A Giant Rant About Failure Followed by the Actual Assignment

Just to get this out of the way, in class we were asked what we hated about Berlant’s writing (for those of us that were bothered), and though I’m no enemy of complexity or difficulty per se, what does bother me is suspiciously full-sounding, but indecipherable and empty writing. While I do appreciate parts of the essay, I’m really bummed-out by moments like this: “We realize later that the image of children wandering around may emanate something the man identifies with or wants to be near, a wandering, purposeless fogginess, that privilege of of childhood confirmed by the beautiful, almost subdermal quietness of Jocelyn Pook’s soundtrack” (emphasis mine, 214). Okay, so we are reading an essay deeply invested in an interpretation of the body and the way the body reflects and responds to the environment in which it operates. In such an essay, a soundtrack of “subdermal quietness” might be one thzt operates beneath the “grimace” of the neoliberal subject. Perhaps its quietness operates on the level of musculature, shaping and sustaining the grimace through its refusal of dynamism. It could really work for Berlant, but it doesn’t. It doesn’t for a number of reasons, the first is that the focus on the “visage” or the affect as seen has been central to the consideration of affect theory found in the essay. Secondly, “subdermal” in this sentence is modifying the quietness of the soundtrack, which makes very little sense to me because if the soundtrack is having a subdermal effect (one we can feel under our skin) I would tend to associate that phenomenon with loudness. Third, if subdermal quietness is a quietness that is connected to affect theory it could equally well be understood to mean an effect that fails to become rise to the affective because it remains hidden by the visage. Lastly (and this is simply the last of the ways I am going to mention of the sentences failures, not the last of its failures), writing that the music is “almost” subdermally quiet makes even less sense. From what angle does it almost reach subdermality? Does it not quite penetrate the skin? Does it not quite pass the muscle/fat/cartilage/bone underneath the skin, remaining trapped in a sub-subdermal zone? I mean honestly.

The biggest issue I take with this essay (and those similarly written), is that it passes the realm of clever metaphoric play and enters into a very real parody of itself. A parody that really does damage to introducing new and interesting ways of thinking about the body in a politically-viable or engaging way. Instead, to me at least, it appears as an attempt to drape a veil of defensive and perplexing faux-coherence (through the use of associated descriptors) over an already worthwhile argument. Perhaps this deflationary move fits neatly within our course’s concerns (an unavoidable self-sabotage perhaps?), but I find it off-putting in the extreme. There is no sin in difficult writing that is a by-product of the argument’s inherent complexity. However, needless interpretive roadblocks signal–again, to me–a unnecessary complicity in the upkeep of the “expert” class of academic professionalism that Halberstam so usefully identifies as suspect.


How I felt when looking back at Berlant’s excerpt may end up saying more about me than the work itself but I honestly came to feel that the work was inhospitable and in the end lacked effort. That isn’t the right way to say it and maybe a version better told would include the discussion we had in class about the Reebok scene in Time Out. Julien didn’t care if the shoe was authentic or inauthentic and Berlant’s writing style had the same effect on me. The words were more false and academic than they were resounding, the flow was dictated by its ends, and, in truth, I was indifferent.

There’s a remarkable moment in Time Out when Vincent, towards the end of the movie and its long stretched denouement, asks Julien, “Was I too absent?” I had forgotten about it until I searched through my notes to find something worth writing about and found it circled. It stood out like a problem and I realized that this is how I feel about Beast in the Jungle and about writing as a whole, that there is more truth and an amplified friction in entertainment when the cause or its meaning is separate. Someone sitting behind me in class brought up the idea that Vincent used lying as a commodity in both social and emotion capital. That thought then looped into the possibility that Vincent’s internal narrative made space a commodity as well. Working around the emptiness in his exchange value allowed him to amplify his own self-worth. Much of my point is to do with the way we manufacture suspense in conflict with a conclusion. My favorite quote of Berlant’s was on page 195 when she writes, “When a situation unfolds, people try to maintain themselves in it until they figure out how to adjust.”

Vincent in the line I quoted was finally hostile to himself. His sorrow with Muriel on the couch, as Bryan said, seemed artificial. His prognosis in his question to Julien is not the one I expected at the time. The typical I’m sorry didn’t matriculate into the cinematography with some background consisting of a framed family photo or a change in scenery, nothing vague was triumphantly fathomed. Instead it was only Vincent admitting what he felt all along. This is often the time we find ourselves in when witnessing the foreground and background to a “situation” unfolding that Berlant meanders about. The end of resolution is of little concern and lacks merit even in things as immediate as the results of sports and even of voting. What we are interested in is the imbalance and absence of result.

