The Queer Art of Failure- A Review
Judith Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure (2011) is a foray into what she, borrowing from Stuart Hall, calls “low theory” (15). The resulting mixture of anecdotes, pop culture, and cultural studies is a peculiar one- at times it is easy to connect with her musing, at other times these examples run into the inane.
The thesis of the book is a important interrogation of the neoliberal demand for success and happiness by way of cultural artifacts that include and celebrate failures. Looking at examples as diverse as Dude Where’s My Car?, March of the Penguins, and Chicken Run, she examines alternate forms of family, politics, and knowing that turn to failure as a site of queer possibility and refuge in the face of Sisyphean task of succeeding in life, love, and money. Intersecting with the project of so-called “shadow feminists” and radical queer sex, the book is a celebration of refusals, screw-ups, and non-participation.
Missing from this account, however, is a material examination of failure and its consequences. While Halberstam can extol her own academic ineptitudes, this does little to assuage the anxieties of a PhD student in her attendant precarity. Likewise, the real physical violence, poverty, and depression that are the consequences of failure, particularly the failure of queers, takes a back seat to the comparatively banal plight of the furry protagonists of the so-called “Pixarvolt” films (itself a puzzlingly impotent neologism). Indeed, the argumentative reader might accuse Halberstam of cherry-picking these examples – particularly given the current direction of Disney-owned Pixar and the overwhelming majority of heteronormative success stories that abound in children’s media. So, while Lucy in 50 Dates can be heroized in her state of forgetfulness, her ultimate heterosexual marriage and alarming lack of agency at the end of the film is under-emphasized. Similarly, Dory of Finding Nemo‘s amnesia is lifted up as a model for anti-Oedipal anarchy, yet her concomitant confusion, solitude, and disability are not recognized in this endorsement. This lends itself to an air of academic tourism. The reader visits fictional characters, learns inspirational lessons, but doesn’t stick around for their shock, pain or abuse.
Then there is the curious chapter on homosexual erotic imagery and its relation to fascism. A somewhat incongruous departure from the PG movie screen, this component of the book appears to be a means by which to settle an argument borne of a conference dinner. The contribution Halberstam makes is a valuable, is somewhat wandering, review of “traitorous” figures in gay historiography, yet I wonder to what extent the revisionism that provokes this study (“there were no gay nazis”) is actually reflective of the concerns of contemporary historians of sexuality (171).
Finally, as is often the case in works of such interdisciplinary looseness, the rigor of cultural analysis leaves the art historian or film theorist somewhat aghast. I confess to skipping through all her visual analysis of artworks, and found the book more pleasant for it.
All in all? It was an engaging, if somewhat interrupted read. The general sentiment is useful, and lends itself well to citation, though the specifics are perhaps best left behind.