Michael White (photo by Jill Freedman)
FAILURE AS A REFUSAL OF DOMINANT NORMS
The long quote at the end of this post reminded me of Michael White (one of the founders of Narrative Therapy) and his thoughts about failure. Here’s a brief quote from his workshop notes:
It is possible to engage with the sense of personal failure in a way that provides for a reading of this as a refusal of modern power.
In the shadows of personal failure, other knowledges of life and practices of living can be identified and more richly appreciated.
This can provide a foundation for people to more significantly pursue identity projects that do not so completely reproduce the favoured individualities of contemporary culture.
“What kind of rewards can failure offer us? Perhaps most obviously, failure allows us to escape the punishing norms that discipline behavior and manage human development with the goal of delivering us from unruly childhoods to orderly and predictable adulthoods. Failure preserves some of the wondrous anarchy of childhood and disturbs the supposedly clean boundaries between adults and children, winners and losers. And while failure certainly comes accompanied by a host of negative affects, such as disappointment, disillusionment, and despair, it also provides the opportunity to use those negative affects to poke holes in the toxic positivity of contemporary life. As Barbara Ehrenreich reminds us in Brightsided, positive thinking is a North American affliction, a ‘mass delusion’ that emerges out of a combination of American exceptionalism and a desire to believe that success happens to good people and failure is just a consequence of a bad attitude rather than structural conditions (2009: 13). Positive thinking is offered up in the U.S. as a cure for cancer, a path to untold riches, and a surefire way to engineer your own success. Indeed believing that success depends upon one’s attitude is far preferable to Americans than recognizing that their success is the outcome of the titled scales of race, class, and gender. As Ehrenreich puts it, ‘if optimism is the key to material success, and if you can achieve an optimistic outlook through the discipline of positive thinking, then there is no excuse for failure.’ But, she continues, ‘the flip side of positivity is thus a harsh insistence on personal responsibility,’ meaning that while capitalism produces some people’s success through other people’s failures, the ideology of positive thinking insists that success depends only upon working hard and failure is always of your own doing (8). We know better of course in an age when the banks that ripped off ordinary people have been deemed ‘too big to fail’ and the people who bought bad mortgages are simply too little to care about.”
- Judith Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure (via hookedonsemiotics)