This essay will look at the ways in which failure, clowning, play and neuroqueering intersect. Practice “failing well, failing often” (24), says J. Halberstam, a prominent contemporary queer theorist in their book The Queer Art of Failure. Failure – the failure to be perceived as “normal,” “sane;” the failure to “succeed” in hegemonic society – is something to strive towards. It liberates us from all kinds of norms – neuronormativity; heteronormativity; patriarchy; the norms of physiological ability; capitalism; colonialism—and is a route through which to queer ourselves in a variety of ways. Neurodivergents are often unable to “produce” in the traditional, “business-as-usual” way, and this queers the hegemonic narrative of success that rules such norms, thus threatening the whole structure.
Clowning and play are powerful tools through which failure can be performed. I will be focusing on neuronormativity specifically in this essay, and will detail the ways in which clowning and play can be utilized to further the neuroqueer project and disrupt neuronormativity by providing examples from my own life experience as well as from critical theory and cultural studies.
When I was younger, I went on a “humanitarian clowning” trip to Peru, with Patch Adams and the Gesundheit Institute. It was aimed at providing a new modality for health education, i.e. teaching sanitation and self-care skills to a marginalized village, as well as bringing joy to those in hospitals, orphanages, and on the street. We would dress up in wacky clothes and act silly. This simple act was, in fact, incredibly transformative. We crossed all kinds of social boundaries, committing supposed faux pas, and it felt like we were getting to the heart of humanity, creating true connections. When I went into “clown mode,” which became something I could embody internally without having to express it through dress-up, I was able to interact in much more open ways with people than I had ever been able to in my life previously.
As I have become more socially aware over the years, I have realized the ways in which this work, or rather the theory behind this work, is problematic. The work was presented in a way that proposed that clowning was a route to complete societal transformation. This is not the case. The way we clowned did not rid society of structural inequality, even as it brought joy and silliness an individual or a community’s life. The oppression that brings the lack of health care and sanitation was still there. People will continue to get sick and be put in orphanages. However, I believe this work can be adapted to become a central part of a neuroqueering project, of a project that can liberate us from internalized oppression by transgressing cultural-societal boundaries and creating space for failure to act within the norm. Also, if pushed further, I do believe societal transformation is possible through this work, in the way that clowning reveals the weak spots of the status quo which we can then take down. The clowning trips may not be set up to be transformative in lasting ways, but I believe we can harness the power of the clown to transgress and transform structurally within neuronormative society, specifically here in the United States because that is what I am familiar with.
In The Queer Art of Failure. Halberstam challenges the commonly held notion of “positive thinking” being the right way. A lot of the discourse surrounding positive thinking is also the discourse of hegemony and the status quo. Halberstam acknowledges the privilege inherent in “positive thinking” when they state: “believing that success depends upon one’s attitude is far preferable to Americans than recognizing that their success is the outcome of the tilted scales of race, class, and gender [and ability]” (3). As Halberstam says, “heterosexuality is rooted in a logic of achievement, fulfillment, and success,” (94) and this restricts the range of sexual identities that can be expressed openly. I would like to integrate neurodiversity into the concepts of positive / negative thinking and “success” – heteronormativity is integrally linked to neuronormativity. When one bends, so does the other. The demand to live and think “positively,” in terms of success and production, not only prevents the full spectrum of sexual and gender identity from being expressed; it is restrictive and prevents neuroqueer explorations and play as well.
I would like to introduce a few terms which I will explore throughout this essay: neuroplay, neuroclowning, and the neuroclown. By embodying the neuroclown, we are embodying a type of neuroqueer – one who tinkers around with their neurology, consciousness and embodiment in a way that embraces failure and seeks to perform social faux pas. Neuroplay and neuroclowning are similar – they are the process of tinkering with one’s neurological embodiment, in a playful, childlike way, one that has much room for learning and accepts failure as a natural and necessary part of that learning. Negativity is not shied away from in these processes; in fact it is essential. False positivity will not achieve transformation or liberation from neuronormativity.
