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Fail Again, Fail Better? Utopia, Memory, Radical Politics and Radical Research

Two roundtable seminars

Organised by Mathias Thaler and Davina Cooper 17 & 18 March 2022

The following short piece of writing is based on my contribution to the 2nd Roundtable on the 18th March, 2022. It relates to my own work, but also to joint work in development with Mark Schmitt at the University of Dortmund.

The Roundtable framing conceived by Davina and Mathias is here:

Utopia Failure 2022
Download PDF • 57KB

Other contributors included:

17 of March – 9:30-11:30am GMT

  • Sixtine Van Outryve d’Ydewalle: This Is The End? Failing at the Elections for a Municipalist Strategy

  • Heather McKnight: Anticipatory Failure: Sustaining Hope as Collective Care in Digital Campaigning and Online Activist Spaces

  • Cristy Clark & John Page: Reconceptualising “Failure” in the Utopias of the Lawful Forest

  • Neil Walker: One-Shot Utopias

  • Lee Stickells: Cold Showers: Architectural Experiments in Eco-domesticity

18 of March - 9:30-11:30am GMT

  • Tom Moylan: Vectors of Utopian Failure

  • Aoife O’Donoghue & Ruth Houghton: Failing Upwards: Utopias, Imperialism & International Law

  • Mark Schmitt: Letting Be: Pessimist Epistemologies as/and Failed Utopianism.

  • Shona Hunter: The Distribution of Power through Fantasies of Institutional Success and Failure

  • Mathias Thaler: Failure and Success in Social Dreaming

The distribution of power through fantasies of institutional success and failure

by Shona Hunter

Content warning

Before I start, I just want to alert people to the fact that when I talk about failure, I am highlighting issues of violence and trauma in social life. This means that sometimes the languages and concepts I am using in my work are making reference to experiences of harm and violence to self and others, including suicidality. This referencing is most explicit today in my visuals.

SHOW SLIDE [Impossible Governance/Whiteness Handbook/Tiana Clark Can’t talk about the trees without the Blood)

Image by Terrance Hayes

More on Tiana Clark

The basic issue I want to illuminate in my piece relates to the distribution of power through/in failure (materiality/signification/affect):

The pretty reductively expressed basics of the complex multidimensional patterning I am seeking to draw attention to is as follows in the ten points below.

This formulation follows the feminist psychosocial analysis I develop in Power, Politics and the Emotions (Hunter, 2015). But it seeks to extend this to consider the consequences for social change if the sorts of everyday resistances I am looking to highlight are ignored, as failed forms of resistances.

So I am interested what the:

1. (neo)liberal democratic institutional space(s) are (ostensibly) designed to address inequality in terms of access to social goods etc. The fantasy of success we are therefore working with is the ability of liberal institutional spaces to (re)distribute resource equally in terms of need, to institute equality at the least, if not equity.

2. But this space is haunted by its own creation through the relations of violently produced inequality – there is a denial of the global coloniality producing that space (ie the violently constitutive nature of the particular global colonial (neo)liberal state formation which dominates our current enactment of such space).

3. This contradiction between the desire for equality and the (ongoing) existence of violating inequality in institutional space is what is lived through inhabiting these spaces by those working in these spaces[1] – it is what I call the ‘relational politics’ of institutional life (I come back to some elaboration of this below).

4. This contradiction is experienced and narrated culturally as failure.

5. This failure to address cultural-material needs through supposedly better new/improved governing processes gets located in those being failed and those raising the failure (like Sara Ahmed’s (2010; 2017) figure of the feminist Killjoy. In Power, Politics and the Emotions there are all sorts of killjoys).

6. This experience of ‘being’ the failure reproduces symbolic and material violence of (neo)liberalised democratic political spaces all over again.

7. One of the responses this (violent) experience of being positioned as a failure are the increasing calls for institutional abolition (growing outside of or as extensions to the prison abolition movement - Jacqui Wang, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Angela Davis et al. Alternative institutions within the institution. Some making more or less explicit reference to the most culturally obvious abolitionist movement).

8. When these abolitionist calls translate into the mainstream and public governmental domains the everyday radical institutional acts - the ‘relational politics’ being lived through the experience of (persistent) failure are potentially lost to us.

9. This process of this potential loss is what I call in Power, Politics and the Emotions the (neo)liberal suicide. One of the things that interests/concerns me is the increased calls for abolition since I completed this book[2]. This is not because I am in support of our currently expressed liberal state formation. The book is a critique of our fantasies about the straightforward substantialist existence of this. But because I am for the relationalities of care that are expressed through some forms of collective enactment we could think about as a state. And which are happening in this (neo)liberal state formation in spite of its ongoing violences.

10. If this state suicide is foreclosed, I am interested in whose acts and agency is being lost and what that does to our ability to recognise challenge and change as it is happening and how that reproduces mythologies of institutional stasis necessary to reproducing the expression of violence.

