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.

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What’s it like to be a human rights activist in post-Pussy Riot Russia?

It is five years since the feminist punk collective crashed Moscow’s Cathedral in a performance that got some of them jailed.

On 21 February 2012, five brightly-dressed members of Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot took to the alter of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to protest links between the Russian Orthodox Church and its “chief saint” Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Virgin birth-giver of God, drive away Putin!” they shouted from beneath now-iconic balaclavas.

The “Punk Prayer” was both a political statement and a powerful feminist message. Six months later, a judge sentenced three of the girls to two years in prison (one was rapidly released) on a conspicuously apolitical conviction of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”.

These past five years, Russia’s involvement in crises in Syria and Ukraine has cast a dark shadow over relations with an increasingly cleaved-off West. The year 2015 saw opposition politician Boris Nemtsov murdered some 500 metres from the Kremlin walls.

Domestically, society has constricted people challenging the political status quo. However, low-key initiatives retain traction.

“Artists are simply silent,” says Russian curator and gallerist Marat Guelman, who left for Montenegro in early 2015. “It is better not to say anything about politics, it is better to bypass these issues.”

This is a major difference from five years ago. “Despite persecution against Pussy Riot, people were not afraid to defend them,” he says. “It was a better time.”

There are three topics artists and curators now avoid, says artist and feminist activist Mikaela. One is “homosexuality . . . especially if it involves adolescents”, she says, citing a 2015 exhibit about LGBT teens called “Be Yourself”. Authorities closed it and interrogated the galley owner. “Then the war in Ukraine,” she says. “Russian Orthodoxy is the third topic you cannot tackle.”

Marianna Muravyeva, a law professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, says that aside from the government completely discarding human rights rhetoric, the most significant legal change is the “gay propaganda” law and “legislation against those who insult the feelings of believers”.

The latter came into force in July 2013. Since then, the Orthodox Church has made deeper societal incursions. Muravyeva says that the secular nature of the Soviet Union led to residual feelings of guilt towards the Church – and now it uses that “capital”.

Mikaela observes a “cultural expansion”, citing a new TV channel, radio station and three new churches in her neighbourhood alone.

Orthodox activist attacks on exhibits have increased. In August 2015, they targeted an exhibit at one of Moscow’s most prominent art galleries. Its perpetrators were found guilty of “petty hooliganism” and handed a 1,000 rouble fine (£14 by today’s rates).

“Any word written in Old Slavonic lettering is spirituality,” says Guelman. “Any work of art by a modern artist . . . depravity, sin, the impact of the West.”

Similar groups are active across Russia, and galleries err on the side of caution. Perpetrators, while self-organised, believe their actions to be state-sanctioned, says Muravyeva. They are influenced by “the kinds of messages” conveyed by the government. 

Nowadays, self-organisation is integral to artistic expression. Mikaela witnessed educational institutions and foreign foundations telling artists “we are with you”, “we know you are smart” but they cannot host political works for fear of closure. Not knowing where the “invisible line” lies foments uncertainty. “It’s self-censorship,” she says.

Dissident artist Petr Pavlensky, notorious for nailing his scrotum to the Red Square in late 2013 (“Fixation”) and setting fire to the doors of the FSB in 2015, advocates personal agency.

“Fixation” was about a sense of helplessness in Russia that must be overcome; he tried to convey the amount of power the castrated have. “Pavlensky says, ‘Look, I have even less than you’,” says Guelman. The artist and his partner Oksana Shalygina are now in France intending to seek asylum after sexual assault accusations.

Some rise to the opportunity, such as Daria Serenko. She rides the Moscow Metro carrying political posters as part of Tikhy Piket or “Silent Protest”. Her 12 February sign depicted a girl with her head in her arms inundated by the comments received if a women alleges rape (“she was probably drunk”, “what was she wearing?”).

However, as a lone individual in a public space, she experienced hostility. “Men, as always, laughed,” she posted on Facebook afterwards. Earlier this month an anonymous group pasted painted plants accompanied by anti-domestic violence messages around Omsk, southwestern Siberia.

Their appearance corresponded with Putin signing legislation on 7 February decriminalising domestic abuse that causes “minor harm”. While it doesn’t specifically mention women, Muravyeva says that the message “women can manage on their own” is a “disaster”.

On 27 January, after Russia’s parliament passed the final draft, pro-Kremlin tabloid Life released a video (“He Beats You Because He Loves You”) showing how to inflict pain without leaving a mark.

Heightened social awareness is aided by online networks. Since “Punk Prayer”, the proportion of people using the internet in Russia has exploded. In 2011, it was 33 per cent, while in 2016 it was 73 per cent, according annual Freedom House reports. Authorities have concurrently exerted stronger controls over it, eg. targeting individual social media users through broadly-worded laws against “extremism”.

Last July, the hashtag #ЯНеБоюсьСказать (“#IamNotAfraidtoSay”) went viral. Women documented experiences of sexual violence. Russian organisation Сёстры (“Sisters”), which helps survivors receive psychological support, receives “250-350” crisis calls annually.

“Over the past year, the number of applications increased,” because of the hashtag, it says. New media platforms Meduza and Wonderzine also emerged as more “socially aware” outlets. Previously “all we had was LiveJournal communities,” Mikaela says.

Bottom-up challenges are partially due to a generational shift. “Nobody bothered before,” says Muravyeva. “Those children who were born after ‘95 . . . they were already born in a very free society – they don’t know what it is to be afraid, they don’t know what it is to be self-censoring, what it is to be really scared of the state.”

Aliide Naylor is a British journalist and former Arts and Ideas Editor of The Moscow Times.

> Now read Anoosh Chakelian’s interview with Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot