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.

Knowledge and ignorance of the past in The Beast of the Jungle

I went back and reread the beginning of Beast in the Jungle after reading Helmers and realized how totally strange the moment between Bertram and Marcher just preceding the revelation about their past reads after one has concluded the story:

“He would have liked to invent something, get her to make-believe with him that some passage of a romantic or critical kind had originally occurred.  He was really almost reaching out in imagination—as against time—for something that would do, and saying to himself that if it didn’t come this sketch of a fresh start would show for quite awkwardly bungled.  They would separate, and now for no second or no third chance.  They would have tried and not succeeded.  Then it was, just at the turn, as he afterwards made it out to himself, that, everything else failing, she herself decided to take up the case and, as it were, save the situation.  He felt as soon as she spoke that she had been consciously keeping back what she said and hoping to get on without it; a scruple in her that immensely touched him when, by the end of three or four minutes more, he was able to measure it.  What she brought out, at any rate, quite cleared the air and supplied the link—the link it was so odd he should frivolously have managed to lose” (first chapter, 5th paragraph).

How is it possible that Marcher forgot what he told Bertram? Why were they not made inseparable the first time they met after he shared his secret? This is peculiar and suspicious to me. Right before Bertram’s revelation, Marcher confesses his desire to invent a critical moment in the past in order to create a connection that will bind them in the present and future. She then “herself decided to take up the case.” Then his perception of the moment changes, and it seems “as soon as she spoke” that she had known something all along. I think what is going on here is a creation, an invention of the past in the present. Even if it’s based on some truth, that Marcher confessed something of his feelings of dread in his youth, the total import of this moment in the past and the secret on his life is created in this moment, it had for him no importance before, to the point that he literally forgot it completely.

Contrast this moment with a previous paragraph:

“Her face and her voice, all at his service now, worked the miracle—the impression operating like the torch of a lamplighter who touches into flame, one by one, a long row of gas-jets.  Marcher flattered himself the illumination was brilliant, yet he was really still more pleased on her showing him, with amusement, that in his haste to make everything right he had got most things rather wrong.  It hadn’t been at Rome—it had been at Naples; and it hadn’t been eight years before—it had been more nearly ten” (third paragraph).

Here we see Bertram recalling the past with ease and confidence, with no implication of invention, but instead with the familiar associative linking of recollection that feels like the illumination of objects in the dark. Yet Bertram is wrong about key events here and there is no mention of what we are to find out was his most compelling “memory.” In this paragraph he confesses he was “really still more pleased” to discover that the memories he thought were real were wrong. It is interesting and telling that he would find this failure of memory to be pleasurable, and he is willing to allow Bertram to reconstruct his past.

I think looking at these passages expose of implications of what this story is doing with knowledge of the past, history, and especially personal history. Our failure to understand history and the past, the possibility that it is invention rather than recall that is operating and that the past is a construction vulnerable to the influences, pressures, and desires of others. In this sense, Marcher’s failure to recall a significant event and failure to be knowledgeable about his past allows for Bertram to become essential in his construction of a personal narrative.

Helmer’s writes about the nature of knowledge and time that Marcher comes to experience through Bertram:

“…the tessellated pattern of Western culture in which time, understood as a past and present that contain a set of interrelated events that certain people can accurately remember or predict, tessellates into a system of knowledge where people can dig up previously buried pieces of knowledge in order to arrive at a more thorough understanding of past and future and an intimate comprehension of the interiority of other subjects. This epistemic system tessellates into a desire for these bits of knowledge, a desire that points toward times and pieces of knowledge not present in the present moment, something lacking in this moment that the subject can nonetheless desire and bring about through careful examination of the buried treasures of knowledge hidden in the past and future” (113).

And argues:

“Following John Marcher in his queerness, then, is not a process of embracing ignorance or unknowing. Instead I propose an alternate system that, while approximated by the binary of knowledge/ignorance as ignorance, removes itself from this play as not governable within its rules. This is not to say that Marcher’s queerness, or my reading of his queerness, transcends or eliminates the play of knowledge/ignorance but rather that his queerness opens up new spaces both within and without the binary for conceptualizing alternate modes of knowledge and the subject” (113)
Though I am not confident that Helmer is getting at this point, perhaps Bertram and Marcher’s collusion over the past is a kind of “alternate mode of knowledge” that transcends the knowledge/ignorance binary, since rather than knowledge or ignorance it is imagination/creation which is not really either, operates as both in a way, and is also outside of both.

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)

Some possible prompts for your first blog posting

Your first blog posting is due by the end of the day on 13 January. It should address the reading from Jack Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure (you may, if you like, put that reading into dialogue with some of the excerpts we read in class on Tuesday, but that is not required). Below are some prompts you may consider while writing your posting, but you are not limited to these. If you’d like to come up with a topic of your own, feel free. Just make sure you cite specific claims/language from the reading that you can use to develop arguments and critical questions. You can (and should) cite those claims parenthetically by page number, like this: “refusal of identity” (132). Feel free to include images, links, etc. using the text editor–it’s pretty user-friendly–but don’t substitute pretty pictures for good reading and writing.

Finally: about “Tags.” Please append two or three tags to your blog post. When you click the button to write a blog, there will be a menu on the left of your screen that says “Categories & Tags.” A tag might be a specific concept or keyword from the reading (“negative affects,” “shadow feminism,” “legibility,” “low theory,” “suspect memorialization” . . .?), a specific theoretical framework (“queer theory,” “disability studies,” whatever), or something else.

I want to encourage you to find a tag that pushes beyond the obvious (I’d avoid “failure,” for example–too easy!), but that is broad enough that future bloggers will be able to reuse the tag.

Now, some prompts to get the ball rolling:

  • What is Halberstam doing with the concept of “low theory,” or positioning “low theory” against “high theory”? How is low theory related to the question of “failure” generally, and/or to the political questions Halberstam’s analysis asks?
  • What is the form of “masochistic passivity” that Halberstam endorspharrell-esquirees, and what is supposed to be radical or critical about it? How does it feed into Halberstam’s analysis of Jamaica Kincaid’s novel–or, if you haven’t read that novel, can you think of a different literary text to which it might apply?
  • What does Halberstam mean by the word “queer”? How does Halberstam want to propose “failure” as an approach to literature/culture that has specific relevance for queer or non-normative sexualities or “alternative political formations” (19)?
  • How do you assess Halberstam’s claims about pedagogy (teaching/learning), either on intellectual grounds or on political grounds (or both)?