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Jack Halberstam, Wild Things: The Disorder of Desire

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1Jack Halberstam, Wild Things: The Disorder of Desire

2Duke University Press, 2020. Pp. 219. ISBN: 9781478011088

3Constantine Chatzipapatheodoridis, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki

4Jack Halberstam’s Wild Things: The Disorder of Desire delves into the fascinating and often uncharted territory of the wild. Whether it constitutes a modus operandi that exists parallel to and outside of the normative circle of capitalist human living, or a conceptual frame—“frame” here is a word choice that Halberstam would probably repudiate—that opposes and transcends conventional thinking on topics of sex, intimacy, domesticity, among others, the wild unravels before us and beckons us, as the writer often sees, with a dangerous, yet alluring call of abandonment and vitality; hence, the disorder of desire.

5Setting out to explore wildness with analytic tools obtained from pre- and post-millennial cultural theory, yet casting an oddly fresh look, Halberstam attempts various definitions of the wild throughout, although with no particular intention to pinpoint it. In one of these, it is proposed that “[w]ildness has no goal, no point of liberation that beckons off in the distance, no shape that must be assumed, no outcome that must be desired” (7). From the very first pages, one sees how Halberstam emancipates the process of writing and, by extension, the reader from the instinctive drive for categorizations. Remaining true to the nature of the wild as well as to the equally untamed projects of the past (consider In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives, NYU, 2005; and, The Queer Art of Failure Duke UP, 2011), the author wanders through an assortment of fields that range from colonial literature to falconry to animated films.

6The book is divided into two parts, “Sex in the Wild” and “Animality,” each comprising smaller chapters and numerous case studies. In the first part, the author engages in a colonial critique of the wild, linking it to racial and ethnic sexualities as these were experienced in early twentieth century literary paradigms, colonial politics, and avant-garde performance. Establishing a dialogic bridge with Michael Taussig’s essential work on Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing (U of Chicago P, 1987), Halberstam argues that wildness challenges the very process of signification as “[i]t cannot mean because it has been cast as that which exceeds meaning. Wildness cannot tell because it frames telling as another tool of colonial rule” (39). The author also proposes an aesthetics of bewilderment, a mode that moves beyond the precolonial notions of space and time, and encloses a confounding, yet enchanting sense of “unknowing” the world (66). Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (1913), choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris, is aptly employed here as demonstrative of this veritable queer rupture of temporality and bodily configurations that simultaneously captivated and befuddled audiences.

7With regard to queer topics, Halberstam has been an influential figure in modern queer theory and Wild Things attests to this status as it is steadfastly grounded in the scholarship of the field. The author’s main arguments, in fact, draw from seminal projects of queer theorists such as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Lee Edelman and José Esteban Muñoz, to mention a few, as well as from works of scholars that currently have a significant impact on queer studies, namely Madison Moore (consider Fabulous: The Rise of the Beautiful Eccentric, Yale UP, 2018). The author does not simply connect wildness with queerness, but braids the two strands of theory together thus expanding their discursive potential. An interesting case in point is the book’s third chapter in which the author theorizes his concept of the epistemology of the ferox (i.e. the wild), a nod to Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet (U of California P, 1990). Reading into the cultural, ethical and erotic discourses that pervade the taming of wild birds, i.e. falconry, Halberstam lays emphasis on the utterly futile task of the said activity to domesticate a hawk or a falcon, and underlines an erotics of longing for the wild through the image-symbol of the (un)tamed bird in queer literature. Contrary to Sedgwick’s closet and to use Halberstam’s words, “the epistemology of the ferox recognizes a wider material purview within which knowing and, more importantly, unknowing take place” (81).

8In tandem with queer theory, the writer performs an astute ecocritical reading of animality in the second part of the book. More specifically, the idea of pethood is critically challenged here by the author who underlines pet owning as an action that zombifies the so-called domestic animals to which humans juxtapose themselves in order to validate their qualities of benevolence, sentience, and empathy (149). Halberstam identifies this stance as zombie humanism, which is “a way of defining the human as alive only by positioning our humanity against other creatures that exist only as our prosthetic extensions” (116). Here another argument is raised that inevitably points to the capitalist subtext permeating the culture of pet owning as well as the industry of animal breeding and slaughtering, a highly controversial issue that the writer treats cautiously. Halberstam expands on the concept of zombie humanism into antihumanism in the second chapter of this part, offering context for the zombie metaphors that abound in today’s popular culture and applying a close reading approach of Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi (2001), animated film The Secret Life of Pets (2016) and TV series Walking Dead (2010-). Halberstam culminates with a sound critique of zombie antihumanism, the notion “within which the living, the dead, the living dead struggle against the constraints not simply of the body, but of the tight webs made up of race, class, gender, and sexuality that continue to bind us to certain corrosive and enduring narratives laden with hierarchies and deadly fantasies of domination” (167).

9Overall, in Wild Things Halberstam elaborates on a critical body of work of the past and present to provide firm ground around the concept of wildness, a ground that might eventually collapse once wildness is configured. In spiraling through a vortex of references and proposed concepts while simultaneously anchoring the book firmly in the theoretical traditions of colonialism, queer theory and ecocriticism, the author traces the forces of the wild and conveys the ensuing sense to us, making it clear that so long as the wild remains untamed, it retains its organic dynamics.

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“Jack Halberstam, Wild Things: The Disorder of DesireEuropean journal of American studies [Online], Reviews 2021-2, Online since 13 July 2021, connection on 18 September 2021. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/ejas/17083

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