This Will Have Been: Art, Love and Politics in the 1980s is currently at the Walker Art Museum here in Minneapolis. I’m really excited to see it. My sister saw it in Chicago and said it was great. She recommended that I pay particular attention to two artists: Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger. While Kruger’s name didn’t sound familiar, I am familiar with Holzer. I briefly wrote about her awesome twitter account, JennyHolzerMom, a few months ago. In that post, I lamented the fact that Holzer didn’t seem to be tweeting anymore. I checked it just now, and she does have a few more, like this one:
IF YOU’RE HUNGRY FOR THE TRUTH YOU CAN WARM UP SOME LEFTOVERS; I’M NOT MAKING MORE TRUTH WHEN THERE’S GOOD TRUTH JUST SITTING IN THE FRIDGE
After doing a quick google search for Kruger, I realized that I had seen her work before–I think on a book cover? I like how she combines images with text, especially in this image to the left. I want to do so more research on her; I just requested a book from 2010 about her from the Minneapolis Public Library.
UPDATE: I decided to experiment with Pixelmator and create a response image to put beside Kruger’s “no” image. Here’s mine (which I put together really quickly—through the process of doing it, I learned a few new techniques):
Yesterday I posted this image. It was inspired by some theories/ideas that aim to resist the demand to have a positive attitude and just be happy. In this post, I want to offer a few passages from these theories as a way to engage with and make sense of the image and my motivations.
SMILE OR DIE!
This phrase is a reference to Barbara Ehrenreich’s talk for RSA Animate (see transcript here). In this talk, she critiques “the ideology of positive thinking,” in which people are encouraged expected to have a positive attitude, act as if “there’s nothing wrong” and “just put a smiley face and get on with it.” The problem with this “delusion of positivity” is that it conceals or suppresses any dissent to or questioning of the larger structures that create conditions for our unhappiness. She says:
What could be cleverer as a way of quelling dissent than to tell people who are in some kind of trouble – poverty, unemployment etc – that it’s all their attitude, you know that that’s all that has to change, that they should just get with the programme, smile and no complaining. It’s a brilliant form of social control
So, the command to “smile or die!” is also a demand to not question, not worry and not think about why it might sometimes be good to not be happy. Now, Ehrenreich is not against joy or expressing/experiencing happiness. Instead, she’s against the larger ideology of positive thinking that demands that we suck it up, don’t complain, be cheerful and spread our good feelings to others.
This idea of spreading good feelings and the ideology of positivity is one of the central themes in Sara Ahmed’s The Promise of Happiness. This book and Ahmed’s critique of the “happiness industry” are big inspirations for my image. I’ve written about the feminist killjoy in past posts. Here’s one of my favorite passages from Ahmed about the feminist killjoy:
Say, we are seated at the dinner table. Around this table, the family gathers, having polite conversations, where only certain things can be brought up. Someone says something you find problematic. You respond carefully, perhaps. You might be speaking quietly, but you are beginning to feel “wound up,”recognizing with frustration that you are being wound up by someone who is winding you up. Let us take seriously the figure of the feminist killjoy. Does the feminist kill other people’s joy by pointing out moments of sexism? Or does she expose the bad feelings that get hidden, displaced or negated under public signs of joy?
The killjoy is someone who refuses to just smile and be happy. Who is willing to be angry or worried or unhappy. Or who will always necessarily fail at being happy in the ways that are demanded of them (ways that usually include a narrow heteronormative/capitalist future and that require living within and therefore reinforcing certain norms).
I JUST WANT YOU TO BE HAPPY
Throughout the book, Ahmed reflects on a phrase that she repeatedly heard as a child: “I just want you to be happy.” She’s particularly interested in the “just want” of this phrase and its implications for thinking through how we understand our own happiness to be tied to others and their willingness to go along with what we imagine to be the right kind of happiness. In describing how this phrase gets uttered, she writes:
We can imagine the speaker giving up, stepping back, flinging up her arms, sighing. I just. The “just” is a qualifier of the want and announces a disagreement with what the other wants without making the disagreement explicit.
