On Failure

We are more than kin who come to share
Not blood, but the bloodlines of failure.
—“Generation,” Audre Lorde

I have been writing a lot about failure, often in the form perhaps most peculiar to failure: the apology. Silence is also another form of (un)writing. Over the past six months or so, I have written (and unwritten) many notes and emails, sent and unsent, that articulate some version of “I’m sorry I could not do this” or “I’m sorry this is not what you wanted” or “I’m sorry this is not what I wanted.” This is, of course, a confrontation with desire: mine to move beyond “now,” where I have been, and others to have me move beyond “now,” even when it feels like a sedimentation of the “now.” In part, this has to do with our particular and peculiar constructions in retrospect: we are the historical present of our writing, even as that writing indexes a past we no longer inhabit. We are “no longer” where we were. This acknowledgment of failure becomes something like, “I’m sorry I cannot be who you want me to be.” The sentiment is banal, but it carries a certain force.

It is a difficult thing to write toward (for? against? with?) the fantasies we have of who others fantasize us to be. Misrecognition multiplies, and we are often brought short. As an aside, one of my favorite encounters was meeting Philo Ikonya who told me that I looked exactly as I was supposed to, or something to that effect. For those of us who traffic in words, playing with the boundaries of the expressive and the symbolic, the fictiveness of the confessional, the fictiveness of argument, it is a difficult thing to embody the restlessness of our unfinished labor. A difficulty multiplied when called upon to incarnate a particular version of a self we no longer recognize or want to inhabit, even as that version provides legibility.

It’s difficult to explain much of this, of course. So, the apology or silence.

But still the nagging sense that we—the I that started this cannot be sustained—have failed to be the particular version of ourselves that we might have wanted to be. Especially if and when the I whose incarnation is requested has trafficked under “the political,” “the engaged,” “the committed.”

Perhaps I simply record my own restlessness.
Learning from Wambui Mwangi, I have taken to scanning bibliographies before/as I read articles and books. Much of what I read in “new” transnationalisms/globalizations/planetarities/cosmopolitanisms still confounds me because of its limited references. I am not sure that U.S.-trained or European-trained, U.S.-based or Europe-based academics should be the ones assessing the planetary/cosmopolitan scope of our work, even though that is central to how we in the U.S. and Europe police ourselves in the name of “quality.” What would it mean if essays that invoked “Africa” had to travel to Africa for peer review? This is only partially a nativist gesture. In part, I want to ask about the planetarity of planetarity, the transnationalism of transnationalism, as shared and contested epistemological problems; I want to ask about the structures of knowledge, the frames through which we approach locations; the questions we deem worth asking and pursuing. The construction of that “we” as “we.” “We” might be more of “we are the world” if our sounds were less familiar, our thinkers genuinely shared.

What, I nag friends, is the Kiswahili word for modernity?
Restlessness meets intransigence.

In The Erotic Life of Racism, Sharon Holland writes,

This book returns us, ever again, to the black/white binary that many theorists were pleased to leave behind. That glee alone should tell us there is unfinished business—but by no means have we forgotten it, solved it, or even, in the end, addressed it. (14)

Failure might name intransigence, the reluctance of the minoritized subject to “move on.” Or one’s late arrival to a scene that feels all too fresh: the constant shock when one’s students claim Fanon as their experience. One wishes for him to feel strange, distant, a history that cannot be shared. And worries when it is.

Failure might also name the inability to name what is not spectacular: what Rob Nixon terms “slow violence” and Elizabeth Povinelli describes as “dispersed suffering.” Failure might name an inability to find a language adequate to the now. This failure, I think, might have a peculiar relationship to blogging, which demands that one find a language to write of the now. I have found myself stuck on repeat. Unwilling to repeat. Unable not to repeat in this extending now.
Our labor has become
more important
than our silence.—“A Song for Many Movements,” Audre Lorde

places do not change
so much
as what we seek in them—“To Martha: A New Year,” Audre Lorde

Stubbornness can be a kind of work. The labor of staying “here” and “now,” insisting on the need not to move on. The work, tiring, exhausting, debilitating, of recalcitrance.

I do not trust my own formulations. And so let me think about Lorde’s impossible formulation: “bloodlines of failure.”

How might failure—in all the ways registered here—be the basis for a “bloodline” and what forms of affiliation might it suggest? Certainly, the kinky homeless of Delany’s Mad Man and the prison gangs of Kiriamiti’s My Life in Prison could incarnate these affiliations. I suspect I’m being too literal and not literal enough. I’m trying to specify something elusive—felt, but not yet available to whatever language is available.

I wonder if “bloodlines of failure” might help to shape a certain genealogy, help to assemble certain projects and objects alongside and besides those mapped in recent queer and black discussions of failure (Darieck Scott, Jack Halberstam, Elizabeth Freeman, Sharon Holland, not to mention the vast amounts of work on ecology and failure). I wonder if thinking through “bloodlines of failure” might provide a strategy for living.