Publication: C for culture, Jan 2009
Title: Natural Born Failures
Text: Michael Lee Hong Hwee
How to lead a fulfilling life? Tom Hodgkinson suggests pursuing freedom, merriment and responsibility.[i] By these, he means releasing ourselves from the control by all forms of external authority especially the government, our job and consumer products; adopting a carefree and humorous outlook to life, and taking charge of our time and way of living. I would sum these up in a word: failure.
Philosophically and looking at the history of innovation, failure grounds all breakthroughs: Both strategic rule-breaking exercises and unexpected crises facilitate the experimentation with remote possibilities, the risking and development of novel ideas, and the discovery of spontaneous outcomes. As David Schafer succinctly claims: “To fail is to succeed.”[ii] In this regard, my definition of ‘failure’ encompasses two closely linked concepts whose distinction from it some scholars[iii] prefer to make: ‘futility,’ a sense of pointlessness in gestures that have no hope for success anyway, and ‘defeat,’ which is often the trigger for subsequent attempts in the hope of eventual success.
Contrary to popular belief, failing is not an easy task. The global obsession with progress, speed, perfection, wealth, beauty, intelligence, popularity, comfort, convenience and happiness correspondingly relegates setback, slowness, weakness, poverty, ugliness, foolishness, unpopularity, distress, difficulty and melancholy to the realm of failure. With the layers of shame attached to being different or less than the ideal, many of us are afraid to fail. Or whenever we fail, we are anxious about admitting it, much less embracing it or recognizing its aesthetic potential. Most of us may strive to do well materially and socially, but our aversion to risks also corresponds with insignificant, slow or the absence of personal growth. Failure is not just a possible and interesting option; it is important and necessary for an enriching life. The journey, however, is laid with obstructions but also distractions.
Species of Solace
Two popular types of consolation prevail to deter us from taking risks to fail. The first type, which I’ll call The Cradle, shares the modus operandi of the medical sciences. This involves diagnosis (of the causes of your pain) and prescription (by way of medication, anesthesia or surgery) for the sake of finding and completing a cure, preventing relapse and restoring health. Come to mummy! It calls out to our worn-out or wounded soul. Consumer culture, in its myriad varieties of the booze, fashion, the latest electronic gadgets, pop music, fine dining, clubs and drugs, works in a not too dissimilar manner.
The second category of comfort, The Wand, the mainstay of a number of key religions in the world, operates as a magician’s stick that instantly flicks our desire and pain into existence or oblivion. It says this of the problems we encounter: Accept your fate as you accept god, and your sufferings will be gone! I observe that some leading governments today, including secular ones, operate with the same mechanism.
The main problem with the first mode is the decrease, eradication or numbing of pain may be temporary and illusory, and more damaging than helpful in the long run. Alcohol, for instance, which allows one to forget one’s sorrow for the time being, may well, especially when taken in excess, lead to complacency, escapism and ill-health. The main problem with the second mode of consolation is that it dismisses desire with the aim or effect of keeping people contented in their ‘rightful’ place. For instance, if one is unhappy about ill treatment by one’s boss, the New Testament reminds: “Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh….” (Colossians 3.22-4).
Singapore as Cushion
Singapore is a large cushion against failure. In light of the nation’s small size, geopolitical position as having a predominantly Chinese-ethnic populace amidst several Muslim nations, lack of natural resources, post-war turbulences, and ongoing threats to social harmony from ‘oppositions,’ ‘critics,’ ‘communists’ and ‘terrorists,’ the ruling People’s Action Party has long kept a ‘vigilant’ watch over all conceivable aspects of its citizens’ everyday life. These range from education to housing, employment to marriage, health to recreation. This style of governance has inspired a host of labels from critics over the years: “nanny state of Asia” (Iain Buruma, 1972), “third world fascist state” (Gook Aik Suan, 1981), “controlled democracy” (Jon S. T. Quah, 1988), “social engineering” (Barry Wilkinson, 1988), “Singapore bureaucracy” (Thomas J. Bellows, 1989), “authoritarianism” (Daniel A. Bell, 1997), “air-conditioned nation” (Cherian George, 2000), to name a few.
The government’s glowing record over the past decades in ‘delivering the goods,’ especially in terms of economic progress and social stability, legitimizes its continued existence and control, perhaps at the expense of political debate by the populace and cultural development. In the past two decades (since Goh Chok Tong took over the prime minister position from Lee Kuan Yew in 1990), it has attempted to adopt a less ‘authoritarian,’ more ‘consultative’ management style. This is in recognition of the demands of younger Singaporeans who have had a better education than their parents and a global outlook to life, facilitated in part by the liberal exchanges of information over the Internet and other broadcast media. Yet, as Kenneth Paul Tan observes, despite talks of a more liberal society and expressed dreams of becoming a cultural hub, the ruling party continues to play “old politics” in “new times”: a “politics of apprehension – a ghostly kind of fear that, in a menacing way haunts the minds of Singaporeans….”[iv]
On the surface, the ‘average’ Singaporean adult leads a contented life in a society of economic and social stability with gainful employment and cheerful relationships with family, friends and colleagues, and usually also the possession of property and disposable income for shopping and travel. Probe on, and one senses regrets and grievances. The fear of possible ‘repercussions’ of voicing critical opinions of public policies is prevalent, though there are exceptions who are, at times, reprimanded for their ‘improper conduct.’[v] Equally common are those who find their job a drag but remain in it to pay the bills, or to sustain their material pursuits. Most Singaporeans are deadsure they cannot or will not be artists because they are not creative enough, or, even if they enjoy painting, poetry or music, they will not pursue it as a career because it does not pay them enough. Hence participation in culture among the citizens veers more towards coffesshop grouses than systematic critique, entertainment than critical art, consumption than creation. Tentative and meek in engaging with experimental ideas, many Singaporeans are cosmopolitan in appearance but conservative in thinking. The three k’s that allegedly characterize a typical Singaporean, namely kiasu, kiasi and kiabo (Hokkien colloquialisms referring to the respective fears of losing/defeat, death and wife) seem, at once, the causes, effects and coping strategies of sustaining a comfortable life.
Creativity and Difficulty
There is a third type of consolation, which seems more troublesome than the Cradle and the Wand. I shall call it The Library. It first congratulates us on our sufferings: You’re in luck!, it exclaims, and then it urges us to work: read widely, think critically, make things of your own, and then repeat the cycle. As much the realm of philosophy as of art, politics and other humanities disciplines, it considers failures as ‘constructs’ of social conditioning and thus ‘opportunities’ that bear critical reexamination and possible transformation into strengths, aesthetics or new truths. If the Cradle type regards our problems like weeds to be pulled out at the first instance, and the Wand variety pinpoints desire as responsible for our misery, the Library relief reminds us that pain and pleasure go hand in hand. Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, the champion of the ‘free spirit,’ has this to say to people who avoid pain, difficulty and failure:
If you refuse to let your own suffering lie upon you even for an hour and if you constantly try to prevent and forestall all possible distress way ahead of time; if you experience suffering and displeasure as evil, hateful, worthy of annihilation, and as a defect of existence, then it is clear that [you harbour in your heart]… the religion of comfortableness. How little you know of human happiness, you comfortable… people, for happiness and unhappiness are sisters and even twins that either grow up together or, as in your case, remain small together.[vi]
Beyond saying “no pain, no gain,” and “failure is the mother of success,” Nietzsche is urging you and me to take charge of our own lives, rather than relegating this responsibility to circumstances, another person or an organization. His condescending message to people who swear by comfortable lives is also a liberating consolation for those who have long been plagued by pain in their creative pursuits. The liberation comes in three layered messages:
You are not alone.
You are only human.
You are special.
Crucially, Nietzsche is of the opinion that a fulfilled life must involve not just knowledge and love, but also art. Stop consuming; start creating. A disclaimer: Adopting ‘failure’ as an overriding framework in artistic pursuit is not to be equated with shoddy practice. On the contrary, it’s about setting impossibly ambitious goals beyond the expected and imaginable. In this regard, the artistic life is not mere selfish indulgence or a means of personal fulfillment. It is a critique of society’s preference for conformity, mediocrity and comfort.
Failing is Succeeding
Recently, I proposed and produced The Consolations of Museology, a series of 10 hypothetical museums realized as handmade books, each striving to provide solace for a common problem in everyday existence. One of them is named Federation of Failures, an institution that celebrates failures. I proposed to site it beside the Integrated Resorts, the centre of upcoming gaming activities at Marina Bay, Singapore, as my intervention of the culture of comfort that characterizes Singapore today. Where once difficulty and failure were intrinsic conditions, now they are taboo words. The government’s prevalent rationale for continuing to hold back major transformation in politics and culture is couched in “narratives of permanent vulnerability and fragile success.”[vii] The populace’s commonest defense against creativity and criticality is that conditions are not conducive. The advertisers’ ground for endlessly rolling out new products is that everyone loves them. My project aim is to trigger reflection of these commonsensical logics.
My proposed museum of failure offers the Library sort of consolation in two main ways: artifacts and words. For the former, I employed paper as my main material to explore origamic architecture (otherwise known as the pop-up book) as a way to develop a conceptual model of the imaginary museum. I arrived at a ‘hyper-cantilever’ concept for its overall architectural form, with the aim to create a sense of precariousness and engineering impossibility. I have long found it important to engage the realm of the ‘useless’ as a way to question and investigate ‘use’ and ‘usefulness’: “[U]selessness is the most sublime of all human constructs, and art fulfills itself in floating miles above every desperate human involvement.”[viii] The most meaningful role of art is at points of failure.
For the textual component, I developed seven categories of words relaying the museum’s proposed name, mission, site, the philosopher to whom the museum pays homage, a significant quote by this philosopher, architectural design and museum programming, and a set of double truism. In particular, the double truism carries the proposed museum’s ideological slant, whilst engaging historical conditions and classic museological missions:
A museum compiles human achievements.
A museum celebrates human failures.[ix]
Though apparently opposing to each other, these two truisms are nonetheless flipsides of the same coin. The history of innovation has really been a history of mistakes, struggles and failures. New ideas and inventions are often deemed immoral or impossible, dangerous or useless, at the point of conception. Moreover, every success story that is told and recorded belies and necessitates a host of unnamed setbacks. Like Douglas Darden’s 10 allegorical buildings that are “condemned from the start,”[x] my 10 hypothetical museums have a simple wish: to console by failing foolishly, humorously and exquisitely. Stupidity is beautiful.
If human beings are innately creative, and if we accept that the creative journey is arduous, then it follows that all of us are always already Natural Born Failures. Further, if we are to fail anyway, rather than keeping failures at bay or cushioning ourselves from stress, problem and discomfort, we might as well try to fail better next time, fail more often, more interestingly, drastically and perhaps even more successfully. This way, we can avoid being bland, rigid and under-fulfilled.
Michael Lee Hong Hwee, a Singapore-born artist based in Hong Kong, is enjoying his occasional investigation of his nervous excitement through artifacts and words.
han is a documentary photographer based in Singapore.
All photographs by han are of Federation of Failures, part 6 of 10 in The Consolations of Museology (2008), an installation by Michael Lee Hong Hwee.
[i] Tom Hodgkinson, How To Be Free (London: Penguin, 2006), 1.
[ii] David Schafer, “Up is High, How?” in Nicole Antebi, Colin Dickey & Robby Herbst (Eds.), Failure! Experiments in Aesthetics and Social Practices (Los Angeles: The Journal of Aesthetics Protest Press, 2008), 67.
[iii] Nicole Antebi, Colin Dickey & Robby Herbst, “Introduction,” in their (Eds.), Failure!, 11.
[iv] Kenneth Paul Tan, “In Renaissance Singapore,” in his (Ed.), Renaissance Singapore? Economy, Culture, and Politics (Singapore: NUS Press, 2007), 2.
[v] In 1994, writer Catherine Lim was rebuked by then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong for writing an article suggesting that the latter’s promise of a more consultative approach to governance had not come about. Goh then advised that anyone who “wants to set the agenda for Singapore by commenting regularly on politics… should do this in the political arena.” Chua Mui Hoong, “PM: no erosion of my authority allowed,” The Straits Times (Singapore: Singapore Press Holdings, 5 Dec 1994).
[vi] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1882), trans. Walter Kaufmann (London: Vintage, 1974), 338. Quoted from Alain de Botton, The Consolations of Philosophy (London: Penguin, 2000), 232-3; bracketed words and ellipses are de Botton’s.
[vii] Tan, “New politics for a renaissance city?” in his (Ed.), Renaissance Singapore?, 17.
[viii] Robert Harbison, The Built, the Unbuilt and the Unbuidable (London: Thomas and Hudson, 1991), 8.
[ix] Michael Lee Hong Hwee, Foundations: The Consolations of Museology (Hong Kong: Studio Bibliothèque, 2008), 107.
[x] Douglas Darden, Condemned Building: An Architect’s Pre-Text: Plans, Sections, Elevations, Details, Models, Ideograms, Scriptexts, and Letters for Ten [-] Allegorical Works of Architecture (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1993), back cover.