Wild Things: The Disorder of Desire by Jack Halberstam
“Wild Things: the disorder of desire (2020) lets us know right away that this is not going to be some sweetie pie tale of the wild.”
Jane Bennett (“Wild Things: A Conversation”)
“… strange new worlds where we can make it rain, where the fox escapes the hounds but dies anyway, where the sky itself holds peril and promise, where we are all lost at sea. Indulge me.”
On 12 November 2020, during an online discussion organized by Harvard Book Store between Jack Halberstam and Rizvana Bradley, in occasion of Halberstam’s new publication Wild Thing’s: the disorder of desire (2020), Bradley began her statement by introducing seven theses on wildness as expressed by Halberstam in Wild Things.
(1) “Wildness does not promise freedom, nor does it name a new mode of identification, rather, it offers a rubric for passions, affects, movements, and ways of thinking that exceed conventional oppositions between animal, vegetal, mineral” - (2) “Wildness lays waste to oppositions and binaries that structure modern life” - (3) “Wildness changes how we do theory, it messes with an economy of signs – wildness challenges the unity of the symbolic function and the processes of signification” – (4) “Wildness describes modes of knowing and unknowing that emerge in encounters between capital and chaos, privilege and struggle, myth and counter myth” - (5) “Wildness asks us to consider different conceptions of temporality - the temporality of wildness - wildness names what comes after nature, after queerness. The wild is where temporality is uncertain and wildness is not only where temporality is uncertain but is expressed through relation […] with wildness futurity is on hold – wildness lies outside of historical time” – (6) “Wildness designates an unplace - the wild is the unplace where people who are left outside of domesticity reside - small children, animals, and ruined adults” – (7) “Wildness makes us think about sovereignty differently” (“Jack Halberstam presents”).
Wild Things is dedicated to the memory of José Esteban Muñoz (Queer Theorist and Performance Studies scholar) who, together with Halberstam and Tavia Nyong’o (African-American Studies and Performance Studies scholar), was also working on the concept of wildness as a concept with the potential to relieve queerness of some of its exhaustive critical and conceptual work. To do so wildness runs past previous utopian projects (including Munoz’s own work) on building and worlding and asks how to unmake the world, how to return to the wild in the current moment of “post-civilization”, how to become illiterate – how to find new lexicons for “the shapes of bodily illegibility”, and how to think along with wild things not for what they are but, in Jane Bennett’s words, for what they do (Halberstam 7; “Wild Things: A Conversation”).
As in his earlier publication The Queer Art of Failure (2011) where he established “the silly archive”, in Wild Things Halberstam assembles “the [eccentric] archive of wildness” (24). Some of the main objects of this archive, around which the five chapters are divided, include: Chapter one - T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (1943), Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902), J.K. Huysmans’s À rebour (1884), Roger Casement’s Black Diaries, Michael Taussig Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man (1987), Chapter two - Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and Vaslav Nijinsky’s interpretation of it (1913), Kent Monkman’s canvases, Chapter three - J. A. Baker’s The Peregrine (1967), Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk (2014), Barry Hines A Kestrel for a Knave (1968), T.H. White The Goshawk (1951), W. B. Yeats’s The Second Coming (1919), Chapter four and five - T. S. Eliot Little Gidding (1943), Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, Chris Renaud’s The Secret Life of Pets (2016), George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). Throughout the book, Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are (1963), and Max’s journey, trace the potential wildness has for Halberstam, who imagines the end of a world dependent on the exile of wild things (179). Unlike in The Queer Art of Failure, visible in the list of objects, as Halberstam also admits, is an evident move away from the “low archive” and an engagement with a range of texts ascribed to literary modernism (“Wild Things: A Conversation”). This object choice gestures towards what Halberstam terms in chapter two as aesthetics of bewilderment – an “aesthetic operation” that describes the failure of incorporation of Indigenous livelihoods, so-called primitive texts, into Western modernism (66). Despite Halberstam’s ability to bewilder – to use the aesthetics of bewilderment as his methodology, he in addition retrieves bewilderment form 18th century Kantian sublime, as Bradley remarks, and returns it as a way for thinking about life, temporality, and futurity otherwise (“Jack Halberstam presents”). It is bewilderment that gives rise to a new epistemology – the ferox.
I would like to return to the seven theses on wildness and identify the two main arguments that for Halberstam result in their development. The first argument outlines the foundation of the wild as a counter category to ‘civilization’ within colonial discourses and its establishment as a necessary binary opposition to modern white humanity (Halberstam x, 4, 37, 41). The historical baggage that the wild carries - its forceful application on black and brown bodies, indigenous bodies, and colonized peoples in particular - is what makes the category appear irredeemable, yet, for Halberstam the use of the wild to classify people and entities that stand in the peripheries of the ‘the human’ is what precisely opens up potential for a decolonial relationship to the human (8, 66). The second argument, implicitly connected to the first, returns to what Michel Foucault called “an untamed ontology” that lies “on the other side of all the things that are” and “even beyond those that can be” (Foucault 303). Halberstam stands in support of a disorder of things whose ‘noisy’ presence (to borrow a term from Michel Serres) threatens to disturb the systems of classification that emerged originally in the domains of “science, psychology, and literature” in the US and western Europe during the 19th century (Halberstam 24). Although Halberstam’s approach cannot be described as reparative, in Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s and Munoz’s conception, there are elements within the two arguments that in their attempt to “unmake, unbuild, and unimagine the current condition” reconceptualize the concept of wildness neither by redeeming its colonial and racist usage nor by reducing it to that (“Jack Halberstam Wild”).
