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Thursday, February 08, 2007

Failure

So, this afternoon, at State University, I attended a talk being given by a candidate for a position in women's studies -- not a program I'm affiliated with, but several of my friends are, and the talk was about failure. I have an abiding and personal interest in failure, so I went. I'm going to bypass the larger claims of the talk -- which were all about recuperating failure as a mode of resistance to hegemony -- to focus on one of the cases that was described. This is something that I hadn't heard of, and found kind of amazing. Maybe everybody else knows it, but here it is anyway. Despite the fact that it has nothing to do with the Renaissance.

Apparently, for the 2000 Syndney Olympics, the organizers invited Tracey Moffat, an Australian aboriginal artist, to produce a series of photographs of the events. The work that resulted was titled "Fourth," and it consisted of a series of images of people who came in fourth in their events.

You can see the images here.

Fourth, of course, because they're the people who disappear from history altogether -- the people who, even if they're only 1/10,000th of a second behind the first-place person, get nothing, no medal, no mentions on the TV, squat. And, at least our speaker suggested, "Fourth" also because it evokes the "Fourth World," that is, those communities of indigenous peoples "successfully" colonized by white settler societies.

The images are amazing: largely, they're images of total isolation, exclusion, misery. In some of them, you see gestures of consolation -- a disembodied hand reaching out to offer a pat on the back; the offer of a bottle of water; a hug. But in each case the gesture is so clearly futile, if well-meant, that the pathos and the isolation are just increased. In some images, you see the winners standing right next to the losers, but in totally different worlds -- for instance, an image in which one woman, a smiling swimmer, is being interviewed by a reporter, while another woman is standing next to her in complete dejection, head hanging down, one hand on her hip, miserable. The winner and the reporter are washed out, almost into gray, while the loser appears in full or even enhanced color.

I suspect that the Sydney Olympics people were not pleased.

  • At 2/09/2007 01:48:00 AM, Blogger Alexandra P wrote…

    I'm Australian and I have never heard of this before! It's a very interesting idea...

     

  • At 2/09/2007 09:46:00 AM, Blogger Truewit wrote…

    Great images. I guess I'm going to have to rethink the Fs I give out.

     

  • At 2/09/2007 12:20:00 PM, Blogger Inkhorn wrote…

    I thought about trying to turn this into a post on Renaissance failures -- Shakespearean failures? -- but then I got lazy, or past the third drink, and decided to skip it. If anyone has any ideas in that direction, though, I'd be interested.

     

  • At 2/09/2007 05:27:00 PM, Anonymous tempestsarekind wrote…

    Because clearly everything is about Twelfth Night... Malvolio, perhaps? But then Shakespeare does precisely the opposite there of what the photographs show, and turns our attention back to him, in a rather creaky fashion, just when the "winners" are pairing off. So maybe the true fourth-place finishers are people like Sir Andrew and Antonio, who simply drop out of the text during Twelfth Night's final scene, and we never even learn what happens to them (though Trevor Nunn's film version does at least show them leaving).

    Or (given earlier posts) maybe something about how failure is the motivating energy of sonnet sequences?

    ...Right. I'm tapped.

     

  • At 2/09/2007 08:39:00 PM, Blogger Inkhorn wrote…

    Hi, tempestsarekind: I think you're right about *Twelfth Night*, and even that comedy in general is fertile ground for failure: I think I know someone who might go so far as to say that it's the genre that meditates on failure. Maybe.

    A little paradoxical, since it's tragedy that's classically defined around the notion of the mistake -- and yet one could say that the whole form seems designed to demonstrate that there is no mistake.

     

  • At 2/11/2007 04:55:00 AM, Blogger Adam Roberts Project wrote…

    I'm a bit flabbergasted by this, to be honest. Just to get it straight: getting selected to represent your country in the Olympics (which is to say, being recognised as one of the handful of best athletes in a nation of tens, or maybe hundreds, of millions); getting through the heats to the final of an Olympic events; coming not last, or tenth, but fourth ... this counts as

    "...total isolation, exclusion, misery ... [for which] gestures of consolation [are]clearly futile..."

