Professor Jack Halberstam discussed his latest book on queerness and wildness at an event at the Heyman Center for the Humanities.

On Monday, February 1st, the Society of Fellows and Heyman Center for the Humanities held a virtual event to celebrate the new book by Jack Halberstam, Wild Things: The Disorder of Desire. Halberstam is a professor in the English and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies departments and a notable queer theorist. The event was a panel discussion between several other academics who had all previously read Wild Things and formulated responses and critiques to share with Professor Halberstam. The panelists were Tavia Nyong’o, a professor of Performance Studies, American Studies, and African American Studies at Yale, Joseph Albernaz, an assistant professor of English literature at Columbia, and Audra Simpson, a professor of Anthropology at Columbia. The event was moderated by Alan Stewart, Chair of the English Department at Columbia.

To begin the event, Professor Halberstam introduced Wild Things and laid out the main arguments of the book. He began by arguing that we have a cultural sense of what “wildness” is because we have all been exposed to a “colonial discourse” in which “civilization comes to save us from the wild,” including people who are characterized as wild or “savage.” Halberstam described Wild Things as a new perspective of wildness that can be viewed as a critique of this colonialist discourse. Citing the Foucaultian concept of the “order of things,” Halberstam proposed wildness as the theoretical basis for a “disorder of things”. 

Professor Halberstam mentioned that the title of his book was taken from the popular children’s book Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. He described his reading of that book as a queer narrative and allegory in which a little boy, Max, rebels against the domestic nuclear family and journeys off to discover a new place where he doesn’t have to be constrained by the domestic. Halberstam argued that Max can be read as a colonial traveler who declares that he will be “king of the wild things”, but eventually realizes that he finds that role no more fulfilling than the role of the domestic subject, so he returns home. This story served as the “blueprint” for Halberstam’s inquiries in Wild Things.

Another section of Wild Things is devoted to arguing for an “aesthetic of bewilderment,” a word that has etymological relations to the wilderness and “getting lost.” For Halberstam, such an aesthetic is found in examples where artists push back against the established, ordered canon, asserting the place of wilderness and disorder within that canon. He mentioned the queer and indigenous artist Kent Monkman, whose works currently hang in the entrance hall to the Metropolitan Museum, as an example of someone whose work exemplifies disorder.

A final core interest of Wild Things is an examination of the role of the zombie as a cultural symbol for the untamed and the wild. Halberstam discussed how the figure of the zombie is often a symbol for the racialized other, citing specific examples such as the movie Night of the Living Dead. Surprisingly, Halberstam connected his discussion of zombies to a self-described “annoying polemic against pet ownership,” saying “the zombie you live with is your cat.” Halberstam questioned the desire of humans to feel good about themselves for taking a symbol of the wild into their own home and domesticating it.

Next, the three panelists presented responses and critiques to Wild Things, creating a captivating academic conversation that was occasionally hard to follow, as the presenters were all clearly experts in their field, speaking with passion about a topic that some might consider inaccessible. Yale professor Tavia Nyong’o showed a brief slideshow, addressing the areas of Wild Things that overlapped with the existing fields of queer theory and afro-pessimism. Nyong’o shared his perception of the book as a critique of neo-eugenic biopolitics and the colonizing power of language. He expanded on Halberstam’s idea of the zombie as a potential allegory for Blackness, with the undead characteristic of zombies being interpreted as an allegory for social death. Nyong’o noted that a central tenet of afro-pessimism is that Blackness should not be made an analogy for anything else, asking how Halberstam’s book sought to dialogue with that principle. 

Up next was Joseph Albernaz, a professor of English at Columbia, who described his perception of Wild Things as “a toolbox for unbuilding the world,” with wildness as the central force that pushes back against the boundaries of modernity. Albernaz brought in the idea of strikes, citing the Columbia Tuition Strike as an example, and mentioned how the idea of “wildcat strikes” – strikes that are organized without the consent of the union leader – relates to Halberstam’s thesis. He described wildness as a generative power, mentioning the Black Lives Matter protests of the past summer that were characterized as “wild” but were clearly forces for social good. Albernaz concluded by saying that the thesis of Halberstam’s book – ”unbuild the world you inhabit” – can also be expressed by the phrase “wildcat the totality,” strike against the organizing principles (like time) that shape the modern world. 

Finally, Professor Audra Simpson spoke, adding nuance to the conversation by pointing out that there are many instances in which wildness has not been used as a liberating tool; she used the example of Black and Native American men, for whom “the category of wildness has been a curse and a cause.” Simpson described how Native American women who married white men immediately lost their “wild” status and were legally barred from visiting the reservations where their families lived. Simpson then addressed Halberstam’s argument against pet-owning (her personal investment in the topic seemed apparent from the cat that periodically came to sit on her lap), arguing that animals were often organizing principles instead of symbols of disorder. She mentioned how animals were organizing for the lives of many indigenous groups and served as relations between them and water, family, and food. In the context of many indigenous societies, animals were themselves repositories of knowledge.

Professor Halberstam then addressed the new ideas that his colleagues had put forward. He acknowledged that Wild Things was “deliberately disorganized,” itself a reflection of the desire of disorder. He acknowledged that the history of wildness is littered with violence and white supremacy, citing examples of the media describing groups of people of color as “wild” to scapegoat them. Arguing that we live in a world built on the one hand by a toxic civilizing discourse and on the other hand by white supremacy, Halberstam said that we must unmake and unbuild the world. He described Wild Things as an examination into the instances in which clues towards wildness assert themselves from within the discourses that we already have.  

To end the event, there was a brief Q&A session. There were several questions about the politics of pet ownership (clearly a defensive subject for many in the audience), and a question about how wildness is found in our mainstream politics, especially concerning questions of foreignness and “third-world-ness”. To this, Halberstam said that his book is not a geopolitical treatise, but it does address how the discourses of wildness and anti-wildness are found at the edges of a lot of the mainstream political formations that are relevant to our modern world. Wild Things is a book that investigates the aesthetic conceptualization and the aesthetic function of wildness, which are related to our politics in important ways.

The event as a whole was a uniquely interesting conversation that certainly introduced me to a lot of new and exciting ideas. At times, the level of the discourse was so elevated that it left my head spinning, but I clicked out of the event with a new perspective on the relationship between wilderness, queerness, politics, and pet-ownership, and I resolved to actually read the book whenever the intense coursework of this semester abates a bit. 

Wild Things: The Disorder of Desire is available from Duke University Press.

Image via event email.