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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After a year of division, a new centre is emerging in Labour

Clive Lewis, Lisa Nandy and Jonathan Reynolds show how factionalism is being transcended. 

On 26 September, Clive Lewis sat onstage at Labour’s conference in Liverpool and puffed out his cheeks in exasperation. He had just been informed that a line in his speech as shadow defence secretary committing the party to Trident renewal had been removed by Jeremy Corbyn’s office. Such was his annoyance that he was said to have later punched a wall in anger ("I punched no walls," he told me when we recently met). 

For Lewis, however, the feud proved to be a blessing. Hitherto hostile MPs hailed his pragmatism and deference to party unity (he is a long-standing opponent of Trident renewal). The former soldier also affirmed Labour’s support for Nato and for collective self-defence. “The values that underpin Nato are social-democratic values: liberty, democracy, freedom of expression,” Lewis, an early Corbyn ally, told me. “Let’s not forget, it was Clement Attlee and the New Deal Democrats who initiated and set up Nato. It’s about being in it to win it. It’s about winning the arguments inside Nato and making sure that it’s a force for good. Some people would say that’s impossible. I say you’ve got to be in it to be able to make those changes.”

In October, Lewis was replaced as shadow defence secretary by Nia Griffith and became shadow business secretary. Many regarded the appointment as a punishment. “Do I think there was an ulterior motive? I’ll never know,” Lewis said. “I’m confident that the reason I was moved – what I was told – is that they wanted me to be able to take on a big portfolio.”

Whatever the truth, Griffith has since said that Labour’s next general election manifesto will include a commitment to Trident renewal and will support multilateral, rather than unilateral, disarmament.

Many MPs had long feared that the divide between them and their leader would prove unbridgeable. Some contemplated standing on bespoke manifestos. Yet with little drama, Corbyn has retreated from a conflict that he could not win. Labour’s conference, at which the largely pro-Trident trade unions hold 50 per cent of the vote on policy and which the leader has vowed to respect, would never have endorsed unilateralism.

“Jeremy Corbyn deserves credit for that,” Lewis said. “Everyone understands that his position hasn’t changed. He still believes in unilateral disarmament . . . But he’s also a democrat, and he’s a pragmatist, despite what people say.”

In policy terms, at least, Labour will contest the next general election as a less divided party than many anticipated. As Corbyn’s team has long emphasised, there is unity around issues such as opposition to spending cuts and support for rail renationalisation. A new centre for Labour, embodied by Lewis, is emerging.

“When I became an MP,” the 45-year-old told me (he was elected in Norwich South in 2015), “to be anti-austerity, to say that cuts don’t work and they’re bad economics, meant you weren’t in touch with reality, and that you had no interest in winning elections. Within the space of 18 months, there’s now a growing consensus that cuts aren’t the way forward and that we need an industrial strategy.”

Theresa May’s support for new grammar schools and “hard Brexit” has given Labour MPs other issues to unite around. After Corbyn’s second landslide leadership victory, many of his opponents have reached the final stage of grief: acceptance. Others, as Lewis noted, are imbued with “an eager enthusiasm to make this work”. Contrary to some predictions, more than half of the 63 frontbenchers who resigned last summer have returned.

An emblematic figure is Jonathan Reynolds. The Liz Kendall supporter, who resigned as shadow transport minister in January 2016, has rejoined the front bench as shadow City minister. Earlier this year, Reynolds backed the introduction of a universal basic income, an idea that is now being explored by John McDonnell’s team (and that Barack Obama has called for “debate” on). In July, Reynolds and Lewis wrote a joint piece in support of proportional representation (PR), warning that without it “a more equal, democratic and sustainable society is less likely”.

Another advocate of PR is Lisa Nandy, the former shadow energy secretary and a friend of Lewis (on 26 October, along with Reynolds, they called for Labour to stand aside in the Richmond by-election to aid the Liberal Democrats). In the view of some, the defining divide in Labour is no longer between left and right but between open and closed. On one side are pluralists such as Lewis, Reynolds and Nandy, while on the other are tribalists such as Ian Lavery (pro-Corbyn) and John Spellar (anti-Corbyn).

The division stretches to the top, with McDonnell in favour and Corbyn opposed. “It’s a work in progress,” Lewis said of his efforts to convert the Labour leader. “There’s a growing movement of MPs who now either support PR or understand the growing necessity for it. They may not be quite there themselves, but they’re moving in that direction.”

At times since Corbyn became leader, the parliamentary party’s divisions have appeared to many to be insurmountable, even as the party in the country has grown and been inspired by Corbyn. Yet a new consensus is being forged in the PLP: anti-austerity, pro-Trident, pro-Nato and, increasingly, committed to political and constitutional reform. If there is any consolation for a becalmed Labour Party, it is that its European counterparts are faring little better. In Spain, France and Germany, an already divided left is further fragmenting.

But Labour is likely to both fight and survive the next general election as a united force. If Lewis can retain his seat in Norwich (he has a potentially vulnerable majority of 7,654), he could one day act as the bridge between the party’s “soft” and “hard” left. After a year of factional skirmishes, the common ground in which Labour’s future will be shaped is emerging.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage