Gaga Fails

Judith Jack Halberstam. Gaga Feminism. Sex, Gender and the End of Normal.
Beacon Press, Boston 2012

Stanimir Panayotov

The first read of Gaga Feminism leaves the reader aghast with a paradoxical common sense: the arguments, the argumentative scaffold against the day’s “normal” are so understandable and penetrable that making sense of it is, after all, quite a success. It might be the slippery slope of success itself that has led you to believe so, as opposed to a sensus communis which can never have its community as such. On the first read, one revels in the clarity and positivity of bold statements and the stark analysis of cultural phenomena, but there is the pillar of failure which props up the book, one that has not much to do with the writing of Halberstam itself. This is a fashionable concern lately, one that is even profitable at that, yet it persists universally in Halberstam’s latest work: “this” is the state of queer theory as a successful, academic, Euro-Atlantic project. Or, in Halberstam’s words: “It is unfortunate that the theoretical undoing of gender stability has had so little impact out in the real world” (p. 71). 

This is among the keys to a book that reads as easy as very few authors in queer and transgender theory would dare to write, and it is exactly this quality that singles out Halberstam from the cohorts of queer writers nowadays, just the way pop art once shunned interpretation by the mainstreaming of the mainstream itself. A concern with the “Real” and “real life” certainly has to do with “tangibility,” “readability,” “perceptibility” and all the other abledness of late consumer capitalism when it comes to the queer books market. But this concern leads Halberstam to a writing strategy that is inflammatory in its genre and style simply because it is simple, thus causing trouble to those who would like to enrol him into the subcultural fetishism of queers. If Halberstam was among the few authors who actually wrote something on sex, and not merely sexuality, now he becomes among the few authors who would give the queer readership the dare of “understanding.” Bottom line is, what is to be understood from Gaga Feminism has little to do with a model of success beyond the incendiary gesture of actually being understood as knowledge producer: it has to do with (back to the clichés now) the performativity of failing as the universal law-giving of queer theory – and living. 

This book offers a line-up of arguments finely extracted from Halberstam’s previous oeuvre: a topsy-turvy understanding of queer(ed) positionality (In a Queer Time and Place), an elaborate and even more detailed realization of low theory (The Queer Art of Failure), and an ultimate and narrative closure of anti-social socio-cultural phenomena (“The Anti-Social Turn in Queer Theory”). The social pretension of queerness is almost universally abandoned, the low theoretical key exposes success even more firmly as “reproductive maturity combined with wealth accumulation” (Halberstam 2011: 2), anti-social and sub-cultural living is thoroughly integrated with theory via examples far reaching beyond Halberstam’s original worry over gay-male dominated anti-sociality and archive of affects (Halberstam 2010: 152). And so this work from the last 5 years or so has been now transformed and narrowed down to an attempt of successfully elucidating the phenomena of anti-social queer failure, of the hubris and the “wound as a gift” (Sexsmith and Halberstam 2012), and a certain universality of it transgressing all sexualities and genders on offer. It is in this way that the book has the ambition to discard all offers of seductive late capitalist alternatives as too cheap an appeal to the (still?) odd privilege of being queer. And thus perhaps the achievement here is a certain drag of “understanding” and epistemology that attempts to block all the assimilationist stratagems of mainstream naturalism. 

From the Preface through the Introduction and Chapter 1, Halberstam grapples with explaining his inspiration with Lady Gaga as the symbol and prototype of failing the mainstream from the inside, without trying to crumble the mainstream plane altogether, as if it were possible and just so desired. In the many definitions of gaga feminism that are dispersed all through the book (and an index of low theory’s epistemological fanfare and its fallibility), there is the inimitable and significant mark of something “too much” about Gaga: Gaga is the symbol of excess, the symbiotic achievement of queered mainstream culture. Just the way Gaga is too pop to be merely pop, so the “feminism” in the proposed politics of gaga feminism is too femme to be just that.[1] So, what is the transformative and the new here? 

