Capture the tag: Fear

I address three posts here, “Industry of Culture” by samuelwhitehorn, “Henry James on Failure” by mmmagc123, and “Vincent’s Failures” by vanessatshionyi.

All these posts are tagged with “fear” though none of them, except arguably the second, deal with the topic at much length directly. Still, I think fear is a hugely important affect when thinking about success and failure, so is worth exploring more deeply.

The post “Vincent’s Failures” draws attention to the apparent fear that Vincent’s family displays once they become aware of his facade. The author argues that this is at least in part because Vincent has not invested in his social capital; his bonds with his children are weak. The children’s fearful reaction happens in the scene where the family as a cohesive unit is threatened. Their fear, then, is connected to Vincent’s overvaluing of capital.

The post “Henry James on Failure” argues that Marcher’s fear is failure itself: “the ultimate failure in life is to live in fear, thus not really living at all.” Because Marcher lives in a state of constant apprehension life passes him by completely.

The post “Industry of Culture” tells an anecdote of complex social ramifications about an interaction between an ostensibly heterosexual and homosexual man, and the difference in the heterosexual man’s behavior when he realizes he is being watched. The homosexual man appears to react with fear: seeming fragile in response to his conversational partner’s sudden shift to masculine performativity.

In each of these examples, fear is a response to power gone awry, power with an element of unpredictability or chaos. Vincent’s family fears him because it as the patriarch he is responsible for their financial and social well being in society, and they depend on his sanity for their wellbeing. A sign of Vincent’s potential insanity is a source of insecurity for the whole family. In the second example, the power over Marcher’s life takes a more abstract form, fate or destiny itself. Its power is overwhelming but the specifics of Marcher’s fate are unpredictable to him, and this torments him and encourages his worry. In the third example, the homosexual man is rendered submissive by an unpredictable shift in behavioral display from a person in a position of relative privilege and power over him.

In these examples, does fear lead to failure or is fear only a sign of impending or potential failure? It seems that it is impossible to extricate the two; to be a failure is to live in fear, to be afraid is to invite failure, or at least see it coming. In these examples and perhaps generally, it is as if the fear is always implied, just under the surface, until triggered by an event as just cause in which case it is activated and betrayed by physiological responses (the look on the children’s faces, Marcher’s begging, the man’s inability to communicate verbally). In Time Out, Vincent’s family reacts with fear to his perceived insanity. But if the fear wasn’t always already implied in the family, Vincent would not have feigned still having a job the entire time that he was out of work. Vincent may in part be motivated to behave insanely in the first place to forestall and repress the expression of fear within the family and within himself. There may be the intuition that to live in fear is the emotional sign of failure, as it is with Marcher. In the third scenario, the gay man’s fear is likewise always already there, easily triggered by the coded and performative behaviors of his conversational partner. This fear is a sign of his failure to exist heteronormativity; the fear and the failure are always there, immediately accessible. In all these examples, fear and failure are inseparable: to be afraid is to be a failure. There is also a similarity in how fear affects relationships in each scenario. Fear keeps father and family estranged from each other (as the referred-to post argues), it keeps Marcher from really knowing or loving Bertram, and it prevents the final pair from having a genuine connection and conversation. Fear, failure, and and a sense of alienation from others are all connected.

Vincent’s Struggles

Berlant suggests that Vincent “acts mannerly with his children, Oedipal with his parents, softly masculine with his wife—doing whatever it takes to protect the privilege of drifting without entirely drifting off, or going off the cliff”(221). If we look deeper into this, we see that Vincent uses his different roles, as a husband, son and a father, to navigate through a world where he does not have to get super close to those around him. Vincent is navigating through a world which he is in the constant state of drifting off, but still somehow hanging on. If we look at each of these relationships, we can see how Vincent uses them to gain some sort of footing in a capital stock, be that social or emotional.

