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.


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)

On Pedagogy and Learning

Education in the United States runs concurrent to the idea of a prescribed form of “success” in our capitalist society. The idea of a master of information in the form of a professor or teacher, or even the disciplines of the institutions themselves is one that inhibits the learning and sets up boundaries that lend themselves to a normative set of information. “Just as the standardized tests that the U.S. favors as a guide to intellectual advancement in high schools tend to identify people who are good at standardized exams (as opposed to, say, intellectual visionaries), so in university grades, exams, and knowledge of canons identify scholars with an aptitude for maintaining and conforming to the dictates of the discipline.” (7).

The motivation behind advancing in this inflexible mode of education is as Halberstam asserts, “The desire to be taken seriously is precisely what compels people to follow the tried and true paths of knowledge production…Indeed terms like serious and rigorous tend to be code words, in academia as well as other contexts, for disciplinary correctness; they signal a form of training and learning that confirms what is already known according to approved methods of knowing, but they do not allow for visionary insights or flights of fancy.” (6). It would seem apparent the stifling nature of this standardizing and conformation of knowledge would have on actual learning, yet it backs the established system and, “most important, they statically reproduce themselves and inhibit dissent.” (10).

The resistance to this homogeny gives way to the idea that as members of academic institutions we must “resist mastery” (11), in that mastery implies a limited reservoir of knowledge that prescribes to the discipline of the instructor. In countries like Finland, whose educational rank worldwide is among, if not, the highest, caters their educational curriculum to the needs and desires of the students to allow for a higher level of motivation, other than grades, and is expansive and flexible in its nature as opposed to the reductionist pedagogy of the U.S. educational system in which the knowledge trickles down. This trickling down of knowledge, or inference that something is “right” is opposed to Halberstam’s idea of resisting mastery in the form of “failure’ and “stupidity”, as she states, “resistance takes the form of investing in counterintuitive modes of knowing such as failure and stupidity; we might read failure, for example, as a refusal of mastery, a critique of the intuitive connections within capitalism between success and profit,” (12). Being that, if there is a goal in mind, with a “set of presumptions” (12), then the process of learning and accumulation of knowledge has already been retarded.

The concept of the “ignorant schoolmaster” that, “must actually allow them to get lost in order for them to experience confusion and then find their own way out or back or around.” (14). Joseph Jacotot states his form of pedagogy as, “’I must teach you that I have nothing to teach you” ‘In this way he allows others to teach themselves and to learn without learning and internalizing a system of superior and inferior knowledges, superior and inferior intelligences.” (14). In other words, this lends itself to the age-old adage of “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day; teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.”

The seemingly disorganized concept of failure as form of success, depending on who is proclaiming judgment on this, is aligned with the idea of mutation in Darwinian evolution. When mutations are no longer encouraged and are in fact, eradicated or looked down upon, it limits and weakens the breadth of knowledge to be gained by such opposed approaches to learning. When the approach of James C. Scott is applied (which emphasizes, “mutuality, collectivity, plasticity, diversity and adaptability”) [10], an environment is created in which getting lost is an exercise in learning in itself and leads to the possibility of new ways of accumulating and applying knowledge.


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.