Left: Cover of Judith Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure (2011). Right: Monica Majoli, Black Mirror (Jarrett 2), 2009, colored pencil on paper, 9 x 13”. From the series “Black Mirror,” 2009.


Judith Halberstam’s latest book, The Queer Art of Failure, is published this month by Duke University Press. She is a professor of English, American studies and ethnicity, and gender studies at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Here Halberstam discusses her methodological interest in the “silly archive,” a phrase borrowed from literary theorist Lauren Berlant, which Halberstam uses to denote the importance of seeking knowledge in all the wrong places: cartoons for children, horror films, Spongebob Squarepants, offbeat manifestos, and other low-cultural sites.

MOST OF MY WRITING EMPHASIZES RANGE: I try to show that when we clump work together in whatever way, we’re making associations that don’t organically belong. There is a difference between arguing that artists belong together in a generic way on the one hand and finding surprising connections between people’s work on the other. In my work, I think thematically and try to use a range of examples in order to track an idea across a wide field. Academia tends to favor generic association, and it relies mostly on modes of argumentation that are logical and sustained. I am less captivated by this style of knowledge production and more drawn to speedier forms of thinking. Obviously this shows in my work and may be both its appeal and its limitation.

In my estimation, the production of art is never as neat as it may seem in a disciplinary study. In my new book I associate unlikely projects with one another in order to examine how an idea or a structure like failure, forgetting, or stupidity might crop up in different places to different effect. I combine fine art with animation; Finding Nemo with pieces by Judie Bamber and Monica Majoli; mainstream film with avant-garde productions. I wanted to find connections between the queerest corners of the mainstream and the most mainstream corners of the queer world. I think it is fruitful to think about the places where these corners spark each other. Queer artists might be very preoccupied with failing and losing precisely because they have symbolically been associated with these things by virtue of their status as nonnormative.

And so queer art tells one story about failure. But we find other equally queer narratives about failure in mainstream animated films for children. Animation studios, it turns out, are peopled and staffed by queer types too––quirky artists and dreamers, people interested in creating other worlds and populating them with wacky and offbeat characters. By digging through both queer art projects and popular animation, oddly enough, we find many of the same tropes about clumsiness, limitation, human fallibility, and utopian longing.

Of course, animated films have a nonnormative audience: children. Think about it! As I say in the book, if children were already normative then we would not have to “train” them. Kids are hailed by the quirkiness of animation and seduced by the thematics of loneliness, oddity, outsider status, tyranny, struggle, and rebellion. Kids are unsentimental, amoral, and antiteleological viewers––they watch movies for something other than what adults watch for. They watch repeatedly and they watch fetishistically.

I got interested in new CGI after watching Finding Nemo on a friend’s recommendation. I was immediately hooked, and at first I would just take little episodes from animated films to punctuate a lecture with a funny lesson or a kooky narrative. But I was quickly drawn into the world of CGI and wanted to write more directly about it. We tend to associate Disney with pathetic, heteronormative parables, and that’s what I expected to find when I started watching animated films, but that was not at all what I found: I realized that these films abounded in alternative narratives, stories that looked a lot like socialist revolt engineered by queers––this was not Occupy Wall Street, perhaps, but it was Occupy the Ocean in Finding Nemo, Occupy Monstropolis in Monsters Inc., and Occupy Robot City in Robots. These were definitely anarchistic fables of mutuality, queerness, and social upheaval, and these films were in open defiance of corporate greed long before it became fashionable. That they are also massive moneymakers is of course contradictory but not fatal!

My book identifies fables to live and die by in queer art and animation; and, like Nemo and Dory, the book argues that finding and being found is only one part of the story. The other part, the queer part, is about losing and getting lost.

— As told to Andy Campbell