Jack Halberstam mourns the lost dreams of a wilder future. Few practitioners today dare to imagine a world free from environmental degradation and police terror, a world in which humans do not try to control nature. The radical Columbia professor’s new book claims our environmental and cancer crises go back only six centuries. As a European conquest changed In our climate, the state legitimized its violence through colonial ideas of the wilderness: “wild otherness”, “untouched nature” and an “intuitive connection” to black crime. Halberstam lives in the ruins of genocide and slavery, arguing that we need to recreate everything. Wild things is a deconstruction of the colonial logic of the wilderness and a reconstruction of the concept itself.
How knowledge is produced, classified and remembered is a common thread in Halberstam’s work – a work that includes the groundbreaking ceremony Feminine masculinity and The strange art of failure. in the Wild thingsHalberstam expands his nearly three decades of thinking about “subjugated knowledge” – or what our culture has rejected. With this book it is his aim to pursue a “counter-intuitive terrain” of savagery. Jump from Cree artist Kent Monkman’s paintings to animated films such as The secret life of petsHalberstam curates an archive of savagery – what he refers to at one point as the “Record of Stolen Life” – that links anti-colonial, anti-capitalist and radical queer interests. If there is an imperial order of things, so the book, then there is also a disorder of things: a way of being “that does not submit to rule, a kind of ignorance, a resilient ontology and a fantasy of life beyond man. ”
Halberstam is at its best when it takes us to unruly places that defy classification. In a chapter entitled “The Epistemology of the Ferox”, Halberstam searches for alternative worlds in a group of lonely queer writers who want to become hawks. Her desire to go wild may not be “nice or right, good or true,” writes Halberstam, but the inability to fit into a “neat gay-hetero binary” points to realities beyond the narrow confines of modern political Life. Like the “wild thinkers” who inspired the book, Halberstam challenges us to reconsider the entanglements of freedom, domination, expert knowledge, and confusion.
We spoke on the phone a week before the book was published. Curled up next to me, the dog in my house growled softly every time I asked Halberstam a question.
– Taliah Mancini
TM: And is that kind of terrain realigning our thinking about queer liberation?
YH: Total, but Wild things is a counterintuitive queer project. It’s not about creating a new line and then referring to “some wild, strange people”. It’s more of a way of saying that the Strange script is already a clearing up of an extraordinary range of desires. These extraordinary desires are not in and of themselves politically radical, but their exclusion from the narrow realms of identities and desires that we recognize is symptomatic of a larger system of rule. Take, for example, my chapter on mid-century proto-queer male writers dealing with falconry. This occupation isn’t just a bizarre subculture. It calls a strong desire for savagery or a break from domesticity altogether. Rather than offering another corner of the weird to explore, I advocate a wild relationship with the political: one that is not pre-determined by identity politics, and one that has much greater political ambitions than including LGBTQ people in the status quo .
TM: Instead of making a central claim, the book wanders through various texts and ideas of high and low culture in order to present its arguments. How would you describe the shape of this book?
YH: There is no central claim, but there are arguments that I keep coming back to: one of them is that wildness is not exhausted when it is positioned as the other for civilization, the other is that people are interested in wild animals is not only about domestication of these animals – as we see in the chapter on falconry – but also about this fantasy of going and staying wild. And while it is clearly a powerful fantasy to go wild, that fantasy masks a deeper orientation towards nonhuman worlds and is in direct contrast to the practice of pet ownership. People think they are related to every fragment of the wild by looking at their family dog. You are very wrong. What you see when you look at your family dog is evidence of the domestication that Euro-American people have used to suppress every kind of recalcitrant entity in the world around them. Domestication goes hand in hand with heteronormativity, colonialism, and white supremacy, and yet pet ownership provides a path into the nonhuman world for many, many people. I am trying to uncover some hard truths here about what is actually wild. The wild is different from a deeply scripted relationship between a human and an animal.
TM: That idea – that pet ownership is an integral part of today’s cancer crisis – is difficult for humans to sustain.
YH: Many of us are deeply invested in an abolitionist position that thinks beyond the cancer state, but we have created cancer states in our homes. In this mini-karzeral state, one very often finds a pet and a child: the two characters who are born with a degree of ferocity that needs to be tamed, domesticated and trained. This training is the way we reproduce the karzeral even when we think we are against it. Nobody likes to hear that they may be part of a system they detest. Nor does anyone want to hear that their deeply intimate relationship with their animal actually smells like something else. People don’t like dogs because they are smart or loyal. They like them because they are docile and submissive in a way that other animals don’t. Face this disturbing piece of information when you say “heel” or “sit” instead of thinking, “Oh, my dog and I are evidence of cross-species love.” I’m trying to figure out how to defy the ferocity wherever always we find them, even if the wildness clings to some kind of romantic attraction. The family pet is a perfect example: you like the animal because it is not human, but you domesticate the animal because it is not human.
TM: There is a great moment near the end of the book when you ask, “What if we are not the creators of the revolution, but the masters who must be overthrown?” What would it be like for animals to take a break for freedom?