Vincent has a very mannerly relationship with his children, like Berlant stated. Every time we see Vincent interact with his children it seems as though he is going through the motions. The scene where Vincent gives his eldest son, Julien the money to buy himself clothing is a good example of this. Vincent feels that in order to be a good father, he needs to provide financially to his children without being present. Vincent is lacking in the emotional capital that helps him form more unifying bonds with his children. Instead, Vincent feels that him “working” and being able to give his children money for clothes, makes him a hands on father. Julien, in this scene, you can tell by his body language is put off by his fathers lack of intimacy. You can tell Julien appreciates the money, but at the same time his face looks very disappointed, as it is apparent that Julien would rather spend time with his father than receive money. One of the very last scenes with Vincent and his children shows the unraveling that Vincent has done in his relationship with not only his children but his whole family. When Vincent returns home from his heated exchange with Jefferey, his children seem to fear him. The children’s weariness towards their father shows how much his absence has created a strange place between himself and his family. Vincent has spent so much time focusing on how to make money and seem as though he is keeping busy that he has lost any emotional connection with his children and his wife.

With his wife Muriel, Vincent portrays the role of the masculine figure. Once Vincent lost his job, it is apparent that he felt as though he lost a certain part of his manhood. In patriarchal societies, it is expected that men go out and earn the money, while the wives stay at home with the children, and when this gets shifted on its head, Vincent has no idea what to do. When Vincent takes Muriel to Geneva to view the “apartment” that he has bought is an example of Vincent using his masculine power over his wife. Vincent knows that he does not have an apartment, but an empty shack that he’s been staying at, playing with Muriel in a deceptive way. The way Vincent wants to impress his children with money and new clothes, Vincent wants his wife to believe that he is the ideal masculine husband, who has the perfect job and has enough money to treat his family to nice things. Vincent is afraid that Muriel wont accept him if he told her that he had lost his job. In his mind, he needs to keep up the image that he is the husband he’s always been, but now with a better, mysterious job.

All of these relationships Vincent is trying to navigate, while trying to keep himself afloat, tie into his emotional capital. Vincent uses these relationships to gain what he feels he needs to get ahead in life. With his ex-school mates and acquaintances, Vincent uses their networks to gain leverage in his UN business. Vincent also uses them to cover for the fact that he actually is not working in a legitimate office. Through these networks Vincent is using them to build up his social capital. Vincent’s relationship with his family allows him to be immersed in emotional capital, but not take full stock in the emotional capital that his family provides for him.

The idea that is brought up by Berlant that Vincent’s behavior with each of his different family members allows him to drift without entirely drifting off plays into the idea that Vincent is not present in his own world. Throughout the film we view Vincent driving alone, writing alone, studying alone, showing how much time Vincent spends in his own quiet abyss. In these private, alone spaces, Vincent checks in with his family every now and then, but this asks the question of how much does his family actually mean to him? Vincent seems to have really high expectations for himself in the business world, but does not seem to have the actual drive to go out and get an actual job that will allow him to feel powerful in the business world. The very end scene where Vincent is offered a job where he is overseeing a group of people, we see a very cold and almost calculated look upon his face. One could read this as Vincent being optimistic for the future, but for me I see Vincent not wanting this job, even though it will bring him the status that he wants to provide for his family. This scene we see another example of Vincent drifting without falling off the cliff. Which begs to ask the question if Vincent will ever be truly satisfied with his life?

Henry James on Failure

“You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.” –J.K. Rowling’s Harvard Commencement Speech

I think the quote above is pretty relevant to the overall message of Henry James’ “The Beast in the Jungle”. The story’s unfortunate protagonist, James Marcher, ultimately “fails by default” by “living so cautiously he might as well not have lived at all.” Marcher’s lifelong and overwhelming fear of the ominous metaphorical “Beast” in the “Jungle” of his life kept him from really living. His laser-focus on the mere possibility of the “terrible thing” he felt awaited him was blinding, and his imaginary “blinders” kept him from seeing the possibility of joy, kept him from seeing the love that was constantly at his side, kept him from seeing the truth. In this sense, the proclaimed “stupidities of ignorance” (36) that he said passed between them on their first meeting continued to play a major role in their relationship on Marcher’s end. May Bartram even suggests early on in the story that Marcher’s “Beast” may be the act of falling in love: “Isn’t what you describe perhaps but the expectation– or at any rate the sense of danger, familiar to so many people– of falling in love?” (39) In an abstract sense, Bartram was right; or rather, Marcher’s failure was not in falling in love, but in failing to do so. It is not that romantic possibilities do not cross Marcher’s mind, it’s that he ignores and resists any action or realization of his suppressed romantic feelings for May because he is too busy worrying about the “Beast”, which could be a metaphor for “failure”.

