Jack Halberstam’s Call of the Wild

Jack Halberstam’s Call of the Wild

In an interview, the radical social thinker says the idea of “the wild” can help us dismantle our unjust world.


Jack Halberstam mourns the lost dreams of a wilder future. Today, few practical people dare imagine a world free from environmental degradation and police terror, a world in which humans do not try to master nature. The radical Columbia professor’s new book maintains that our environmental and carceral crises trace back just six centuries. As European conquest altered our climate, the state legitimized its violence through colonial ideas of the wild: “savage otherness,” “unspoiled nature,” and an “intuitive connection” to Black criminality. Living in the ruins of genocide and slavery, Halberstam argues that we must remake everything. Wild Things is a deconstruction of the colonial logics of the wild and a reconstruction of the term itself.

How knowledge is produced, classified, and remembered is a common thread throughout Halberstam’s work—an oeuvre that includes the groundbreaking Female Masculinity and The Queer Art of Failure. In Wild Things, Halberstam expands on his almost three decades of thinking about “subjugated knowledge”—or, what our culture has discarded. With this book his goal is to trace a “counterintuitive terrain” of wildness. Jumping from the paintings of Cree artist Kent Monkman to animated films like The Secret Life of Pets, Halberstam curates an archive of wildness—what, at one point, he calls “a record of stolen life”—that merges anticolonial, anticapitalist, and radical queer interests. If there is an imperial order of things, the book insists, then there is also a disorder of things: a way of being “that will not submit to rule, a mode of unknowing, a resistant ontology, and a fantasy of life beyond the human.”

Halberstam is at his best when he takes us to unruly places that escape classification. In a chapter titled “The Epistemology of the Ferox,” Halberstam searches for alternative worlds in a group of lonely queer writers intent on becoming falcons. Their desires to become feral may not be “nice or right, good or true,” Halberstam writes, but the inability to fit into a “tidy homo-hetero binary” points to realities beyond the constricted boundaries of modern political life. Like the “wild thinkers” who inspired the book, Halberstam urges us to rethink the entanglements of freedom, rule, expert knowledge, and bewilderment.

We talked over the phone the week before the book’s release. Curled up next to me, my house’s dog growled softly each time I asked Halberstam a question.

—Taliah Mancini

Taliah Mancini: I want to start by asking about the colonial context that produced the wild in opposition to the modern and civilized. If the colonial defines the wild, how does the wild exceed its colonial definition?

Jack Halberstam: That’s the question at the heart of this project: Can we take this term “wildness” out of the discursive context within which it has been used against people of color, Indigenous people, and queer people, and find in it glimmers of other ways of being and thinking? There is a political context within which the recasting of a malign term is a very potent strategy. Even the category of queer is a reclamation of a term that was intended as an insult and that has since been crafted anew in order to reject the politics of respectability within a lexicon in which queerness was an insult. My work joins forces with that kind of intellectual operation. It’s not easy to do, I will say that. It’s not as if we are now outside of a world within which civilization or discourse dominates. We’re very much still living with the consequences of the narratives about civilizing orders of things that emanated from colonialism and that continue today to script relationships between white people and people of color in particular. That said, the category of the wild holds within it multitudes. I tried to explore both the dangerous terrain of the wild and then lay out some of the other scripts that are available if we dig a bit deeper: to produce the category of wildness as a type of terrain within which political meaning is reoriented and reorganized.

TM: And this type of terrain reorients our thinking about queer liberation?

JH: Totally, but Wild Things is a counterintuitive queer project. It is not about creating a new lineage and then pointing to “some wild queer people.” It’s more a way of saying that the script of queerness is already a tidying up of an extraordinary range of desires. Those extraordinary desires are not in and of themselves politically radical, but their exclusion from the narrow swaths of identities and desires that we recognize is symptomatic of a larger system of rule. Take, for example, my chapter on proto-queer male writers from the middle of the last century who are preoccupied with falconry. This preoccupation is not just a quirky subculture. It names a strong desire for the feral or for breaking out of domesticity altogether. Instead of offering another corner of queerness to explore, I’m arguing for a wild relationship to the political: one that is not determined in advance by an identity politics and one that has much larger political ambitions than the folding of LGBTQ people into the status quo.

TM: Instead of making one central claim, the book wanders through different texts and imaginaries of high and low culture to make its arguments. How would you describe the shape of this book?