In his book Free Play, about his experience with play and improvisation as a musician, Stephen Nachmanovitch reflects on the “Sanskrit word lila, which means play. Richer than our [English] word, it means divine play, the play of creation, destruction, and re-creation, the folding and unfolding of the cosmos” (Nachmanovitch 1). It is “spontaneous, childish, disarming” (Nachmanovitch 1). This is the definition of neuroplay closest to how I address it in this paper. It is chaotic, disruptive and transformative. It evokes youthfulness and sacred folly, like that which a clown presents. This is how play contributes to the neuroqueering of humanity.
As Halberstam states, “being taken seriously means missing out on the chance to be frivolous, promiscuous, and irrelevant. The desire to be taken seriously is precisely what compels people to follow the tried and true paths of knowledge production” (6). By choosing to be taken as a joke, we are opening paths or “detours” (6) through which to bend the constructs of neurotypicality and neuronormativity. Halberstam also discusses “low theory” and the “silly archive,” which should be accessed instead of “high theory” in order to have an accurate understanding of the ways our culture is queer, or can be queered. Halberstam considers Lauren Berlant’s idea of “the counter-politics of the silly object” (20) – silly aspects of culture, such as children’s films (which Halberstam spends much time analyzing) reveal depths of cultural meaning and dominant paradigms, by revealing the ways in which these paradigms are being challenged by the “silly archive” itself. Children’s films, in Halberstam’s view, are often incredibly politically radical, in a subversive, under-the-radar way that adults do not perceive. They communicate ideas about socialism, subverting capitalism, and queering society through non-heteronormative relationships between humanoid (but not always human) characters. I would like to suggest that clowning acts similarly and is part of such a “silly archive” – it can shroud radical dynamics in a level of play, which makes it easier for them to work their magic and create change while not disrupting mainstream societal comfort and creating pushback.
I would like to briefly discuss an example of “low theory” that I came up with, looking at the children’s film Inside Out. Within the narrative, the character “Joy” within the protagonist’s brain attempts to prevent imminent destruction, but in the end “Sadness,” who had been discredited throughout the whole process, is the only route to saving the protagonist by allowing her to come to terms with her “negative” emotions and thus begin to feel again. We need to make room in our consciousness for other emotions and experiences besides the “positive” ones, because they are what determine our fate, and make us interesting, odd, fascinating, neuroqueer human beings - neuroclowns.
Neurodivergence is a failure, in the sense that there is an “association of failure with nonconformity, anticapitalist practices, nonreproductive life styles, negativity, and critique” (89). Since failure is queer, neurodivergence is queer as well. Halberstam uses the “silly archives,” which for them consist of animated films and the like, but could just as easily consist of clowning performance, improvisation and play, to “open up new narrative opportunities” that “have led to unexpected encounters between the childish, the transformative, and the queer” (186).
There is a concept of clowning common in contemporary urban culture and Black culture. It means to roast, to make fun of, to point out the ridiculousness of a person or thing. I think this illustrates the power of clowning in a broader sense. If utilized correctly, it can target those people and institutions that oppress us, and reveal their absurdity. It can be a method to tear down oppression, at least internally and within the community.
Another concept Halberstam discusses is stupidity. I will start by acknowledging that the term “stupid” is often one of offense for neurodivergent individuals, because it has been and is still used to hurt and oppress them. However, I believe the way Halberstam discusses it reveals that it can be reclaimed, in a similar way to the way “queer” has been. Stupidity is a state that clowns embody. “In relation to the theme of productive failure, stupidity and forgetfulness work hand in hand to open up new and different ways of being in relation to time, truth, being, living, and dying” (Halberstam 55). Neurotypical society has a particular relationship with “time, truth, being, living, and dying” – one which is successive, linear, and set in place. The labels of “stupidity and forgetfulness” that neuroclowning embraces mix up that relationship. They create “a queer temporal mode governed by the ephemeral, the temporary, and the elusive” (54). There is space within these concepts for movement and re-interpretation. Thus society becomes more neuroqueer.
