Judith Halberstam’s Queer Art of Failure has been a constant companion as I try to make sense out of the senselessness of contemporary headlines.[1] Halberstam’s masterful book gives us several important conceptual tools to engage the injustices we are continually faced with, as well as the courage to avoid the fear of failure. For this, many (myself included) are deeply indebted to Halberstam. In this short essay, I will engage with Halberstam’s arguments on forgetfulness as a means of social critique that allows “for a release from the weight of the past and the menace of the future” (83) in relation to contemporary oppressed communities. Of all the tools in The Queer Art of Failure, it is this concept of forgetfulness I find most puzzling.

Fictional characters, like the clownfish named Dory (voiced by Ellen DeGeneres) from the 2003 Disney film Finding Nemo, possess for Halberstam a unique proclivity for resisting negative social forces. They have an ability to literally forget received wisdom that Halberstam explains is often oedipal and heteronormative in limiting the ways we can relate and form coalitions. Moreover, in forgetting even their own identity, characters like Dory demonstrate the possibility of self-re-creation and renewal; by forgetting, they allow for the conditions that are necessary for the forming of contingent and improvised relationships and communities. Entities like family and tradition, which are often seen as necessary and determined, can potentially erode in the name of queer relational ethics and practice.

Although it is certainly not a new problem, one particular juxtaposition I have been struggling with in the wake of the events in Ferguson, Missouri, this past summer is the capacity to forget and the limitations imposed by a static, oppressive, racist state. My concern regarding Halberstam’s proposal is that forgetting—if forgetting is possible at all, as events from the past continually make themselves present—is less politically efficacious than relating to the past in creative ways, especially in the context of systematic injustice and active violence. Moreover, it seems pertinent to question any assumed binary between memory, on the one hand, and experimental, novel, political, social associations, on the other. In other words, while Dory’s forgetfulness may teach us one way to overcome menacing oedipal repetitions or exclusionary politics, might we also see in a shared engagement with memory, or remembering, a binding agent capable of forming revolutionary queer political associations? In sum, can memory, whether in conjunction with forgetfulness or without it, become the foundation for new forms of solidarity?

For all its associative power, such as resisting definitive oppressively constructed pasts and certain historical fixes, forgetting can also be a traumatic mechanism of social and psychological repression. Although I agree with Halberstam that repression can indeed be a successful tool of survival, it is hard to see it as an active force rather than a purely reactive force. In this sense, repression as a mode of forgetting, while perhaps necessary for survival in some cases, seems suspect as a starting point for active revolutionary politics. Oppressed communities, like African Americans in the United States, have developed extensive strategies to cultivate communal engagement with the past rather than communally forgetting the past. These communities, as I shall demonstrate, seem to take up the labor of molding the received past like artisanal potters rather than sweeping the received past away and starting from scratch.

For example, black liberation theologian James Cone writes of the power of “song, dance, and shout” in black communities as forms of revolutionary memory, as a way of resisting the oppression of the dominant culture. Cone points to blues and gospel music as just two expressions of black memory in the United States, and ultimately he suggests that the cross of Jesus as a contracted point of shared religious memory sustained “black cultural resistance to white supremacy.”[2] To be sure, black cultural memory formed in churches and blues houses is not far from Halberstam’s notion of “active forgetting,” but the linking of memory itself to “loss, violation, dehuman-ization,” as Halberstam writes, seems to underestimate the power of shared memory as a way of challenging dominant narratives about the past (82). This is exemplified in the tradition of the black church, an institution that did not forget the stories of the slaves and ex-slaves in their families and communities but instead refashioned those stories in relation to the dominant Christian narrative so as to become a source of both survival and protest.

