"The tube of vaseline, which was intended to grease my prick and those of my lovers, summoned up the face of her who, during a reverie that moved through the dark alleys of the city, was the most cherished of mothers. It has served me in the preparation of so many secret joys, in places worthy of its discrete banality, that it had become the condition of my happiness, as my sperm-spotted handkerchief testified. Lying on the table, it was a banner telling the imperceptible legions of my triumph over the police. I was in a cell. I knew that all night long my tube of vaseline would be exposed to scorn - the contrary of a Perpetual Adoration - of a group of strong, handsome, husky policemen. So strong that if the weakest of them barely squeezed his fingers together, there would shoot forth, first with a slight fart, brief and dirty a ribbon of gum which would continue to emerge in a ribbon of gum which would continue to emerge in a ridiculous silence. Nevertheless, I was sure that this puny and most humble object would hold its own against them; by mere presence it would be able to exasperate all the police in the world; it would draw down upon itself contempt, hatred, white and dumb rages. It would perhaps be slightly bantering - like a tragic hero amused at stirring up the wrath of the gods - indestructible, like him, faithful to my happiness, and proud. I would like to hymn it with the newest words in the French language. But I would have also liked to fight for it, to organize massacres in its honor and bedeck a countryside at twilight with red bunting."1
Jean Genet, a deviant French writer and activist explains, in this bizarre, drug-addled language, a queer relationship to criminality: a triumphalism of failure. Our argument is that knowledge and actions that response to criminality in successful, intelligible, and coherent in ways are not neutral. Instead, they are part and parcel of a project of heteronormative maturation and subject making, which fascistically reveals and conceals ways of being in the world.
The Vaseline is our criminal weapon of failure. We pick up the resolution as the Vaseline bottle. We are the queer criminal movement that legalization cannot comprehend.
Halberstam 11. J. J. Jack Halberstam, professor of English at the University of Southern California, The Queer Art of Failure, pg. 2
In this book I range from children’s animation to avant-garde per- formance and queer art to think about ways of being and knowing that stand outside of conventional understandings of success. I argue that success in a heteronormative, capitalist society equates too easily to specific forms of reproductive maturity combined with wealth accumulation. But these measures of success have come under serious pressure recently, with the collapse of financial markets on the one hand and the epic rise in divorce rates on the other. If the boom and bust years of the late twentieth century and the early twenty-first have taught us anything, we should at least have a healthy critique of static models of success and failure.
Rather than just arguing for a reevaluation of these standards of passing and failing, The Queer Art of Failure dismantles the logics of success and failure with which we currently live. Under certain circumstances failing, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing may in fact offer more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world. Failing is something queers do and have always done exceptionally well; for queers failure can be a style, to cite Quentin Crisp, or a way of life, to cite Foucault, and it can stand in contrast to the grim scenarios of success that depend upon “trying and trying again.” In fact if success requires so much effort, then maybe failure is easier in the long run and offers different rewards.
What kinds of reward can failure offer us? Perhaps most obviously, failure allows us to escape the punishing norms that discipline behavior and manage human development with the goal of delivering us from unruly childhoods to orderly and predictable adulthoods. Failure preserves some of the wondrous anarchy of childhood and disturbs the supposedly clean boundaries between adults and children, winners and losers. And while failure certainly comes accompanied by a host of negative affects, such as disappointment, disillusionment, and despair, it also provides the opportunity to use these negative affects to poke holes in the toxic positivity of contemporary life. As Barbara Ehrenreich reminds us in Bright- sided, positive thinking is a North American affliction, “a mass delusion” that emerges out of a combination of American exceptionalism and a desire to believe that success happens to good people and failure is just a consequence of a bad attitude rather than structural conditions (2009: 13). Positive thinking is offered up in the U.S. as a cure for cancer, a path to untold riches, and a surefire way to engineer your own success. Indeed believing that success depends upon one’s attitude is far preferable to Americans than recognizing that their success is the outcome of the tilted scales of race, class, and gender. As Ehrenreich puts it, “If optimism is the key to material success, and if you can achieve an optimistic outlook through the discipline of positive thinking, then there is no excuse for failure.” But, she continues, “the flip side of positivity is thus a harsh insistence on personal responsibility,” meaning that while capitalism produces some people’s success through other people’s failures, the ideology of positive thinking insists that success depends only upon working hard and failure is always of your own doing (8). We know better of course in an age when the banks that ripped off ordinary people have been deemed “too big to fail” and the people who bought bad mortgages are simply too little to care about.
In Bright-sided Ehrenreich uses the example of American women’s application of positive thinking to breast cancer to demonstrate how dangerous the belief in optimism can be and how deeply Americans want to believe that health is a matter of attitude rather than environmental degradation and that wealth is a matter of visualizing success rather than having the cards stacked in your favor. For the nonbelievers outside the cult of positive thinking, however, the failures and losers, the grouchy, irritable whiners who do not want to “have a nice day” and who do not believe that getting cancer has made them better people, politics offers a better explanatory framework than personal disposition. For these negative thinkers, there are definite advantages to failing. Relieved of the obligation to keep smiling through chemotherapy or bankruptcy, the negative thinker can use the experience of failure to confront the gross inequalities of everyday life in the United States.
From the perspective of feminism, failure has often been a better bet than success. Where feminine success is always measured by male standards, and gender failure often means being relieved of the pressure to measure up to patriarchal ideals, not succeeding at womanhood can offer unexpected pleasures. In many ways this has been the message of many renegade feminists in the past. Monique Wittig (1992) argued in the 1970s that if womanhood depends upon a heterosexual framework, then lesbians are not “women,” and if lesbians are not “women,” then they fall outside of patriarchal norms and can re-create some of the meaning of their genders. Also in the 1970s Valerie Solanas suggested that if “woman” takes on meaning only in relation to “man,” then we need to “cut up men” (2004: 72). Perhaps that is a little drastic, but at any rate these kinds of feminisms, what I call shadow feminisms in chapter 5, have long haunted the more acceptable forms of feminism that are oriented to positivity, reform, and accommodation rather than negativity, rejection, and transformation. Shadow feminisms take the form not of becoming, being, and doing but of shady, murky modes of undoing, un- becoming, and violating.