Forgetfulness is a common aspect of a clown performance as well. “For women and queer people”—and I would add, neuroqueer people—“forgetfulness can be a useful tool for jamming the smooth operations of the normal and the ordinary” (Halberstam 70). Similar to stupidity, forgetfulness is not linear, not “straight.” It doesn’t allow for “business-as-usual” capitalism and normativity to function, and therefore is a useful tool to harness in the spirit of breaking down normative society.
After my clowning trip is probably when I was my most neuroqueer. I could easily access my “inner clown” and perform her in a variety of contexts. At work, as a hostess at a restaurant, she allowed me to connect with customers and bring jubilance and authenticity in a way that is not normally present is such a scripted interaction. Everyone has a unique inner clown (or neuroclown) that we can learn to access by practicing queer, fantastic failure. Clowning gives us the opportunity to be different kinds of people. Each neuroclown is unique to each individual, and thus contributes to the neuroqueer project by furthering our neurodivergence and non-normativity – allowing us to be our full odd selves unapologetically.
Society values people based on their ability to produce. Autistic people, and other neurodivergents, have such non-normative experiences in regards to production and time. For example, in a conversation I had recently with an autistic woman, she recounted her experience with “time agnosia.” She does photography, and can have a sense of time in micro ways that allow her to know when the light shifts subtly. She will make beautiful images, and then she’ll finish her photo shoot and not know what day it is. She embraces this aspect of herself wholeheartedly, attempting to neuroqueer herself through exploring her time agnosia (Yvonne Rathbone, personal communication, March 14, 2016). Her neurodivergent sense of time allows her to create in a way that, if she were attempting to subscribe to normative notions of time, she would not be able to. However, in the process she is also choosing to embrace failure to produce in the sense that capitalism expects one to produce – in a linear, standardized way. Halberstam writes, “disciplinarity, as defined by Foucault , is a technique of modern power: it depends upon and deploys normalization, routines, convention, tradition, and regularity” (Halberstam 7-8). By failing to be disciplined in particular ways we are foiling such “modern power.” Clowning also traditionally plays with the idea of time. Ritual clowns in many cultures occupy liminal spaces in space & time in order to transgress social norms and create transformations of various sorts.
The Trickster trope “plays tricks or otherwise disobeys normal rules and conventional behavior. The Trickster openly questions and mocks authority, encourages impulse and enthusiasm, seeks out new ideas and experiences, destroys convention and complacency, and promotes chaos and unrest. At the same time, the trickster brings new knowledge [and] wisdom” (TV Tropes). This trope comes from contemporary as well as traditional indigenous cultural practices around the world, often symbolized by an anthropomorphic animal of some sort. For example, the Mmutle (Hare) is a “main trickster of Southern Africa, who also appears in... East, West, and Central Africa” (Dube). In the African Diaspora, African trickster stories have been extremely important. They have “functioned among the enslaved Africans as a sign of hope in hopelessness. Despite the seeming powerlessness of enslaved people, the trickster stories continually said, ‘you can resist, you can survive, you can get out, you can in fact beat the master’” (Dube). The Trickster is seen in contemporary Western narratives also, such as cartoons involving Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam, with Bugs as the Trickster that foils Sam’s efforts to hunt him down with his ridiculous antics (TV Tropes). All of these examples are anti-authoritarian in that they serve to point out the weaknesses in authority and take advantage of them.
Many Western cultures have adopted concepts of play as a route to anti-authoritarianism and revolution. For example, the Situationists invited play into their “anti-art” and “anti-spectacle” (Ko 1). They were a radical French group that interpreted Marxist theory in the art world and sought to revolutionize the power dynamics of the status quo. Within this framework, “play is used to undermine the very institution of language, and therefore both social order and authoritative control” (Ko 1).
The aim was to drift playfully, not under the will of the subconscious, but to come to a realization of space outside its ideologically imposed position... ‘to notice the way in which certain areas, streets, or buildings, resonate with states of mind, inclinations, and desires, and to seek out reasons for movement other than those for which an environment was designed’ [Plant 59]. The goal was to mentally deconstruct the city; to remove the center through disorientation and therefore remove the power of the state over the city” (Ko 6).
