How they fooled us with the culture of effort: ‘Failing endlessly is easier from that side of the board’

From Baudelaire to Kurt Cobain, being ‘cursed’ may have been a source of inspiration for art during the 19th and 20th centuries, but today no one believes that failure is one more step towards success

Kurt Cobain had fame, fortune and talent, but that was not enough. His suicide in 1993 left a thousand theories about failure.
Kurt Cobain had fame, fortune and talent, but that was not enough. His suicide in 1993 left a thousand theories about failure.Getty Images / Blanca López (Collage)

Among the legends surrounding Kurt Cobain’s suicide, one of the hardest to prove, and yet also one of the most widespread, states that he killed himself because he could not bear his success. The musician’s ruin came about after he realized that he would always be too handsome and talented to become a cursed artist. He had found the only boundary he could never overcome. This example serves to illustrate something that Romanian philosopher Emile Cioran, who devoted his life to the study of failure, maintained: that it consists in the corroboration of insurmountable limits. In other words, it does not necessarily imply destitution or a lack of recognition; many artists, like Cobain, are rich, attractive and adored by millions, and still they feel like they have failed and meet tragic fates. A cursedism that comes from authors like Julio Ramón Ribeyro, a Peruvian writer who titled his diaries La tentación del fracaso (The temptation of failure) even though his work was an international success. Or Leopoldo María Panero, from Spain, who in El desencanto (Disenchantment) proclaims: “I consider failure the most dazzling victory.” Failure, that everyday experience that looms over any human activity, seems like a fascinating idea and a central theme for the artists of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Then the idea stumbles into the reality of the 21st century. In The Unavailable, the German philosopher Hartmut Rosa explores the incompatibilities that arise between our economic system, whose stable operation requires uninterrupted expansion and growth, and the consecutive limits that our desire collides with. For Rosa, as for Ciorán, “vivacity, astonishment and the true experience arise from the encounter with what is not available.” That is, they appear when we fail to obtain what we were looking for. Spanish theoretician and mathematician Javier Moreno explains like this: “The market offers an ever-growing spectrum of products and pleasures, and the individual gets in that game in which everything seems possible. However, we all face a limit. Our time is finite, as are our senses. We cannot watch every movie, listen to every song or finalize every Tinder match.”

Since the economic powers would like to operate in a limitless market and, on the other hand, those who have reflected the most on it have concluded that failure is equal to the verification of any limit, it is not surprising that the idea of failure, like that of freedom and so many other fundamental notions, is subject to a harsh ideological dispute.

Fail again, fail better

According to Google Ngram, the appearance of the word “resilience” in books has multiplied by more than thirty in the last twenty years. If you still do not know what it means, you are probably not familiar with what Luis Enrique Alonso and Carlos J. Fernández, in their essay Poder y sacrificio (Power and sacrifice), call “the managerial discourse.” Resilience is the ability of something or someone to return to the starting point after a failure; that is, to resist failure without suffering irreversible damage. That “managerial discourse” that appears both in business management texts and self-help books has pervaded almost all areas of our lives.

Leopoldo María Panero pictured at Plaza de las Palomas in Leon, Spain, in May 2011.
Leopoldo María Panero pictured at Plaza de las Palomas in Leon, Spain, in May 2011.José Ramón Vega Gonzalez

The word resilience spreads at the same time as the myth of failure as learning, a contemporary version of the “hero’s journey” that proposes that everyone takes responsibility for their own failures and interprets them as preliminary, necessary stages for success. According to authors such as Belén Gopegui, these discourses hide traps: “They attribute the deficiencies of the subject to what are largely problems of a system of domination,” she writes in El murmullo (The murmur).

When Samuel Beckett wrote “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better,” a quote that can be read on countless memes, tattoos, mugs and t-shirts, what he had in mind was that failure is something inevitable that one runs into, despite our best attempts and efforts. That is the interpretation that the Dublin writer made of the Greek myth of Sisyphus, who was condemned to carry the same boulder over and over to the top of a mountain. However, the author’s meaning has been twisted into a slightly more elaborate version of the harmful “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” Spanish philosopher Eudald Espluga, author of No seas tú mismo (Don’t be yourself) explains that in these messages “structural elements (economic, social, family or gender) are suppressed; even chance disappears. In addition, the magnitude of the failure doesn’t matter: we’re not only talking about not getting the job or the partner you were after, but about books like The Secret blaming individual subjects for tsunamis, wars or diseases. If you only fail because you want to, or because you’re not trying hard enough, the message is to keep working harder, studying harder, wanting more, thinking more positively: producing more.”

Azahara Alonso, another Spanish philosopher, recently published Gozo, a book that deals with the discomfort caused by salaried work, among other topics, and in which she also positions herself against “the dialectic of success and failure.” That is why, the author explains, “I don’t use the word ‘failure’ a single time in those pages, and ‘success’ only a couple, and in another context. It seems that whenever we use these words we do it to subtly refer to the responsibility we have with what we achieve or not, regardless of whether reality imposes itself. If I want to have a party outdoors and it rains, have I failed, or is it that something beyond my control has prevailed?”

