September 17, 2015 / Perspective
Marilynne Robinson’s novels have become almost synonymous with loneliness, but solitude here remains entangled with a less acknowledged trope—an enveloping and dazzling darkness.
August 19, 2015
In the year 203 CE, Viba Perpetua and her friends were put to death in Carthage for refusing to renounce their Christian identity. While imprisoned awaiting her execution, she keeps a journal detailing multiple visits from her father and appearances before state prosecutors. Distraught with concern for his daughter, Perpetua’s father pleads with her to deny being a Christian so that she may live. She refuses. The state procurator, Hilarianus, demands Perpetua to do the same. Again, she refuses. Ultimately, Perpetua’s resoluteness causes her to suffer: her infant son is confiscated, her family ties are severed, she loses all hope in this world, and, ultimately, she loses her life in a Roman amphitheatre. Her journal is preserved in The Martyrdom (Passion) of Perpetua and Felicity (“The Martyrdom”) along with contributions from an unnamed narrator.
Barbara Gold notes that by resisting her father and the state, Perpetua exhibits masculine features throughout her account and a fluid gender identity according to the categories of antiquity. She refuses not only apostasy, but resist familial, patriarchal powers, and the state. Her refusal, therefore, is at once and inseparably religious and familial, political and gendered. Undoubtedly, this work of Christian hagiography, though minor within the Christian tradition, offers a profound and complex account of a woman’s resistance to power. Jack (formerly Judith) Halberstam’s recent book, The Queer Art of Failure, provides a lens through which we can reconsider Perpetua’s account.
Provocative and daring, The Queer Art of Failure offers an alternative to dominant Western narratives that celebrate success in certain positivist terms such as wealth accumulation, reproduction, and social acceptability. Rather, the author invites us to consider failure as possessing potential for modes of being and ways of life that break with the logic of success—that is, failure as queer negativity. Halberstam’s exploration of such failure reaches a counterintuitive moment when he considers feminist queer negativity—or “shadow feminism”—as a response to oppressive, patriarchal power. Halberstam succinctly explains that “this shadow feminism speaks in the language of self-destruction, masochism, antisocial femininity, and a refusal of the essential bond of mother and daughter that ensures that the daughter inhabits the legacy of the mother and in doing so reproduces her relationship to patriarchal forms of power,” – here, we can see glimpses of Perpetua centuries prior. For Halberstam, shadow feminism is resistance by failing to perform in ways that are self-affirming, socially acceptable, or even gender conforming. This is counterintuitive because it considers the possibility of resistance to patriarchal power through forms that appear to offer no resistance at all and are, in fact, radically passive.
Halberstam finds shadow feminism represented in many works including Yoko Ono’s performance art Cut Piece. In this performance, Ono sits on stage as members of the audience one-by-one cut pieces of Ono’s clothes from her body until she is left almost nude, vulnerable, and passively exposed. For Halberstam, Ono’s performance art points to a female selfhood that refuses wholeness, and instead uses “her own body as a battleground to draw out the sadistic impulses that bourgeois audiences harbor toward the notion of woman.” Through masochism and radical passivity, shadow feminism turns the violence of oppressive systems “back upon themselves like a funhouse mirror.”
To the degree that Halberstam attempts to find alternatives to hegemonic forms of power, he engages questions of soteriology and offers a framework for looking anew at the life and death of Viba Perpetua. In The Queer Art of Failure, he attempts to articulate a salvation that escapes the logic of success and patriarchal power and locates it in certain forms of failure and queer negativity. Perpetua unmistakably performs such negativity in her unmoved defiance, her failure to perform womanhood, and her voluntary suffering as forms of refusing the hegemonic logic of her time. By providing a lens for rethinking Perpetua’s story, Halberstam helps us to expand the archive of queer negativity and offers a framework for locating its representatives within our religious traditions.
Furthermore, if Halberstam’s text searches for alternatives that escape dominant Western narratives of success, they no less escape dominant theological narratives of salvation—as the two are habitual bedfellows. In this sense, he no less challenges dominant soteriologies articulated in positivist terms such as healing, participation, or moral perfection to be attentive to other expressions of salvation. The Queer Art of Failure opens an avenue for recognizing an alternative soteriology in Perpetua’s account as a refusal of dominant theological narratives that align too closely with Western ideas of success and power.
However, Halberstam’s account of shadow feminism is not without its own difficulties, many of which are part of the logic of the queer negativity itself. First of all, he neglects to explain fully how modes of self-negation, masochism, and antisociality are forms of failure that offer “more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world.” Particularly, he does not explain if and how shadow feminism can contribute to the themes of non-Oedipal, utopian collectives explored in his earlier chapters. How does shadow feminism connect to collective projects of resistance? Does the antisociality and self-negation of shadow feminism preclude its ability to contribute to collectivity and utopian aspirations?
Furthermore, the logic of shadow feminism risks leading to an extreme of self-negation in which one no longer has any agency at all. For example, in her final hours, Perpetua finds that she is unable to narrate her own death and must hand over her text to another when she writes, “If anyone wants to write down the act of the games themselves, let him do so”. Her project of refusal culminates in her no longer being the narrative agent of her own self-negation. Perpetua, being unable to write her death, must leave her text and her death open to the interpretation and the manipulation of another, the unnamed narrator. Likewise, shadow feminism’s refusal and self-negation chances being vulnerable to (mis)interpretation and manipulation, even fortifying the dominant system one seeks to undermine. In short, shadow feminism risks failing at failing-as-resistance to domination by leading to a place where the differences between “refusing” and “being refused,” self-destruction and being destroyed are hard to discern. How can we distinguish between the self-negation of resistance and the violence of being negated?
These questions concerning collectivity and agency are not only practical, they are soteriological. For Christian theology, soteriology affirms life in and with the community of all created beings (although the nuances of such an affirmation vary broadly). Halberstam’s exploration of shadow feminism undeniably challenges us to reconsider the ways patriarchy and narrow definitions of selfhood persist, even in projects of resistance. He stares unflinchingly into self-negation as a corrective to our allegiances with domination. However, unless shadow feminism affirms life and our collective existence in some way, I struggle to understand what salvation it can ultimately offer from patriarchal and oppressive power.
 Gold, “Gender Fluidity and Closure in Perpetua’s Prison Diary,” EuGeStA 1 (2011): 240–46 and 247–48, accessed July 2014, http://eugesta.recherche.univ-lille3.fr/revue/pdf/2011/Gold.pdf (accessed July 2014) –24.
 Judith Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 2, 71.
 Ibid., 124
 Ibid., 137
 Ibid., 2-3′, no. ,http://eugesta.recherche.univ-lille3.fr/revue/pdf/2011/Gold.pdf (accessed July 2014), -2. Gold, “Perpetua’s Prison Diary,” 247-8
 Perpetua, Martyrdom 10.15
Julian Forth is a tenant organizer and an activist in Washington, DC. He currently serves on the Board of the Washington Peace Center and of the Potter's House, and is an editor with The Public Sphere. He's a 2009 graduate of Duke Divinity School.