Calexrose in the take on intimacy in our blog postings wrote, “What the beasts actually are is less important than the process of John’s life” and that is an opinion I take to heart. I would extend it to prose, life, and experience in general. The process isn’t another place asking for words but instead is the flow and absence of experience it comes to determine. Some beast will probably in the end be rounded up at the end of our reasons or choices but it will never hold water in active experience. Words can even feel like that in general, as some in class have pointed out. The economy and exclusion of words might take more picking and effort and the destabilization of flow to meet an end. Berlant’s writing is style is elliptical like James, but doesn’t have the story to make up for it. The academia often has this flaw in general. I’ve read journals of people I greatly admire and find their words – when built to meet an exclusive, insular demographic – as mired in prolix and maintaining an incomprehensibility of, and possibly an accidentally artistic, tension in what they write. Larsen was betrothed with uplift, James with case study, and Vincent with expectation. I wonder what Berlant found herself dwelling over while she met her quota and her ends.

Halberstam’s Take on Pedagogy

In the introduction to the The Queer Art of Failure Judith Halberstam challenges pedagogy, when it comes to the intention, method and the result of how students are educated. The options students are left with are limited to either success which is finding “the land of milk and honey” or failure, or being delegated to “gift shops” which is the only other option.  Halberstam’s use of the SpongeBob SquarePants dialogue lay the groundwork for how he defines failure and pedagogy. His use of SpongeBob SquarePants quotes and examples from other popular cartoons and comedic movies is his way of interpreting and challenging academia. (1)

In school, both primary and secondary, failure is not an acceptable option and doesn’t offer any positive reward or praise from the outside, yet Halberstam points out that not only “[f]ailing is something queers do and have always done exceptionally well” (3), but he emphasizes out that failing can be rewarding, unlike what pedagogy implies. In academia there is a “members only” attitude.  Exemplary of this is when Halberstam’s use of terms “serious” and “rigorous”. Additional evidence of this attitude is found in work of Fred Moten and Stefano Harney. They emphasized the words: “rigor,” “excellence,” and “productivity. These words seemed to strongly support the notion of “members only” attitude.  .

These words are often found in pedagogy. And, can found function as “code words…for disciplinary correctness” (6).  This not only limits the membership pool, but it doesn’t “allow for visionary insights or flights of fancy” (6). Flexibility is not allowed and because of this, many members, especially in the sciences, have vacated the field.

In pedagogy according to Halberstam, university students are assessed based standardized exams results and “knowledge of cannons” over intellectual vision to keep the “dictates of the discipline” unchallenged, even in the fields that have been proven unstable in recent years. “[Q]uirky and original thought” (7) or thinking that takes place outside the box is being squashed by primary school education and universities and Halberstam further explain how this is being done. How he explains the “university structure” in the introduction reads more like a description of a watchtower from another time than an educational institution by his use of terms such as “jealously guards” and “boundaries”. (7)

One of the ways Halberstam challenges the pedagogy is by quoting Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, an American academic scholar. She “once said, ignorance is “as potent and multiple a thing as knowledge” and that learning often takes place completely independently of teaching” (12). In Halberstam’s personal experience as a student he lightly questions, probably in jest, his ability to be taught. He states:

As someone who never aced an exam, who has tried and tried without much    success to become fluent in another language, and who can read a book without retaining much at all, I realize that I can learn only what I can teach myself. (12)

His personal experience affirms his previous statements. Not only is he speaking for many in academia, he is speaking for himself, and his fellow “queers”.  His personal example is followed by an example that is also familiar to many students and teachers around the world and that is the conundrum of “cultural and racial and class differences between the teacher and [their] students”. While summarizing the French documentary, The Class, Halberstam further explains the issues that arise when instructors insist on using a cookie cutter method for teaching their class, especially a racially and ethnically diverse class. “[L]earning is a two-way street” goes against the standard pedagogy of the teacher simply pouring knowledge into the head of the obedient and thoughtlessly compliant student.  (13)

Halberstam’s challenge of the pedagogy emphasizes more on how students, ideally, should be instructed. Using the experience of a French instructor, Jacques Ranciére, Halberstam explains that “teaching was not in the slightest about cramming students with knowledge and having them repeat it like parrots.” Ranciére’s noticed that his Belgian “students were learning to read and speak French and understand the text Télémaque without his assistance”.  Ranciére observed, listened and leaned from that experience. (14)

Halberstam’s claim about the standard way of retaining knowledge in an academic setting sets students up for failure, and failure in our society is unsatisfactory.

Halberstam, Judith. “Introduction.” The Queer Art of Failure. Duke University Press, 2011. 1-25. Print.