“If there is one thing in this world that I hate, it’s losers. I despise them,” then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared to a group of high school students, expressing a firm belief in success and failure as the results of individual action and ambition. Himself embodying the American Dream as an immigrant who ‘made it big in America,’ Schwarzenegger demeaned the worth of individuals he perceived to be ‘losers,’ and thus echoed an attitude prevalent in contemporary Western neoliberal politics that glorifies ‘success,’ i.e. striving for the good life, as the only valuable way of being in the world and as the ultimate goal of one’s existence. Those who fail, the cultural myth goes, lack the determination and the will to work harder, run faster, and jump higher than those who succeed. This crude simplification of success and failure veils the fact that ‘winning’ and ‘losing’ do not merely depend on individual action or choice, but are actually enabled by an intricate web of power dynamics and regulatory regimes. As J. Jack Halberstam reminds us, for most people “recognizing that … success is the outcome of the tilted scales of race, class, and gender” (Queer Art of Failure 3) is much harder to do than giving into the “mass delusion” that success is a matter of attitude and that there really is no good excuse for an individual to fail (Ehrenreich, Brightsighted 13). Scrutinizing the many ways in which individuals fail economically, politically, socially, physically, or culturally provides revealing insights into the power of hegemonic discourses and the pressure to meet normative ideals, the various human and non-human actors involved in what we usually consider ‘human failure’, but also into the productive potential and the pleasures failure has to offer.

At this conference, we will explore the failed individual in as many facets as possible. Instead of approaching failure as something solely humiliating and undesirable, we want to focus also on the rewards failing can offer and on its transformative potential by investigating the spaces of resistance, anarchy, and chaos failure occupies and opens up. The inability of queers to conform to normative patterns of desire and reproduction, or the failure of crips to meet the standards of physical productivity, fundamentally challenges teleological, future-oriented conceptions of ‘success’. Similarly, the negative effects associated with failure—disappointment, pain, disillusionment, anxiety, despair—may form a productive counter-discourse to the ideology of positivity rampant in neoliberal societies. However, we also want to pay due attention to the systems, structures, and media dispositifs that foster and frame an individual’s success and that set up an individual’s failure in the first place. If, in capitalist societies, someone’s success depends on someone else’s failure, it seems all too necessary to ask how the failed individual is framed, disqualified, and punished for the sake of maintaining order and cultural legibility. Moreover, in the face of an increasing technologization of life and a neoliberal global economy resulting in variants of labor exploitation and precariousness in both the West and the Global South, we want to investigate, in the vein of posthumanism, under which circumstances human agency can be regarded as a force that can be explained in terms of an autonomous and rational concept of subjectivity. Do we have to rethink notions of responsibility and accountability if the human subject is only one node in a complex network of economic, political, cultural, and historical influences? How does a new media environment dependent on corporate algorithms and promoting digital self-tracking affect the way we think about personal growth and failure? In what ways is the life of the failed individual particularly endangered, precarious, and vulnerable? What is the significance of master narratives and cultural myths like the American Dream in the dialectic of success and failure? In what ways does U.S. political culture’s focus on individualism veil the structures at work that act as stepping stones for some and as ‘glass ceilings’ for others? Which role does the disciplining of the body and the regulation of sexuality, gender, and desire play in the production of the failed individual?

We invite scholars to submit a short abstract (300-500 words) and a short CV to failedindividual2015 at gmail.com by 1 March, 2015. The workshop is not limited to a specific discipline or field of study, but it will be particularly useful for scholars with a background in American Studies, Media Studies, and Cultural Studies. Travel subsidies will be available to PhD students unable to procure funding from their own institution. Contributions could, among other things, engage the following issues:

  • The nexus of capitalism, neoliberalism, productivity and failure
  • Failure in relation to the body
  • Posthumanist perspectives on failed subjectivity, agency, and knowledge
  • The effects of new media on self-knowledge, autonomy, and ‘self-optimization’
  • Intersectionalities and strategies of ‘othering’ (gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, etc.)
  • Biopolitics and biopower
  • Failed figures (drug addicts, prostitutes, the unemployed, the homeless, etc.) in literature, culture, media discourses and history
  • Failure as a result of the choice not to participate in exploitative structures
  • Ethics, violence, and the precariousness of life
  • Cultural myths and narratives of positivity
  • Failure as punishment for sinning in punitive theologies


  • Rosemarie Garland-Thomson (Emory University, Atlanta)
  • Geert Lovink (Hogeschool van Amsterdam)
  • Christopher Taylor (University of Chicago)

Organizers: Susanne Hamscha (University of Goettingen), Katharina Motyl (University of Tuebingen) and Regina Schober (University of Mannheim)