“Queer” and “Failure”as an Approach

On the first day of class professor Epstein mentioned the queer theory/Willa Cather class offered at Portland State. I was one of the lucky students that took the class, and since then my understanding of queer has drastically changed. In the Cather class we read many of the authors Halberstam mentioned, including Judith Butler and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. After reading these essays I don’t think of queer necessarily in relation to sexuality, but rather have come to picture the idea of “queerness” as a map of lines (bear with me here). These lines go everywhere in addition to the straight, left to right line that many of us would expect to see. The lecture in class and the definition in the Bedford Glossary urges us to think of failure as a sort of position or queer stance, so in relation to what is written in a text we can look for meaning underneath, behind, and parallel to it. This is the idea or approach that Halberstam alludes to, or in other words, queer is anything other than what is socially expected. Halberstam places herself in these positions often in her own essay, adopting these author’s descriptions including “in-between spaces,” “shadows,” and “detours” (2, 4, 6). Her emphasis on failing is interesting because it demonstrates how our society classifies actions in opposition to what is socially accepted. For example, we may be allowed to read a poem backwards to gain some type of deeper meaning, but we would “fail” at understanding if we read prose backwards. In this system it wouldn’t matter if there was potential to learn something about the piece’s form by doing so. The overall benefit of this approach seems to be the opportunity to reevaluate our measures of success, or as she puts it “to think about ways of being and knowing that stand outside of conventional understandings of success” (2). When I think of this view’s relevance to gender or sexuality I can’t help but think of an article I read in Marie Claire magazine last week. There was a woman interviewed who stated that she viewed Hillary Clinton’s loss as a victory. In this case the woman used the Clinton’s failure to become the first female president of the United States to gain knowledge about our country’s division, something that wouldn’t have been so obviously apparent otherwise. In this case this approach is relevant because with this knowledge we can now reposition ourselves to assess how we got here, or in Halberstam’s words, to “confront the gross inequalities of everyday life in the United States” (4). Gender and sexuality is also almost always critiqued as being riddled with double standards. When we accept this as a societal failure then we may be able to address how double standards are formed, and where else they exist in our culture. In my race and modernism class last term my professor shared with us the view that capitalism is reliant on contradiction and double standards. The example he gave was of how republicans condemn illegal immigrants while our country’s economy simultaneously relies on the cheap labor they provide. Of course, to see these issues we need to do as Halberstam urges, and admit our failures. She states how “in order to inhabit the bleak territory of failure we sometimes have to write and acknowledge dark histories, histories within which the subject collaborates with rather than always opposes oppressive regimes and dominant ideology” (23). As she emphasizes, we need to eliminate the dominant or authoritarian positions of “experts” and argue that it will not always be rich white men who define us all (12). To be honest, this was one of my favorite essays I have ever read. Halberstam’s examples were entertaining, relatable, and refreshing. It is both sad and fascinating how provocative questions are considered failing in our culture. I also appreciate how her take on queer theory and failure applies to aspects outside of gender and sexuality, such as with class and race. Although the “dark histories” are painful, it is important that we accept the influence they have had on us, and the opportunities of acknowledgement that they offer.