The Value of Failure: Versions 3, 1 and 2

Note: This blog entry is posted on all three of my blogs: (making/being in/ staying in) trouble, It’s Diablogical!, and Unchained.

Right now I am attempting to juggle three different blogs. I really like how these blogs highlight different aspects of my writing/thinking/feeling self. On trouble, I focus on giving critical (and serious, extended) attention to trouble in feminist and queer contexts. Frequently I write about Judith Butler and the ethical implications of her work. I also devote a lot of time to working through my own (hopefully) book project on trouble as a virtue. On Unchained, I experiment with developing/practicing virtue ethics (in relation to breaking, reworking, transforming consumption habits) through and in connection with blogging. I co-write this blog with my partner, STA, as we try to figure out ways to reduce consumption, make better (whatever that means) choices, and model “good” behavior for two crazy, yet wonderful kids, FWA and RJP. Finally on It’s Diablogical!, I diablogue with my writing partner and good friend, KCF, about blogging and feminist pedagogy. Our blog is part of a larger writing project on teaching with blogs and blogging while teaching.

Sound like too much? While it can feel overwhelming at times, all three of these writing projects inspire and invigorate me (at least, so far. I just started Unchained and It’s Diablogical! this summer. It is possible that my brain will melt once I start prepping for my classes later this month). The specific content of each blog is different, yet all three connect, sometimes in unexpected ways. Like right now. As I was preparing to write more on Unchained about failing, I realized that I have A LOT to write about the issue of failing and FAIL, and that what I want to write is relevant to each of the blogs I write on. With that in mind, I have decided to try an experiment in this entry. I want to write about failure in the context of each of the three blogs. If I like how this works, I anticipate experimenting with it more in future entries. I plan to post this entry in each of my blogs. So, here goes nothing…

First, my overarching statement: Failure is valuable.

VERSION 3: In the context of Unchained

Failure is very important part of the process of breaking old habits and creating new ones. So much so that I have included a category on that blog entitled, Failure. While there is much that could be said about how failure (that is, doing things in un-virtuous or out-of-balance ways) is an important part of our moral and practical education, I simply don’t have the energy to write much more about that right now. At some point soon, I would like to carefully read and maybe comment on Putting on Virtue in relation to this question. But, I digress.

From my perspective (STA has a different perspective), I am interested in exploring my/our various habits of consumption and how to break and/or rework them. Perhaps one of my central approaches to this breaking/reworking process is to give some serious attention to the moments when I fail. I like to analyze why it didn’t work and ask lots of questions–what happened? how could it happen differently? what are some of the deeper issues that prevent me from breaking habits that I know are bad, harmful, unjust? Why do I have so many half-finished bags of tortilla chips? Why did I panic and buy the processed ham? And why did I order the large beer sampler?

Some people might imagine such a focus on failure to be depressing or discouraging; I find that not focusing on how/when I fail to be unproductive, uncritical and (almost) a guarantee that I will fail again.

VERSION 1: in the context of Trouble

Making, being in and staying in trouble is all about valuing failure: closely and critically examining it, learning from it, developing questions around how/why it happened, being devoted to claiming/exposing it, never concealing it. Throughout her work, particularly in Gender Trouble and Undoing Gender, Judith Butler discusses the potential value (and danger) of our various failures to fully embody/live up to gender norms and our proper gender roles/rules. Check out what she says about her parents’ gender failures in Judith Butler: Philosophical Encounters of the Close Kind. In the first 2 minutes of this youtube clip, Butler describes how her various family members were unable to fully live up to the gender/race/class norms as embodied by famous Hollywood actors. Then, at 2 minutes and 19 seconds in, Butler says:

My conclusion was that anyone who strives to embody them [gender norms–being a “proper” man or woman], perhaps also fails in some ways that are more interesting than their successes.