JH: There isn’t one central claim, but there are arguments that I keep returning to: one of which is that wildness is not exhausted by it being positioned as the other to civilization, the other is that the interest that humans take in wild animals is not only about domesticating those animals—as we see in the falconry chapter—but also about this fantasy of becoming feral and staying feral. And while becoming feral is clearly a powerful fantasy, that fantasy masks a deeper orientation to nonhuman worlds and stands in direct opposition to the practice of pet owning. People think that they are in relationship to any fragment of the wild by looking at their family dog. They are sorely mistaken. What they look at when they look at their family dog is the very evidence of domestication that Euro-American humans have used to quell any kind of unruly entity in the world around them. Domestication goes hand in hand with heteronormativity, colonialism, and white supremacy, and yet, for many, many people, pet owning offers a route to the nonhuman world. I’m trying to uncover some hard truths here about what is actually wild. The wild is something other than a deeply scripted relationship between a human and an animal.

TM: This idea—that pet owning is part and parcel of today’s carceral crisis—is a difficult one for humans to entertain.

JH: Many of us are deeply invested in an abolitionist position that thinks beyond the carceral state, but we have created carceral states within our homes. In that mini-carceral state, you very often find a pet and a child: the two figures that enter the world with a degree of wildness that has to be tamed, domesticated, and trained. That training is the way in which we keep reproducing the carceral, even as we think we are opposing it. No one likes to hear that they’re potentially complicit in a system they abhor; no one wants to hear either that their deeply intimate relationship with their animal might in fact reek of something else. Humans don’t like dogs because they’re smart or loyal; they like them because they’re docile and subservient in ways that other animals are not. Confront that piece of disquieting information when you say “heel” or “sit,” as opposed to thinking “Oh, my dog and I are evidence of a cross-species love.” I’m trying to find out how we oppose wildness wherever we find it, even as wildness holds on to a kind of romantic allure. The family pet is a perfect example: You like the animal because it’s not human, but you domesticate the animal because it’s not human.

TM: There’s a great moment, toward the end of the book, where you ask, “What if we are not the authors of revolution, but the masters who must be overthrown?” What would it look like for animals to make a break for freedom?

JH: The narrative of animal riot is commonplace in Euro-American literature. Animal Farm by Orwell is the most obvious—but also the least satisfying because it is allegorical and not really about animals. The animated film Chicken Run is a smart and amusing fantasy of chicken revolution. Two more recent animated films focus specifically on the spectacle of revolting pets: the very disappointing Secret Life of Pets and the much more satisfying English version called Flushed Away. The Secret Life of Pets does actually engage the idea of an animal underground in which animals are literally plotting to overthrow their human masters—and not just that, but to kill them, master them—but then you find out that the abandoned animals just want love, not riots. It’s so disappointing when you have offered the possibility of an animal uprising! But there are other films that I mention, like Fantastic Mr. Fox or White God, where animals actually do oppose human rule. White God is a Hungarian film featuring spectacular scenes of dogs releasing themselves from an animal shelter and running through the street, savaging humans as they take over the town. That film to me is extremely powerful. There are extraordinary eye-level shots of dogs just pouring into the street and then running at full tilt, in a way that can only be scary to the human viewer. That kind of spectacle is the one that has to be suppressed by the pet owner and the animal lover in order to believe that their relationship to the animal is benevolent and good—that the dog/cat/bird actually loves you back!

TM: This connects to your thinking about bewilderment. A big part of the wild is about getting lost, feeling alone, sitting in this counterintuitive space of shedding knowledge—rather than acquiring it and classifying it.

JH: Yes. I frame the book with some analyses of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. This is a beloved children’s book about loss, exploitation, wildness, and bewilderment. Max, the story’s child protagonist, leaves his family home in search of something different, something wilder. When he finds the wild things, he decides that, rather than being ruled by his parents, he would rather rule the beasts. But this is no more satisfying than being ruled. Sendak’s tale opens onto a space of bewilderment where the quest for knowledge only entangles the child in more confusion and alienation. The question that I ask in the book is whether we can sit in that bewildering space that is neither the space of the sovereign nor the space of the ruled and the governed. Are there other relationships to power that are held by bewilderment? Bewilderment is just a great word, because it conveys a sense of becoming wild. It’s as if there is a process in which you become wild through not knowing.