Shift in the starting points of our analysis of failure:

To recognising that failure (or loss in my psychosocial, brown, queer, feminist, terms) is constitutive:

· that it is relationally produced,

· that it is therefore not collapsible to violence or trauma,

· and that the commonplace collapses in ‘our’ ‘global colonial North western cultural’ thinking, is a key part of how ideas of failure function to reinforce current categorical relations of power.

What I am interested in is a) how the (cultural and material) distribution of failure (can) work to reproduce domination and how thinking about failure differently is necessary in resisting relations of violent domination[3]. And b) how recognising failure as constitutive of life, can be a productive force, enabling us to produce new relationalities that we cannot know or control for in advance, or maybe recognising the new in what appears to be already settled.

So my proposition that I would put even more strongly now than I did in that previous book is that it is this negative cultural association with failure works to maintain a deep-seated cynicism about the potential for (formal) institutional change and the reordering of categorical power through the institutionalisation of care and the redistribution of resources. It is this association which works to keep in place our current hierarchal intersecting orderings of power.

Contextualising global colonial whiteness:

Relational politics is the (re)distribution of the intersecting categorical ordering of the social relations of power and inequality in the context of our current global coloniality.

I shorthand that specific sort of global coloniality as ‘global colonial whiteness’. This is because I understand this global coloniality as rooted in the use of race and racialisation as a way of producing an intersecting hierarchical construction of who is (at least potentially) fully human and who is not and who is therefore disposable in the practice of extracting and then owning and manipulating natural and human resources. The codification of humanness in our present hinges on a mythological hierarchical black/white binary. [4]

In a recent paper on decolonizing (white) care (Hunter, 2021) I talk about this global colonial whiteness in this way:

As one of the primary tools sustaining colonialism into contemporary coloniality, racialisation is rooted in the nullification of lived experiences, and the denial of particularity and context which produces us in our entangled humanities: as Gail Lewis puts this ‘the full range of emotional experience generated between us’. This nullification works in the pursuit of an anti-relational, individualist human ideal that we know in the present as whiteness (See Tuhiwai-Smith 2021; Tuck and Yang 2012). This whiteness is rooted in a refusal of vulnerability, a valuing of patriarchal authority, virility, cis, heterosexual, biological survival of the (hu)man as the fittest. It is a white fantasy ideal of power, agency and the ability to possess and control the external world which is valorised in the everyday overrepresentation of this intersectional construct: the human ‘Man’ (Wynter 2003). This nullification of experience necessary to the identification with Man impedes the human ability to care other than in the narrowest culturally formalised reproductive heterosexual familial sense. It therefore impedes our ability to know ethically ‘that others matter’ (Tronto, 1993:18). (Hunter, 2021: 345)

So my interest in race and racialisation is driven by the fact that race works as the primary metaphor of dehumanising power necessary to maintain a system of coloniality rooted in imperial binaries and dichotomies and to produce ideas of process as separate to category. So this is the key means of splitting governing cultures and institutional techniques. This is therefore not because I understand it as ‘at the top’ of a structural hierarchy of disadvantage and it is certainly not because I see racialisation as having any more experiential value than other forms of categorical identifications like gender, or sexuality. But because racialisation (the idea of race and races) is the core mechanism for the denial of human experience through the denial of relationality and through which the meaning of failure and success become individualised and singularised. It is through this mechanism of individualisation that ideals of success become the property of whiteness and failure becomes the property of blackness. These relations of success and failure then justify the distribution and allocation of material and cultural resources along racialised binarized lines, including the assumption of and association with success and with failure.

Relational Politics & the contexts of failure

The Power, Politics and the Emotions book was basically contemplating via various empirical observation the experience of working in a constant state of (supposed) failure and the binary contrast between narratives of (unattainable and often undesirable) success rooted in white, middle classed cis hetero masculinist models of the good life, as the basic state of institutional life for people delivering care/services. Feelings of failure, because of not living up to aspirations of success which are rooted in models of social success and achievement which are impossible for everyone to meet . But experience of this ‘impossible’ is ordered differently. A key mechanism of resistance to the categorical closures which position one as binary failing (or not) is pushing through multiple practice in the day to day.

This is what I’m thinking about as relational politics.

Rather than abandoning the state to its melancholic suicide via neoliberalism, PPE is interested in exploring the possibilities for renewal and reparation which potentially come from within the state via its relational politics. Not by its institutional structures and processes, but from its ongoing everyday ethical life. It is this, real messy and uncontrollable agency constitutive of the everyday state, rather than the idealized coherent singular abstracted state of (neo)liberal fantasies, that the idea of relational politics seeks to capture. By focusing on relational politics, PPE draws attention to the way in which the state comes to be through the ongoing negotiation of subjective loss, which is at its heart, a process of consistently resisting hegemonic foreclosure around difference. There is always (potentially) resistant agency within the state.
Social difference, even where this is lost, in the sense of unconsciously repressed, is potentially generative. This is what is crucial to a melancholic analysis. Death, whether it be at the hands of the self or the other, leaves remains; there is always a trace. The ghosts of the past live on in the present. (Hunter, 2015:16).