For Butler, failure is not just more interesting than success; failure is a crack in the system. When we fail we can begin to see the limits of the system and how/when it doesn’t work. Maybe, especially if we gravitate towards trouble, we might wonder about what these limits say about the system and why the system has to be the way it is or why it couldn’t function in a different way (perhaps in a way that enable our norms to be guided by our actions instead of our actions dictated by our norms). When we succeed at living up to gender expectations (what Butler might describe as achieving a proper gender performance), we aren’t prompted to ask questions about the system and how it might work differently or better. And we aren’t inspired to think about the gender binary system or its rigid rules about what it means to be a man or a woman. In fact, sometimes success is more of a failure; to succeed can contribute to a failure to think, to question, to wonder, or to resist. I could say more about failure in relation to Michel Foucault’s limit attitude, but I want to stay focused so that I don’t lose my various readers here (especially the ones who might read Unchained, but not trouble. Yes, STA, I’m talking to you…)

VERSION 2: In the context of It’s Diablogical!

To embrace failure, or to at least recognize that it is not something to avoid or conceal, can open us up to other possibilities and other ways of knowing and being. When we begin to understand that failure is inevitable and necessary, we can shift our focus away from always being right or having the right answer or even believing that there is one right answer. Instead, we can focus more of our attention on all the different ways that others could be right (or, at least not wrong). When we don’t worry so much about failing (and then being seen as a Failure), we aren’t as invested in proving that we aren’t ever wrong. This enables us to make room for exciting and inspiring conversations with others that involve much more than concluding who got it right and who didn’t. Failure also encourages us to experiment and be creative with how we approach ideas, problems and people. This is especially true when we don’t imagine failure as something that threatens to undermine us and our authority and when we embrace it as a necessary and invigorating part of the process (of thinking, writing, learning, engaging).

While there are many ways to practice and promote this vision of failure (as contributing to openness, as encouraging experimentation), I am particularly interested in how blogs (my personal ones and the ones I use in my class) can serve as powerful spaces for valuing failure (and valuing vulnerability, openness and experimentation). Here, let me briefly explain how I used my blog for my spring 2010 Contemporary Feminist Debates course to explore and practice the idea of valuing failure.

Instead of using the language of failure (which is negative and can immediately induce fear and suspicion amongst the students), I described the process of not being right or failing to be right in terms of uncertainty, contestability and curiosity. I reworked one traditional notion of debate by shifting our focus away from the contesting of competing claims to the critical and creative exploration of negotiating between (and living with) multiple visions of what is or should be right. In this way, I transformed the idea of failure from being wrong to not being the only one right.

The course blog played a central role in this process of imagining and practicing a new vision of feminist debate-as-curiosity. Because this blog entry is getting way too long (surprise, surprise), I want to highlight one particular blog exercise that I used to reinforce the idea of failing (that is, failing to know) as valuable. I developed a category on the blog titled, “This is a feminist issue because…”. Students were required to post one example of something that they believed to be a feminist issue and then respond to at least two other students’ examples. Here is my explanation:

So, this category is for posting images, news items or anything else that you feel speaks to issues related to feminism. It could also include anything that you believe especially deserves a feminist analysis. And it could include topics, issues, or events that you feel are connected to feminism or deserve a feminist response, but you are not sure how or why. Entries filed under this category should invite us to apply our growing knowledge of feminism/feminist movement/s to popular culture/current events or should inform us about ideas, topics, or images that are important for feminism. When posting an entry/example, you could pose a question to the reader or provide a brief summary on the example and/or why you posted it.

While the purpose of this blog category was to document a wide range of feminist issues and approaches, the unanticipated (and somewhat anticipated) effect of this category was to demonstrate to students that feminist movement is not any one thing and that we can’t ever fully know what feminism is or how it should proceed. While this made some students angry (“if feminism is too broad, it becomes meaningless!”) and many uncomfortable, it made other students curious and inspired them to rethink debate and feminism outside of its rigid borders. In the context of this blog, the failure to come up with any definitive or comprehensive conclusions as to what feminism or a feminist issue is resulted in a larger success–it opened them to new ways of thinking about feminism and enabled (at least some of) them to embrace not knowing (check out what I write about this idea in my final thoughts entry).

This experiment was time-consuming and I don’t think the result is completely successful. Is it a failure? Yes, but in a potentially productive way.

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