TM: You write that this book came out of a shared project with [the late scholar] José Muñoz and [the cultural critic and historian] Tavia Nyong’o. Can you talk more about this collaboration? Can the wild be thought of as a sort of fugitive space for un-imagining the current condition?

JH: The reason that people are so taken, for example, with Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s The Undercommons—why it’s become such an anthemic book for this political moment—is precisely because it is interested in theorizing fugitive spaces, of what they call Black Study. Fugitivity itself is the goal rather than the means. Fugitivity is what you engage in to get to a sort of intellectual openness and curiosity. This generative power of fugitivity can be expressed in modes of protest. So you don’t read The Undercommons, for example, to pull forward a clear manifesto of what is to be done. You read it to engage in wild thinking. You go to where the wild things are. Similarly, with Tavia and José, we were all reading works that would loosely be classified as anarchist. We had watched this amazing film made by Wu Tsang, called WILDNESS, which was about a club in Los Angeles that both created a space for queer performance and quickly became overrun by hipsters. The film offered an early take on gentrification in LA. We were all thinking about the way in which the regulatory influence of the mainstream just eradicated the wildness of that space, and we realized that the category of wildness itself was super useful for thinking outside of some of the very tame politics that had become connected with queerness.

We fantasized that we were going to write a kind of three-way book on wildness that would pull together many of our interests and political goals. Of course, it never came to pass, because José died tragically young. In order to keep our shared project alive, Tavia and I published an issue of South Atlantic Quarterly that brought together wild thinkers like Jodi Byrd, a queer Indigenous scholar who writes on computer games and empire among other things, and Saidiya Hartman, whose book Wayward Lives has radically changed how people are talking about beauty, experimentation, Blackness, and rebellion. I think of Wild Things as very much in conversation with a group of wild thinkers who are trying to break with disciplinary thought, break a little bit with the university and its tidy regimes of knowledge-making, and burst into these other spaces—some of which are lyrical, some of which are imaginatively capacious, some of which are anarchist, some of which are dystopian, and all of which try to change the critical lexicon for political life now.

TM: Where do you find radical thinkers taking these risks?

JH: I think many people nowadays are looking to art for hints of radical expression, but increasingly people are experimenting with speech, political forms, and scholarly practices. We’re looking to make sense of a disorder of things, a kind of disordering slant that will not bring us into the cozy fold of political consciousness but that will shatter this corrupt political framework that we’re stuck with right now and that we desperately want to get out of. The utopian world impulse is no longer world-making; it is world-unmaking. For anyone looking around at the political status quo, it is clear that we will not get to a better or more politically exciting framing of potentiality through the mechanisms that are in place right now. We will have to absolutely dismantle and destroy the world we live in. In terms of the environment, in terms of the political corruption of our moment, in terms of consolidation of global capitalism, we’re in a moment that calls for anarchist dismantling. Hopefully, what I keep calling the script of wildness is part of that.

TM: Yes—the book’s orientation toward unmaking and unbecoming is appropriate for what feels like the end of the world.

JH: All of the thinkers I’ve mentioned, plus some of the Afro-Pessimists like Calvin Warren and I would mention Rizvana Bradley here, are saying that the end of the world is something that we should be seeking to bring about. “World,” right now, refers to the consolidation of global capitalism, white supremacy, and colonial domination. We’re in a moment when we do have to unmake worlds. That’s what we saw this past summer, where so many young people went into the streets and took massive risks with their own health to not engage simply in peaceful protest but to tear things down. In Minneapolis, people were not asking simply for accountability from the police, instead the call was to “defund the police.” We are calling for the abolition of this particular system of so-called law and order. If this is law and order, we need disorder.

How will this dismantling happen? Well there are many activist groups who are already figuring out how to bring about the end of this world, from Black Lives Matter to the occupation of City Hall in New York City this summer. These political actions do not have to last for months to be politically effective; in fact, when they do last for too long, they tend to get lousy with white, male power. These effective protests prove that the end is nigh. It’s already happening in activist spaces, it’s happening in intellectual zones, and it’s happening through the efforts of young people who recognize that this political system cannot continue. That’s the only thing that encourages me right now: the spectacle of large collaborative groups of young and older people saying no to the political status quo and actively working towards a wilder future.

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