Escaping the Impasse: finding footing by forfeiting the foot? (Capture the Tag: Non-Normative and resistance).

In her blog post, Vanessa summarizes Halberstam’s vision of masochistic passivity, describing it as a form of refusal that resists the seemingly impossible situation of escaping colonial and gendered subjecthood. Halberstam’s description of the impossibility of escaping the “trap” of colonial subjecthood (you’re screwed if you do, you’re screwed if you don’t) seems to me to suggest something like Berlant’s “impasse”. In Jamaica Kincaid’s Autobiography of My Mother, Xuela, “escapes the hereditary inscription by not only severing the ties of mother and daughter—refusing both the relationship and the roles—she “refus[es] to be anything at all” (Halberstam 131). Vanessa also suggests that, the “refus[al] to identity as African American, or simply passing as a white women,” by Clara and Irene of Larsen’s Passing (a book I myself have not read), is a refusal to be that throws off the yoke of colonially assigned identity.

If we consider the not being, or failure to struggle of Xuela, Clara, and Irene as methods of resistance that have traction because they signify a willingness to turn away from the entire machine of patriarchy and colonialism, is this method of resistance available to the members of Berlant’s “Precariat” as well?

In her blog on the subject, Calextrose identifies in Time Out’s Jean-Michel a figure of a neoliberal subject who has managed to navigate the “impasse.”  She writes: “Jean-Michel’s method of optioning upward mobility is less than honorable but effective. As Berlant mentions, Time Out manages to show how ‘different kinds of people catch up to their new situation’ (192).” This suggests that Jean-Michel’s modest empire of imitation can be read as “footing” found in the depths of the impasse, a sign that he has caught up, has negotiated the abyss of neoliberal precarity. I am inclined to (perhaps this fits the theme) half-agree. I think there is a way of reading the counterfeiting business as the ultimate neoliberal adaptation. The counterfeit merchandise, unlike the “real deal,” is never fixed to the ebb and flow of brand popularity. Unlike the true Reebok, in the event of a devaluation of the brand, the counterfeit item can always morph into an imitation of the new “winners” of the fickle market share. All while avoiding any assumption of the precariousness of the legitimate market. In the era of the “recession grimace” the counterfeit commodity, by existing outside the system of brand signification, is by the very flexibility of its nature virtually recession-proof.

However, one of the primary arguments of Berlant’s essay was that the precariousness made ubiquitous by the neoliberal dismantling of both labor regulations and social welfare programs is not new, but rather is revealed to be the reality that has always existed beneath the fantasy of infinite growth and upward mobility. For the working class, the minority, the mentally ill, the near entirety of the global south, and the criminal, precariousness has always been evident. Furthermore, as Jean-Michel belongs to that last class, the threat of a sudden, rupturing loss of stability and income is just one police officer away. Perhaps the counterfeit item is the perfect product for the neoliberal age, but the neoliberal state knows this well, and in an effort to protect their interests has often made draconian legal consequences for those who would forge. In abstract—as a hydra-headed industry that corporations must simply accept as one of the costs of doing successful business—the forger may escape the threat of capricious market forces, but the actual person who forges always runs the risk that the legal forces shaped by market forces will sniff and snuff her out.

So, if a vision of impasse-navigation is not complete in Jean-Michel, can we find sketch a vision of successful impasse-navigation by asking what Vincent does wrong?

For Calexrose, Vincent’s return to the precarious dependency of the job-market is the ultimate signal that Vincent has failed to negotiate the impasse that is afforded him outside the realm of employment. In a certain way, her reading of this turns accepted notions of precariousness on their head. In the prior configuration employment is what shields the employee from the precariousness of joblessness. In Calexrose’s reading there is something about the dependence of employment that precludes the ability to “find footing” within the neoliberal void. If this is true, what is it about unemployment that allows the member of the precariat to access “the learning curve” of the impasse, or find new footing in a way that employment prevents (Berlant 202)? Is it a question of sovereignty? By depending on a job is one not free or unattached enough to find a new way of life? This would suggest that unlike the previous model (of employment as a shield against precariousness), in the neoliberal void employment both defers the impasse and makes it impossible to truly experience the loss of bearings. This deferral/inaccessibility would prevent the employee from truly learning to adjust to the void of the impasse. If this is correct, the impasse appears fundamentally more akin to a psychoanalytic problem of maturation, one in which the employee is unable to become wholly adult or achieve neoliberal sovereignty because of their unwillingness or inability to let go of the corporate apron strings. To find footing in the void, one would have to let go of the ladder.