Susan Sontag, photographed in Berlin in 1993 by Ekko von Schwichow.
Susan Sontag, photographed in Berlin in 1993 by Ekko von Schwichow.

Alonso recalls several texts by Susan Sontag in which the American theoretician discovers that many people associate illness with guilt or failure. “It’s an example of how the logic of effort and reward, of merit, what is deserved or what is undeserved, has seeped into so many areas of our lives.”

Failure, a luxury of class

Culture Is Bad For You is a group essay addressing class inequalities among workers in the British culture industry. Its conclusions, which could also be applied to other sectors, have a lot to do with the almost invisible limits towards which failure points; the chances of a working-class person to succeed – states the book – remain extremely low, due to the barriers imposed by unpaid work and hermetic social structures, in addition to more or less subtle forms of exclusion.

According to a recent survey, more than 90% of those under 30 with some work relationship related to British culture did an internship or some kind of unpaid work for at least several months; usually several years. Thus, working-class workers who need to “receive a salary for what they do” are forced to compete against others who can afford (because they have real estate assets, for example) to prioritize “autonomy, prestige or creative freedom” over compensation.

Laura Sam is one of the most renowned poets in Spain, and she knows these inequalities well: “I studied fine arts and I have many friends linked to the world of art. Some scrape by, others resist and alternate precarious jobs with their, let’s say, true vocation – which ends up becoming a hobby, because life doesn’t stop and there are bills to pay. There are those who outright abandon it and gravitate towards the security of a permanent job, if such a thing exists. Then there are the others, those who devote themselves to art because they can, sustained by a family economy that offers them the same that a scholarship would, but with no due dates or maximum stays, with support, time and space for creation.”

The latter, who have a safety net and are never exposed to dead ends – as Culture Is Bad For You explains – will be the ones who end up creating a narrative about endurance, effort and the commitment to their calling; one that does not take into account the strong structural barriers. “Having the means doesn’t guarantee you’ll succeed, but failing endlessly is easier when you’re on that side of the board,” adds Laura Sam.

Charles Baudelaire
French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867).adoc-photos (GETTY IMAGES)

The technology and creative industries, through their tendency to relocate and deregulate, as well as the enthusiasm with which the workers themselves submit to their mechanisms of domination, are creating a model of labor relations (such as the absolute sense of belonging between company and employee) that will end up extending to all sectors. Facing such a paradigm, Espluga advises against “individual political strategies that lead to surrender, cynicism or nihilism.” The philosopher, on the other hand, calls for a “collective resignation” that he envisions as “a general indisposition that is not not doing nothing, but rather doing nothing, producing arrest: blocking the system to force things to change. If we want to compare it with recent phenomena, this general indisposition would have more to do with the appearance of new unions in multinationals such as Starbucks or Amazon [...] than with the Great Resignation”.

There are no more abysses

Bas Jan Ader was a Californian artist who worked with concepts such as adventure, fall, uncertainty and failure. In 1976, as part of a project titled “In Search of the Miraculous,” he tried to cross the Atlantic on a tiny sailboat, with hardly any experience as a sailor. He disappeared. For years it was said that he could have survived, but today it is clear that he drowned during the voyage. In the sea, the artist found one of those insurmountable limits that are true failures.

When Charles Baudelaire tried to be admitted to the French Academy of Letters, his candidacy was interpreted as a protest, or a taunt, against the bourgeois order that the institution represented. His failure, as notorious and scandalous as his looks or his poems, served to expose the academics, who were so reactionary. However, the lives and failures of the cursed poets of the 19th and early 20th centuries (those who, like Gilbert-Lecomte, sought to “plunge into the abyss”) would no longer shock anyone.

The tools of our time (likes, audience metrics or numbers of listeners or views) immediately pinpoint failure, turn it into numbers and eliminate or redirect it in the most profitable way. Says Azahara Alonso: “Whoever glorifies failure today and shows it as a value to brag about is only taking a detour. These figures are successful precisely because they seem to despise [success], thus entering again, without obstacles, in that dialectic, reaffirming it.”

Laura Sam is also blunt in this regard: “When I started reading poetry, I used to read mostly cursed poets; suicidal, alcoholics or tuberculous, mentally ill, really unbalanced people who somehow could only exist in those words. But the closest thing to being cursed today is having anxiety because you don’t really know who you are or what you’re doing here; because it is practically a fact that you will never be able to own a house; because you don’t even have money to go to therapy, but you can probably order a pizza, which you’ll eat watching a movie on [Amazon] Prime, and of course, that’s not what you expected from life.” The abyss may no longer fool anyone, and self-help may try to transform frustrated expectations, confusion and insurmountable limits into statistics, productivity and glitter, but we continue to face them. We still (and always) repeat the experience of failure.

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