While Halberstam imagines a forgetful subject like Dory in Finding Nemo as embodying a queer forgetfulness, such mobility and freedom is not always accessible to oppressed peoples. As anyone who has seen Finding Nemo knows, Dory swims relatively freely in a vast ocean, a world of few borders. This world of watery depths, the world Halberstam chooses to illustrate her concept of forgetfulness, seems questionably translatable to poor minority communities. Toward the end of explaining how individuals might use freedom and mobility in a queer sense, Halberstam argues we might overcome “family and tradition and lineage and biological relation and lives to create relationality anew in each moment without a teleology and on behalf of the chaotic potentiality of the random action” (80). Yet within socially and economically ghettoized communities, often segregated strictly along racial lines and enforced with militarism, this queer forgetfulness seems almost like a fantasy. In these contexts, the turning to traditional community and family for support and survival is an ever-present and active necessity. Even if oedipal repetition is at work in these communities (surely it is at some level), there remains the far worse reality of being left without any of the benefits of family connections on which these communities depend upon when external sources are unavailable. What this implies is that the creation of new relationality and associations are not avoided by poor black communities but precluded by social and economic constrictions (like, for example, segregated borders, the inability to travel, and a lack of free time to explore possibilities) and by the very physical presence of a police force that possesses war machinery and arsenals all directly tied to a long history of racism

Hence, rather than placing the emphasis on forgetting as a means of resisting fixed histories, oppressed communities might instead focus on the power of shared imaginative engagement with common experiences and a common past, as Cone frames the black imagination at work in blues music. The point is to embrace an imaginative model by which people are bound together by common memory and orientation. Within this framework, the community can then work to subvert a dominant cultural memory by reasserting their own accounts. For individuals, as well as communities, memory is not always simply pulling a file from the past and then examining it again and again. More interestingly, when a thing is remembered, it is always changed in some way; as the memory intermingles with the new conditions, it is being re-membered, literally reassembled, within. Memory itself is a canvas ripe for the work of creativity and novelty, and it need not be forgotten. The more something is thought, or remembered, the more sure it is to change as well.

We might also think about the ways in which the past cannot be forgotten as long as its effects are finding re-expression in the present. I am not so sure that the examples of beneficial forgetting that Halberstam invokes, such as the Shoah, are comparable to contemporary circumstances in the sense that slavery, for example, is part of a continual series of connected events that cannot be forgotten while they are being experienced in the present. The ugly heads of systematic racism, mass incarceration, and murder of African Americans that recently reared their heads in Missouri, Florida (Trayvon Martin), New York (Eric Garner), and Ohio (John Crawford) show that more than ever, memory is crucial to connect events we might be led to believe are disparate. As long as the concrete effects are emanating from a past event itself, to forget is to construct an alternative reality that loses touch with the world.

History is not a long series of isolated events and travesties that we are given time to recover from and subsequently forget in order to form new identities and associations but rather a consistent barrage of hardships felt much more intensely on certain populations than others. Memory, in this sense, may suggest the “dangerous memory” of political theologian Johann Metz, for whom massively disruptive events contain within them the memory of not only suffering but also freedom.[3] Forgetting, in this context, could sever a community from remembering and hence being continuous with those who came before and experienced the force of the same ideological weapons, firearms, and nooses. For these communities, whose ability to forget and thus potential to form new associations has been restricted, the time for erasing individual and collective memory may come, but it cannot be today, for who can forget what is unfolding around them in the present? Memory, in oppressed communities, is the link between the past, present, and the foundational point of contrast for an imagined future.

Dealing with our inherited pasts is less a matter of forgetting than creating out of the material of the past. Unlike the figure of Dory, who does not know where she came from or what has happened to her, if we continually forget, we run the risk of seeing the injustices of history as nothing more than inescapable chaos and destruction, unable to choose the meaning with which we reassemble the past in our shared memory. It is through and with the material of the past we create the future; if we simply choose to forget, we may lose much of the creative potential to become something new that is at the core of Halberstam’s project. With Halberstam and also Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, who suggest that “the revolutionary is the first to have the right to say: ‘Oedipus? Never heard of it,’”[4] we might denounce repressive social and psychoanalytic forces while at the same time realize that while some may be able to freely form totally new associations, many cannot. Hence, I suggest that for those who might rely on the very families and communities that repeat harmful forces for survival, transforming memory rather than forgetting is the best, if not only, way forward.

[1] See Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011); note that citations to The Queer Art of Failure will appear in the text.

[2] Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (New York, NY: Orbis Books. 2011), 124 and 130.

[3] See Metz, Faith in History and Society: Toward a Fundamental Practical Theology (New York, NY: Seabury, 1980).

[4] Deleuze and Guatarri. Anti-Oedipus (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), 96.