An Unruly Nature: Review of Wild Things: The Disorder of Desire by Jack Halberstam
Wild Things: The Disorder of Desire. Jack Halberstam. Duke University Press, 2020.
In the face of the impending and undeniable ecological crisis, the search for a solution and the call to change our current habits is sometimes met with pushback in the form of a utopian dream. This dream takes on the guise of a nostalgia for a mythologized past, an Edenic state of existence in which humans live in harmony with nature. Yet, as William Cronon writes in his article, “The Trouble with Wilderness: Or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” such an approach is misguided, as it is built on the idea of a mythical frontier that separates a supposed inherent knowledge of Nature from the contaminated society of today—a society that has lost access to this knowledge through the colonial act known as “becoming civilized.”
Jack Halberstam picks up where Cronon’s article left off and continues the task of exploring wildness by further critiquing this colonial definition of the term. Wild Things: The Disorder of Desire is primarily a text that outlines what wildness is not: “wildness is not the territorial equivalent of freedom […] wildness has its own regulatory regimes, its own concept of order, and its own hierarchies and modes of domination.” Focusing on the epistemology of wildness, Halberstam argues that, in its purest form, wildness is a form of existing outside of borders and orderliness while simultaneously denying any attempts of having such an orderliness imposed upon oneself.
True to its subject, Wild Things is interdisciplinary, drawing on examples from literature, art, cinema, and dance, refusing to draw a line between media or between high and low culture. It was refreshing to pick up a supposedly formal academic text and be greeted with a preface where the epigraph quotes from DreamWorks’ Madagascar: a note to the reader that Halbertam’s book creates a safe space for thinking about serious questions, such as the rhetoric of the monster in discussions of sexuality and race, while occasionally drawing on so-called “non-serious” examples, such as children’s movies (The Secret Life of Pets) and picture books (Where the Wild Things Are).
Halberstam’s book is cumulative, building on the exploration of wildness rather than insisting on a single definition from the onset. Wild Things employs a vast vocabulary of terms that Halberstam introduces, “defines,” and then explores in each chapter through individual case studies, all of which build on the larger question of how various works and people have confronted wildness and lived to tell the tale. Chapter two, for instance, looks at the “un-art” of the infamous ballet The Rite of Spring (1913) and paintings by queer Swampy Cree two-spirit artist Kent Monkman as examples of “bewilderment,” an aesthetic strategy that works against colonial knowledge to cause disruption and disorientation. This array of terms and concepts—“becoming feral” and “fierce(ness),” “wild things” and “zombie humanism”—guide the reader through the book while successfully conveying the multivalence of Halberstam’s subject, offering a vocabulary that names without asserting dominance.
Wild Things’ interest in interspecies relations and establishing wildness as a synonym for queerness, as well as Halberstam’s periodic engagement with the work of Donna Haraway, brings to mind the cognate fields of animal studies and queer ecology. Halberstam mentions both fields, albeit in passing and a rather critical manner. On animal studies, Halberstam rightly states that the field “relies on a false claim about human equality to emphasize the unequal relations between humans and animals,” too focused on narrowing the gap between human and animal to notice how blind the idea of a single collective “humanity” is to ongoing racial injustice. Similarly, Timothy Morton, Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands, and Bruce Erickson’s work receives a brief discussion in chapter three, as Halberstam acknowledges the overlap in the discussion of intimacy and sexual desire between queer ecology and Halberstam’s own idea of the “epistemology of the ferox.” Halberstam ends this brief ideological encounter by warning of the dangers of the ambivalent queer wildness, which risks “reproducing the terms it tries to displace.” As with the central concept of wildness, Halberstam resists placing Wild Things into a single, neatly labelled box, while not denying its shared or overlapping interests with other work. Halberstam’s book instead works towards establishing a framework for thinking across disciplines, using wildness as a glue for keeping the philosophical patchwork of approaches together.
The most notable gap in Wild Things is the absence of posthumanist theory, a strange omission considering that Halberstam dedicates a short section to transhumanism in chapter five, as well as the fact that Halberstam and Ira Livingston edited a book on this very topic in 1995, Posthuman Bodies. While the reminder of transhumanism’s eugenic origin is necessary for moral and argumentative purposes, Halberstam’s engagement with the movement makes the absence of posthumanism feel glaring and slightly confusing, especially since Haraway’s influence and presence are palpable in Wild Things. Whereas transhumanism is an imperative, posthumanism is a philosophical avenue, offering an alternative way for thinking about what it means to be human and thereby decentering the idea that there is a “proper” way of doing so. Seeing how the book’s goal is to displace the colonial and white approach to talking about wildness, posthumanism feels like a fitting ally in the shared campaign of expanding through disruption.
Although Wild Things builds on the existing work that Halberstam has already done on the topic, the book was successful in introducing a first-time reader like myself to Halberstam’s ideas, whetting my appetite for more while simultaneously encouraging me to re-engage with the work of Haraway, Morton, and others that I was already familiar with. Rather than focusing on the destination, Wild Things dismantles the endpoints of beginning and end, human and animal, and focuses on the process, on the vast network of identities and states of being held together by the neutral and powerful force known as wildness.
Margaryta Golovchenko (she/her) is a settler-immigrant and second-year MA student in art history and curatorial studies at York University in Tkaronto/Toronto, which is covered by Treaty 13. She is also a poet and critic, and tweets at @Margaryta505.
This review was commissioned by editor Sabrina Mittermeier in December 2020 from a hard pitch; the author and editor had no acquaintance prior to the author’s involvement with ARB. A review copy was arranged by ARB from Duke University Press.