On "The Queer Art of Failure"

Non-conformist queer perspectives offer radical alternatives to notions of "success".

Every year – at least until this year – the discourse around GCSE results has been the same. Are they too easy? Are they getting easier, and (by implication) are barriers to "success" thus opened to the "unworthy"? This debate was raging when I got mine, fourteen years ago, but I didn’t care. My aims at secondary school weren’t to get the best grades (as long as I got into sixth form, as I enjoyed learning for its own sake) but to express my queer gender and sexuality as much as possible without being beaten up, and to resist pressure to pursue heteronormative "achievements": I had no interest in marriage, children, home ownership or the conventional career structures suggested by our school advisors.

I never believed the rhetoric that anyone could be successful in this way as long as they put their minds to it, already aware that there were too many economic, educational and social bars for this to be true. The questions I wanted answered, but never heard raised, was: Who decides what constitutes "success" and why should I want it on their terms? So I looked for other options, gradually discovering the alternative cultures and relationship models created by queer people who had previously been excluded, trying to create my own space rather than campaigning for access to the most conservative institutions.

Various writers have questioned the desirability of such tactics, most recently American academic and theorist Judith (or Jack) Halberstam (in The Queer Art of Failure, published by Duke University Press last year. Like Mattilda Bernstein-Sycamore’s That’s Revolting! Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation, a volume of essays by those marginalised within American LGBT politics, Halberstam explores queer history for forms of activism that avoid working with the established order, but also mines popular culture for ways of moving from childhood to adulthood that place collectivism over individualism.

Non-heterosexual parenting may slowly erode the practice of guiding children into normative "desires, orientations and modes of being", but disavowal of the competitive selfishness encouraged by educational and political authority figures looks ever more necessary after the collapse of the neoliberal economy. Halberstam finds this in Pixar’s animations, arguing that in Finding Nemo and Chicken Run, the most important lesson for their protagonists is not the trite “be yourself” or “follow your dreams” but how to work together for a fairer society. This is because Pixar remember that ‘children are not coupled, they are not romantic, they do not have a religious mentality, they are not afraid of death or failure, they are collective creatures [and] they are in a constant state of rebellion against their parents’ – their films are ‘successful’ precisely because they subtly react against the very concept.

Halberstam asks if queer culture should reject negativity about its place in contemporary society as much as it has, given that this stance is never apolitical. This may be a response to the historical association between same-sex love and loss, but Halberstam cites Laura Kipnis’ assertion in Against Love that "we tend to blame each other or ourselves for the failures of the social structures we inhabit, rather than critiquing the structures (like marriage) themselves". The fact that societies that prohibited sexual or gender variance, or cast them as inauthentic, control the terms on which it is eventually accepted is forgotten, which leads activists to disregard intersectionality as they pursue goals specific to their minority.

This leads Halberstam to explore divergent strands in queer politics: resistance to oppression, especially that which does not appear ‘active’ (such as the very existence of the butch lesbians documented by Brassaï in Thirties Paris); and collaboration with it, particularly that of a minority (mostly men, and some masculine women) with the far Right from their presence in the Männerbunde in Nazi Germany or the British Union of Fascists to the Islamophobic Jörg Haider and Pim Fortuyn in 21st century Europe. Understandably, queer historians have emphasised Fascist attacks on feminine men, particularly those around Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Science, finding it harder to address questions about the ethics of collaboration. Explicitly disowning any suggestion that such collusion represented an ideal for masculine homosexuality, Halberstam implies that here many than anywhere, we identity with the losers, and ensure that we do not ignore the complexities around their defeat.

Freely jumping from subject to subject, sometimes too quickly, not all of Halberstam’s arguments work: an attempt to form a theory about forgetting leading to new kinds of knowing in a reading of Dude Where’s My Car doesn’t quite come off (although Halberstam anticipates this). Halberstam is most convincing is in contrasting liberal narratives of queer progress, in which freedoms gradually unfold, with wider radical histories in which struggles often end in defeat, from the Paris Commune of 1871 to the insurrection of May 1968 and beyond, and from which lessons have to be drawn. What becomes clear is that the victory of equality in a conservative world may be pyrrhic, and that making failure into a style (as it was for Quentin Crisp) or even a way of life (as for Foucault) may bring far more positive results than the unquestioning pursuit of "success".

Quentin Crisp at his Chelsea home in 1981. Photograph: Getty Images

Juliet Jacques is a freelance journalist and writer who covers gender, sexuality, literature, film, art and football. Her writing can be found on her blog at and she can be contacted on Twitter @julietjacques.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Is Scottish Labour on the way back, or heading for civil war?

