Jack Halberstam’s Call of the Wild

December 10, 2020

Jack Halberstam mourns the lost dreams of a wilder future. Today, few practical people dare imagine a world free from environmental degradation and police terror, a world in which humans do not try to master nature. The radical Columbia professor’s new book maintains that our environmental and carceral crises trace back just six centuries. As European conquest altered our climate, the state legitimized its violence through colonial ideas of the wild: “savage otherness,” “unspoiled nature,” and an “intuitive connection” to Black criminality. Living in the ruins of genocide and slavery, Halberstam argues that we must remake everything. Wild Things is a deconstruction of the colonial logics of the wild and a reconstruction of the term itself.

How knowledge is produced, classified, and remembered is a common thread throughout Halberstam’s work—an oeuvre that includes the groundbreaking Female Masculinity and The Queer Art of Failure. In Wild Things, Halberstam expands on his almost three decades of thinking about “subjugated knowledge”—or, what our culture has discarded. With this book his goal is to trace a “counterintuitive terrain” of wildness. Jumping from the paintings of Cree artist Kent Monkman to animated films like The Secret Life of Pets, Halberstam curates an archive of wildness—what, at one point, he calls “a record of stolen life”—that merges anticolonial, anticapitalist, and radical queer interests. If there is an imperial order of things, the book insists, then there is also a disorder of things: a way of being “that will not submit to rule, a mode of unknowing, a resistant ontology, and a fantasy of life beyond the human.”

Halberstam is at his best when he takes us to unruly places that escape classification. In a chapter titled “The Epistemology of the Ferox,” Halberstam searches for alternative worlds in a group of lonely queer writers intent on becoming falcons. Their desires to become feral may not be “nice or right, good or true,” Halberstam writes, but the inability to fit into a “tidy homo-hetero binary” points to realities beyond the constricted boundaries of modern political life. Like the “wild thinkers” who inspired the book, Halberstam urges us to rethink the entanglements of freedom, rule, expert knowledge, and bewilderment.

We talked over the phone the week before the book’s release. Curled up next to me, my house’s dog growled softly each time I asked Halberstam a question.

—Taliah Mancini

Article can be found here.