While I do have the feeling that if precariousness is as wide-spread a phenomenon as Berlant argues that it is, the precariousness of employment comes to be functionally equivalent to unemployment because of the way the non-permanence of the position of either creates a similar orientation towards the future. The grimace seems, to me, as much a mask of tensing for tomorrow as it is a reaction to the events of today.

Thoughts on Slacker

I found the movie Slacker to be fascinating. I loved how the characters and the plot were constantly moving. When the movie began, the guy in the taxi was describing his dreams about the possibility of a multitude of alternate realities. The film’s focus on so many people’s different lives play into this idea of consciousness and how everyone lives in their own sort of separate reality. This was also explored through the suspicion of alternate histories, or conspiracies.

The way that time passed in the movie was also interesting. It was mostly linear, but I felt like it passed at a different pace for different people. For example, the initial scene where the man killed his mother felt like it dragged on forever. Part of this was probably because I was uncomfortable. I was reminded of the Helmer’s article on queer time, where this lingering or wandering would be considered unproductive.

I am thinking of writing my final paper on this question of how time and space function in the movie. The hint of alternative realities relates to Halberstam’s method of using “detours” or alternate modes of thinking to approach queer theory. The dreaming mentioned in the beginning of Slacker could represent a liminal space used to think about life and the choices we have to make in it. I also mentioned in one of my previous posts how Vincent’s car acts as this constantly moving, liminal space where he can solely think instead of act. I also suspect there is something to be said about lingering and time, but I’m not quite sure how to approach it.

Another interesting component of this movie that we touched on in our Thursday session is that all of these people are of the same class. This reminds me of the group’s discussion of the Adorno reading during Tuesday’s class. One of the conclusions we drew was that an equality without difference has no potential because of the lack of creativity, etc. I think this is ironic because all of these white students (who have the most potential based on their social position) are considered slackers, possibly because they have no one different to alter their perspective.

Pursuing Adorno’s argument that “totality is false” further, I think it’s important to note how the lives of all the characters were fragmented by the constant shifting of perspective. We didn’t get to see any of the characters develop, so by society’s standards, they are all unsuccessful. It seems that all of our characters who resist moving forward by participating in a form of work (Vincent… Murphy) are considered failures.

I also think it’s interesting that many of these so called “slackers” were college students. I wonder if Linklater was trying to make an underlying critique of capitalism for viewing labor as constructive, while knowledge unproductive. In other words, the exchange of theories or ideas as opposed to marketable assets is “valueless.” We can maybe talk later about how things such as knowledge are considered “priceless.”
Lastly, someone in class (I don’t remember who) mentioned how all of these college kids probably rely on their parents for money. I think the generational aspect of this deserves to be pursued further. I find it strange how the man killed his own mother, but also has had a type of shrine built in honor of her. During this scene, the camera also lingered on the video recording of his mother pushing him off on his bike with a kick. I think this symbolizes his frustration that despite her wanting him to launch, he is still living at home. That is however, if they were living together. (I feel like they were, but I also don’t know how his mom wouldn’t notice the shrine). Either way, I am interested in exploring these questions and contradictions further. Overall it was a really fun movie to watch.

May & Marcher: From Everyone to Weatherend

In Halberstam’s article she paraphrases James C. Scott by stating, “to ‘see like a state’ means to accept the order of things and to internalize them;…think with the logic of orderliness…and indeed sacrifice other, more local practices of knowledge…that may be less efficient, may yield less remarkable results, but may also, in the long term, be more sustaining.” (9). This internalization is inherent in the motives and actions of Marcher, as well as Bartram, in as much as they don’t want to ‘rock the boat’ of life for themselves and lean on one another for the resemblance of normalization, ie; hetero-normalization and accumulation.

