"Whatever you now find weird, ugly, uncomfortable and nasty about a new medium will surely become its signature. CD distortion, the jitteriness of digital video, the crap sound of 8-bit - all these will be cherished and emulated as soon as they can be avoided.
It’s the sound of failure: so much of modern art is the sound of things going out of control, of a medium pushing to its limits and breaking apart. The distorted guitar is the sound of something too loud for the medium supposed to carry it. The blues singer with the cracked voice is the sound of an emotional cry too powerful for the throat that releases it. The excitement of grainy film, of bleached-out black and white, is the excitement of witnessing events too momentous for the medium assigned to record them.
Note to the artist: when the medium fails conspicuously, and especially if it fails in new ways, the listener believes something is happening beyond its limits."
--Brian Eno, Diary Entry, Dec. 19, 1995
"Practices that deploy the act of repeated failure subvert the demands of a culture driven by performance success and productive efficiency, not because they refuse to perform, rather because they prefer not to aspire towards completion--they just keep on performing. [...] Conceived as a model of 'preferring not to,' failure is liberated from its negative designation and allowed the opportunity of being 'preferred,' where it can be read even as a desirable condition. In Sisyphean terms, this might mean to imagine the event of the falling rock as being 'preferred' to the possibility of the task's completion, where an ecstatic Sisyphus can be imagined taking pleasure in rolling the rock down the hill, as one might take pleasure in the act of sledging. [...] Here, it becomes possible to recuperate Sisyphean activity as a model of resistant non-production or open-endedness, which is inhabited or played out at the threshold between investment and indifference, between insouciance and immersion. Rejecting completion in favour of a redeemed form of anti-climax or deferral, the endless 'fail and repeat' loop proposed within the myth of Sisyphus can be seen as a way to privilege the indeterminate or latent potential of being not-yet-there above the finality of closure. The rule or instruction can as easily become the rules of the game, a generative device for creating infinitely repeatable permutations and rehearsals within a given structure or self-imposed restriction, or the impetus through which to test or push the limits of a given situation in order that the rules might become malleable or redefined."
--Emma Cocker, "Over and Over, Again and Again," in Contemporary Art and Classical Myth, ed. Isabelle Loring Wallace and Jennie Hirsch (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2011), 285-286.
"[T]he concept of failure as something that defines your whole identity is a new thing. In terms of language, it doesn't exist at all before the Civil War: you will not find a sentence like 'I feel like a failure' in American writing before 1860. [...] [F]rom 1820 through the Civil War, or thereabouts, failure was used to describe people who met economic catastrophe, but the construction was, 'I made a failure,' rather than, 'I am a failure.' It was an event that could be discrete, without touching upon one's moral and existential being."
--Scott A. Sandage, Sina Najafi and David Serlin, "The Invention of Failure: An Interview with Scott A. Sandage," Cabinet, no. 7, (Summer 2002)
Julietta Singh's Unthinking Mastery (2018) does many things. One is that it works to undo the lingering embrace of mastery, especially those forms of mastery that seem desirable, laudable, even good. If mastery is about domination, then maybe our mastery over an art form, an instrument, or a domain of knowledge reinscribes an idea of power related to colonizers' oppression of dehumanized and nonhuman Others. Singh interweaves postcolonial studies, literary studies, animal studies, and new materialisms in her provocative challenge to the discourse of mastery.
The final chapter, in which she performs a beautiful reading of sound in the final scene Aime Cesaire's play A Tempest (1969), speaks to my interest in failure. While I am not claiming that False Rhyme is postcolonial in nature, Singh's insight adds political urgency to the arts of failure and opens up my thinking to the implications of critical failure studies, which I coined when I named this website. Singh writes, "I mean to suggest that in failure--and critically, in recognizing, reading, and becoming vulnerable to failure--we participate in new emergences, new possibilities for nonmasterful relations" (174-5). Singh suggests that in listening to the sounds of the island intermingled with the sounds of Caliban singing, we might reconsider the "nature" of power.
"It could be suggested that DNA itself is already a form of technical inscription and registration; a form of organized inorganic memory that accumulates the experience of previous individual existences (and thus learns from experience). Is there not technicity at the heart of life itself, in the very definition of an organism? Isn’t the living always already biotechnical?"
--Andrés Vaccari, "Unweaving the Program: Stiegler and the Hegemony of Technics." Transformations 17 (2009)
How much control is needed to give structure to failure in a creative project that takes failure as its reason for being? How much control is desired? How open are we to chance and to the agency of the nonhumans and materials involved in this complex process of transforming sound through synthesized DNA, plasmids, E. coli, and related technologies? Is failure really failure if it is intentional? These are the questions I'm asking myself today.
I am reminded of Patrick Blenkarn's "On Failure," which is a review of Sara Jane Bailes's Performance Theatre and the Poetics of Failure, but is really so much more than that.
Shout out to Blenkarn:
If Bailes and those who find inspiration in her work are any indication, the failure that fails at being a failure is unintentional failure--the failure that has no roots, that can’t be tracked, that doesn’t conform to any logic of progress and development (for which, ironically, Marxism, like capitalism, is guilty).
I have no doubt that, for some artists, all of this may be far too pedantic--or perhaps just too semantic. The openness to failure by many artists is likely grounded in something more pragmatic. Maybe it gets them in a certain mood in the rehearsal studio, a mindset for experimenting--feeling like they can do anything. So if that’s you, and chanting to yourself “Fail again. Fail better” (or “Fail again, Fail better”) helps you make whatever you make, then chant away. However, for those who are eager to champion a certain kind of failure as an idealized aesthetic, let alone politicized concept, we might at least consider provisionally (this being the key term) granting intended and unintended failings their own conceptual categories. A linguist might propose writing them failure1 and failure2, but we could also say faylure and feilure. For, like Bailes, I too believe that representations are key to helping us shape the world otherwise. But I would argue to include words in that sphere of representations as much as any other signifier. Any promotion of “failure” that does not attempt to nuance, and hopefully also trouble, this distinction between intended and unintended events, or recognize the implied hierarchies being setup in any “failure”-friendly context, seems an example of lazy discourse and lazy pedagogy--two qualities, I imagine, most of us would want to change if we could make a new image for the world.
Performance Matters 2.1 (2016): 99−105