[It was such a crazy honor to introduce J. Jack Halberstam at the Revolutionizing American Studies talk she gave at the CUNY GC English Program. A big thanks to Kandice and Duncan for inviting me. What follows is the text, with a couple of edits.]
This summer, I simultaneously created and joined an imaginary collective called “Queer Damage.” The goal of this imaginary collective is to understand what kind of superpowers result from the will to less-power, the practice of illegibility, the acceptance of economic struggle, the taste for open perversion in literary, political, and physical forms, the experience of past and future as true darknesses, and the avoidance of recognition. I find myself running my covert make-art-teach-learn operation with the expectation that everyone is or will be queer in the “damage” of their lived lives. And while I might know a few of my reasons for these values, I am grateful to J. Jack Halberstam for elaborating my context.
There is something queer about lavishing one’s intellectual juices on the art and culture of the near present, and locating the grounds and the will for manifesto on just about anything. Jack has been laboring to image the queer in text since the beginning of her career. Female Masculinity is, for me and many other students of the queer, a book that influenced my living, thinking, and writing through its clear call for an understanding of the critical queer feminist problems, obligations, and energies produced by the desire for and disappearances of butch dykes past and present. I found a lot of lived damage and failure in this book, enough, arguably, to extend to every gender. If transfolk made plain the cultural refusal to allow for a third—and fourth, and fifth and so on—term, the dominant culture of cisgendered people (homos and heteros included) made the failed terms of their containment of their own explosive material more explicit.
Most recently, in The Queer Art of Failure, Jack proposes a number of important questions for we academics who are living and working in an ostensible twilight. For instance: How do antidisciplinarity and the conscious refusal of capitalist aesthetic/affective values suggest new avenues of work, new ways to expand the Venn between the intellectual and the public and to bridge activism and scholarship? How can we extend and make use of researches which explore how queer figures have
been implicated in fascist and nationalist projects? How does failure as a subject and a modality make a powerlessly powerful proposal for new freedoms of thought, for a re-envisioning of the purpose of education and a revitalization of the social contract? What kinds of aesthetic/affective fantasies sustain the passive politics of the nominally “progressive,” socially normative, working wealthy?
Jack’s scholarship has been actively involved in contributing to the creation of a contemporary queer archive and rolling theoretical framework that opens up the project of acknowledging the assumptions and exclusivities of those preexisting. His work demonstrates how affect theory has become the delivery system for cultural critique in a moment full of forces laboring to recognize both the continued need for and the limits of identity politics. Jack’s work also makes a case for the theoretical-performative ekphrasis and plot summary as ode and antidote to the capitalist intoxicities of popular media, film most recognizably. Her interdisciplinarity is an invocation of the sharpest and most humane kind of negative capability.
(Jack invites us to acknowledge the ways that in looking to invest our intellectual energies in mining the “culturally or historically significant” text or in locating our seat in the theater of a particular “canon,” academics are giving up the possibilities of the kinds of shifting micro-onto-epistemologies that might afford and proliferate the freedoms we desire.)
And now, we have Halberstam’s Gaga: the figure whose casting of the multitudes as monsters through her music, propaganda, and Facebook feed proposes fresh performance politics for self and relation.
It is difficult to imagine that it will ever be safe, let alone equally available to all as an option, to choose to be unprofessional and unsavvy, to refuse the tax benefits of marriage, to hang out of one’s blouse, to vibrate between pronouns, to be undisciplined in the face of insecure knowledges and knowledge practices whose temporary
stabilities are only ever fantasies, to revolt, court anarchy. But Jack is working hard to make sure that we know that we can and do anyway.
J. Jack Halberstam is Professor of English at the University of Southern California. Halberstam is the author of five books — Female Masculinity, The Drag King Book, Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters, In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives, and most recently The Queer Art of Failure and Gaga Feminism. Halberstam teaches in Gender Studies and American Studies and Ethnicity at USC and is currently writing and reading about new ways of unbeing human.