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The Queer Art of Failure, Judith Halberstam’s celebration (in defense) of academic subversion, the “silly archive,” and all things negative, advocates (and constitutes) a refusal to keep one’s head, pants, and spirits up, a refusal to submit to one’s upbringing (when that upbringing is designed to bring a child up out of the queer muck of immaturity, unruliness, and scraped knees and into the sterile world of disciplined hetero normalcy—a productive and reproductive adulthood). Her book uses low theory and knowledge from below to recover and to generate new, un-disciplined ways of thinking outside of and beyond binary traps. She asks: what is the alternative? (To forget, to fall down, to render oneself illegible.) Most importantly, she begins with an epigraph from Spongebob Squarepants (episode: Hooky), for which she has earned my eternal, my lowest, un-respect (“Being taken seriously means missing out on the chance to be frivolous, promiscuous, and irrelevant”). I love this book.
In a chapter titled “Shadow Feminisms,” Halberstam advocates a “complete dismantling of self” and seeks in her analysis of texts like Jamaica Kinkaid’s Autobiography of My Mother and Gayatri Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak,” “a theoretical and imaginative space that is not woman” (124, 125). If not woman, what then? A space is being opened (“The passive voice…might just be a transformative voice for feminism”) and this space is the product not of thinking back through the mother (Woolf) but rather of losing/loving/hating/destroying the mother—the space of unwoman (the space of what—and therein lies the difference; I refer to myself, an early post on stuplimity and Stein: “What is not an absence. What is a space in which difference begets plentitude (of what?). Différance.”). Halberstam writes, “if we do not think back through our mothers, then we are not women, and this broken line of thinking and unbeing of the woman unexpectedly offers a way out of the reproduction of woman as the other to man from one generation to the next” (125). On being broken, I refer to the poem that concludes (or rather unconcludes, in that it makes way for infinite beginnings and beginnings-again, unfinal, unfixed, unsure) Dee Rees’ powerful 2011 film about a young lesbian, Pariah: “…even breaking is opening and I am broken / I am open…I am broken open…Breaking is freeing / broken is freedom / I am not broken / I am free.” A broken line of thinking or being is a beautiful thing—progress disrupted (a detour, a deferral); the “natural” order of things (woman as other, as absence, as not-man) surrenders itself, a construction to be deconstructed.
But we must never (we cannot) abandon Woolf; remember (in A Room of One’s Own, Chapter 5) that Mary Carmichael tampered with the expected sequence: “First she broke the sentence; now she has broken the sequence. Very well, she has every right to do both of these things if she does them not for the sake of breaking, but for the sake of creating.” Destroying (forgetting, losing) for the sake of creating is at the heart of Halberstam’s project. The un- of unbecoming is misleading, for it seems to signify the undoing of something that is always already done (a removal, a return). I thought perhaps that a woman is born, swaddled/smothered/interpellated (“it’s a girl”), and that from this beginning (her becoming) it is up to her to unbecome a woman—to unact, undevelop, unspeak, unprogress, unblossom. Yet unbecoming is but another word for creation (or, rather, breaking for the sake of creating). As Stein would say, I’m no fool! I’ve read Judith Butler. I know that sex was “always already gender,” that sex is neither a pregiven identity nor a prediscursive category (to be undone) but rather “the effect of the apparatus of cultural construction designated by gender” (Butler 9, 10). Gender is for doing, that is, performing; to do is to become and to unbecome. I know that, perhaps, “One is not born a woman, but rather becomes one” (Simone de Beauvoir). But perhaps one is born to be a woman (born to a culture in which bodies must become women) and to unbecome a woman is to become something other (than an other) than a culturally constructed (sexed/gendered) body. “If subversion is possible,” Butler writes, “it will be a subversion from within the terms of the law, through the possibilities that emerge when the law turns against itself and spawns unexpected permutations of itself. The culturally constructed body will then be liberated [a new body will be created?], neither to its natural past, nor to its original pleasures, but to an open future of cultural possibilities” (127). A beautiful phrase, this. (“I am broken open…I am free”)
Judith Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure (Durham: Duke U Press, 2011)
Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990)