Pessimist Affect and resistance – where the resistance lies - in the context of ‘constrained agency’

This sort of relationally driven analysis has the reconsideration of failure at its heart. But it is more the contextualised use of failure, than the description or identification of failure that is at stake here.

This shift speaks to an extension of one of the increasingly common ways of thinking about and critiquing institutional failure that derives inspiration from Sara Ahmed’s work on the non-performativity of policy ideas and this figure of the (feminist) killjoy that I mentioned earlier. But for me readings of Ahmed’s work which stop at identifying non-performativity in institutional life miss the broader provocation in her work.[5]

Institutions will always be non-performative. How could they be otherwise? From the most benevolent of liberal frame they are remedial managerial devices established to contain the vagaries of the social (the fearful difference in Audre Lorde’s terms). The established to the context which makes them necessary is one of violent objectification, commodification and control.

Yet there are workers in institutional spaces who day in day out do work, do produce change, do resist violence for themselves and others. There is an ‘Undercommons’ (Moten and Harney, 2013) which is what the abolitionist thinkers above are interested in exposing and where my own disappointed and down analysis of everyday struggle wants us to dwell.[6]

The lived life of those working in institutional spaces illuminates important things about how failure works, how it is distributed and how it can be done, and it is done differently in the present.

This is where the view through marginalisation such as the one from Tiana Clark and Sara Ahmed’s killjoy becomes so important. Because they make the connection between failure and violence, but they refuse to collapse these. We can’t see the ‘trees without the blood’. If failure is seen from this point of view we have to see the violence that makes the failure. Responding to this demand for us to see both, means that we have to work hard to understand the contested relation between the ‘space between’ as a potential space of power. This is a space where no one is a hero and success might seem small in the abstract.

The final set of questions I am interested in considering are around whose agency is denied if we need heroes, structural overthrow, crushing of edifices? And what does that denial do to our understanding of the present as well as the future?


Ahmed, S. 2010. Killing joy: feminism and the history of happiness. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. 35(3):571-594.

Ahmed, S. 2012. On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Ahmed, S. 2017. What’s the Use? On the Uses of Use. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Ahmed, S. 2021. Complaint! Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Clarke, T. 2018. I can’t talk about the trees without the blood. Pittsburg: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Hunter, S. 2015. Power, Politics and the Emotions: Impossible Governance? London: Routledge.

Hunter, S. 2021. Decolonizing White Care: Relational Reckoning with the Violence of Coloniality in Welfare. Ethics and Social Welfare. 15(4): 344-362.

Hunter, S., and C. van der Westhuizen. 2022. “Viral Whiteness: 21st Century Global Colonialities.” In Routledge International Handbook in the Critical Study of Whiteness, edited by S. Hunter, and C. van der Westhuizen. London: Routledge.

Lewis, G. 2010. “Animating Hatreds: Research Encounters, Organisational Secrets, Emotional Truths.” In Secrecy and Silence in the Research Process: Feminist Reflections, edited by R. Ryan-Flood, and R. Gill, 211–227. London: Routledge.

Mbembe, A. 2001. On the Postcolony. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Mbembe, A. 2017. Critique of Black Reason. Translated by Laurent Dubois. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Mbembe, A. 2019. Necropolitics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Michel, N. (2021) « Doing good in blackface: a consuming story », Darkmatter Hub (Beta), vol.15. Online. URL:

Moten F. and Harney S. (2013). The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study. New York, Autonom.

Schmitt, M. and Hunter, S. 2020. “What’s the Worst That Could Happen? Towards a Differentiated Pessimist Epistemology of the Global North Western Institutional Present” submitted to the Volkswagen Open Up Humanities Scheme.

Tuhiwai-Smith, L. 2021. Decolonising Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. London: Zed.

Tronto, J. C. 2013. Caring Democracy: Markets, Equality, and Justice. New York/London: New York University Press.

Tuck, E., and K. W. Yang. 2012. “Decolonization is not a Metaphor.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1 (1): 1–40.

Wynter, S. 2003. “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After man.” CR: New Centennial Review 3 (3): 257–337.


[1] My interest is in their experience as workers enacting governance, but this can also extend to and is rooted in their experience as users. [2] The empirical work it is rooted in spanned multiple projects over 15 years prior to its publication. [3] I think this is where Mark (Schmitt) and I are meeting in our interest in troubling what constitutes failure and therefore success and how this relates to positioning, and the distribution of the experience of the impact of violence. [4] Though I don’t elaborate this relates to the human/nature divide. Mbembe (2001) who provides inspiration for aspects of my own thinking and more recently Mbembe (2017;2019) does. Here again there are connections to Mark’s (ecological) futures scope. See also Hunter and van der Westhuizen (2022). [5] I suspect that this is a provocation taken-up in Ahmed 2017 & 2021, but I haven’t had a look yet! This is an extension taken-up and explored in Michel, 2021. [6] So much gratefulness to Heidi Grunebaum for her making of this connection in her response at the Johannesburg launch for Power, Politics and the Emotions. This has been fruitfully brewing for me in different ways ever since.

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