There are certainly several ways to introduce Judith Halberstam. She is, to borrow her own description of the intellectual greatness of Stuart Hall and Raymond Williams, rangy. Not only does she work across academic, theoretical, and cultural disciplines, combining funny, stupid, serious, and difficult subjects (while questioning such valorizations), she also has the ability to reach multiple audiences - academic and activist alike. Some may know her from her involvement in the drag king scene - an engagement that has resulted in The Drag King Book (1999), co-authored by the artist Del LaGrace Volcano, presenting kings in San Francisco, New York, and London. She has also appeared in Venus Boyz (2001), a popular documentary film by Gabriel Baur on drag king culture. Others may know Halberstam as an acclaimed Professor of English and, until this year, Director of The Center for Feminist Research at the University of Southern California. Many of her books, especially Female Masculinity (1998) and In a Queer Time and Place (2005), have become central references in academic, cultural, and activist discussions in the US as well as in the Nordic countries.
In December 2006 Halberstam visited Malmö in Sweden, giving a talk entitled Notes on Failure, where she presented parts of her forthcoming book. A few months later she was back, this time at The University of Lund where Tiina Rosenberg had invited her and Tuula Juvonen to discuss their thoughts on the subject What's up in queer theory? with a group of international PhD students. After being all ears for three intensive days of lectures, discussions, and lively debates, I sat down with Judith Halberstam to hear what she is up to these days.
JH: I can start by telling you a little bit about the new book which is tentatively called Dude Where's My Theory? It is a humorously title designed to annoy people, but also to reference low culture as a place of a certain kind of knowledge production, as a place where all kinds of ideas are circulated. I reference that funny film Dude Where's My Car?, and that is an important film in my book, but the subtitle will be something like Theorizing Alternatives or Finding Alternatives.
The book is divided into three sections. In the first section I look into critical theory written by people like Louis Althusser, Antonio Gramsci, Hardt and Negri, J.K. Gibson-Graham, Judith Butler and others, and I ask: what has happened with the status of the alternative, or the counter-hegemonic, in critical theory? Critical theory has been very good in the last ten years at pinpointing the problems of the dominant - you know, the notion of “empire” (Hardt and Negri), neo-liberalism, reproduction of capitalist logics, and so on - but I think we have moved away or pulled back from theorizing the alternative. So I want to say: what would the project of theorizing the alternative look like? That is the first section.
The second section will be engaged in producing contrary or negative epistemologies. In order to think differently you have to use different categories of knowledge. This section will include, among other things, three topics: stupidity, forgetfulness and failure.
The last section of the book returns to the notion of the alternative and it will be on animation. It will be called something like “Animating Revolt”, and I will argue that an interesting archive for looking at alternatives occurs within contemporary animation films and practices. I want to think about the term animation, but also the set of films for children that we call animation, as well as all kinds of other animations. I argue that in the film genre of animation, which is mostly a low genre but a high-tech genre, there are actually some pretty interesting new ways thinking about things. I do not privilege this archive. I just use it as a model or as an example. An easy way, sort of ready at hand - so that we see that the alternative is all around us, rather than being in some arcane set of political practices that are still to be imagined.
MD: I am really interested in your term “contrary epistemologies”. In your talk Notes on Failure in Malmö last year, you discussed the concept of “eccentric knowledge” in relation to this. Can you elaborate on this interest in alternative knowledges?
JH: Yes, that is from the middle section of the book. When people want to think differently they actually have to use a) a different archive, and b) different concepts. And it is actually remarkably difficult to think outside of received wisdom, or “common sense”, as Gramsci would call it. We have to be very creative in the way in which we produce both new vocabularies and new structures. We must validate different kinds of concepts and move to different archives, and take seriously what Foucault calls subjugated knowledge. Rather then just saying that subjugated knowledge is knowledge that has been suppressed, and that we must dig deep to find it - we need to understand subjugated knowledge as a form of thinking that has been suppressed. It is a set of topics that have become unimaginable as scholarly topics. Queer is often part of subjugated knowledges simply because it has a hard time presenting itself as relevant knowledge. Who cares, you know, what kind of sex you have, and why and where. There are all these legitimating strategies we have to use to make things seem like a sensible object of knowledge. So another word for eccentric knowledge could be subjugated knowledge.
MD: This also points towards your discussion of the distinction between serious and non-serious knowledge production. Your archive is...
MD: Yes! You put animation figures like SpongeBob and Mumble from Happy Feet side by side with high theorists such as Gramsci and Althusser.
JH: That's right.
MD: These distinctions of serious/non-serious, high/low knowledge are still present in the academic system today.
JH: Yes, and I take the notion of the “silly archive” from Laurent Berlant, who writes about the silly archive. I was speaking with her once, and she went off on a long detailed exposition on South Park, and it was a fabulous conversation and I realized that those kinds of references actually really work for me. Partly because it is so much pleasure involved engaging in texts that you think are fun and funny, and partly because they are just unexpected. Therefore in my formulation they are open texts, in the sense that they do not come with a readymade theory already embedded within them.