“Fail” is “commonly used as an interjection to point our a person’s mistake or shortcoming, often regardless of its magnitude,” according to Know Your Meme, an indispensable resource for such things. According to the Internet folk history documented there, “fail” as a noun is a formation from a verb usage in a notorious, badly translated 1998 Japanese video game Blazing Star. When a player died, the game flashed a screen reading: “You fail it! Your skill is not enough – See you next time – Bye-bye.” Its transformation from this mistranslated verb usage into a mass noun (parenting fail, transparency fail, so much fail, etc.) apparently followed.
For most of its history, the verb “to fail” has most often been the opposite of “succeed,” to “be absent or wanting of something desirable,” as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it. Its illustrious history stretches to 15 definitions there. Some of the intransitive meanings, like to “fall ill,” are somewhat dated but still around; others, like “to be wanting or deficient in,” comically approximate the modern slang usage on the web, especially when we read the OED’s sample sentences. Plato, in an 1877 translation, writes: “The Dialogue fails in unity.” Unity fail.
Failing is resonant in more “serious” corners of the media, as well. There is the foreign-policy intellectual hobbyhorse of the “failed state,” the passive voice doing a lot of work here to describe the extreme immiseration of nations that show up on the top of such lists: Ethiopia, Congo, Chad, Afghanistan. More recent is the celebration of “failure” in entrepreneurship discourse, where it is closely related to “innovation.” Here, failure is a veritable fountain of obvious metaphors. Out of failure springs innovation. Failure is innovation’s foundation. Failure drives innovation. It’s also the mother of innovation. Simply celebrating “failure” in the business world proves the point—so many business-magazine articles on “failure” are clearly delighted with themselves just for reaching this boldly counterintuitive conclusion. Failure scored a particularly insipid cover story by NPR’s Adam Davison in the New York Times Magazine, which breezed through the history of capitalism (it never says the word, of course) as a series of brilliant “innovations” and daring risks by bold heroes unafraid to tempt failure. Davidson decries the “proselytizing” associated with innovation. Indeed, innovation as he uses the term is not a deity one worships but more like a world-spirit of progress marching across the generations, giving us smartphones, the Constitution, and the eight-hour workday. Failure, or the ability to risk it, is its driving force—whether that “failure” means the loss of other people’s money, like with a smartphone, or your life, like those who fought for a shorter working day.
To be fair, some of these defenses of “failing” make logical sense, but in the same way as a daily affirmation you hang in your office: you can’t succeed if you are afraid to fail, etc. Davidson’s warning about proselytizing aside, the above treatments of “failure” are entirely in keeping with the moralism that underlies the cult of entrepreneurship and which pervades so many of our other austerity keywords. For “entrepreneurship” ideologues, failure fits into this moralistic framework, with its celebration of lonely sacrifice and self-reliance. One must be purified in the fires of bankruptcy before finding true success; only after you have wandered through the wilderness of failure can you develop the “resilience” to ascend the mountaintop of innovation. One such anecdote describes a failed Silicon Valley entrepreneur who failed before starting a new company called…E.piphany. Entrepreneurship failure stories, like conversion narratives, are always individualized like this, just as its success anecdotes lend themselves to hagiographic leadership cults.
Back to the Internet: there, “fail” is always used ironically, never used with the reverence that characterizes so much entrepreneurship rhetoric. One of these ironies is fail’s opposite, “win.” Why not “success” or “victory”? The answer, I think, is that both “failing” and “winning” ironize the competitiveness and atomization that are built into both the culture of social media and the cult of entrepreneurship. I’ve always thought the mass noun “fail” was funny in part because it sounds (to me) like a misapplied computing term rather than a mistranslation—a computer error, server failure, etc. Extending this to the “real,” 1.0 world—the factory foreman slips on a banana peel, epic fail!—ironizes the grandiose, world-spanning Internet as a humble and intrinsically funny object. Other examples of Internet-irony: the phrase “You win one internet,” dispensed as praise for Facebook bons mots; The Internet for Men, a real, off-brand cologne sold on the streets of Chicago in the late 1990s; or those YouTube videos of Bryant Gumbel befuddled by “internet” on the Today Show in 1994.
The ungrammatical use of “win,” on the other hand, ironizes the social ideal of “success,” entrepreneurial or otherwise, treating this as a game, and therefore either 1) rigged or 2) trivial, since the things as which one “wins” online are mostly unremunerative and fleeting: Facebook likes, an argument with a stupid stranger, Twitter followers, etc. At the same time, the pursuit of the epic win has the same sense of ruthless competition and “disruptive” striving that, as we know, is the stuff of which true entrepreneurs are made.
“We are pleased to present the ninth annual Failed States Index” (fundforpeace.org)
If the opposite of “fail” is “win,” what is the opposite of “failed,” as in “failed state”? The question is never asked, of course, since the concept assumes as the normative standard of development the countries where the concept originates. (Obviously, to say that the United States and Britain have “won” development would be to admit that the whole business is a conflict, rather than a shared endeavor, and we mustn’t think that.) But failing has an obvious, common educational meaning. So if D.R. Congo is a “failed state,” maybe we should think of the United States of today as a Gentlemen’s C State: entitled and careless, coasting off the prestige of its parents.
Worse than being afraid to fail, as the entrepreneurship ideologists put it, is the inability to recognize if and how you have already failed. Self-awareness fail, all around.