On high and low theory

According to Halberstam, low theory “tries to locate all the in-between spaces that save us from being snared by the hooks of hegemony and speared by the seduction of the gift shop [in their aforementioned SpongeBob reference]. But it also makes peace with the possibility that alternatives dwell in the murky waters of the counter-intuitive, often impossibly dark and negative realm of critique and refusal.” (2)

This relates to the queer experience because these so-called “murky waters” are where the queer way of life tends to “dwell” within the structure of society. The queer community is no stranger to “critique and refusal”, both in conspicuous and inconspicuous ways. Not only do queer-identifying people encounter homophobia and outwardly-expressed prejudice from fellow humans, but they also experience exclusion by existing in a heteronormative society on a daily basis.

When Halberstam mentions the “hooks of hegemony”, they are referring to the societal construction of one way of life as the dominant or superior way. In their view, low theory and high theory could be referred to as hegemonic versus counterhegemonic theory. The idea of the existence of a dominant group within society is successfully persuasive “precisely because [it does] not present [itself] as ideology or try to win consent.” (16) In other words, hegemony is collectively accepted because it is presented as essential fact rather than subjective possibility.

Halberstam goes on to discuss the application of low theory to texts, referencing Stuart Hall’s perspective of low theory as “aiming low in order to hit a broader target” (e.g. the queer community) and as “a mode of accessibility… that is assembled from eccentric texts and examples and that refuses to confirm the hierarchies of knowing that maintain the high in high theory.” (16) The application of low theory to texts makes them accessible not just to the most common or widely-accepted demographic, but also to the outlying groups that operate under “alternative” methods of thinking or being. Halberstam suggests that low theory can be seen as “a counterhegemonic form of theorizing, the theorization of alternatives within an undisciplined zone of knowledge production.” (18)

High theory, on the other hand, does just the opposite. High theory in application to texts is geared toward a specific hegemonic group (e.g. heterosexuals). Thus, high theory is a mode of accessibility only to the group deemed superior “through the production of an interlocking system of ideas which persuades people of the rightness of any given set of often contradictory ideas and perspectives.” (16) High theory not only alienates alternative groups but also reinforces and maintains this persuasive system of ideas that paints one group as “right” and any others as “wrong”. Halberstam argues that high theory “does not really allow for a complex understanding of the social relations that both sustain… [and] change” (18).

Throughout the Queer Art of Failure, Halberstam considers failure in conjunction with capitalism. “Failure goes hand in hand with capitalism,” (88) he asserts, insisting that there must be “winners” and “losers” in order for capitalism to succeed. “In order for [economic] structures to work,” they claim, “it has to keep creating and maintaining the structures or the structured relations which allow it to function.” This relates to the aforementioned argument that, unlike high theory, low theory allows for an understanding of what “sustain[s]… and can change” the mode of knowledge production in both the social and economic realms of society. They then establish a distinction between this notion and “saying that the economic base determines the form of every other social force.” (17) In a social context, this is to say that the hegemonic group does not determine the form of alternative groups, but that understanding hegemony can help develop a more complex understanding of the way we function as a society, which helps equip us to make societal changes.

Using references to the experience of queerness in a heteronormative society and to the inner workings of capitalism, Halberstam seems to be exploring the idea that failure is an integral part of success, and that nothing can be deemed “successful” without consideration of the opposite side of the coin.  The introduction to The Queer Art of Failure seems to claim that there is some sense of value, or at least necessity, in contemplating hegemony for this reason.


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