Doing failure 

Nicki Smith

In The Birth of Biopolitics, Michel Foucault talks about how, under neoliberalism, we come to define ourselves not by who we are but by what we do – or, more accurately, who we are becomes a question of what we do, how we do it, and how much we love that we do it. All aspects of life become measured against the ‘barometer’ of individual success, with individual success defined in terms of one’s work, and in particular the activity of one’s work. What one produces is not the point – it is simply that we produce, that we work, that we never stop working. ‘Success,’ then, is not an output but a process – it is that we be in the constant state of producing, and working, and never not-working. ‘Success’ is not, for that matter, an identity or attribute of individuals. It is a state of being-through-doing or, put another way, it is the state of not ‘being’ without doing. I do, therefore I am. That is ‘success’.

What might it mean, then, to ‘fail’? If ‘success’ functions as a disciplinary mechanism then, as Jack Halberstam writes, failure can offer a mode of political resistance (and, for that matter, an anti-capitalist move). But this means framing failure not as a discrete object – as something to be overcome on the path to success – but rather as a practice. Failure is the ‘queer art’ of refusal; it is refusing to be productive, or at least to always be productive; it is dissent through not-doing; and, ultimately, it is about ‘life against work.’ Rather than situating failure within the telos of success, we could instead critique success through the practice of failure. Viewed in these terms, it is not failure that is the problem. Success is the problem. It is success that we need to overcome. 

The question becomes, then, not how to achieve success but how to achieve failure. How can ‘success’ be undone? How can we stop doing it? How can we resist it? How can we fail?

3 thoughts on “Doing failure 

  1. ‘Dear Gottlob [Frege, mathematician], consider the set of all sets that are not members of themselves. Yours, Bertrand [Russell].’
    A tension that one faces with attempting to ‘achieve failure’ is that if we succeed at that, then it is no longer a member of its own category. Russell’s Paradox.


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