Strategies for Knowing and Unknowing, and the Queer Art of Failure

In hir 2011 book The Queer Art of Failure, Judith Halberstam 1 has got me thinking about forgetfulness, beginner’s mind, and some new tools I may focus on in my own personal journey living amidst great oppression and deep hope.

Now finding resonance on this particular topic surprises me quite a bit, actually. A lot of my anti-oppression work – on personal and cultural levels – has focused on the theory that forced amnesia is a part of structures of domination. And so the “cure” is the opposite of amnesia. I’ve focused on finding stories and voices (including parts of my voice and story) that were obscured or devalued. Re-membering has been a powerful strategy for me. The remembering, researching, uncovering and reclaiming was liberating for me. I told my story over and over again and each retelling uncovered more of myself that had been buried for years. I heard others name stories that had been forcibly hidden or obscured. And I firmly believe there was a sacred exchange that occurred in the telling. The feminist phrase “hearing each other into being” sunk into my core and resonated with me. And I always defined it as this kind of recovery and remembering of history.

This paralleled a larger coping strategy for me at the time… high levels of structure. I had an upbringing that overwhelmingly taught me to be terrified of everything. It took a long, long time and a lot of work to turn that around. I learned to carve out small spaces where I could be without terror, and to slowly learn to live in those spaces. It was important too to learn how to live just on the edges of those spaces, just far enough out to claim more and more space for myself without churning up my out-of-control fight-or-flight biochemistry in counterproductive ways. I had bad memories of deliberate capriciousness, forced instability, and crazy-making. As we learn in twelve step spirituality, knowing/naming/acknowledging the problem is the key to getting better. On top of that, planning and knowing what would happen next gave the security I longed for. To find rest, peace – or myself, really – to climb out of all those bad habits and learn new ones, I had to have high levels of repetitive, expected structure in my days. Yes, I eased that need up… very, very slowly. But this valuing of structure, planning, and *knowing* had an internal logic when paired with a valuing of knowing history, knowing others’ stories intimately, knowing how systems of domination worked. Knowing was more than half the battle, really.

And, well, sometimes, for me, the only way to live with a painful memory is to know it further, let it live again, and overwhelm, until it doesn’t anymore. That’s another kind of knowing.

In the chapter of “Queer Art of Failure” that I’m currently reading, Halberstam is right in the middle of talking about the value of forgetfulness, how an absence of something like memory can liberate us from capitalist heteronormativity. Halberstam links failure and forgetfulness to queerness and alternative ways of knowing that subvert structures of domination. Zie describes how Dory from “Finding Nemo” rides forgetfulness and unknowing into new and valuable ways of relating and acting. Zie just finished a dozen pages of exploration of “Dude, Where’s My Car?”… an exploration I rather enjoyed, even without having ever seen the movie (another surprise!). I couldn’t do hir exploration justice. But what I get from it is the idea that forgetting and not knowing can release us from the training we inevitably receive that’s meant to perpetuate capitalist heteronormativity… that “stupidity”, memory “problems”, or an absence of knowing how we “should” behave brings us to new ways to behave, new ways of relating to others, new ways of knowing and valuing that stand outside systems of domination.

Now, I’m a forgetful person, and I know I’m enjoying this train of thought partially because it’s a reason not to be so hard on myself about that fact. I also know that the values I’ve embraced more and more over the last five years have brought me further and further away from previous, sanctioned definitions of success that I have had, and so valuing failure is appealing too. But it’s also very refreshing to see someone fighting a fight important to me, with a focus on improvisation and creativity rather than the type of education I have tended to prize and rely on perhaps a bit too much sometimes. I know the answers I’ve found about systemic evil, about privilege, about right relationship are important… but I also know those answers aren’t the answer to every question I meet. I’m also realizing that I’m being reintroduced to an idea I’ve seen before, and often been wary of: beginner’s mind. The absence of preconceived notions. The ability to approach a person or situation without having any assumption of mastery or expertise… so that one can be fully present, fully aware, and fully open to the unfolding moment of connection and transformation. Perhaps there’s a different kind of hearing each other into being here. Bernie Glassman discussed just such a thing in his book Bearing Witness: A Zen Master’s Lessons in Making Peace, which had a big affect on me some ten years ago now. I have to say, at the time, I approached this beginner’s mind thing as a decent idea in theory, but rather incomprehensible for me to approach at the time. Now, I’m seeing something very appealing to me, somewhere in this pile of failure, forgetfulness, and fish that speak Whale.

1. On this book zie is credited as Judith Halberstam; I’ve seen hir named elsewhere as Jack Halberstam and J. Jack Halberstam. Wikipedia mentions Halberstam using multiple genders of pronouns. Until I’m clear what Halberstam prefers, I’m using gender-neutral pronouns zie and zir.

Published in: on January 5, 2013 at 10:23 pm  Leave a Comment  

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