April 19, 2012 / Perspective
From personal faith to social critique, Marilynne Robinson’s When I Was a Child I Read Books presents an incisive, hopeful approach toward understanding culture and loving others.
At critical moments in the history of Christianity, it is the outsiders, rather than people of faith and the theologians who study that faith, who seem best equipped to tell us the truth about who we are. By all indications, Jack Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure is not directly interested in religion, theology, or Christianity. And yet, so much of Halberstam’s work resonates with the myriad challenges that theology is currently facing, both internally and externally, as it struggles to faithfully position itself in relation to the economies of success, reproductivity, efficiency, and sobriety. The following short essays enumerate those challenges and connect them explicitly to themes and theses in Halberstam’s work. Perhaps these efforts fail, and in fact we hope they might, but not before they inaugurate a dialogue between two unlikely friends: Halberstam and theology.
Halberstam suggests in The Queer Art of Failure that there is something to be valued in failure and that something of this way of being coincides with the peculiar way queer existence opens up new relationships and attachments to knowledge, memory, and affectivity. This theorization of failure calls upon acts of stupidity, silliness, and forgetfulness as negative ways of counterbeing, unknowing, and antisociality that resist and mock predominant logics of success, power, reproduction, and power. It is Halberstam’s goal to reframe failure as “a way of refusing to acquiesce to dominant logics of power and discipline and as a form of critique. As a practice, failure recognizes that alternatives are embedded already in the dominant and that power is never total or consistent; indeed failure can exploit the unpredictability of ideology and its indeterminate qualities” (88). It is not enough to say that Halberstam provides us with alternative ways of being and thinking in the world, ways that belong to the distinctly queer way of life and thought. We must add that these queer ways of losing, of failing, of stupidity and silliness are not simply replacements or substitutes for the dominant narratives and logics of the present—they exist as damning critiques, and their indictment offers very little reconstructive reprieve.
In this special edition, we consider whether all of this can (and should) be applied to theology, especially as it intersects with contemporary politics and culture, and what challenges and opportunities this discourse presents to queer thinking, theology, and their relationship. Karen Bray uses the cartoonish vegetables and queer chickens in Queer Art of Failure to read the book of Jonah, highlighting ideas about what theology might look like when it is seen (and written) from the side and through the affects of failures. Brandy Daniels aligns Halberstam with a broader line in queer theory, namely a critique of discipline, which, when juxtaposed with Christian affinities for spiritual formation practices, issues a novel critique of the more teleological elements of virtue ethics. Bo Eberle turns our attention to Ferguson, Missouri, where memory and forgetfulness play an important role in fostering protest and resistance efforts on behalf of Michael Brown and other black bodies who have been deemed dispensable and redundant by a white supremacist social order and criminal justice system. Forgetfulness, whatever its gains may be, has grave political costs for social movements whose emancipatory goals require keeping memories of injustice, violence, and suffering alive. Jay Forth argues that feminist queer negativity helps us rethink salvation, and for this, he uses Halberstam to offer a novel interpretation of the martyrdom of Perpetua. Silas Morgan argues that Halberstam’s theory of failure presents essential challenges to how theology attempts to answer the question: “What does it mean to speak well of God?” He proposes that theology must fail if it hopes be itself: that is, if it hopes to be “God-talk.” Theology must be always dialectically negative and critical, and so Morgan suggests that Halberstam’s work offers an essential corrective. Finally, Hollis Phelps’s essay draws upon Halberstam to discuss the relationship between queerness and children, arguing that there is something about childish ways of being queer that is suggestive for how we ought to think of theology and politics together, a dangerous and risky endeavor that is sure to fail. That is the point, says Phelps.
Hollis Phelps is an assistant professor of religion at The University of Mount Olive. He is the author of Alain Badiou: Between Theology and Anti-Theology.
Silas is a doctoral candidate in theology at Loyola University in Chicago, Illinois. His dissertation focuses on the relation of theology to ideology in political theology, critical theory, and continental philosophy of religion. He is also currently at work on a co-authored monograph on alienation and materialist theology, an introduction to Slavoj Žižek’s political theology, (both with Cascade Books), and is co-editing a volume on Kierkegaard and Political Theology (Pickwick Publications).