Fail. Fall. Frail. Flail. Flounder. Fizzle. Flop.

What does it mean to fail together?

In ethnographic collaboration there are lots of places to flail, fall, and fail. We can disappoint our interlocutors, and we can crash with them. Failed collaborations may manifest in dysfunction, dissonance, discord. Or they may result in relationships severed and withered: broken people and broken projects. Failure feels rotten all around because it is affectively tied to fear and ambivalence; it lingers as the abandoned project that never managed to thrive. Failure can strike when communication and aesthetics are at odds, occurring at any moment or through many moments.

Yet failure can be choreographed in better and worse ways. Jack Halberstam (2011) writes about the queer art of failure: an ability to embrace the nonprogressive, nonreproductive, and nonteleological narrative of human endeavor. That there is an art to failure is an often-eclipsed truth. If we leave behind the conceits of intentionality and certain acts of creation, we may be freed to revel in failure: to dig into and play in the disarray. Our horizons of composition might alternately aim for sweeping or infinitesimal attentions to the ethnographic worlds we inhabit. But we can also arrange ourselves to appreciate the utterly forgettable, the botched attempts and the fuck-ups. It is possible to design for failure, like an engineer who builds a bridge not to stand forever, but to fall well when it does (for it surely will).

Working together means that we are able to share the glory, but a failed collaboration also allows us to share the blame. Failing with others may be more tolerable because it spreads the pain more evenly. Perhaps the condition of shared risk—suffering failure together—makes collaboration a more caring endeavor. Collaborative failure can transpire when the work ceases to generate new knowledge or sustain interest. The affective costs of failure may also be so high that we allow dysfunction to continue in projects that were never meant to be: a collective refusal to pull the plug. When a collective fails to communicate or to inspire, or when a collective ceases to want to work together, is that an indicator that the collaboration has become terminal? Maybe.

What is considered a failure in one setting may be a success in another; failure can be measured from within or without. What is a failure for the anthropologist could just as easily be a success for the subject, and vice versa. When an anthropologist mourned the fact that his informants on the reservation no longer danced as they had in the past, Vine Deloria, Jr. (1988) critiqued him for failing to realize that cultural change occurred among Native people. Who decides what marks failure? It may, after all, be a way to sabotage the status quo, to refuse an accepted social order.

Success and failure may appear at opposite ends of a pendulum but in practice they converge. Failing to behave, failing to succeed, failing to perform the normative or the expected—these are all potentially defiant acts of failure. What is perceived as failure by some may signal political or social subversions for others; in collaboration these distinctions can become more vivid and take on different kinds of lives. Failing to adhere to conventions certainly gives us space to explore, to innovate and to generate alternatives to the usual state of things.

The paradox of failure is that we can only fail if we strive to do. To fail is to set a goal, to act, and to aspire. Failure marks initiative and courage, as well as action, ambition, and intent. At times, it involves succeeding in just the opposite of what was intended. Preconditions for failure include progress, change, desire, and expectation. Failure is a process of enduring trials and trying anew.


Deloria, Vine, Jr. 1988. Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. Originally published in 1969.

Halberstam, Judith [Jack]. 2011. The Queer Art of Failure. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.