    There's something screwy about a definition of failure that includes such stratospheric success, surely.

    It's a broader point: the fact that Western culture has decided upon "loser" as the ultimate term of abuse, this myopic contraction of success to a single individual ... it is psychopathological, surely. It corrodes ordinary human self-esteem for ordinary human quotidian achievements and courage. A bad thing.

     

  • At 2/11/2007 10:53:00 AM, Blogger Truewit wrote…

    My guess is that coming in fourth in the final heat of the kayak race in the Olympics is actually a more intense experience of failure, both for the participant and for the audience, than not making the kayak team at all. There is a distillation of possibility at that level down to competition's symbolic core, and I'm not entirely sure that's a problem. Devastating failure and elating success are not easy emotions, and if we want to begin heroizing quotidian successes ("I made this excellent bowl of cereal! I AM A WINNER!") then definitionally, I think, we would also have to begin to feel tragedy in everyday errors ("I can't believe I let this cereal get so soggy. I AM SUCH A FAILURE.") Now, we may be able to think our way through to a point where success on the individual level doesn't need the specter of failure, but I'm not sure, practically speaking, that anyone would be able to live that way. Can there be a human subject without some self-centered structures of success and failure?

    On some level, we probably need the overdetermined sports/game failure as a sufficiently distanced figure of disaster. Of course, it may be that by displacing disaster into distant figures we forgo the disasters of our own experience, such that we no longer feel the need to act for change? In which case, it might not be such a bad thing to feel the tragedy of cereal (who worked at the cereal factory; what were conditions there like, etc...).

    I guess all this is to say that seeing fourth placers at the Olympics as devastated losers is not necessarily a social disaster. They lost for all of us. Letting sports losers occlude or replace our notion of human failing on broader societal levels: that is a disaster.

     

  • At 2/11/2007 02:34:00 PM, Anonymous tempestsarekind wrote…

    I guess that what I found compelling about the "fourth place =losing" construction was the idea that failure could be defined by a move from intense hope to, not just dejection, but invisibility (hence, Sir Andrew). The experience of failure then isn't defined by the merits of the person's achievement, but by the failure to be remembered or appreciated.

    Perhaps that's why Hamlet needs Horatio to absent himself from felicity awhile, why Richard II needs the Queen to tell the lamentable tale of him after he's been deposed, or why he wants to tell sad stories of the death of kings. If tragedy *doesn't* ultimately deal with failure (is there a difference between dealing with failures of the individual and with failure?), perhaps those acts of memory are part of why?

     

  • At 2/11/2007 03:48:00 PM, Blogger Inkhorn wrote…

    Adam Roberts Project: Sure, coming in fourth in an Olympic competition is actually an incredible achievement. I think that was what I was trying to say when I wrote, "even if they're only 1/10,000th of a second behind the first-place person" -- in other words, the line between "success" and "failure" here is incredibly thin, and responsive merely to the arbitrary rules of Olympic competition (ie, three people get medals, everybody else gets nothing). Presumably this is also one thing that Moffat was trying to get at -- to show, on the one hand, the intense emotions of the "losers," but also to invite us to think about what "makes" winning and losing. I think it's probably also true, as I take it that you're suggesting, that the logic of sports competitions either extends, parallels, or realizes something pathological that actually underlies much of the rest of our lives. But I have to say that, like Truewit, I'm skeptical about a kind of feel-good solution that just asks us to recognize failure as success. It's one thing to say, "this is crazy"; it's another thing to think of what would make more sense.