In the third chapter of The Beast in the Jungle, when the Bartram and Marcher have established their friendship, the conversation that takes place is one that truly defines what has become of their partnership around the mutual core of their fateful “knowing” as well as recognize the veil of difference between themselves and every other.

“’I never said,’ May Bartram replied, ‘that it hadn’t made me a good deal talked about.’

‘Ah well then you’re not saved.’

‘It hasn’t been a question for me. If you’ve had your woman I’ve had,’ she said, ‘my man.’

‘And you mean that makes you alright?’


The almost backward way in which she mentions the possible gossip about herself from the outside world in the first line of dialogue, implied by the word “it”, acknowledges an “other”-like presence that they both are aware of but not a part of. The object of the line “me” is buried in the middle of the phrase between the subject “it” and the action itself “talked about”. This ‘burying’ of herself is indicative of her relationship with Marcher (buffering him from the prying minds of normalized society) as well as giving no indication of a life of her own, being tied up as she was with the “knowing” of Marcher. There is also a parallel in the syntax of the two lines that Bartram speaks, with the phrase being broken up by noting that May or “she” is speaking.

Marcher’s reply to this using the word “saved” implies there is a universally understood form of right and wrong here, as well as a need to redeem oneself according to paradigm of their society or state that they feel estranged from; one that perpetuates hetero-coupling and accumulation as “norms”.

The certainty that Bartram speaks her lines with displays the duality of their relationship in terms of who is the giver and knower of knowledge (Bartram) and who is the novice or receiver of it (Marcher). She is sure of her statements saying, “I never,” definitively in the first line and stating that, “it hasn’t been a question,” for her, ie; she is certain. Marcher on the other hand begins his phrases as continuations of the statements she makes, with an, “Ah well then,” to indicate a challenge, albeit in a jocular tone. His second phrase is simply a question asking for clarification to her previous statement with the word “alright” again implying a counter-opposition to the norm.

The implied, as well as, outright acknowledgment of the hegemony in their dialogue is illustrative of the inside/outside aspects or “queer”ness that is a commonality in the dynamic of their relationship. Whether they are actually homosexual or spend their time queerly the tone is that of ‘recognized outsider’ and a masking of this same understanding. The role each takes on in the conversation as well as their relationship, the syntax used by James, and the choice of words is compositely representative of internalization of the state by these two, middling, muddling and memorable characters.


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)

“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.

Radical Passivity

Shadow feminism is the overwhelming theme of the text. The patriarchal form of traditional power is shown through the passing of power through the mother to daughter bond. If one actively denies the patriarchal form of power then the opposite of power is received and the bond is broken.

What happens when the upward path is broken? How does one assert strength without normative power?  Strength in unbecoming a woman is shown through Little Miss Sunshine. The moms who take the pageant seriously are training their daughters to succeed in becoming a women. Olive Hoover breaks the social norms and unhinges the mother daughter bond when she starts stripping/ failing on stage.

Shadow feminism is the same concept,it’s about the unseen, the unbeing and this is where the “Masochistic passivity” comes into play with Halberstam. Halberstam argues that stripping down to nothing shows a form of passivity. We live in a producing, consuming and reproducing world. Action is the norm. So one way to protest against the status quo is by being raw and passive.

“While the male masochist’s in habits a kind of heroic anti heroism by refusing social privilege and offering himself up Christ-like as a martyr for the cause, the female masochists performance is far more complex and offers a critique of the very ground of the human(139).”
Halberstam examines “Cut Piece” by Julia Bryan Wilson and it shows this idea of the women unbeing and slowly cutting clothing away from her. This idea of radical passivity can be analysed in Ono’s performance because there is no hope for her. There is only pain and suffering but yet there’s is no fighting against it.

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.