Unsuccessful failure

It’s impossible to fail utterly. Years ago, before they were usual practice, a colleague and I organised a postgraduate recruitment open day for our department. It was a great innovation, with a substantial turnout of staff. The five or so potential applicants who appeared included a boy still at school, a couple inquiring on behalf of a grandchild, and several other adults without the necessary entry qualifications.

The benefit for the colleague and me of the appalling turnout was that afterwards we could boast about the “utter failure” of the event. The failure rested entirely on our shoulders, which we bore with mirth, and for which we garnered no small measure of cachet within the department.

At the time we were probably both reading a best selling self help book by Manuel Smith on assertiveness. I think we were over-exercising a kind of pre-emptive “fogging,” agreeing with something in what your critic says, or might say. (Critic: I see you are dressed in your usual sloppy way. Answer: That’s right. I am dressed in my usual way.)


Serious failure

To fail at something, due to bad planning or some other cause, is a kind of loss, and any persistent melancholia afterwards is a kind of grief over loss of esteem, that bit of yourself invested in the project.

Jacques Derrida identifies the paradigm case of unsuccessful failure in the much more serious domain of grieving over the death of a loved one: “Faithful mourning of the other must fail to succeed / by succeeding (it fails, precisely, if it succeeds! it fails because of success!)” (321). Through this tortured syntax from an edited interview, and a helpful explanation by Penelope Deutscher, one identifies Derrida’s usual tactic of highlighting the paradox endemic in any taken-for-granted opposition.

In this case the target is Freud’s identification of the regular, healthy grieving process, and the more unresolved, covert and persistent depression (melancholia) that afflicts those who never really recognise what it is they’ve lost — probably that part of themselves that was invested in the other person. (See Good morning melancholia.)

For Derrida, via Deutscher, failing to grieve adequately usually suggests lack of respect for the one who’s died. But for Derrida, really feeling the grief, identifying with the loved one, amounts to taking over the person you’ve lost as if part of yourself: “mourning is an unfaithful fidelity if it succeeds in interiorizing the other ideally in me, that is, in not respecting his or her infinite exteriority” (321). Successful grieving fails to respect the individuality and “otherness” of the person for whom you grieve. He even attaches to this supposedly virtuous position of good grieving the appellation “cannibalism.” That can’t be a good thing.

Other than scoring points against Freud, i.e. indicating flaws in the logic of Freud’s argument about mourning and melancholy, it’s hard to see therapeutic value in Derrida’s approach to grief. But cascading down from the abstract philosophy of grieving we find permission for the glib assertions that there’s joy in melancholy, there can be success in failure, and you can learn from your mistakes. There’s also permission to recognise the ambiguity in one’s own grief when it occurs.


  • Derrida, Jacques. 1995. Istrice 2: Ick bünn all hier. In E. Weber, and J. Derrida (eds.), Points…: Interviews, 1976-1994: 300-326. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  • Deutscher, Penelope. 1998. Mourning the other, cultural capitalism and the politics of friendship (Jacques Derrida and Luce Irigaray). Differences: A journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, (10) 3, 159-184.
  • Smith, Manuel J. 1986. When I Say No, I Feel Guilty. Toronto, Canada: Bantam Books


  • I’m grateful to Michelle Bastian for introducing me to the article by Deutscher.
  • The institution where we attempted the open day experiment was the Department of Architectural and Design Science, Sydney University. We probably felt sufficiently confident enough in (or conceited about) other accomplishments to cut ourselves some slack over something that didn’t matter all that much. Perhaps too we were “courting compliments.”
  • For more on mourning and melancholy see blog post Good morning melancholia.
  • The image above is of an artwork by Mexican architect Antonio O’Connell in Summerhall Place, Edinburgh. It’s called Virus. It’s inspired by the “chaos” of building on the edge of many Mexican cities. http://www.summerhall.tv/2014/antonio-oconnell-virus/


  1. Xiao Han says:

    When I first saw this topic: unsuccessful failure, the first thing I thought about was the science of success. As the development of our society and economy, there are more and more people who are long for success. People want to find the secrets and rules of success. In china, the science of success can date back to Zhouyi and The Analects of Confucius. In America, the most famous theory of science of success is from an American author: Napoleon Hill. As for me, the science of success is unreliable and meaningless. Every people’s success cannot by copied, because it requires historical background, economical system, fortune and opportunity.

    As for all of those books, they advocate the value of thinking and potential. Napoleon Hill believed that people only need to sleep few hours to keep spirits instead of having a rest for at least 8 hours, in order to take fully advantage of their potentials. Besides, Napoleon Hill emphasizes the magic of thinking, yes, thinking is very important, but it is impossible to make you succeed, especially when you don’t have a good education background and practical experience. See more of his quotes from the link.

    Except the science of success, sometimes I think the chicken soup for the soul also makes people become numb. Now in China, a Chinese author called Yu Dan is very popular and famous, because she gave many lectures about The Analects of Confucius; some of them were totally misunderstood though. Besides, she also insisted on spreading “positive energy”. For Example, in recently years, the air pollution in China is very serious, she told us if closing the window is useless in the face of haze, then just open your spiritual protection, and avoid haze enter into your heart. This type of argument is the most typical one of chicken soup for the soul: no matter how dangerous and sinister the outside world is, as long as you insist the beauty in your heart, you can live a happy life ever after. According to Yu Dan’s logic, all of the complaints and dissatisfaction to the times just because you don’t have a placid heart and lofty soul. Sometimes I even think, why those kinds of things all always so popular in China, part of the reason is from the political requirement. Letting you be thankful and content to everything is indeed to make people numb. Our government wants to tell us that it is a miracle as long as you are alive and you need to find the problems on yourself.
    I always don’t like chicken soup for soul, because they always advocate of being forbearing, submissive and thankful, and sometimes they even become dissatisfied with any rights protection. But the cruel world already told us that freedom and happiness cannot be obtained easily. Many years ago, Lung Ying-tai, who is a Taiwanese essayist and cultural critic, asked” Chinese People, Why Aren’t You Angry?” But nowadays, people always try to tell you that all the sins and your pessimism all come from your own unbalanced attitude and not enough hardworking effort, even when you lose the right to breath the fresh air.

    I am sorry for writing too much distracting and irrelevant information as for this topic. Thanks for your time.

  2. kimo says:

    The moment I saw this special title, I was thinking about “What is a successful failure looks like”. As said in the article, we should dig up some value from a so-called failure to make full use of this experience. We not only fix it, we embrace it.

    It reminds me about a video from TED Talk I watched years ago “The power of vulnerability”, by a vulnerability researcher Brené Brown (http://www.ted.com/talks/ brene_brown_on_vulnerability?language=en). It firstly changed my altitude towards negative emotion as it provide a brand new perspective to deal with vulnerability. Especially there is an insight “when we feel vulnerable, we neglect it, we try to be numb.” — Just like the line in the movie “Before Sunrise”(http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0112471/), the Kim Krizan’s psychologist told her “in any environment, focus on the bright colour” Although it did works temporary, it sounds like a kind of escapism. We can only fully change our attitude after we realise where the problem lies in — face it, rather than escape from it.

    I guess there is a prevalent quote can define a successful failure, that is, “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.” And a further statement for it would be “value your failure, because (so that) you will never get a same one next time.”

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