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.