A question of moving goal-posts.

One of the things I found so problematic about the introductory chapter of Jack Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure, is captured in this moment of page 7: “This is not a bad time to experiment with disciplinary transformation on behalf of the project of generating new forms of knowledge, since the fields that were assembled over one hundred years ago to respond to new market economies and the demand for narrow expertise, as Foucault described them, are now losing relevance and failing to respond to real-world knowledge projects or student interests” (7). In a work that is so fundamentally skeptical of “common sense” (rightly so), and concerned with the colonizing dangers of speaking for–to save, to erase–the “oppressed masses,” Halberstam finds no danger when speaking for the pedagogically dispossessed (by the expert/master professional academic) (126). Nor does the notion of the University’s profound failure (a “common sense” notion found in nearly every Humanities classroom in the modern university, a notion profoundly unquestioned) deserve an argumentative backbone, the failure is simply obvious

I am all for moving the goal-posts of “success” and a redefinition of failure, or a total deconstruction of boh terms, but I do have a problem with the kind of presumptuousness that creates of the student a marginalized figure, attempts to imagine a conversation that would undo that marginalization, and then invokes Can the Subaltern Speak? without a trace of sheepishness.

(Just a note, this is as far as I got at the stoke of midnight. The following is my edit).

Furthermore, I’m concerned with a similar off-handed way Halberstam dismisses all notions of Sovereignty. His dismissal, for me, mirrors the “common sense” condemnation of the university’s failure (one of the few bad failures) in its willingness to accept Foucault’s demand rather than an incorporation of his argument. Halberstam quotes Foucault: “‘Truth to tell, if we are to struggle against disciplines, or rather against disciplinary power, in our search for a nondisciplinary power, we should not be turning to the old right of sovereignty; we should be looking to a new right that is both anti-disciplinary and emancipated from the principle of sovereignty”‘ only to respond with this semi-deflationary gloss: “In some sense we have to untrain ourselves so that we can read the struggles and debates back into questions that seem settled and resolved” (11). I am particularly aggravated by this because of how useful George Bataille’s notion of Sovereignty could be to an examination of failure. This is especially true in a context where critical ideas are to be treated as “open” and “flexible” rather than fixed. While Bataille’s vision of Sovereignty relies heavily on a Hegelian notion of the way knowledge functions, the basic notion of his vision of Sovereignty–that Sovereignty only exists in moments of the rupture and failure of knowledge processes– could be especially useful grounds for Halberstam’s “wrong-way” exploration of failure’s potential political power. When Halberstam writes of Kincade’s Xuela, and her refusal to be productive, her turning away from the utilization of her gender and race for the colonial project, there is something fundamentally Bataillean in her act. But to make this clear, here is a very short (and necessarily sloppy summary of Bataille’s notion of Sovereignty:

For Bataille, Sovereignty is primarily identified with two things: freedom and the ability to participate in excess. As far as freedom is concerned, Bataille (following Hegel) believes the subject to be constantly engaging in knowledge processes as part of everyday, lived experience. This baseline state (conscious thinking that generally speaking privileges the future or past at the expense of the present moment), Bataille argues, is one bound to utilization (to other knowledges, to material demands, to the demands of the future). As knowledge is fundamentally bound to utility, the subject is always subjected to the demands that utility places upon it. As a result, the baseline state of all thinking (as utility) places the subject in a state of subjugation that prevents it from experiencing true Sovereignty because the knowledge it produces serves something other than the subject itself. However, Bataille sees in surprise, rupture, and emotional uncontrollability (laughter, horror, awe before the Sublime, before Beauty, confusion, shock) a momentary entry of the Subject into a Sovereign state. This occurs primarily because the incessant, utility-serving, knowledge process skips the track, becomes interrupted, fails. In these moments the Subject is returned to the present (and perhaps something like a non-dualistic state-of-being), and the demands of futurity, of sense, of progress, of coherence, and of legibility are temporarily unmet. Instead, Bataille argues (in a very Queer mode of criticism) there is a wasted excess, an unproductive spillage that occurs. This ability to waste, for energy to not serve a purpose, is the sign of the Sovereign for Bataille, and fits nearly-perfectly in line with many of Halberstam’s thoughts on refusal in Chapter 4.

To me, these moments represent frustrations primarily because I am so down with the general thrust of Halberstam’s arguments and Halberstam is obviously a very exciting (and excited) scholar whose project I appreciate deeply. However, there is–to me–a lurking dogmatic refusal of certains types of failure simply because either the thinkers or some of the thoughts are politically unpalatable. This sucks, because part of the artform Halberstam celebrates in Chapter 4, collage, takes an alternative, more liberated attitude: that the wholeness of the source is false, and there’s not reason we cannot cut out the exciting bits and paste them onto a new project.

Surely there are aspects of Bataille’s notion of Sovereignty that need to be left behind (perhaps even the name itself), but that doesn’t mean that those aspects forever taint the entire notion, or that a carte blanche dismissal of an entire way of imagining the subject, and the entirety of the conversation that attended it should be avoided. This attitude does not ask “more questions and [provide] fewer answers,” but rather sets certain modes of inquiry completely out-of-bounds, and assumes they are only able to generate answers.

Lastly (and I’ll keep this short, but it follows the same ideological blindness that refuses Bataille), I was dismayed at Halberstam’s easy reduction of all male masochism to “a kind of heroic antiheroism by refusing social privilege and offering [the male masochist] up Christ-like as a martyr for the cause” (139). We aren’t reading Molloy, Notes from the Underground, or The Adderall Diaries, in this class, but all three contain male masochists (within a large range of the extent and commitment to masochism) whose masochism cannot be collapsed simply to Christ-like heroic antiheroism (in fact all three absolutely resist anything of the sort). The problem is that while Halberstam writes this in the context of performance art, this clause of the sentence doesn’t limit itself to Chris Burden’s Shoot or performance art at large. While there certainly will be be differences between readings of male and female masochism, Halberstam’s reductionist statement is wholly unneeded to make that argument. Instead it displays a (bad) failure to imagine “more questions” about the male masochist, providing instead an answer that blocks the kinds of paths a thinker might “get lost in” (11)


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