Beyond bewilderment, Halberstam addresses two additional conceptual notions – the epistemology of the ferox and zombification. To counter the domestic symbolism and sexual knowledge associated with Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet (1990) as a colonial model Halberstam proposes a new epistemology. The ferox or feral expresses an eccentric mode of embodiment, advocates for illiteracy toward social training, and a disorientation toward the human – it is located “beyond human language and can be approximated only by using the grammars available for expressions of love, desire, and sex” (Halberstam 79). What I find particularly compelling about the epistemology of the ferox is its attendance to the unknown and “unfathomable” intimacies (82). An example of this is the relationalities and desires that Halberstam traces between the falcon and the falconer in chapter three that make apparent the incapacity of terms such as ‘sexual orientation’ to capture the range of activities that constitute sex – or else the array of practices desirous of a relationship to the feral (78). For Halberstam it is not possible to ask for (sexual) orientation in the wild. Rather, one potential avenue to wildness and to the desires and identification related to the epistemology of the ferox is loss, or grief, or threat of extinction, as identified in Macdonald’s and Baker’s writing (85, 89). I want to argue that, although not explicitly mentioned in Halberstam’s book, this loss is what connects the project to a larger afro pessimist refusal to the human and a desire in Calvin Warren’s words for “a form of world destruction” (qtd. in Halberstam 162).
The book ends with the concept of zombification and zombie antihumanism, and critiques the kind of animal–human relationships and fantasy of co-evolution that Donna Haraway’s sketches in The Companion Species Manifesto (2003) by illustrating how pet ownership is inevitably anthropocentric. In comparison to previous chapters, the tone in chapter five changes significantly, taking a more frustrated position that although might help emphasize the “almost taboo” nature of the topic it is not necessary for the argument itself (150). Halberstam does not attempt to rethink pet ownership; instead he views pet ownership as a place “where wildness dies” (“Wild Things: A Conversation”). For Halberstam domestic pet ownership is as abusive as “the circus, the zoo, and the animal shelter” where the pet is “a prosthetic extension of our mortal bodies” and occupies the category of living dead by being domesticated (150). Zombification is a process, a figure, and a mode of being that “produces […] new balancing acts between bio- and necropolitical regimes” (118). This is a concept I find particularly productive due to its ability to disturb the binary between lively and deathly subjects as well as what counts as either. In turn it produces a position of “unlife” (Halberstam 172).
Halberstam’s project speaks especially to topics of decoloniality, worlding, extinction, environmentalism, queerness, and multispecies relationality. He presents his readers with a ruinous familiar world and asks to go beyond it not in time and space but rather in an untimely presence. Halberstam situates wildness as a critical tool for radically rethinking the category of the human all together. This book can be situated alongside the work of Michel Serres, especially his analysis of the parasite and noise as concepts that share with wildness a promise of disruption as fundamental for any model of relationality. Additionally, Halberstam writes from the ruins of worlds as Anna Tsing does in The Mushroom at the End of the World (2017). While the two projects end up moving in different directions, they share a similar positionality: Anna Tsing writes “on the possibility of life”, a life that under Halberstam’s work needs to be questioned altogether. This difference allows for a space to reconsider the direction of projects interested in tracing ruinous landscapes, as well as the life of things within them. Further a concept that is mentioned at the very start of the book and who’s relation to wildness remains undeveloped is animacy, as found in the work of Mel Chen. According to Halberstam both animacy and wildness are associated with “dynamic forms of life outside the human […] and [are] used to indicate racialized hierarchies of liveliness and inertia” yet, they offer two different methodological approaches (25). Halberstam’s book is attuned to the ruinous colonial discourse of civilization and its anarchist character, its desire to decolonize the human, and the introduction of the epistemology of the ferox asks what happens if we invest not in salvation or redemption, but instead in ruination.
“Jack Halberstam Wild Things: An Aesthetics of Bewilderment.” YouTube, uploaded by RIBOCA, 7 October 2020, https://youtu.be/Ia5CmrzTqw4
“Jack Halberstam presents "Wild Things" with Rizvana Bradley.” YouTube, uploaded by HarvardBookStore, 12 November 2020, https://youtu.be/cuKZ4PkBeng
“Wild Things: A Conversation with Jack Halberstam and Jane Bennett.” YouTube, uploaded by
The Graduate Center, CUNY, 28 December 2020, https://youtu.be/bqCKED7ihUQ
Chen, Mel Y. Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect. Duke University Press, 2012.
Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Vintage Books, 1994. Print.
Halberstam, Jack. The Queer Art of Failure. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.
---. Wild Things: The Disorder of Desire. Duke University Press, 2020.
Haraway, Donna Jeanne. The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness. Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology Of the Closet. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.
Serres, Michel. The Parasite. University of Minnesota Press. 1982.
Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. The Mushroom at the End of the World. Princeton University Press, 2017.