There are signs of life, but also recriminations.

The extraordinary rise of the Scottish Tories and the collapse in SNP seat numbers grabbed most of the headlines in the recent general election. Less remarked on was the sudden, unexpected exhalation of air that came from what was thought to be the corpse of Scottish Labour.

In 2015, Labour lost 40 of its 41 Scottish seats as the SNP rocketed from six to 56, was wiped out in its Glaswegian heartlands, and looked to have ceded its place as the choice of centre-left voters – perhaps permanently – to the Nationalists. But while the electorate’s convulsion in June against the SNP’s insistence on a second independence referendum most benefited Ruth Davidson, it also served to reanimate Labour.

The six seats grabbed back (making a total of seven) included three in the West of Scotland, proving that the Nat stranglehold on Labour’s territory was not quite as secure as it had seemed. There is, it appears, life in the old dog yet.

Not only that, but the surprise success of Jeremy Corbyn across the UK has stiffened Labour’s spine when it comes to insisting that it, and not the SNP, is the rightful home of Scotland’s socialists.

Corbyn was largely kept south of the border during the election campaign – Kezia Dugdale, the leader at Holyrood, had supported Owen Smith’s leadership challenge. But in August, Corbyn will embark on a five-day tour of marginal SNP constituencies that Labour could potentially take back at the next election. The party has set a target of reclaiming 18 Scottish seats as part of the 64 it needs across Britain to win a majority at Westminster. The trip will focus on traditional areas such as Glasgow and Lanarkshire, where tiny swings would return seats to the People’s Party. Dugdale is no doubt hoping for some reflected glory.

Corbyn will present himself as the authentically left-wing choice, a leader who will increase public spending and invest in public services compared to the austerity of the Tories and the timidity of the SNP. “Labour remains on an election footing as a government-in-waiting, ready to end failed austerity and ensure that Scotland has the resources it needs to provide the public services its people deserve,” he said. “Unlike the SNP and the Tories, Labour will transform our economy through investment, insisting that the true wealth creators - that means all of us – benefit from it.”

The SNP has benefited in recent years from the feeling among many north of the border that Labour and the Tories were committed to differing shades of a similar economic programme, that was starving public services of cash and that paid little attention to Scottish desires or needs. But as the Nats’ spell in government in Edinburgh has worn on, first under Alex Salmond and now Nicola Sturgeon, with little being done to tackle the nation’s social problems, patience has started to run out.

Dugdale said yesterday that she “looked forward to joining Jeremy in August as we take our message to the people of Scotland”. That’s not a sentiment we would have heard from her before June. But it does raise the future spectacle of Davidson’s Tories battling for the centre and centre-right vote and Labour gunning for the left. The SNP, which has tried to be all things to all people, will have to make a choice – boasting that it is “Scotland’s Party” is unlikely to be enough.

The 20th anniversary of the referendum that delivered the Scottish Parliament is almost upon us. Then, Scottish Labour provided the UK and the Westminster government with figures of the stature of Gordon Brown, Robin Cook, Donald Dewar and George Robertson. That was a long time ago, and the decline in quality of Labour’s representatives both in London and Edinburgh since has been marked. The SNP’s decade of success has attracted much of the brightest new talent through its doors. Young Scots still seem to be set on the idea of independence. Labour has a credibility problem that won’t be easily shaken off.

But still, the body has twitched – perhaps it’s even sitting up. Is Scottish Labour on the way back? If so, is that down to the SNP’s declining popularity or to Corbyn’s appeal? And could Dugdale be a convincing frontwoman for a genuinely left-wing agenda?

There may be trouble ahead. Yesterday, the Scottish Labour Campaign for Socialism – whose convener, Neil Findlay MSP, ran Corbyn’s leadership campaign in Scotland – accused Dugdale of “holding Corbyn back” in June. A spokesperson for the group said: “While it’s great we won some seats back, it’s clear that the campaign here failed to deliver. While elsewhere we've seen people being enthused by ‘for the many, not the few’ we concentrated on the dispiriting visionless ‘send Nicola a message’ – and paid a price for that, coming third in votes and seats for the first time in a century. In Scotland we looked more like [former Scottish leader] Jim Murphy’s Labour Party than Jeremy Corbyn’s – and that isn’t a good look.”

While the group insists this isn’t intended as a challenge to Dugdale, that might change if Corbyn receives a rapturous reception in August. We’ll learn then whether Scotland is falling for the high-tax, high-spending pitch that seems to be working so well elsewhere, and whether Scottish Labour has jerked back to life only to find itself staring down the barrel of a civil war.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland).