In Jack Halberstam’s Wild Things: the disorder of desire, wildness is a multifaceted concept intertwined with queerness, queer bodies, and human desire. There are many ways of thinking of the “wild” and “wildness” in culture today. The wild speaks of uninhabited growth and unrestrained actions of something (un)natural, of people resisting societal rules, and of animals refusing to submit to humans. The wild is often something that we do not, and cannot, fully understand. Therefore, it is applied to a variety of things that do not make sense to a society that thinks in binaries of male and female, heterosexual and homosexual, and animal and human. With wild queerness comes wild desire. Wild desire is neither heterosexual nor homosexual, but also neither normal nor perverse (Halberstam 11). The people that exhibit wild desire have sexualities that are difficult to place in post-1800s conceptions of sexuality and that are sometimes linked to a longing to become wild and even fully feral (23). Halberstam also investigates what makes something wild, the rules of wildness, and our role in destroying or perpetuating the wild. Wild Things: the disorder of desire explores human fascination with the wild, wildness’ ability to escape binary thinking, and the benefits of being wild.
Through the book’s nine sections, Halberstam traces the wild through the past and the present to assert various arguments about the humanity-wildness connection but also to explain how the wild challenges human hierarchies that separate the human from the other. He begins by locating the original European-American ideas of wildness and longing for the wild in colonialism; wildness was something “native,” non-European, pagan, or savage that Europeans fell in love with and tried to replicate (35, 53-54). At the same time, he highlights Native American and Black uses of wildness; where wildness was once used to control and dehumanize these groups, they reject the idea of humanity as defined by Western standards, choosing to live outside any colonial or Western conception of what they should be (26). He then analyzes specific modern narratives of falconry to point out that some people do not only wish to replicate wildness, but also long to shed their humanity and become feral animals (79). These lines between human and animal blur even further in the section on pets and children that not only brings together wildness and domesticity, but also introduces “zombie humanism” wherein humans project living death onto others so that their humanity can only be discerned when compared with these (un)dead beings (116-120). First, he expands on the feral child, asserting that before entering the adult world, the child lives in a space of wild emotion and rejection of adult-imposed power systems, opting instead to follow the rules of the wild (130). Second, he expands on the trope of the zombie that represents modern anxiety over the blurring boundaries between the wild, the domestic, the living, and the dead (148-149). He finally concludes that the wild is all around us and urges us to deconstruct the world we know and let the wild accept us into its fold (180). Halberstam communicates these arguments as the wild and queerness continue to fascinate him in his professional career and personal experiences.
Jack Halberstam is known mostly for his scholarly writing and public speaking about gender, sexuality, and popular media. He holds a Ph.D. and an M.A. in English Literature from the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis and a B.A. with Highest Honors in English from the University of California Berkeley (“CV”). He is currently a professor of English and Gender Studies at Columbia University and the author of seven books including Female Masculinity and The Queer Art of Failure (Jack Halberstam). In 2018, Places Journal awarded him its Arcus/Places Prize for “innovative public scholarship on the relationship between gender, sexuality, and the built environment” (Jack Halberstam). He has also written articles for journals and magazines and is a co-editor and public speaker on topics such as queer failure, subcultures, gender variance, popular film, and animation (“Bio”). In recent years of his everyday life, Halberstam has gone by he/him pronouns but tried not to ‘police’ other iterations of his pronouns or his name, such as Judith or Jude (Sexsmith). His attitude towards his own gender expression in his personal life reflects the way of living outside binaries that he illustrates in Wild Things. This relationship between queerness, media, and the wild intrigues him so much that he is working on a second volume of this work titled The Wild Beyond: Music, Architecture, and Anarchy (Jack Halberstam).
Halberstam’s methodology for illustrating his arguments in Wild Things is to weave together a variety of media that supports his theories. The book is divided into two parts, the first of which is “Sex in the Wild” which explores wild sexualities and their histories. The first instance of wild sexuality that he mentions appears in chapter one, “Wilderness, Loss, and Death,” with Roger Casement, an Irish diplomat who was both an anti-colonialist figure and a man who sought sexual favors from men in the Congo and the Amazon whose rights he fought for. To Halberstam, Casement displays an ‘untimely sexuality:’ a desire for the wild, non-European person and his/her world understood as queer and yet established before the language of homosexuality (Halberstam 43). In discussing colonial wild desire, he also mentions anthropologist Michael Taussig’s theory that colonialism views the non-western other as savage and violent and in trying to subdue those wild traits ends up displaying those traits itself (37). Halberstam then uses The Rite of Spring in chapter two, “‘A New Kind of Wildness:’ The Rite of Spring and an Indigenous Aesthetics of Bewilderment,” as an example of that colonial view of wildness in art. Through examining its convention-breaking choreography, its inversion of musical chords and instrumentation, its creative team’s queer relationships with each other, and its riotous reception by critics, he presents the ballet as a replication of a fictional Native American rite and of queer fantasies of wildness (53-60). However, his analysis of Kent Monkman’s paintings points to a Native American embracing of this characterization of wildness through works like Seeing Red that parody western art by inserting queer symbols such as Monkman’s alter ego Miss Chief Eagle Testickle (74). Moving away from colonialism, the falconry accounts of J.A. Baker, Helen Macdonald, and T. H. White in chapter three, “The Epistemology of the Ferox: Sex, Death, and Falconry,” demonstrate wild desire outside of the hetero/homo binary that is not attributed to being in the closet or longing for human connection and while related to sexuality, is not actually sexual (79). The wild desire here is to live vicariously through birds and use their knowledge even when that knowledge makes no sense in human contexts (80, 82). According to the falconers, when people have this desire that does not fit human categories, they long for a similarly wild place where their desire does not have to be dissected or designated (94). Thus, part one of the book connects colonialism, art, and queer theory with different interpretations of wildness.
Part two of the book, “Animality,” explores wild animals, children, and forms of living. The introduction to part two, “Animals Wild and Tame,” examines capitalism’s role in human-animal relationships. Halberstam looks at Gabriel Rosenberg’s “How Meat Changed Sex: The Law of Interspecies Intimacy after Industrial Reproduction” which details a contradiction of anti-bestiality laws that forbid bestiality on moral grounds yet allow human-animal contact for meat production, suggesting that the difference between a companion and meat is not love but capital (120-122). Extrapolating from Jane Bennet’s book, Vibrant Matter, he states that pets are not alive in their wild original form, but are not dead like animals for slaughter (119). A pet is useful in its companionship but has to live by human rules; it can nip but cannot bite, so pets become prosthetic extensions of humans doomed to a half-wild life (119). Halberstam also looks at the child, that other half-wild creature, and compares Max from Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are with Pi from Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. He notes that both boys understand that the wild separates people into predator-prey relationships, that it has a set of rules entirely different from the human realm, and that the only way to survive it is to follow those rules and participate in the ‘wild rumpus’ (134-139). Halberstam then returns to “zombie humanism” and how zombies force us to consider the value of life. In the film, White God, animals will revolt if given the chance as in the case of Hagen, an abandoned dog who spends the film meeting and killing other dogs, rising up against pound guards, and feeling indifferent when reunited with his previous owner (159-160). In looking at zombie films, Halberstam demonstrates that zombies’ motivation in The Walking Dead is not to become human but to destroy humanity as agents of the wild (170). He compares this motivation with how In the Flesh tries to question the importance of life over a zombified existence through a gay protagonist who committed suicide and then was revived as a zombie. (172). In his final chapter, “The Ninth Wave,” he analyzes the B-side of Kate Bush’s album Hounds of Love and encourages readers to surrender to the wild in their lives just as Bush seems to surrender to the themes of her music (176-180).
Wild Things’ use of multiple forms of media and of racial, class, and economic perspectives contributes greatly to its success. While referencing other scholars like Foucault, Wild Things works within queer theory by arguing against the view of wild desire as specifically homosexual, instead suggesting that it is something entirely different because the desire is not for a human subject. It also adds to philosophical discourse about the differences and similarities between humans and animals and to racial discourse on slavery as well as empowerment. By looking at where wild things appear in popular culture, making connections, and speculating as to the implications for our lives, the book calls for furtherinvestigation by queer scholars. A good amount of writing on this relationship between wildness and queerness exists, but Halberstam seems to have written the first monograph within the discipline. The book’s insistence on accepting the wild also fits into Halberstam’s previous work with accepting failure as a queer way to escape the status quo enforced by nationalism, capitalism, and heteronormativity. All of this is delivered through Halberstam’s succinct writing, lively tone, and reference pictures for a quick but deep read that makes one question one’s assumptions.
However, Wild Things falls short in a few areas. First, it requires that one know or research large amounts of (sometimes obscure) media. Without knowledge of the referenced material, one’s understanding of the book cannot be as deep as Halberstam assumes it is. One might even say he overuses media. Almost the entire book is quotes of other people, and what original main ideas he does have he sometimes struggles to make flow from chapter to chapter or to sum up efficiently. While he focuses on queer sexuality, he omits queer gender and misses out on analyzing the popular media trope of the wild woman. Most importantly, he offers a critique of modern thinking by pointing out certain issues, but does not attempt to convince the reader to take action. In the chapters on pets, he seems to oppose pet owning, but provides no alternative. He says nothing about his personal stance on pet owning and focuses almost exclusively on dogs, leaving out other more independent house pets such as cats. One is often left wondering if other scholars would agree with his assumptions about and connections between pieces of evidence.
Despite its flaws, I would recommend this work to scholars and those interested in learning more about queer theory or wildness as a concept. However, an open mind is essential to reading this book because of the heavy and occasionally controversial topics Halberstam takes on such as bestiality, animal domestication, and sexual exploitation. Overall, Wild Things presents a roaming yet insightful analysis of the wild and wildness.
1. Halberstam, Jack. Wild Things: the disorder of desire. Duke University Press, 2020.
2. Jack Halberstam. Department of English and Comparative Literature. Columbia University, 2022. https://english.columbia.edu/content/jack-halberstam. Accessed October 21, 2022.
3. “Curriculum Vitae.” jackhalberstam.com. http://www.jackhalberstam.com/cv/. Accessed October 21, 2022.
4. “Bio.” jackhalberstam.com. http://www.jackhalberstam.com. Accessed October 21, 2022.
5. Sexsmith, Sinclair. “Jack Halberstam: Queers Create Better Models of Success.” Lambda Literary, February 1, 2012. https://lambdaliterary.org/2012/02/jack-halberstam-queers-create-better-models-of-success/. Accessed October 21, 2022.
6. Tullo, Vincent. Photo of Jack Halberstam and book cover of Wild Things: the disorder of desire. “Bergen Kunsthall.”https://www.kunsthall.no/en/events/2571-2022-09-29/#. Accessed November 12, 2022.
7. Monkman, Kent. Seeing Red. 2014. kentmonkman.com. https://www.kentmonkman.com/painting/2014/seeing-red. Accessed November 12, 2022.