It is a project of bastard faithfulness to feminism going back to the shattered experiences of people like Firestone, Solanas, and more recently Tiqqun: an anarchic (certainly not just ideologically anarchist) appraisal of the spoils of freedom on offer after gay marriage equality and mainstreamed post-op carnivalesques. While Halberstam is careful to retain the focus on the troubles of being female today (pp. 26-27) and the historical significance of feminist socialist tradition (ch. 4 and 5), he continues to criticize the vapid and somewhat mainstreamed notions of womanhood post-9/11 and post-bubble crisis (p. xiii, p. 12). What is more, he goes on to attack new forms of nationalist parochial feminisms (see esp. p. 22, ch. 1 and 2) while proposing gaga feminism as a way to conceive the modus operandi of a “heteroflexibility” for what would be queered straight fellows and heterosexual women (p. 82).[2] While the introduction and the introductory chapter speak of general excess, going awry and gaga (that is to say, a critique of fixity) on the plane of pop culture and the new charm of a disarming masculinity (phenomena such as the “slacker dude”), the remainder of the book up to the closing manifesto engages with analysis of the perversities of masculine privilege in the straight world and women’s defiance – and thus self-absorption back in the domesticated feminine – in the face of an oddly straight futurity that seems to discard… the theoretical grandeur of queer theory in the last 20 years, perhaps? 

Opposed to this tendency, and in order to trouble the stability of parental sociality, gaga feminism proposes a politics of the naive, the silly, the childish. What is so central about the child here is not merely the way queer parenthood has influenced the writer (the autobiographical transparency here also may provide a sense of silliness), but the way childishness provides a model for a flexible sense-making of the troubles of parenthood, adulthood and grown-ups’ sociality. The child here is the undoing of adulthood’s episteme. The concern with the figure of the child is to be read less as a  figure altogether than be read literally as emancipatory participants in adults’ livelihood. What is at stake is an imitative epistemology performed by the adult which does not assimilate the child into the signifieds of parental disillusionment (exemplified by Halberstam in the sad scenarios of successful women’s susceptibility to standardized gender romanticism and models of assimilated queer parenting in recent indie cinema). This is perhaps the most ambitious and sensitive contribution of the book, since Halberstam figures (rather than projects) the child in (anti-)social relations as an epistemological peer rather than a subjugated and patronized referent (as opposed to Edelman’s psychoanalytic use). This becomes all the more clear in the final Manifesto where Halberstam makes use of Ranciere’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster and the proposed pedagogy of unknowing. At this level the task is to liberate the collective body of the parent from the rigid pedagogies and turnarounds of sex and the way these orbit around the child: to disattach innocence and sex in our own policing of sex in a way that will literally weaponize children, and thus ourselves, so that they make us learn about sex, gender, sexuality and strategies of becoming unfixed (p. 15), or simply how to genderfuck our own knowledge of ourselves. But after the discussion on the state of the (new) family and the supposed end of “normal” one realizes that Halberstam’s idea is not to provide a stable queer model of sense-making in a child/parent dialectic of knowledge: “I am not saying that gaga feminism will save anyone, or rescue any outmoded social form from total redundancy” (p. 25). And here lies an emancipation of knowing. 

