Thursday, June 7, 2012

On Failing, Sharing, and Getting Lost

I'm stewing over the Wisconsin electoral defeat of the recall effort on Governor Scott Walker, that light-of-the-right union buster. All that grassroots organizing seems to have gone for nothing. Once you enter the electoral arena, you face huge bloated moneybags throwing their weight around propagandistically. And the sheepy people buy it. For me, this goes hand in hand with the suppression of the Occupy movement nationwide, which we learned was coordinated by federal agencies. We're back in the desert again, shut out of electoral politics. And again, frustrated reformers have only their sometime friends, the Democratic Party, to blame – for, according to the party's own calculations, not throwing their own chances away by supporting lost causes. So, say many, there goes Obama. Between the shitty economy – thanks to Republican obstruction in Congress which has successfully blocked stimulus – and the fatal loss of morale in the progressive cadres, the first black president looks to be fucked for a second term. Bienvenido Mr. Romney.
For his people it seems fine, all right, if the USA becomes a sea of third world poverty with a few well-fortified islands of urban plenty. So much of the science fiction I read in my youth describes just such a world – and it weren't no utopia, that's for sure!
So now what?
Around the same time the Occupy camps were being cleared in the USA, a gal I'd never heard of gave an interesting talk in London at the Centre for Cultural Studies Research at the University of East London. I picked up the Jack Halberstam podcast today, talking about her new book The Queer Art of Failure. The website billed it as a look at “how failure can be used to mobilize radical politics.” Well, maybe not – but it's pretty damned interesting.
Here's my notes on the arguments in her podcast. First, she says, “Queerness is failure as style.” Because queers – that's newspeak for the gay and lesbian and transgender people who don't think of themselves as the new bourgeoisie – queers cannot adopt to gender roles. They always “fail” at being successful heterosexual men or women. So, instead of being shamed by this failure, queers “inhabit it.”
Now, capitalism is about winning and losing. But we always lose sight of the losing part – we are encouraged to forget about that! For a few people to win a lot, many many people have to lose a lot. This means that many, in fact, even most of us under capitalism, are defined in relation to failure.
Then she starts talking about the Invisible Committee, and their recent radical pamphlet “The Coming Insurrection.” The analysis of the Invisible Committee suggests that we get disorganized, and push the crisis in order to try to bring the system down, because it is not the system that is in crisis, it is capitalism that is the crisis. Again, the economy isn't in crisis, it is the crisis. So the IC urges activists – anarchists, particularly – to intensify the crisis. Get disorganized, find each other, and help to push the system into collapse. Occupations have tried to do that.
(Here I lost her a little, since it's not clear that Occupy or any radical group has any power to intensify anything in the general economy, outside of an occasional wildcat strike in a very marginal sector of the economy like coffee shops or bookstores in a notoriously hippie town. Occupy, I thought specified the analysis of the crisis, and diversified the strategies of popular organization that are confronting it – that's all [although that's a lot!]. They have had no real effect on the structure of the crisis itself, i.e., no economic effects, except for boosting police budgets.)
Then she talks of the classic modernist attitude towards failure, using playwright Samuel Beckett as her example: “Fail again, fail better.” Refuse the terms of success, because for the modernists, successful humans are despicable. Only those who fail are respectable. (Again, I doubt it – but I'm reporting her!)
Halberstam then referenced the anarchist political theory of James C. Scott (in his “Seeing Like a State,” 1999) on peasant resistance. Slowdowns, passive resistance, “foot-dragging,” are signs of resistance, stalling the imposition of any kind of rule. (E.g., “Slackers.”) Failure then is one of the “weapons of the weak,” and it stalls the business of the dominators. Then she talked about the novel “Trainspotting.” “In the U.S.,” she said, “people don't read it, but here it's a way of life.” This is “an unqueer novel about failure, disappointment, addiction, violence” with “outbursts and obscene rants from the Scottish working class... [and] moments of searing punk negativity” through which the (anti?) hero articulates his resistance. Halberstam said she was invited by the lesbian art publishing group LTTR to contribute to an event around failure. They pointed out that lesbian tennis champions don't get commercial endorsements. For example, big winner Martina Navratilova was passed over in favor of a loser because she is so “out.” “The butch,” Halberstam says, “can't be co-opted by capitalism. Capitalism presumes that in order to sell things it has to engage the male gaze on the one hand, and sell a certain version of femininity on the other.” This is how to begin to think of the logic of failure, and how it disrupts all kinds of systems. “Capital doesn't run through every single identity location.” While in books and TV shows to be queer is to be consigned to a place of sadness and loneliness, in fact, there's an active social network. Heterosexuality is the place of “nuclearity and isolation.” There was a lot more. She whacked on Slavoj Zizek for his book “In Defense of Lost Causes,” criticizing his take on the recent UK riots as being an inverse of capitalist consumerism, a matter of “shoppers out of control.” The problem we face today “doesn't conform to an old left lineage. As soon as you think big, you're already back into the logic of capital. We're looking for weapons of the weak. We have to think small.” (It's not only Slavoj; this is the kind of talk that drives David Harvey crazy too, although he keeps a better poker face.)