Thus capitalist ideology is challenged through playful wandering. Neuronormativity is immediately challenged when capitalism is, because it is capitalist society that allows neurotypicality to rule and neuronormativity to flourish.
When I was younger, I went to a circus sleep-away camp in Northern California. They had all kinds of classes – juggling, unicycling, stilts, aerials, theater, improv, martial arts, clowning.... I tried many of them but eventually fell into focusing on stilts. However, within the camp in general, we were encouraged to play, to try new things, to take risks, and to embrace our weirdness. This was the first time I felt comfortable being my odd, neurodivergent self. Without having the language for it, this camp’s philosophy was welcoming neurodivergence and encouraging neuroqueerness through play and performance arts. During our nightly shows, not only did everyone cheer regardless of how “well” we did, but we were encouraged to screw up, to fail – as this was a natural part of being human and an opportunity to learn and grow. I mention this because I see places out there doing work to encourage neuroqueering and neuroplay, but unfortunately they don’t have the resources to enact real change. I was privileged to be able to go to this expensive, mostly white camp. I want to create a revolution that is accessible to all, and that all can benefit from. I want spaces to be created where the ideas of neuroclowning and neuroplay can be widespread and utilized to their full potential to liberate us from internalized oppression and take steps towards freeing us from structural oppression. That is why I’m writing this essay, to make known these possibilities for embodying the clown, the buffoon, the “stupid” and “forgetful,” to practice failure. This is a way to grow; this is a way to transform ourselves and transform society.
I will leave you with this poem, written by Henri Michaux:
One day, maybe soon.
One day I’ll uproot the anchor that keeps my ship far from the seas.
With the sort of courage that’s needed to be nothing and nothing but nothing, I’ll let loose what seemed indissolubly close to me.
I’ll carve it up, I’ll knock it down, I’ll smash it, I’ll give it a shove.
All at once disgorging my miserable modesty, my miserable schemes and “needle and thread” chains.
Drained of the abscess of being someone, I’ll drink nourishing space again.
Striking with absurdity, with degradation (what is degradation?), by explosion, by void, by a total dissipation-derision-purgation, I’ll oust from myself the form they believed was so well connected, compounded, coordinated, suited to my entourage and to my counterparts, so respectable, my so respectable counterparts.
Reduced to a catastrophe’s humility, to a perfect levelling as after a big scare.
Dragged down beyond measure from my actual rank, to a low rank that I don’t know what idea-ambition made me abandon.
Annihilated in pride, in reputation.
Lost in a far off place (or not), without name, without identity.
CLOWN, demolishing amidst laughter, amidst grotesqueness, amidst guffaws, the opinion which against all evidence I’d formed of my importance.
Without a cent into the underlying infinite-spirit open to everything,
open myself to a new and unbelievable dew
by force of being null
Clown on, Comrades.
Dube, Musa W. “The Subaltern Can Speak: Reading the Mmutle (Hare) Way.” Journal of Africana Religions, Vol. 4, No. 1 (2016).
Halberstam, Judith. The Queer Art of Failure. Duke University Press, 2011.
Ko, Christie. “Politics of Play: Situationism, Détournement, and Anti-Art.” FORUM: University of Edinburgh Postgraduate Journal of Culture and the Arts. Special Issue 02, Summer 2008.
Michaux, Henri. “Clown.” Clown. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Mar. 2016.
Nachmanovitch, Stephen. Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art. New York, NY: Penguin Putnam Inc., 1990.
Rathbone, Yvonne. (March 14, 2016). Personal communication.
“The Trickster – TV Tropes.” TV Tropes. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Mar. 2016.
Simone is a neuroqueer, mad, invisibly disabled genderfluid mixed white and mestizx person. They are in the process of obtaining their master's degree in Anthropology and Social Change at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, CA. In addition to their passion for human liberation, disability justice, and mad studies, they are interested in somatic dance and movement, play, food culture, queer fashion, and witchcraft.