Knowing When to Fail: The Performance of Failure as a Subversive Practice from Below

Investigator: Dr. Dietmar Meinel

In Secret Cures of Slaves (2017), Londa Schiebinger examines the production and circulation of medical knowledges in the Atlantic world of the eighteenth century ‒ or the “Atlantic medical complex” (Schiebinger 3). One central argument of her research highlights the strategies indigenous and enslaved people pursued to hide their knowledges from European colonizers since, as some hoped, “the failure of European cures [could lead] to political defeat” (Schiebinger 5). In this light, feigning ignorance (agnotology) needs to be understood as a potent practice, “not merely the absence of knowledge but an outcome of cultural and political struggles” (Schiebinger 158). My project takes these insights as a starting point to explore how performances of failure ‒ the presumed failure to understand, the presumed failure to know ‒ function as a strategy to challenge dominant social norms and ideologies.
In Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom (1860), for example, Ellen Craft ‒ cross-dressing as white, male slave-holder ‒ feigns illness and even disability at various moments in her journey to avoid intimate contact with white travelers across the South to secure her freedom. Similarly, in Uncle Tom’s Cabin the enslaved Andy and Sam help Eliza escape the clutches of the slave trader Haley by feigning incompetence in preparing his horse. These episodes present only two instances in which the performance of failure (to meet social expectations or to simply understand) constitutes a subversive practice, to borrow from Jack Halberstam, from below. Rather than formalized and institutionalized forms of expertise, in these instances, everyday practices, informal wisdom, and improvisation constitute forms of knowledge and knowing.
In my contribution, I will look at literary and biographical writing of the Early Republic and the antebellum period (1776-1861) to explore the performance of failure in (and by) narrative texts. In doing so, I follow Gavin Jones and his understanding of failure in nineteenth-century texts as being “tied by literary form to specific problems of being, identity, society, and history, all curiously entwined with the national mission” (161). Consequentially, I argue that knowing when to fail can function as a deliberate strategy to challenge social and cultural hierarchies.