She spoke about the way we sentimentalize the small, the miniature, because it's irrelevant, using a painting of a dead baby bird. She talked about her chapter on “shadow feminism,” the work of undoing femininity, citing as examples the artists Yoko Ono and Marina Abramovic. (She missed my old pal “drag king” Diane Torr, a Scottish lass who's been at this as long as Marina.) Halberstam also analyzes a series of recent childrens' films using the new technique of CGI animation. “To address a child viewer, you have to address failure, because children are always messing up.” These films, she says, teach that “children are collective beings.” But we need to unlearn the attitudes of childhood in order to become competitive individuals in capitalist society. These films educated the Occupy generation. “The child's best line of defense is simply to say 'no'.” This absolute irrational negativity stymies response, and stops the forward motions of parents. Children are a reminder of what we used to be, and a reminder that there are other ways of being in the world.
Finally, during the question period, Halberstam returned to questions around Scott's book “Seeing Like a State” concerning legibility. “The failure to be is a failure to be legible,” she said. “But the answer is not to become legible.” But that's been my project with “House Magic” – precisely to make the social center and squatting movement “legible,” i.e., intelligible as to its political objectives and constituency of activists and participants. Through this, I have reasoned – in classic liberal fashion – it could become possible to legalize successful occupations, to make them “demotic institutions” (not “monsters” as Universidad Nómada has argued). But since its inception, I have worried about my strategy. Stefano Harney and Fred Moten argued that what they called the “undercommons” was a precious resource of the oppressed precarious workers within universities, knowledge that should not be shared with the rulers. The nagging doubt remains that the social center information project could be misguided, unproductive, itself doomed to failure and obsolescence. Halberstam seems to point to a strategy of condensing within failure – which for squats and occupations means eviction – and doing... what? Not exactly so clear, then, is it? More self-isolation – “auto-ghettizzazione,” as the Italians called it?
Even as I write this, my doubts strike me as a little silly. (But then I'm reading Tony Judt, and for him, everything is a little silly.) Still, the question of the conduct and utility of research on the new social movements is on the table with the rise of new cadres of militant or movement researchers and activist-scholars. There's been an important recent burst of thought on this. Is it a reprise of the “scholars into the factories” movement of the French Maoist '60s? Well, not exactly. The group I'm in with, SqEK, is also going through some conniptions around these questions. And there's an “Occupy Research Collective Convergence (ORCC)” June 30 on “activism and research ethics” in London. The game is afoot in academia, and it's a good bet that Mycroft is listening.
Halberstam concludes poetically – (it's cultural studies, after all!) – “We need to forget the old models, cut them loose, so that we can be available to what comes next, open to the political possibilities that will come from being disoriented.... You have to get lost to be able to find a new path.” Well, me too, I'm lost. Vamos à la dérive.
only the first of many reports on U.S. federal repression of Occupy is Rick Ellis, “Update: 'Occupy' crackdowns coordinated with federal law enforcement officials” (November, 2011; Minneapolis Examiner) – but it's a lot worse that this, as subsequent reports have shown – cf. yr local “repression watch”
Jack Halberstam on The Queer Art of Failure – a podcast; link is here:
you can pick up “Coming” online, among other places here –
where the tagline says the book is now illegal in France. Wait a minute, don't they have a new president?
James C. Scott’s book “Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed” (1999)
LTTR No. 3, “Practice More Failure” (July 2004) is an artists' book; but some of it is online –
Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, “The University and the Undercommons: Seven Theses” in Social Text Summer 2004
The Argentinian group Colectivo Situaciones published “On the Researcher-Militant” in 2003 (trans. S. Touza) – it is at
in English, Spanish and German
Stevphen Shukaitis, David Graeber, Erika Biddle, eds., “Constituent Imagination: Militant Investigations, Collective Theorization” (AK Press, 2007)
Julie Perini and Kevin Van Meter (Team Colors Collective), “What Is Militant & Co-Research?” (2008)
Colectivo Situaciones (trans. Nate Holdren & Sebastián Touza), “19 & 20: Notes for a New Social Protagonism” (Minor Compositions, 2011)
“Vamos à la dérive” is the Spanish title for “Let's Get Lost” (1988) is Bruce Weber's movie about Chet Baker. Jazz and heroin in France of the boom years.

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