YH: The narration of animal riots is commonplace in Euro-American literature. Animal farm from Orwell is the most obvious – but also the least satisfactory because it is allegorical and not really about animals. The animated film Chicken races is a clever and amusing fantasy of the chicken revolution. Two recent animated films focus specifically on the spectacle of repulsive pets: the very disappointing ones Pets secret life and the much more satisfying English version is called Washed away. The Pets secret life actually deals with the idea of an underground beast where animals literally plan to overthrow their human masters – and not only that, but kill them, master them – but then you realize that the abandoned animals only love want no riot. It’s so disappointing when you were offered an animal riot opportunity! But there are other films that I mention Fantastic Mr. Fox or White godwhere animals are actually against human rule. White god is a Hungarian film with spectacular scenes of dogs breaking free from an animal shelter and running through the street devastating people taking over the city. This film is extremely powerful for me. There are extraordinary eye-level shots of dogs just pouring into the street and then running at full tilt in a way that can only be frightening to the human viewer. This type of spectacle needs to be stifled by the pet owner and animal lover to believe that their relationship with the animal is benevolent and good – that the dog / cat / bird will actually love you back!
TM: This is related to your thinking about confusion. A big part of the wild is getting lost, feeling alone, and sitting in this counter-intuitive space of knowledge-shedding – rather than acquiring and classifying it.
YH: Yes. I frame the book with some analyzes by Maurice Sendak Where the wild things are. This is a beloved children’s book about loss, exploitation, savagery and confusion. Max, the story’s child protagonist, leaves his family home in search of something different, something more wild. When he finds the wild things, instead of being ruled by his parents, he decides to rule the beasts. However, this is no more satisfying than being ruled. Sendak’s story opens into a space of confusion where the search for knowledge only engages the child in more confusion and alienation. The question I ask in the book is can we sit in this confusing space that is neither the space of the sovereign nor the space of the ruled and ruled. Are there other power relationships that are characterized by confusion? Confusion is just a great word because it makes you feel like you are going wild. It’s like there is a process that if you don’t know, you will go wild.
TM: You write that this book comes from a joint project [the late scholar] José Muñoz and [the cultural critic and historian] Tavia Nyong’o. Can you talk more about this collaboration? Can you imagine the wilderness as a kind of fleeting space in order not to imagine the current state?
YH: The reason why people are so fond of Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, for example The undercommons– why it has become such an anthemic book for this political moment – is precisely because it is interested in theorizing volatile spaces, what they call the Black Study. Volatility itself is the end rather than the means. Volatility is what you get into in order to arrive at some kind of intellectual openness and curiosity. This generative power of volatility can be expressed in forms of protest. So you don’t read The undercommonsfor example, to promote a clear manifesto of what to do. You read it to think wildly. You go where the wild things are. Similarly, with Tavia and José we read all the works that would loosely be classified as anarchist. We had seen this amazing film by Wu Tsang, called WILDNESSIt was about a club in Los Angeles that both created a space for queer performances and was quickly overrun by hipsters. The film provided an early take on gentrification in LA. We’ve all pondered how mainstream regulatory leverage has erased the savagery of this space, and we realized that the savagery category itself is very useful for thinking outside of some of the very tame politics that went with it weird.
We envisioned that we would write some kind of three-way book about savagery that brings together many of our interests and political goals. Of course, it never happened because José died tragically young. To keep our joint project alive, Tavia and I published one Problem of South Atlantic Quarterly that brought together savage thinkers like Jodi Byrd, a strange indigenous scholar who writes about computer games and empires, and Saidiya Hartman, whose book Wayward life has radically changed the way people talk about beauty, experimentation, blackness and rebellion. I think of Wild things Just as much talking to a group of savage thinkers who are trying to break with disciplinary thoughts, break a little with the university and its neat regimes of knowledge formation, and penetrate these other spaces – some of which are lyrical, others of which are resourceful, some anarchist, some dystopian, and all are trying to change the critical lexicon for political life now.
TM: Where do you find radical thinkers who take these risks?
YH: I think a lot of people are looking for evidence of radical expression in art these days, but increasingly people are experimenting with language, political forms and scientific practices. We try to understand a disturbance of things, a kind of disorderly tendency that doesn’t put us in the cozy fold of political consciousness, but rather destroys that corrupt political framework that we are now holding onto and that we desperately want to get out of. The utopian world impulse is no longer world-forming; it has no effect on the world. For anyone looking for the political status quo, it is clear that we are not going to achieve better or more politically exciting opportunities through the mechanisms currently in place. We absolutely need to dismantle and destroy the world in which we live. In terms of the environment, in terms of the political corruption of our moment, in terms of the consolidation of global capitalism, we are in a moment that calls for anarchist dismantling. Hopefully I’ll keep repeating the script Savagery is part of it.
TM: Yes, the book’s focus on Unmaking and Unecoming is appropriate for what feels like the end of the world.
YH: All the thinkers I mentioned and some of the Afro-pessimists like it Calvin Warren and I would mention Rizvana Bradley Here we are saying that the end of the world is something we want to achieve. “World” at the moment refers to the consolidation of global capitalism, white supremacy and colonial rule. We are in a moment when we need to decipher worlds. We saw that last summer when so many young people took to the streets and took massive risks with their own health Not just get involved in peaceful protest, but to Tear things down. In Minneapolis, people not only called the police accountable, but instead called for “disappointing the police”. We demand the abolition of this special system of so-called law and order. If this is law and order, we need disorder.
How will this dismantling happen? Well, there are many activist groups out there already thinking about how to achieve the end of this world, from Black Lives Matter to the occupation of New York City Hall this summer. These political actions don’t have to take months to be politically effective. in fact, if they last too long, they tend to get lousy with white male power. These effective protests prove that the end is near. It is already happening in activist spaces, it is happening in intellectual zones and it is happening through the efforts of young people realizing that this political system cannot continue. That’s the only thing that encourages me right now: the spectacle of large groups of young and older people who say no to the political status quo and are actively working towards a wilder future.