The idea of failure is generally regarded in society as making a mistake or missing the mark in some way. But making a mistake requires taking action, and missing a mark requires aiming in the first place. Marcher does neither; he does, essentially, nothing but worry. He avoids risk, he avoids danger, and therefore he avoids life. Fear stands in the way of love and happiness, and Marcher’s life is a direct representation of this. During Marcher’s realization of what the “Beast” actually was, it is said that he “had seen outside of his life, not learned it within…” (70) By fearing his life, he missed out on really living it. Marcher may have lived so cautiously that he did not necessarily “fail” in the traditional sense, but he certainly “failed by default”, by Rowling’s definition. This concept also relates to a well-known quote (widely attributed to Mark Twain) that hung on the bulletin board in my dorm hallway freshman year:

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

James’ overall message with “Beast in the Jungle”, it seems, is more or less the same as Twain’s and Rowling’s after him: that the ultimate failure in life is to live in fear, thus not really living at all. Taking risks– whether that means “sailing away from safe harbor”, sending a  draft of your first book to a publisher, or the danger of falling in love— is the only way to really live, and, contrary to popular belief, the way to have the least possible regrets when your life comes to an end.

Industry of Culture

Industry of Culture


Reading The Queer Art of Failure amidst the temporary coffee and repetition led me back to a memory that took place in my hometown. It was a summer when I was taking class at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, a place codified in unlimited heat and, possibly, canted mirage. Trying to re-evaluate that time in my life brings back fragments of despair. Part of my reflection consists of envying those fragments – of how alive and arrogant they were. But that is beside the point.


The center building at UALR is half-glass and half-plaster. On the Northeast end of its atrium is the school cafeteria and the Southeast end is a staircase that platforms before the bookstore. The west end in its entirety is high and long paneled glass, the windows must be 30 feet long and perhaps 7 feet high. There is, as you walk North, an empty auditorium, a hunter green restroom, a Starbucks, and then the cafeteria. In the early hours of the day, it is the cult of interaction. In the afternoons, it is dead silent and you will, if you ever make your way there, find any sound intoxicatingly amped in its emptiness.


In this memory, it was late afternoon. I was making my rounds to the car or gym or no place in particular. I was alone and walking past a marble bust when I heard two men talking in the opulent expanse of the atrium. It was clear at the beginning that they did not know each other beforehand as the words floundered for questions and the laughs were insincere. But that isn’t any different and isn’t why I remember them.


One of the men was a heterosexual and the other was not. The pattern of speech and personality altered completely when they became aware of my presence. The heterosexual’s voice bottomed to bass and cadence adopted a militant rigor evoking masculinity and superiority. The other stuttered in step and tone. He could not rely on a word or expression or even anything as simple as the mechanical. I can still recall his fragile state to an exact clarity this day. It was indoctrinated oppression in a mundane opportunity, both easy and theatrical, similar to waking up. Maybe another time I’ll give it more words.


Halberstam’s third thesis is to “suspect memorialization.” (15) This is a part of life I always felt prone to follow. The reinvention of memory is at times an accident but it can find an indeterminate purpose, a structure “unacting, unbeing, and unbecoming.” (145) In a culture built upon the industry of interaction and result, life can become static and fitted to disillusion. To address my memory in the atrium at UALR, it can be said that “the others” of collective identity intuitively become prompted, edited, and grounded by memorialization. “Memory is itself a disciplinary mechanism that Foucault calls ‘a ritual of power.’” (15)


The pain in that memory is twofold. From both, personality quelled to environment. It is a common way to engender trust and it still useful in the present time. In my memory it is entombed in that hollow atrium as transformation and shame.




“So what is the alternative? This simple question announces a political project, begs for a grammar of possibility…” (2)


“Not an optimism that relies on positive thinking as an explanatory engine for social order, nor one that insists upon the bright side at all costs; rather this is a little ray of sunshine that produces shade and light in equal measure and knows that the meaning of one always depends upon the meaning of the other.” (5)


“Certain ways of seeing the world are established as normal or natural, as obvious and necessary, even though they are often entirely counterintuitive or social engineered.” (9)