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To allow for failure is to tell the story of the poor man’s success. Hollywood biopics dedicated to music groups repeat the same cliché with slight variations: ordinary talented people from depressed environments who rise to stardom out of nothing to become hits on track and album lists, after a long journey through the wilderness characterised by past failures. The story traces a more or less meandering line to its end: commercial success.
We are fascinated by this rise from rags to riches. One of the most popular videos on YouTube is that of Susan Boyle performing I Dreamed a Dream on a talent show and leaving jury and audience speechless. Susan is the spitting image of social failure: a poor spinster, tacky and ugly, a loser who nobody would have assumed was talented, which is why her shining performance was so surprising. Today, Susan Boyle is a professional singer who makes a very good living from music.
The lesson we learn from such stories is that even if you have everything going for you to become a loser, the system always offers you a chance to succeed based on your talent, your effort and, above all, your unshakeable faith in yourself. This story dignifies the multiple failures and humiliations that leading figures have to brave before achieving success, and the pleasure of audiences is enhanced when they realise how each setback, each twist in the script, each mishap actually forms a part of a terrible ordeal with a glorious ending in which success is a certain and well-deserved reward.
What has come to be accepted as success is produced in commercial activities and professional careers related to creativity and cognitive economic practices. Associated with entrepreneurs, creators of start-ups, artists, actors and technological inventors, etc., it is connected to rising careers, to stories regarding the surmounting of adversity, outstanding individuals who overcome social mediocrity, who are self-made and have transcended their limitations, who have ambitions and have forged their own careers. These individuals have successfully started businesses; they have professional prestige and reputations, healthy bank accounts and enviable personal lives — in short, lifestyles associated with normative homogeneity and wealth.
Inciting this trend, business administration schools consider failure a relative evil – desirable even – insofar as it is another step on the way to success, although it may appear to be a step backwards. Examples are plentiful: nobody was buying Bill Gates’s first ideas, but years later he went on to found Microsoft and today he is one wealthiest people in the world. Walt Disney was forced to close down his first animation studio. Steve Jobs was sacked from Apple. Some of Richard Branson’s multiple business ideas (Virgin) went broke. Even Coca-Cola has failed products.
All these tales of self-improvement are welcomed by motivational literature and self-help that appropriates itself of Beckett’s quotes and prints them on teacups and T-shirts: ‘You tried. You failed. No matter, Fail again. Fail better.’ This is how capital commodifies failure just as it appropriated itself of the iconography of the Left or of subcultures. So we have to try, try again, try better, because in neo-liberal capitalism failure is the engine that maintains the machinery, the movement that enables you to reach a brilliant future. And both FailCons and gurus quote so many cases of success following failure that we simply must stubbornly insist.
Not all failures are seen through the lens of neo-liberalism. There is another way of telling these stories with happy endings: Einstein dropping out of school, works by Manet and Cézanne being rejected by official Parisian salons, throws by Michael Jordan not scoring baskets or J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter manuscript being turned down quite a few times. Such inspiring fables tell us of man’s ability to transform failure into a lesson, to value each moment, to find one’s place in the world or simply to discover the use of the trial and error method.
All these are examples quoted by Charles Pépin in Les Vertus de l’Échec, an essay in which he ponders on the mistake as a forger of character, an indispensable step in the acquisition of wisdom, a lesson in humility and an engine of knowledge. One of the first teachings in judo is how to fall and get up having learnt what made you fall. The search for truth through failure implies accepting reality; it favours reinvention and allows us to make necessity a virtue.
In the light of this perspective, it isn’t failure itself that appears perverse because we learn from mistakes. We could also affirm that much of what has improved our life on earth stems from mistakes and our perseverance through failings. Indeed, the problem lies in the consideration of our final objective; in understanding failure only as the dialectical opposite of success in its regulatory aspect; in accepting failure as a necessary evil for attaining positions of power and privilege.
This is why to distrust the idea of failure is thought-provoking. Like a Sisyphus or a mouse in a wheel, we are driven to move ad infinitum from fault to fault, starting over again as if obtaining our reward depended solely on our individual will, personal effort and talent. As if the determinants of race, class and gender had no place in this story. We fail because we need to do so if we are to succeed. As if failure didn’t harm our self-esteem or our indebtedness, as if going bankrupt were marvellous and everyone could scale the social ladder all the way up to the attic. Given that our success will depend on our skills and on an indefinite number of attempts, not achieving it is equivalent to not wanting it or not being worthy of it. Not failing enough implies actually being a failure.
In The Queer Art of Failure Jack Halberstam breaks the duality of ideas of success and failure suggesting that success is a trick. So, wouldn’t it be better to stop trying to attain it? If it requires so much effort, says Halberstam, perhaps failure will be easier in the long term and offer different rewards, such as alternative, more creative and cooperative ways of being in the world. According to him, we could perhaps ponder the possibility of failure as resistance and decide to not even try to succeed, just wander through life without aiming to reach the summit of socio-economic rewards. We could simply consider failure as a place where we can critically rethink the objectives we have inherited. May everyone find in their own model of social failure the measure of their happiness. May no one be left behind simply because there was once an ahead.
To lead this sort of failed life isn’t to settle into the intellectual mediocrity of those who don’t try to improve themselves; it’s to distract capitalism, to occupy a place no one is looking at, to escape the dominant narrative. To stop trying to succeed. To fail worse.
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Charles Pépin, Les Vertus de l’Échec, Allary Éditions, Paris, 2016.
Jack Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure, Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina, 2011.
"A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world" (John Le Carré)