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On "The Queer Art of Failure"

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

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

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".