To exclaim that you “just want” someone to be happy is not simply to disagree with their approach; it is to claim that their approach will only lead to unhappiness and is therefore bad or not the “right” way to live. And it is to ignore or actively suppress their vision of happiness and joy all for the sake of their “true” happiness.
In my lecture notes from a Queering Desire course that I taught in 2010, I discuss what it means to be happy in the “right” way:
the very hope for happiness means we get directed in specific ways, as happiness is assumed to follow from some life choices and not others” (54).
What life choices are supposed to lead to happiness and which are not? Who gets to decide what leads to happiness and how are those decisions made?
The face of happiness, at least in this description, looks rather like the face of privilege. Rather than assuming happiness is simply found in “happy persons,” we can consider how claims to happiness make certain forms of personhood valuable (11).
Promoting happiness promotes certain ways of living (over others) and certain types of families (11).
“Ideas of happiness involve social as well as moral distinctions insofar as they rest on ideas of who is worthy as well as capable of being happy ‘in the right way'” (13).
In “A Response to Lesbian Ethics,” Marilyn Frye (rightly) asks, “Why should one want to be good? Why, in particular, would a woman want to be good? (56). Her short answer: you shouldn’t. Her longer answer: The demand to be a good girl is intended to keep women in line, to pit them against each other–the “good girls/ladies” vs. “the bad/rebellious women,” and to prevent them from challenging dominant systems of power and privilege.
This question is inspired by one of my posts from February about Pinterest’s etiquette rule: Be Nice. I wish I had taken a screen shot of the rules; Pinterest has since changed the rule to “be respectful” (which is a much better choice, IMHO). The idea of being nice has specific gendered connotations. I could write a lot about the whole “mean girl” phenomenon (which I taught in my Pop Culture Women course back in 2007…I’ll have to dig up those notes; I don’t think I posted them on that blog, which was my first one ever).
I think I should spend a lot more time writing about why “be nice!” troubles me. It has something to do with how little “being nice” seems to do with expressing care or concern or respect for others. I think it also has something to do with my disdain for etiquette, especially as it relates to “proper” discipline/behavior for girls/women. This disdain for etiquette and manners reminds me of a recent problematizer that I posted.
Wow, I’m on a roll this afternoon. 3 posts! J Halberstam’s book The Queer Art of Failure is inspiring me. In part one of my posts on notes about the book, I mention Barbara Ehrenreich’s RSA Animate Smile or Die. The idea of resisting the need demand to smile and being happy is a theme that I’ve read/thought about for some time. And it’s a key theme within some versions of queer theory.
I don’t have time to offer an exhaustive list of theorists/theories that resist positive thinking/feeling, so I thought I used the idea of “smile or die” to inspire another problematizer image. This image features one of my favorites subjects/muses, my daughter Rosie (who looks a little like Tina Yothers in Family Ties here).
Within the image are various references to feminist and queer theories that critique happiness/goodness/positivity as a goal and that embrace “outlaw emotions” and “negative feelings” (like rage). I hope to write more specifically about these theories in a post later this week. For now, here’s the image:
weapons of the weak: STALLING recategorize what looks like inaction, passivity, lack of resistance (88)
Trainspotting and unqueer failure: failure leads to while male rage directed against women/people of color
OUTLINE OF REST OF CH: An examination of what happens when failure is productively linked to racial awareness, anticolonial struggle, gender variance, and different formulations of the temporality of success (92).
Moffat and 4th Place: The Art of Losing
The L Word, the Anti-Aesthetic of the Lesbian, and the butch lesbian as loser/failure
Darkness, Shadows, Failure-as-style, Limits, Hopelessness, Punk politics, Fucking shit up, and the Queer Art of Failure
Children, Queer Fairy Tales, Shrek/Babe/Chicken Run/Finding Nemo, and Bringing down the winner and discovering our inner dweeb
A rallying cry of England’s dispossessed?