    There's another dimension to this, too, that interests me: the fact is, these images are compelling precisely because they're images of "failure," however defined or constructed. A series of images of first-place winners, or fourth-placers who seem just as happy as first-placers, would be completely uninteresting. Partly, this is maybe that bit of morose teenager that remains in most of us, so that we find "losers" more interesting than "winners." Or at least I do. But it also speaks to that aspect of aesthetic or literary production that in effect asks us to take a kind of pleasure in misery. I'm thinking of Aristotle's definition of tragedy, for instance. There's something finally rather troubling about that. I'm thinking, for instance, of Edgar's lines in Lear, 3.6.102-5:

    When we our betters see bearing our woes,
    We scarcely think our miseries our foes.
    Who alone suffers suffers most i' the mind,
    Leaving free things and happy shows behind.

    The pat rhymes perhaps point out the reductive -- and I would also say completely unethical -- nature of that sentiment, before the unfolding of the action makes Edgar retract or disavow his own idea. I think it's fair to say that Shakespeare is here testing some ideas about tragedy itself, by way of that Aristotilean formula.

     

  • At 2/11/2007 04:15:00 PM, Blogger Inkhorn wrote…

    (Of course, Aristotle doesn't talk about taking pleasure in tragedy -- that was my own bastardization).

     

  • At 2/11/2007 10:52:00 PM, Blogger Bardiac wrote…

    Most of life doesn't have clear cut winners and losers the way sports events do, too.

    I remember Martina Navratilovna (sp?), asked if she would retire because she'd fallen to second place in the world women's rankings, saying something about how no one would think the second best heart surgeon in the world should retire.

    One of the things that strikes me about those images, and sporting images in general, is how ephemeral victory is. Every one of those Olympic athletes had won many, many events, but this one loss is bigger, somehow.

    So, I'm reminded of the finish of Henry the Fifth, where, after a big martial victory, after seeing Henry arranging to marry the French Princess, we're reminded that his victory is fleeting, and that in the end, everything he and all his people did, all those deaths at war, were beyond meaningless because Henry died and left an infant son.

    In the end, we're all just food for worms.

     

  • At 2/13/2007 08:58:00 AM, Blogger Adam Roberts wrote…

    Truewit: "if we want to begin heroizing quotidian successes ("I made this excellent bowl of cereal! I AM A WINNER!") then definitionally, I think, we would also have to begin to feel tragedy in everyday errors ("I can't believe I let this cereal get so soggy. I AM SUCH A FAILURE.") Now, we may be able to think our way through to a point where success on the individual level doesn't need the specter of failure, but I'm not sure, practically speaking, that anyone would be able to live that way. Can there be a human subject without some self-centered structures of success and failure?"

    Of course not; and it seems to me that this hypostasing of the terminology is part of the problem: either we reserve 'success' for Olympic Gold Medals and maybe Nobel Prizes ... or else success is utterly meaningless, might as well be used to refer to pouring a bowl of cereal. Don't you think there's a substantive and important middle ground? To raise one's children well, for instance: is that success? To do your job well; to live an ethos of consideration for others, that kind of thing. These are real challenges that most people face; and if criteria of 'success' and 'failure' are hived off for the freakishly athletically gifted (who may, who knows, have neglected their children, have been pains-in-the-arses to everybody around them and so on) then it leaves ordinary humanity without a valuable scale. ('I worked hard for decades to raise my kids well ... but that's no more a success than pouring a bowl of cereal ...')

    inkhorn: "in other words, the line between "success" and "failure" here is incredibly thin, and responsive merely to the arbitrary rules of Olympic competition (ie, three people get medals, everybody else gets nothing)."

    They get to call themselves international-level competitors, genuine contenders, Olympic athletes. It's you that are calling this 'nothing'. I think the point I'm making is that the 'incredibly thin line' you're talking about it perceptual, only. It's not real, it's a matter of point of view. I concede, of course, that it may be part of the motivational package of the hyper-successful athlete . What I mean is: the sort of person who really thinks that coming third is OK but coming fourth is abyssal and self-destroying failure, may be the sort who finds the motivation to run that extra hundred thousandth of a second faster. But the psychological cost seems to me, very likely, ridiculously disproportionate to the gain.

     


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