This is why it becomes hard to subscribe to gaga feminism (or low theory in general) as the new theory saloon: it is a strategy of refusal, as the Italian autonomists would have it. In the desired prospect of non-repressive womanhood, in the shadow of a tantalizing slacker masculinity, one of the very few weapons of agonizing with the reductively of straight mainstream culture and the newly arrived queer assimilationism is to break with the conservative and persisting gender dialectic and its sense-making and reach to redundancy and nonsensicality. The method to do so is a very pragmatist orientation since gaga feminism is about doing simple things and becoming silly things.[3] (This necessarily includes the over-reading of certain acts of Gaga, such as the “becoming-telephone” in Telephone, but the manifesto-like form has its advantages.) This should be the political potentiality of childishness: to ascribe nonsensicality to any state-of-the-art feminist project via the literality of the child, via the purposeful stupefaction of even our own subversive strategies, and thus to enact and repeat a simple dialectic of failure which constantly de-idealizes growing up through a reiterative – and thus failing – ideal of failure. The site for the empiric material for Halberstam is, significantly, cartoons, which he thinks of as the last resort of emancipatory societal politics. In the very same manner Bruce LaBruce proposed some 10 years ago that the last resort of gay emancipation is pornography, and while he experimented with so much of the affects of sexual disgust to de-realize the certainties of gay identities, it seems that Halberstam’s experiment here has to do with the disgust of and the mistrust in what it means to live in adulthood’s gender fixity and with the “kids growing up in the age of divorce, queer parenting, and economic collapse” (p. xxi). 

It turns out that the idealized achievement of this project, with the figurehead of Lady Gaga as a new feminism symbol, is nothing new in itself: it is about social change, for “[c]hange, indeed, is the air that children breathe, which may be why they are more flexible than adults” (p. xx).[4]A queer model of “success,” then, would be one on the constant “verge of a social breakdown” (pp. xiv-xv). Now, instead of direct talk on anti-social anti-relationality, there is the language of “anarchic sense of time and relation” (p. xiii) as a better model for change altogether: a change beyond the amenities of marriage equality with its classy determinations, a change inside the abandoned mentality of the child that Gaga seems to perform and enact. This is now a language which marks the binary of pride and shame as adult categories of inflexibility and proposes instead a parallel simulation of child-likeness (epistemic break) and going gaga (a break from reality and truisms). This is, also, a revelation in that finally queer theory reaches towards the instability of heterosexuality instead of merely fetishizing the one of (homo) queerness. It is also a successful strategy of angry refusal because both straight and queer women and feminists have produced examples of queer redundancy. The critical shift towards heterosexuality is to produce awareness about how much white heterosexual identities teem with contradictions (p. 68), how much the category of “normal” has reached its limits to an extent which makes possible all the gaga invariants we can imagine. Gaga feminism is also, finally, a way for Halberstam to criticize the Euro-Atlantic circulation of queer, apart from the universitarian ghetto it seems to inhabit.[5]

For the world of the academia, this books provides two very important contributions: besides all the analyses of phenomena mentioned above, providing an analytical refuge from the traps of queer reductionism, it gives (along with the Against Equality network) one of the best set of criticisms to the marriage equality movement (ch. 4), and redirects what is still being thought of singularly as feminism towards the ecological, object-oriented turn in humanities. While the first contribution is an instrumental one and has to do with the present, the second one has to do with the future of a discipline (broadly, gender studies) and the lives and practices of all the (anti-)social strata that operate with the power of negativity, with the roots of resistance that hardly ever sediment: anti-conjugal, anti-authoritarian, anti-sexual, anti-stratified. What this means is that the prospect of non-anthropocentric becoming has been widened by Halberstam in a mainstream style for gender-sensitive readers, making heuristic use of both becoming-object and reimagining the academic subject both in everyday life and in the university as free from “the right to have rights” that have been refused you (p. 127, per Moten). This itself justifies the pretence of the manifesto attached to the book’s end (which reads as a plunderphonic ridicule of a manifesto, where Halberstam certainly pays no homage to the genre itself) and leads us back to the present (for the academic reward is a mere gig, a fancy for those like me who want to conceptualize one) where there is “a gaga politics made up of a fanciful agenda less oriented toward legal inclusion and more oriented to a queer project of reimagining life worlds by understanding the history of the present” (p. 125). 