A snarling rejection of the tradition of the monarchy and national investment in it?
No future for Edelman…seems to mean (too) much about Lacan…and not enough about the powerful negativity of punk politics (108).
Negativity may be anti-politics, but it should not register as a-political.
three: Halberstam, expanding of the archive of negative affects and “fucking shit-up”
our: A queer archive? Inspired by JH’s call to discover our inner dweeb…
The concept of practicing failure perhaps prompts us to discover our inner dweeb, to be underachievers, to fall short, to get distracted, to take a detour, to find a limit, to lose our way, to forget, to avoid mastery…” (121).
The following are the online notes for my Queering Theory class in fall 2011. I’m in the process of bringing my various lectures over from my 18 course blogs to this site. Eventually, I’d like to do more with these lectures. Maybe combine them into a few key themes, particularly ones that connect to my work on making and staying in trouble. I also might want to reflect further on how to use the blog as a platform for lectures and discussions in class.
NOTES FOR JHALBERSTAM’S The Queer Art of Failure
see pdf of full notes (with embedded tweets) here.
Introduction: Low Theory sources of knowledge? Sponge Bob Square Pants
This book loses the idealism of hope in order to gain wisdom and a new, spongy relation to life, culture, knowledge and pleasure (2).
live life otherwise
Low theory tries to locate all of the in-between spaces that save us from being snared by the hooks of hegemony and speared by the seductions of the gift shop (2).
standing outside of success: failure = not succeeding, not achieving success
goal = dismantling logic of Success/Failure
re-envisioning failure (and losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing) as offering more creative ways of being parallels with Luhmann and ignorance, Butler and undoing
Failure’s rewards (3)?
escape punishing norms that discipline behavior/manage development
preserves some of the wondrous anarchy of childhood
disturbs “clean” boundary between childhood/adulthood, winner/loser
allows us to use negative effects (disappointment, disillusionment, despair) to poke holes in toxic positivity and myth of power of positive thinking and positivity/personal responsibilitysee Ehrenreich and RSAnimate’s “Smile or Die”
Is failure necessarily negative? Does it demand that we embrace and value our negative, “whiny,” grouchy attitudes?
Little Miss Sunshine and a new kind of optimism: not based on positive thinking or the bright side at all costs, but a little ray of sunshine that produces shade and light in equal measure (5).
not being taken seriously, lack of rigor, frivolous, promiscuous, irrelevant (7).
What should count as “serious” and rigorous academic work?
Benjamin: strolling down the paths, going the wrong way, not knowing exactly which way to go
Disciplinary knowledge, the sciences and rogue intellectuals
Do we really want to shore up the ragged boundaries of our shared interests and intellectual commitments, or might we rather take this opportunity to rethink the project of learning and thinking altogether (7)? Is this possible in academic spaces, especially at the U?
Let me explain how universities (and by implication high schools) squash rather than promote quirky and original thought (7).
JH on hegemony (from Gramsci and Hall): “the multilayered system by which a dominant group achieves power not through coercion but through the production of an interlocking system of ideas which persuades people of the rightness of any given set of often contradictory ideas and perspectives” (17).
traditional vs. organic intellectual
Low theory = counterhegemonic form of theorizing, the theorization of alternatives within an undisciplined zone of knowledge production (18).
Linebaugh’s/Rediker’s The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors,Slaves, Commoners, and The Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic and the history of alternative political formations
flesh out alternatives: how to live, how to think about time/space, how to inhabit space with others, how to spend time separate from the logic of work (19)
Animated films deliver queer/socialist messages:
revel in difference
invest in resistance
“the art of getting lost?”
FAILURE AS A WAY OF LIFE
goals of book:
“I hold on to what have been characterized as childish and immature notions of possibility and look for alternatives in the form of what Foucault calls “subjugated knowledge” across the culture: in subcultures, countercultures, and even popular cultures.”
