Failure – What’s in a word? – Part 2

night sky

Here I follow up on part 1 of my discussion on failure.

The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘failure’ as:

A lack of success

An unsuccessful person, enterprise or thing

The omission of expected or required action

A lack or deficiency of a desirable quality

The action or state of not functioning

Failure and Social Pathology

When I think of failure, another word comes to mind: ‘maladjusted’ – “failing or unable to cope with the demands of a normal social environment,” as in “a maladjusted behavior”. Synonyms include: disturbed, unstable, neurotic, unbalanced, unhinged, and dysfunctional.

Pathology (a branch of medical science primarily concerning the examination of organs, tissues, and bodily fluids in order to make a diagnosis of disease) is seen, in its consideration of the ‘dysfunctional’, as morphing into the more troubling field of Social Pathology.

Here, the focus is on looking at society and examining those elements that are ‘out of order’, polluting and dangerous. It is a field born in times where expanding industrial capitalism and colonialism led not only to great turbulence and uncertainty in the job market but also to an increasing (forced) migration from a less ‘developed’ periphery to the ‘advanced’ or metropolitan center of Empire. This led to fears, amongst established groups, of moral and social danger threatening a desirable and ‘normal’ social equilibrium or structural functionalism – the way it / things / life has always been and ought always to be. Change by this definition was seen as abnormal and threatening.

The ‘Other’ exhibited behavioral pathologies: having improper values, choices and psychological states. Biology was often used to explain.

Enter Social-Darwinism: Particular social categories or populations were seen as having an essential, innate, and immutable behavioral inferiority leading to criminal and dangerous behaviors; different classes and races as well as gender expressions and forms / ways of being sexually attracted were seen in terms of inferiority and superiority; a less then / better then dichotomy.

The pinnacle of such thought culminated in Nazi racial theory which advocated for and efficiently carried out the removal of categories of people defined as biologically ‘debased’, such as Jews, Gypsies, and homosexuals. Orientalism, too, flourished under such a belief structure. It was Edward Said who analyzed this phenomenon best and defined it, roughly, as the ‘West’s’ patronizing perceptions and depictions of Middle Eastern, Asian and North African societies – the ‘East’; the ‘West’ defined itself through the ‘East’, seeing itself as ‘great’ by nature of the ‘Other’s’ lack of greatness; civilized by nature of the ‘Other’s’ barbarism; a success, by the nature of the ‘Other’s’ failure.

A more current and politically controversial example is the belief structure supporting the notion of ‘culture of poverty’. Here, poor people are seen as perpetuating their own condition through their own (wrong) doing and being (wrong). It is their own fault that they are failures or failing: having learned improper values – e.g. the value of hard work – and being unable to manage money or be the master of their every passion and whim, (here, often substandard parenting is cited) poor people are associated with a host of ‘social pathologies’: from dependence on welfare to substance abuse and inner-city gang violence.


Social justice advocates point out that those who are most disadvantaged by and excluded from dominant ideologies and representations are also those said to embody or bring about social pathologies. An important concept to draw on here, is the one popularized by Antonio Gramsci: hegemony. In her book, The promise of Happiness, Sara Ahmed writes that hegemony, as Gramsci theorized it, “is the term for a multilayered system by which a dominant group achieves power not through coercion but through the production of an interlocking system of ideas which persuades people of the rightness of any given set of often contradictory ideas and perspectives. Common sense is the term Gramsci uses for this set of beliefs that are persuasive precisely because they do not present themselves as ideology or try to win consent.”

Within the ideological hegemony (i.e. a common sense) of ‘culture of poverty’, poor people are blamed for their own situation and function as popular scapegoats for broader social problems and “moral decline.” In this way, they carry the weight of social problems not only through their personal circumstances of material and political deprivation but also through their symbolic representation as stigmatized and despised people. I am reminded of Orwell’s dystopian book 1984: Defining normalcy and pathology goes hand in hand with blaming the victims – stigmatized and disadvantaged groups – for their own condition as a tactic for masking structural power imbalances, privilege and the social production of inequality; fingers are being pointed strategically.

Truth and Power

A prominent critic of the field of social pathology was French philosopher, historian of ideas, social theorist, philologist and literary critic Michel Foucault. He believed that “truth is a thing of this world: it is produced… each society has its regime of truth, its “general politics” of truth: that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true.” Truth, in this sense, is the result of scientific discourse and institutions, and is reinforced and redefined – constantly – through, for example, our education system and the media.

This suggests that there is such a thing as a ‘battle for truth’, a battle about “the rules according to which the true and false are separated and specific effects of power are attached to the true… [a battle about] the status of truth and the economic and political role it plays.” Truth is not static but is in constant flux and is continuously being (re)negotiated.

Foucault also redefined the concept of power: “power is everywhere, diffused and embodied in discourse, knowledge and ‘regimes of truth’”. Power is not wielded by people as much as it represents a ‘regime of truth’ that pervades society and dictates normalcy or the way things are and ought to be. Power is therefore closely tied to knowledge and hegemony.