Why is this Foucaultian project of the present justified? Have not we seen all the possible contradictions of liberatory movements already? Perhaps yes, but not if we recur back to the power of “no,” to the pragmatic potentiality of destructing meaning and wilfully embracing the expanse of the non-sense. This is the way to refuse the typical communitarian teleology attached to social movements, like OWS, by both its supporters and critics, and to overcome the fear from everyday life routines. This is the way to celebrate failure without composting it along with success’ dry realizations of a life spent ordinarily. Like The Queer Art of Failure, Gaga Feminism persists that “[w]e need to measure ourselves against different standards” (Sexsmith and Halberstam 2012) while not shying away from pop culture. But despite the lure of accessibility, this is not a book for everyone: it is clearly written for those who have the habit of rejecting the status quo, who can operate with criticism procesually, without ever expecting a closure of criticism itself. If you can’t say no, this book won’t teach you to do so: it will show you how it is to be done (“God is a no-no and homophobia has to go-go”). Last but not least, this is a book understandable for an American context and elsewhere where readers are aware of the mainstream currencies in the US and the intricacies of US queer dissenters and anti-capitalists, but there is little chance that it will make sense for others without such prior knowledge. In this a book like this will fail. 

Although “gaga feminism does not need to know and name the political outcome of its efforts” (p. 143), the happy readership of Gaga Feminism is still predetermined: it will be pretty much among those who might graduate from an university or at best live in a squat. Chances for a shared queer-straight social change, one that has to do with white heterosexual flexibility, however, grow higher if this book has an impact on desperate housewives and Euro/Atlantic-centric queer theoreticians and practitioners. For such an effort Halberstam’s prose should be commended, just the way Tiqqun managed to mainstream globally critical anarchist thought lately, but still the strategy of refusal remains central mostly to self-aware misfits, and the politics of refusal and purposeful failing in a world where the game is “fixed” (p. 147) is something of an utopia inside the entrepreneurial and managerial societies of control. But then again, this book is utopian, so much utopian in that it fails to wrestle with Gaga’s born-this-way essentialism, the weakest point of Halberstam’s account. This is a book to inspire you: to resign to the confessions of the losers around and to become one before it is too late to fail. Gaga Feminism is not a project to make you feel happy, it is about a process of becoming – and staying alive as – the systemic fail in the world of commodified sense. 

Works Cited:

Halberstam, Judith Jack. 2008. The Anti-Social Turn in Queer Studies. Graduate Journal of Social Sciences, Vol. 5, Issue 2: 140-156.

Halberstam, Judith Jack. 2011. The Queer Art of Failure. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Halberstam, Judith Jack. 2012. Gaga Feminism. Sex, Gender and the End of Normal. Boston: Beacon Press.

Sexsmith, Sinclair and Judith Jack Halberstam. 2012. Queers Create Better Models of Success. Lambda Literary, 1 February 2012. (accessed 30.03.2012).

[1] This is what makes one question the accessibility of Halberstam’s writing: one feels the shadow of unknowing as too easily operating, which makes you think that Halberstam plunders the very form of writing.
[2] One could not help but think that heteroflexibility has to do with the constant refusal to rigidly define gaga in any stable, socially organizing way. If so, this implies that Halberstam might not grapple so much with a critical ˝ambition˝ in rejuvenating feminist thought than with rejuvenating critical thinking itself.
[3] Oddly, this makes gaga feminism somewhat close to dadaism, and then we can also read gaga feminism as a “gagaism,” for the dadaists placed attention on the autonomy of the object in order to defy significations, also by their very naming of the movement with an accidental word, a playword, a morphematic childish incident phonetically akin to “gaga.”
[4] To learn from children’s anti-sociality is to therefore attain for ourselves a non-directional politics of failure, as the propedeutics to a life less meaningful and therefore more… enjoyable. The queer project of happiness, shared by Halberstam here with some hesitations, is what makes possible any transformation, and in this book, significantly, he makes no use of psychoanalytic arguments. Perhaps change and happiness are possible only without psychoanalysis.
[5] It would be fair, however, to say that in Halberstam the “Euro-” is the habit of a theoretical exorcism: he is willing to cite Asian writers’ and US people of color’s work much more so than European theory.