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.

Irreverent Capital/Organic-Queer Intellect

   Halberstam proposes failure as a way to “search for different ways of being in the world and being in relation to one another than those prescribed by the liberal and consumer subject” (2). They use use the word “queer” in relation to those who identify outside of heteronormative context, but also people who may identify themselves outside of capitalist contexts (alternative political formations ), as well. Halberstam states that “[f]ailing is something queers do and have always done exceptionally well” and offers that “failure is a style” and that it maybe “easier in the long run and offer different rewards” (3). The feminist theorist goes on to say that the means of failure for the queer demographic is an alternative to America’s fixation on positive thinking—what Barbara Ehrenreich calls “a mass delusion” (3). The ideology of failure is relevant to queer demographics because it offers escape from the “mass delusion” of dreaming about capitalist success—what Halberstam refers to as “reproductive maturity combined with wealth accumulation”  (2, 3). One of the plights of minorities and queers is living up to privileged society’s expectations of this type of success. These populations are not as predisposed to the same interpretations of success, neither are they readily equipped with the same kind of wealth, health and acceptance in our society because America’s capitalist tendencies are to produce failures by punishing them as outsiders to that success.


For instance, the systemic treatment of impoverished black males in America is to criminalize them for making the ‘wrong’ choices of drug dealing, robbing, ect. Yet these activities become instinctual—as a means of survival—for many black males who aren’t given the chances or resources for traditional success (college, opportunity, 9-to-5 careers) because they are products of their disenfranchised environments—environments they did not choose to be born into. Their resistance to positive thinking is very apparent, and for justified reasons. As an alternative to this life of dysfunction, the common trope for these males is to find success on their own terms—often times rising from criminal activity to music or sports (more traditional forms of success). The stereotype of the dope dealer turned into emcee (or athlete) is both hated and loved by fascinated Americans. By adhering to the criminal element in order to pull themselves up from poverty and using the dope game (originally pushed into their communities by white demographics) to do it—they have learned to buck the capitalist system, and usually end up learning the ropes of entrepreneurship along the way—making them rich both from illegal and then legal money. They are scrutinized by mainstream Americans for being immoral, unjust and arrogant in their subversive tactics towards success. I believe they are criticized mostly because people are offended by the fact that these ‘thugs’ re-defined success by being deviant, bold and uncompromising enough to reject the tenets of White America’s visions of success—and “search for different ways of being in the world and being in relation to one another than those prescribed by the liberal and consumer subject” (2).


Let’s not forget too, the hypocritical views of their detractors who should remember America’s long history of immigrant or fringe ethnicities who banded together as organized crime in order to pull their own up from the gutters—a culture that been accepted and glorified in popular culture for decades. This truly illustrates the hegemony of capitalism. Halberstam references hegemony through theorist, Stuart Hall’s interpretation which reads “a dominant group achieves power not through coercion but through the interlocking system of ideas which persuades people of the rightness of any given set of often contradictory ideas and perspectives” (17). As an example, the common American upholds the image of the Italian mafias who pushed drugs into ghettos (on the low), but then they reject the image of the Black ‘gangstas’ who excel in pushing those drugs in order to make better opportunities for themselves (and others) so that they can leave (and often times put money back into) those ghettos. We immortalize the majority for their subversion and condemn the minority for their subversion. These hypocritical perspectives are commonplace among our society because, as Halberstam point out, “we spend far less time thinking about counter-hegemony than about hegemony” (17). The author also posit that our academic institutions are practicing forms of “traditional” learning—which mimic similar hierarchies established with social class—thus creating a “tension between intellectuals who participate in the construction of the hegemonic…and the intellectuals who work with others…to sort through the contradictions of capitalism and to illuminate the oppressive forms of governance that have infiltrated everyday life” (17).


So Halberstam is ultimately speaking of knowledge production that serves the reproduction of capitalism and hegemony versus critical knowledge which questions and offers ways to restructure capitalism for the good of the people. Personally, I think that our University offers a bit of both of these types of education. This course specifically (as with many English/Writing courses I’ve taken) is a testament to the latter—thankfully. I’m sure if I were to take some business courses at PSU I would also find the more traditional methods of learning, too.