In The Queer Art of Theory (Durham:Duke University Press, 2011) Jack Halberstam ‘proposes “low theory” as a mode of thinking and writing that operates at many different levels at once. Low theory is derived from eccentric archives. It runs the risk of not being taken seriously. It entails a willingness to fail and to lose one’s way, to pursue difficult questions about complicity, and to find counterintuitive forms of resistance.’ 1
In the introduction to the book, Halberstam presents low theory as a way to deconstruct the normative modes of thought that have established uniform societal definitions of success and failure.
Low theory is a term that Halberstam borrows from cultural theorist Stuart Hall, using it to undermine heteronormative definitions of success and to argue that failure to live up to societal standards can open up more creative ways of thinking and being in the world. Halberstam points out that queer and feminine success is always measured by male, heterosexual standards. The failure to live up to these standards, Halberstam argues, can offer unexpected pleasures such as freedom of expression and sexuality.2
Failure and Failing
In a lecture called On Behalf of Failure (2016) Halberstam clarifies his suggestion towards encouragements of failure:
“My basic point with failure is that in a world where success is countered in relationship to profit … or relayed through heteronormative marriage, failure is not a bad place to start for a critique of both capitalism and heteronormativity.”
Halberstam describes low theory as a “utility of getting lost over finding our way.”3 In reference to societal norms and definitions of success, Halberstam asks the reader how to avoid those forms of knowing and being that relegate other forms of knowing to redundancy and irrelevancy.
The Value of Popular Culture
In an interview with Max Ryynänen of Popular Inquiry: The Journal of the Aesthetics of Kitsch, Camp and Mass Culture, Halberstam explains their thinking towards the importance of popular culture in constituting who we are culturally;
“I really wanted to take apart the logic of high and low culture, and high culture as a kind of site of resistant complexity and low culture as the place of capitulation, which is what we get from the Frankfurt School, Adorno and so on. We are no longer in the culture industry which Adorno described. We all engage in pop culture. So I think it’s too valuable as a resource to leave alone.”4
1 “The Queer Art of Failure.” Duke University Press. https://www.dukeupress.edu/the-queer-art-of-failure.
2 “Jack Halberstam.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_Halberstam#Introduction:_Low_Theory.
3 Halberstam, Judith. The Queer Art of Failure. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.
4 “LOW THEORY AND CRAZY WHITE MEN. An Interview with Jack Halberstam.” Popular Inquiry – Journal of the Aesthetics of Kitsch, Camp and Mass Culture. Last modified December 16, 2018. https://www.popularinquiry.com/blog/2017/12/16/low-theory-and-crazy-white-men-an-interview-with-jack-halberstam.