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.

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.