Turn the meaning of failure in a different direction, away from happy/productive failure to the “dark heart of the negativity that failure conjures”–modes of unbecoming
Early chapters (1-3) chart the meaning of failure
Later chapters (4-6) allow for fact that failure is also unbeing
It is a book about failing well, failing often, and learning how to fail better (24). Reminds me of JB’s passage: “Trouble is inevitable, and the task, how best to make it, how best to be in it.”
JHalb hopes this book is accessible to a wider audience. What do you think? How do we put Halberstam’s desire for intelligibility/accessibility beside our discussion of Butler’s value of difficult writing?
Master the art of getting and staying lost (25).
chapter one: Animating Revolt and Revolting Animation
explain the title: A cynical reading of the world of animation will always return to the notion that difficult topics are raised and contained in children’s films precisely so that they do not have to be discussed elsewhere and also so that the politics of rebellion can be cast as immature, pre-Oedipal, childish, foolish, fantastical, and rooted in a commitment to failure. But a more dynamic and radical engagement with animation understands that the rebellion is ongoing and that the new technologies of children’s fantasy do much more than produce revolting animation. They also offer us the real and compelling possibilities of animating revolt (52).
connection to failure:
Animated films for children revel in the domain of failure
Childhood is a long lesson in humility, awkwardness, limitation, “growing sideways”
Animated films address the disorderly child
PIXARVOLT: new genre of animated films that use CGI and foreground themes of revolution and revolt, making connections between communitarian revolt and queer embodiment (29)
Pixarvolt films draw upon standard narratives, but is also interested in:
relations between inside/outside
desire for revolution, transformation, rebellion
self-conscious about own relation to innovation, tradition, transformation (30)
Films: Chicken Run (collective rebellion, imagining and realizing utopian elsewhere), The March of the Penguins (resolutely animal narrative about cooperation, affiliation, anachronism of homo-hetero divide), Monsters, inc (anti-humanist, anti-capitalist), Bee Movie (oppositional groups rising up to subvert the singularity of the human w/unruly mob)
difference between Pixarvolt and merely Pixilated? difference between collective revolutionary selves and conventional notion of a fully realized individual…Pixarvolts desire for difference is not connected to a neoliberal “Be Yourself” mentality or to exceptionalism; it connects individualism to selfishness, overconsumption (47).
chapter two: Dude, Where’s My Phallus? Forgetting, Losing, Looping
“we can argue for queerness as a set of spatialized relations that are permitted through the while male’s stupidity, his disorientation in time and space” (65).
The beauty of Dude is that it acknowledges the borrowed and imitative forms of white male subjectivity and traces for us the temporal order of dominant culture that forgets what it has borrowed and never pays back (67).
dude, seriously: forgetting, unknowing, losing, lacking, bumbling, stumbling, these all seem like hopeful developments in the location of the white male (68).
Dude offers a potent allegory of memory, forgetting, remembering, and forgetting again which we can use to describe and invent this moment in the university, poised as it is and as we are between offering a distinction “negative” strand of critical consciousness to a public that would rather not know and using more common idioms to engage those who don’t why they should care (68) EXPLAIN
Forgetting: forgetfulness as useful tool for women/queer people for jamming smooth operations of normal and ordinary (71), allows for rupture of present/break w/past/opportunity for new, non-hetero future (71), delink historical change from family/generations, forget family (71-72), Dory forgets family and opens up new modes of relating/belonging/caring (72
Edelman and heterofuturity + the Child (73)
Stockton and growing up sideways (73)
Finding Nemo (key argument 80-81) and 50 First Dates (key argument on 77) both deploy forgetting to represent a disordering of social bonds, employ transgender motifs to represent queer disruption in logic of normal, and both understand queer time os operating against progress/tradition (74-75).
The example of Dory in Finding Nemo in fact encourages us to rest a while in the weird but hopeful temporal space of the lost, the ephemeral, and the forgetful (82).