By Professor J Halberstam
Recently in the New York Times, an op. ed. piece by Ashley Merriman explained why losing is good for children. He explains that mounting pressure to succeed in our society has led to a kind of “winners only” policy in schools around the country, such that kids receive trophies and medals for all sorts of school activities, none of which they actually win! Noting that participation trophies and medals are now “almost a given,” Merriman explains that kids have become so accustomed to being winners that they can barely tolerate failure when it inevitably happens to them. How did we become a nation of arrogant winners bent upon fixing every game so that it resolves in our favor? When did failure and losing cease to be part of the hard knocks lessons of childhood? Why might we want to take a second look at losing and failing now?
We live in a strange world. Following the boom years of an inflated housing market, in the aftermath of a national surplus and on the other side of the promise of venture capital, we are now living in the downswing of the boom/bust cycle. And instead of equity, we talk foreclosure; instead of bling style, we want everything in slim and skinny; instead of surplus and credit, we think constantly about debt; instead of brokers, we speak of predatory lenders. And while people on Wall street and in the Fed want to tell us that we are in recovery mode, and that good times are here again, we all know that, like the receding ice cap in the Antarctic, this meltdown is here to stay. The economic crisis that has created this meltdown of course was also predicated upon a winner-takesall style of business in which losing, while inevitable, was conveniently hidden in the small print of your loan, your overpriced luxury gadget, your receipt for the item you don’t need and couldn’t really afford.
We have become accustomed, in recent years, to thinking that failure is something that can be programmed out of the game – we think of it almost like an illness against which we can be vaccinated or like a physical flaw that can be and should be fixed. And we believe this even as it becomes more and more obvious that material success in our world–the gold medal type of success rather than the trophy for trying type–depends upon the engineered failure of the many. And so while your banker rigs his lending practices so that he takes home the real bonus on the investment you just made, the house you just sold, the business you just won, so in sports, the fastest runner, the best hitter and the longest jumper all achieve their medals through doping.
Occupy Wall Street captured people’s imagination precisely because it summarized the outrage that so many felt in the aftermath of the government bail out of the banks. When banks fail, we nurse them back to life. When people fail, we damn them to hell and tell each other that they should have worked harder, longer, better. But as times change, as the economy does not right itself so much as skew in the direction of the wealthy, we are drawn more and more towards a robust and elaborate understanding of failure. We want to know how to fail, how to fail better, how to live with failure.
In my book, The Queer Art of Failure (Duke University Press, 2011), I took multiple examples of failure from art, film and popular culture and told a story about failure as a framework for understanding our historical moment on the one hand, and imagining a different way of being in the world on the other. If success is linked in our society to the accumulation of wealth, then failure, in an era of booming white collar crime, might offer us some new ways of thinking about work, play, community, responsibility, property and health. What unfettered capitalism, otherwise known as free market economy, promised us in the last decades of the twentieth century was a world where everyone wins – everyone’s house was supposed to double in price, every investment was supposed to deliver, every gamble would pay. But here’s the rub – all gambling, like all free market economies, depends upon a stable of losers in order to pay the winners. Winners win, in other words, because losers lose. And so, in such a system, failure should not be seen as the inability of any particular person to convert opportunity into wealth, failure instead is a necessary byproduct of the system. Just as millions of people go to Las Vegas with a fantasy of untold wealth, those same millions, minus a few lucky souls, return from Vegas with debt, disappointment and depression. That is how the casino works – the many pay the few, the house always wins.
What can we do differently and how can we learn from failure? Well, first we have to see failure as something different than the absence of success. Success and failure are locked together in a dynamic logic of plus and minus, having and lacking, being and disappearing. But, in actual fact, failing, losing, lacking are all experiences that lace our lives together. Without a realistic sense of failure as a part of everyday life, we become incapable of managing loss and failure, and, as each second place finish chips away at our fragile egos, we amp up our competitive juices believing that if we try harder, push harder, we will find a way to win. Of course, when that does not work, we cheat: we steal what we cannot win, we engineer outcomes, we hedge our bets, and then when we have no more options, we use our kids as the new frontier of competition.
“If at first you don’t succeed,” wrote the fabulously queer and queerly outrageous Quentin Crisp, “failure may be your style.” Why? Why would failure be your style and what would that mean? Well, if the protestant work ethic that prevails in the west exhorts us to “try and try again,” the effete “naked civil servant” Crisp, tells us to wear our failure, inhabit it and live with it. And so, the gay and lesbian and transsexual children of normative families can try and try to fit into the model of adulthood that their families lay out for them, or they can push in another direction and embrace their failure to be straight. As the charming little child, Ludo, in the French film from 1997 Ma Vie En Rose says when he is called “bent,” why do bent people have to be straightened? Isn’t being bent an equally viable response to our culture? And if we insist rigidly on success and winning, won’t we just become a perfectionist culture of fascists who cannot tolerate difference, disability, variation and vulnerability? Artists and dreamers have always lived outside of their culture’s unbending commitment to wealth and privilege, and in the past, these inspired people would have found ways to exist on little money and few resources – making art for them would have trumped achieving a conventional form of success. Nowadays, an art market makes creativity into just another commodity ensuring that even in the realm of the imagination, there are winners and losers.
Failure in my book is a way of countering a compulsive orientation towards winning. If we reconcile to failure, what happens? Well, maybe we can begin to see that work is not all there is in life – perhaps work should be something we do six hours a day instead of eight. If we could make failure a part of our understanding of who we are and who we want to be, we could potentially be more responsible for those around us who would now no longer appear as competitors for an ever smaller pie but collaborators in a bigger project. And maybe we would think differently about relationships –relationships that end would not be “failed marriages” but could be evaluated for the pleasure they brought to the lives of all concerned. We need to see that losing is an art, as one poet put it, an art we must all master because life and love is not one long triumphal road to achievement. In the words of Leonard Cohen, “love is not a victory march, it’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.” That broken hallelujah should be the anthem of a new era, one in which we leave the empty promise of winning behind and accept our losses, gracefully, happily and with not a little style.