This is critical for wrestling with the concept of failure because “under certain circumstances, failing, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing may in fact offer more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world”. So Jack Halberstam in the book The Queer Art of Failure. What are such circumstances?


Being maladjusted to a sick society

Martin Luther King Jr. emphasized the following:

“There are some things in our nation and in our world to which I’m proud to be maladjusted… I never intend to adjust myself to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to become adjusted to religious bigotry. I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few, and leave millions of people perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of prosperity.  I never intend to adjust myself to the madness of militarism, and to the self-defeating effects of physical violence…


And I call upon you to be maladjusted to these things until the good society is realized… 


Yes, I must confess that I believe firmly that our world is in dire need of a new organization – the International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment…Through such maladjustment we will be able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man, into the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice.”

In appropriating the word maladjusted in this way, King was, as the definition goes, failing to live up to the demands of a ‘normal’ social environment. He refused to adjust to the prevailing ‘common sense’ which, at the time, saw African Americans as a lower class of people. He, and the many champions of and in the Civil Rights Movement, were weaving a counter-hegemony: a belief structure, an alternative ‘regime of truth’. A nod to Foucault, who reminds us that power is diffuse rather than concentrated, embodied and enacted rather than possessed.

MLK and Co. remind us that “it is no measure of good health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society” (a Jiddu Krishnamur quote). Here, failure and deliberately failing to live up to the norms and expectations of an inhumane system that arbitrarily defined a group of people as inferior, not human even, led to:

an unbecoming – liberating oneself from having one’s identity be defined by someone else and in a process of ‘becoming’, also unbecoming.

an unmaking – unravelling unjust institutions and remaking the governing structures so that they are accountable to all.

losing – the stigma attached to one’s identity.

undoing – the years of internalized hatred; the control of one’s body through the mind.

not knowing – no longer ‘identified’, one finds freedom to self-determine; paths open up.

creating and cooperating – MLK’s ‘Beloved Community’ appears on the horizon of possibility.

Failing, in these circumstances, was not only revolutionary but also opened up life, for many in society, to a much richer and life-fulfilling set of possibilities; it was undoubtedly creative!

How else can we / may we fail?

“This is a free country, ain’t it,“ Berns demanded. “A man can be unhappy if he wants to be, can’t he?” The Hedonist responds: “No… that myth was exploded fifty years ago. The basic freedom is the freedom to be happy”. So it is written in the book The Joy Makers by James Gunn.

Sara Ahmed’s work, captured in her book The promise of happiness, offers yet another, complimentary lens through which it is possible to look at failure: the failure to be happy. Indeed, there is a politics to emotion, to happiness.

Ahmed tells us that she:

“writes from a position of skeptical disbelief in happiness as a technique for living well. I am interested in how happiness is associated with some life choices and not others, how happiness is imagined as being what follows being a certain kind of being. The history of happiness can be thought of as a history of associations…. The very promise that happiness is what you get for having the right association might be how we are directed toward certain things.”

In this sense, happiness can be described as “being what you get if you follow the right path.” People are often expected to adjust to certain forms of practices of living and thinking in order to follow the right happiness path, or stated differently: “if certain ways of living promote happiness, then to promote happiness would be to promote those ways of living. Thus happiness promotion becomes very quickly the promotion of certain types of [being]”.

Unhappy people, she writes, are often represented as “deprived, as unsociable and neurotic.” Sound familiar? Maladjusted might fit well in this description.

Feminist killjoy

Ahmed brings up the figure of the ‘feminist killjoy’ as someone who is maladjusted to a gender order / regime of truth which is patriarchal, misogynistic and hetero-normative (heterosexual relationships are seen as the norm or normal) in its proclivities: a queer life, for example, is “constructed as an unhappy life, as a life without the ‘things’ that make you happy, or as a life that is depressed as it lacks certain things: a husband, children”.

Recognizing that happiness can be used to justify oppression, as in the narrative of ‘the happy housewife’ or the sentimentalization of heterosexuality as ‘domestic bliss’, killjoys kill joy by speaking up and challenging the norm / or common sense narratives that are sustaining this ideology. Often, they are therefore not the life of the party.

This is a political choice, whereby looking on the bright side of things is recognized as a powerful euphemism for “obscuring certain realities of life, the open consideration of which might prove threatening to the status quo”. Bright-sided, we face the demand that we adjust to a certain way of living, at the loss of alternatives, which “must remain unmourned if you are to stay well-adjusted…. Feminist subjects in refusing to be well-adjusted not only mourn the losses but in mourning open up other possibilities for living.”

Gendered scripts as happiness scripts are challenged in failing to conform to their logic and in living out alternative narratives; undoubtedly a creative and revolutionary process.

Here ends part two. In part three, I will take a closer look at the concept of ‘failure’, both as it relates to our common sense understanding of what it means to ‘be a man’, as well as how it enters into conversation with mental health and stigma. This, all in order so that we will not “deduce from the form of what we are what it is impossible for us to do and to know but [to open] the possibility of no longer being, doing, or thinking what we are, do, or think.” (a Michel Foucault quote)

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