience for children comes to be mediated by adults, what remains for the child? When play becomes the play-date, and when children are analyzed, diagnosed, medicated, and classified in terms of their disorders, have we co-opted childhood altogether? Is co-experiencing with adults really what children need more of or in fact do we need to work harder to create real child spaces where children interact free from adult intervention?
Of course, over-parenting is a bourgeois phenomenon and it is matched often by chronic under-parenting in a post-welfare state context. When working class parents can no longer afford child care, the child may well be left to her own resources or to fend for herself or abandoned to babysitting media—TV, films, computer games. But whether under- or over-parented, the fact remains that peer-to-peer interaction for kids, which was a staple of previous generations, has tended to give way in technologically advanced societies to child–parent relations or to child–media relations. Whether parents are experienced as too present or mostly absent, children use media to either create a wedge between them and adults or to substitute for missing adult supervision.
In The Lego Movie, the conceit about childhood is played out in a framing narrative within which an adult male and his son are shown to be the ultimate architects of the Lego world they imagine, create, manipulate, and stifle. The Lego characters remember a time when their worlds were in constant states of flux, when they were all creators and builders, and when no one governed and no one served. But, under present conditions, they serve a president who wants things to fixed in a clear hierarchical order. The Lego world characters are sold on this order by being presented with choice that are not choices, regulations that must be followed and monocultures that stimulate and sedate them depending upon the needs of the system. The song that they all hear all day every day on the radio is “Everything Is Awesome” and this song becomes the cliché that covers over dissent, masks what has been lost with false “pop-timism,” and brainwashes them into unquestioning compliance.
By the end of the film, we realize that President Business is actually the law of the father. It is a the father who has turned the topsy-turvey reality of the box of Legos into an orderly, smooth-functioning citadel, and it is he who threatens to glue everything into place and cut out the possibility of change. He has made the Lego world off limits to his son and turned play into world, toys into tools, and fun into a goal-oriented project. The co-experiencing of Legos by father and son has been lost in the mix. And of course, this is part of the danger of co-experiencing—the question is not whether the child can play with the adult but whether the adult can experience play as play and not as another opportunity for instruction, virtuosity, superiority, and hierarchy.
Ott also uses an animated film, Big Hero 6, to ask, at the end of her piece, about who controls and harnesses technology and who is manipulated by it. What we both want to know, I believe, in the end is whether adults can learn to play nicely and can abandon our own predilections for corrosive forms of optimism and expectation long enough to allow children to be big, bad, mad, and monstrous failures as well as creative, imaginative, and awesome companions.