Failing Desire

By Karmen MacKendrick

Subjects: Theology, Queer Studies, Philosophy, Cultural Studies, Comparative Literature
Paperback : 9781438468907, 220 pages, January 2018
Hardcover : 9781438468914, 220 pages, January 2018

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Table of contents


1. Unworking: The Failure of Writing

2. Unwilling: The Failure of Autonomy

3. Unmaking: The Failure to Say

4. Uncovering: The Failure to See

5. Undignified: Failures of Flesh

6. Unfinished: The Failure to Conclude

Works Cited

Draws on theology and queer theory to argue for the power of humiliating pleasures in a culture oriented very strongly to denying any enjoyment that is not about success.


Luckily for human diversity, we are perfectly capable of desiring impossible things. Failing Desire explores a particular set of these impossibilities, those connected to humiliation. These include the failure of autonomy in submission, of inward privacy in confession, of visual modesty in exhibition, and of dignity in playing various roles. Historically, those who find pleasure in these failures range from ancient Cynics through early Christian monks to those now drawn by queer or perverse eroticism. As Judith Halberstam pointed out in The Queer Art of Failure, failure can actually be a mode of resistance to demands for what a culture defines as success. Karmen MacKendrick draws on this interest in queer refusals. To value, desire, or seek humiliation undercuts any striving for success, but it draws our attention particularly to the failures of knowledge as a form of power, whether that knowledge is of one body or of a population. How can we understand will that seeks not to govern itself, psychology that constructs inwardness by telling all, blushing shame that delights in exposure, or dignity that refuses its lofty position? Failing Desire suggests that the power of these desires and pleasures comes out of the very realization that this question can never quite be answered.

Karmen MacKendrick is Professor of Philosophy at Le Moyne College. She is the author of several books, including Counterpleasures and Immemorial Silence, both also published by SUNY Press.


"Recommended for scholars and professionals interested in understanding how humans flourish despite societal efforts to define them. " — CHOICE

"In Failing Desire, Karmen MacKendrick offers her readers something akin to a sequel to Counterpleasures. Pursuing the negative affects of failure, humiliation, and shame across authors that inform much of her work—Bataille, Blanchot, Augustine, Foucault, Kristeva, and Laure—MacKendrick effortlessly and breathlessly provides us with provocative new insights about the limitations of language, the pleasures of submission and obedience, and the wily unruliness of the flesh. For her devotees, the evocative prose and suggestive analysis will seem familiar, without being stale or repetitious; for novices, her style and acumen will seem assured and electrifying. MacKendrick breathes new life into authors, texts, and topics that have been at the forefront of critical engagements with embodiment, desire, and affect for the past several decades. " — Kent L. Brintnall, author of Ecce Homo: The Male-Body-in-Pain as Redemptive Figure