BY Sean Burns in Interviews | 15 DEC 20

Jack Halberstam on Wildness, Illegibility and the Commercialization of Desire

The gender and sexuality theorist speaks to Sean Burns about his book, ‘Wild Things: The Disorder of Desire’, and why gay men are a fast lane for capitalism

BY Sean Burns in Interviews | 15 DEC 20

Jack Halberstam’s new book, Wild Things: The Disorder of Desire (2020), traces the idea of ‘wildness’ – an uninhibited way of being in the body untethered by categorization – through the twentieth century, proposing an alternative history of sexuality. It draws on a collection of texts, practices and cultural imaginaries, including the controversial Irish revolutionary Roger Casement and the musician Kate Bush. 

Sean Burns I want to begin by asking you about Maurice Sendak’s children’s story, Where the Wild Things Are (1963), which is referred to at both the start and end of your latest book, Wild Things: The Disorder of Desire.

Jack Halberstam I wanted to sketch out how ingrained the notion of ‘the wild’ is within our childhood reveries, to recognize that we consider children to be close to wildness in a way that adults are not supposed to be. Childhood is unscripted, anarchic, without a goal; adulthood is the abandonment of those things. Sendak conveys so much in his beautiful illustrations: if you conjure the figures of the wild things hanging from the trees in his story, you have a sense of what I mean by wild. 

Jack Halberstam bu Vincent Tullo. Courtesy: Duke University Press
Jack Halberstam by Vincent Tullo. Courtesy: Duke University Press 

SB In the book, you’re trying to reorient the words ‘wild’ and ‘wildness’. What are some of the difficulties in using those terms? 

JH ‘Wild’, like ‘barbaric’, has been used to describe everyone who is outside of a civilizing order of things. It becomes quite difficult to repurpose ‘wildness’ because of the way it has been used. We may be critical of these civilizational discourses, yet there’s still a romantic charisma attached to the notion of wildness. Could the term be repurposed or has it, in fact, already been repurposed? Is it part of a post-queer, post-natural understanding of illegible forms of being in a body? Queer has a rather recent provenance, whereas wild has a much longer historical arc that dates back to the medieval period and holds within it many different assemblages, people, things and animals. 

SB I was thinking about the turn in queer art towards wildness – artists like Charlotte Prodger and, further back, Derek Jarman, who engage with wilderness and solitude. 

JH Nice connections there. I think it would be a mistake to see either the isolation in Jarman or the interest in wilderness in Prodger to be part of something called nature or to be a connection between queerness and nature. These investigations into queer wilderness can go many ways and, as you’ll notice in the book, I reject the term eco-sexual because I think it is another way of romanticizing some notion of queerness as ‘natural’. I take up wildness as a terrain that is not necessarily ‘good’. What you find are people who have desires that are not natural and that go beyond what is mandated. 

Derek Jarman at Prospect Cottage, 1990. Courtesy: © Howard Sooley and The Garden Museum, London 

SB You return to desires and perversions that have been brushed under the carpet or never really addressed in terms of categorization.

JH We’re living in a highly moralistic moment. Morality has crept into queerness around, for example, intergenerational relationships – despite the fact that was the primary paradigm of gay life until the 1970s and ’80s. You can’t just suddenly say: ‘Oh, intergenerational queer love means that old people are preying upon young people’. In the past, older people were guides for younger people. Where there is not a highly developed language of homosexuality or queerness that is pleasing to people, other languages are available. One of those languages has to do with the wild.

SB I wonder whether the knowledge gap left by a generation lost to AIDS has contributed to where we are now.

JH Yes, good question. I wonder about this knowledge gap too and about the transition from physical cruising to online hookups. Now, of course, there’s Grindr. It has transformed all gay interactions to money. There’s no liberation to be found on the personal handheld device. 

Jack Halberstam, Wild Things: The Disorder of Desire, 2020. Courtesy: Duke University Press
Jack Halberstam, Wild Things: The Disorder of Desire, 2020. Courtesy: Duke University Press

SB And it’s addictive because it plays into people’s vulnerable desires. 

JH Completely. It’s interesting to look back to the 1930s and the sorts of gay male figures who had desires that aren’t legible in the way that desire must be today. Grindr and other online platforms drain the slow mystery out of finding other queer people. In queer studies, however, scholars have researched the anti-capitalist orientation of cruising. Now, gay male desire is a conduit for profit; it no longer has anything to with the slow, frustrating, cruising that took place around cities at night. Gay men are a fast lane for capitalist accumulation. I look towards these queer figures of illegibility in my book precisely because embodiment of the (particularly white) gay male has been so commodified. 

SB I know that your book isn’t necessarily a call to action, but I am curious how your idea of wildness could be useful in a political sense – personally or more generally.

JH In the US and UK, politics plays out as some electoral, vote-oriented game. It’s that version of politics wildness contests, refusing the idea of a moral scheme within which there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ people. While notions of recognition and visibility combine well with capitalism and consumption, we need other kinds of political vocabularies. What if some forms of desire stood outside of commodification? Thinkers such as James Scott and Édouard Glissant propose ‘illegibility’ [Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, 1998] and ‘opacity’ [Poetics of Relation, 1990] as modes of evading the current economic and racial systems. I offer ‘wildness’ as a way of thinking beyond order, classification, knowing and governing.

Kate Bush Hounds of Love
Kate Bush, outtake from Hounds of Love cover shoot, 1985. Courtesy: Sphere Books; photograph: John Carder Bush  

SB I like the idea of moving towards the chaos; it’s hard to package. People find the lack of clarity hard to own. 

JH It’s the refusal of packaging and the refusal of the logic of ownership. Wildness is not a sorting mechanism. It really isn’t. Wildness is already in all of us; the question is: can our very scripted ways of being come undone?

SB There’s an incredible line you use in the conclusion. You’re talking about Kate Bush and you say that her voice sounds like ‘a woman impersonating a woman’. What it was about her that felt relevant to your writing?

JH I was actually listening to side two of Hounds of Love (1985), ‘The Ninth Wave’, and I realized that Bush was one of these musical figures who exceeded classification. In Wild Things, I track a narrative whereby you’re lost at sea and no one is coming to save you; this is what it means to live alongside wildness. There no ninth wave that is going to carry you safely to shore. 

SB I want to finish by asking you about the spectre of an ecological disaster in the book.

JH For at least the past 200 years, humans have been attempting to reign in the environment and use it only as a vector for profit, capital and industrialization. We’ve actually created the necessity of our own end. We could easily be an irrelevance in the larger sense of ecological time. However, the pandemic has forced us to re-evaluate. At present, the way in which world leadership troublingly combines right-wing politics with authoritarian capital and populist appeal means that we are reaching a moment of crisis that might actually force people to choose something that is not purely driven by capitalism to find a way through.

Jack Halberstam’s Wild Things: The Disorder of Desire is available now from Duke University Press

Main image: set from Washington Ballet performance of Where the Wild Things Are at the Warner Theatre, Washington DC. Courtesy: Getty Images; photograph: Carol Guzy/The Washington Post

Sean Burns is an artist, writer and assistant editor of frieze based in London, UK. His book Death (2023) is out now from Tate Publishing.