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On Friday, Code4Lib Edmonton hosted a day of lightning talks and workshops at the University of Alberta Library’s new Digital Scholarship Centre. The last session was a Fail4Lib session led by UAL’s Digital Scholarship Librarian Lydia Zvyagintseva. Using the Fyre Festival as a case study, participants in the session discussed the significance of failure, the opportunity that can arise from it, how we define it, the fact that the consequences of failure are intersectionally differential (in libraries, this is often along race and gender lines), and the structural/political things that contribute to success or failure. One thing we didn’t get into very deeply, though I think it underpinned a lot of the discussion, and was touched on at a few points was the social nature of failure. Nobody succeeds or fails alone, though it often feels like that.

The concept of failure is at the heart of Mao’s address from June 1937 “On Practice”. For Mao, the Marxist understanding of knowledge and social practice involves the constant interaction (dialectic) between the ideas we have (of process, outcome, etc) and the way we either succeed or fail in putting these ideas into practice. In this view, both success and failure are the difference between the idea(s) we have in our heads and the change we are trying to effect in the world. That this difference is dialectical is explicitly affirmed:

Marxists hold that a person’s social practice alone is the criterion of the truth of their knowledge of the external world. What actually happens is that knowledge is verified only when they achieve the anticipated results in the process of social practice (material production, class struggle or scientific experiment). If a person wants to succeed in their work, that is, to achieve the anticipated results, they must bring their ideas into correspondence with the laws of the objective external world; if they do not correspond, that person will fail in their practice. (Mao Zedong, On Practice and Contradiction, p. 54).

A simple example can illustrate this. If my desired outcome is a hard-boiled egg, the material reality of the world requires that I get an egg, fill a pot with water, and boil the egg for a certain amout of time. If, on the other hand, I was to slice two pieces of bread, put them in a toaster, and toast them, I would find that I had failed in making a hard-boiled egg. I would then have to adjust my ideas (my knowledge of how the physical world works) in order to successfully make a hard-boiled egg.

This might seem like a trite example, but only because so much of this kind of experiential learning happens when we are children (primarily through playing), but the principle is sound. If I want to set up a new library service, I have to have an understanding of the social, institutional, labour, cultural, and political materials I will be working with. If I don’t have a grasp of those things, my service is likely to be a failure. However, failure is obviously not a bad thing in itself, as failure exposes the gap between our understanding and the world. Mao writes:

After someone fails, they draw their lessons, correct their ideas to make them correspond to the laws of the external world, and can thus turn failure into success… the dialectical-materialist theory of knowledge places practice in the primary position, holding that human knowledge can in no way be separated from practice… (p. 54).

This has many significant consequences for libraries, not least of which is the necessity of allowing people the opportunity to do new and different work in order for them to expand their experience of the world and consequently their knowledge. This idea runs counter to the alienation of labour required by capitalism and supported (consciously and unconsciously) by HR department and trade unions alike.

But I want to focus on something else. There is a contradiction in the fact that libraries are social organizations, composed of many people working in many units, but that decisions are taken hierarchically, either by only a few people at the top of the hierarchy or, quite often, by a single person. It is this individual or this small group that “anticipates results”, but it is the library workers lower in the hierarchy who have to master the reality of the world. Who, in this case, gains knowledge of that reality? It is the library workers whose practice (successes and failures) produce and adjust their knowledge; those at the top of the hierarchy are separated from this practice. As a result, their knowledge becomes more and more divorced from the reality of the world, of practice, of success and failure.

In principle, Maoism has a mechanism for compensating for this effect (the mass line), but in a hierarchical organization with no consequences for success or failure, where is the incentive to verify or correct knowledge, or to care at all about success or failure in the first place? We can see this disconnect in the fact that success or failure is often purely discursive or performative once we move away from the immediate level of practice. Success and failure become political: the successful always succeed while the failures always fail. For the library worker - often a non-librarian tasked with actual accomplishment of a task, success or failure has very real consequences, because they involve a real transformation of the material (physical or social world). Once we have moved beyond that level, success or failure becomes discursive, a line in a report, manipulated to reflect an idea of reality rather than reality itself. Merit increments, promotions, etc, are based on this discursive/performative reality rather than on reality itself, and the entire system is self-replicating, because the beneficiaries of this non-reality get promoted, and have a vested interest in the maintenance of the status quo.

This is, incidentally, both how the “labour aristocracy” (e.g. librarians as opposed to non-librarian workers) is formed and how it is maintained. Someone has to do real work with real transformational effect; those people have to be punished for their failure. Above that proletarian level in our hierarchical society come those who have some lee-way in manipulating (the knowledge of) reality. They benefit from this gap between knowledge and reality; Marxists call this ideology. The only punishment comes from not supporting this state of affairs, both performatively and discursively. Librarians, then, have a real stake in the maintenance of this status quo to the extent that they benefit from it.

I’m leaving out other material forms of punishment, such as those meted out to women, People of Colour, and disabled people, because I think the mechanism behind this oppression is slightly different - no matter how well they perform the status quo, they will “always already” have failed, due to other structures at play in capitalist society.

The only solution to this problem is the direct re-engagement with the world, which means the abolition of alienated labour. This in turn requires the abolition of hierarchy in our organizations, which are simply mirrors of the hierarchy at work in society at large. In order to overcome the dialectic of success/failure and socio-economic value, in order to return failure to a mode of learning and knowledge production, we have to fundamentally reshape society itself.

UPDATE: I don’t want to downplay the importance of discourse and performance in our social relationships. Discourse and performance are not bad in and of themselves, and are important strategies in political struggle. In “Marx as a Critical Discourse Analyst”, Fairclough and Graham argue that:

The diffusion, operationalisation, enactment and inculcation of discourses is crucual in the integration of different scales of economic activity. If the socio-economic order is discourse- and language-based in this sense - and we must assume it is - understanding of it, resistance to it, and struggle against it must also incorportate a significant discursive element.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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