Questions, questions, and more questions

Do you like being asked lots of questions? Or are you like me, and find asking lots of questions to be much easier than answering them? Does being asked lots of questions ever tire you out? Or does it energize you? Does it get you thinking about other ideas? Or does it overwhelm you? Have you ever or are you now living with a child between the ages of 3 and 5? Do you find yourself being called to answer a lot of questions for which you don’t (for whatever reason) have answers? Does this unsettle you? Do you think that asking questions is valuable? Do you find yourself answering a child’s questions with more questions? Does this ever work? Did you ask a lot of why questions when you were younger? What made you stop? Was it because someone told you to “stop asking so many questions!!” or did you just stop caring about what other people knew or claimed to know? Did you stop asking questions because you reached a point when you thought you already knew more than anyone else? Or when you felt it necessary to pretend that you knew? Why are you reading this blog? Did you find it when you did a search for the bullshit detector? Have you grown tired of my relentless questions?

Wow, that is surprisingly fun to do. Last week I bought The Interrogative Mood: A Novel? by Padgett Powell.  The entire novel, all 165 pages of it, is questions. Because of the connections that I see between troublemaking and asking questions, I was immediately intrigued by this book when I read a mini review of it in The New Yorker. So far I am enjoying it. There are two things that strike me as I read it (I can only read it a little at a time–otherwise my brain might melt from so many questions): 1. Even though the questions seem random and disjointed (which they are on some level), they are telling a story (but not a linear or complete one) about the poser of the questions and the reader/object of those questions. 2. The process of reading so many questions can really get you thinking about (perhaps too) many things all at once. I think that Powell has put together a nice balance of questions–some you have immediate (gut reactions?) answers for while others make you wonder. This might make a very effective pedagogical technique.  Hmmm…

Is there ever a point when too many questions are asked (by you or to you)? Is 165 pages of questions just too much? Can you imagine asking that many questions? Is it a problem that I can? Should I stop this entry now? Yes.

The Elf on the Shelf and other Holiday Panopticonisms

I am very pleased to welcome Kandace Creel Falcón to the trouble blog! When she told me about the Elf on the Shelf and its connection to Foucault’s panopticon, I knew the topic would be great for my blog (especially considering my interest in children and the link between regulation, discipline and moral education). Kandace is a fellow blogger (check out her amazing blog, La Kitchen Chicana), so I asked her if she would write about it. The following are her brilliant ruminations:

It’s not very often that I am able to read Foucault for pleasure, and for that I must thank the wonderful scholar blogger, Dr. Sara Puotinen. To me, theory is only relevant when it can be applied to one’s own life, and so when I had a revelation when becoming acquainted with “the new holiday tradition” of the Elf on the Shelf that it actually is a representation of Foucault’s panopticon I just could not help but scream it from the rooftops for all to hear. When Sara asked me to do a guest blog on the subject I was more than happy to, because as she notes, troublemaking takes many forms and I have a hunch that my thoughts on Elf on the Shelf (and even the great Santa Claus) might cause some “trouble” for those who hold these figures of surveillance dear.

“The Elf on the Shelf is watching you…”


Let me take you back to the beginning of this story, last year one of my high school friends who is married with two children started photographing this skinny elf around her house in different positions and places. She called him “Eddy Peppermints” and I thought to myself, that’s cute, I wonder where she came up with that idea. I wasn’t surprised then when this Christmas rolled around Eddy re-emerged causing more mischief in her house for her boys. It was when I spotted the “Elf on a Shelf kit” at the Highland Park Barnes and Noble that things began to take a dark turn.

When I picked up the Elf on the Shelf I realized that my friend had not simply made this up herself, but rather she was ahead of the Elf on the Shelf explosion where the Elf began showing up everywhere! (My chiropractor in between back adjustments exclaimed to me that her kids just love their little elf!) But what became the most alarming was the description on the back of the box detailing exactly how the Elf on the Shelf should function as your very own new family, Christmas tradition. I’m not sure if this exactly what the back of the box reads, but this is what you can find on the official Elf on the Shelf website.

From My Family to Yours,

This charming tradition began for our family when my children were very small. Like most children through the ages, they wanted to know how Santa really knew who was naughty or who was nice. Their answer, as in my own childhood, came in the form of a small pixie-elf.

The first time the elf arrived at our home, my children officially adopted him by giving him a name. Each year he would arrive around the holidays, usually at Thanksgiving. His sole responsibility was to watch the children’s behavior and report it to Santa each night. The next morning after the children awoke, they discovered the elf had returned from the North Pole and was now resting in a new and different place. My children would race each other out of bed to try and be the first to spy him in his new position.

Over the years the tradition was perfected and rules were introduced. For example, to better preserve his mystique the children were not allowed to touch him but talking to him was a different matter all together. My children shared many secrets with the elf, and while he was under strict orders not to talk to them, the elf was under no such orders where grown-ups were concerned.

Unwittingly, the tradition provided an added benefit: it helped the children to better control themselves. All it took was a gentle reminder that the “elf is watching,” for errant behavior to be modified.

I never dreamed this simple tradition would lead to so many treasured Christmas memories for our entire family. It is my earnest desire that The Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition will bring as much joy to your family as it has to mine.

Enjoy this tradition, and MAKE IT YOUR OWN!


Now, my partner and I read this and my immediate thought was, wow, what a great idea (sarcasm) nothing like creating fear in your children (in addition to already having to be good for Santa) now kids need to watch out on what the elf might report back to Santa!? Now, I must admit, I do not currently have children, but the fun “new tradition” aside, what types of messages are we giving to our children if parents are constantly employing methods of surveillance to ensure “good” behavior? Isn’t the point of raising children enabling them to make the decisions of what is good or bad, as opposed to simply scaring them with the illusion of “someone is watching you”? But I digress, the wording on the back of the box/website implied the underlying purpose of the elf on the shelf is to monitor children’s behavior, report back to Santa and to serve as the liaison between the big guy up north, parental powers and children’s innermost hopes and dreams during the Christmas season. I’ll come back to this in a moment. But the moment when it all became blatantly clear for me was when my partner and I were innocently watching a Christmas movie on ABC FAMILY when on pops a commercial for the Elf on the Shelf.


“Every year at Christmas, Santa sends his elves to watch you. And they go back and tell him who’s been bad and who’s been goooooood. The elf on the shelf is watching you, what you say and what you do, the elf on the shelf is watching you, each and every Christmas. <musical interlude> The elf on the shelf is watching you each and every Christmas.”

In Foucault’s chapter entitled “Panopticism” in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1977) he highlights the rise of the prison and the mechanisms that are put into daily practice when hierarchies are created to control those who do not fit the norm. Beginning with tracing the policies enacted when the plague hit and then going on to discuss the measures taken within Bentham’s Panopticon in the prison context. Foucault deftly weaves together how the projects of exclusion (he uses the example of ridding the town of those with the plague or lepers) and how the image of the plagued person/leper becomes a stand in for “all forms of confusion and disorder” (199). It is both the processes of exclusion and the marking of the abnormal that becomes the cornerstone of disciplinary mechanisms created solely for the ridding and ordering of that which is not normal.

Generally speaking, all the authorities exercising individual control function according to a double mode; that of binary division and branding (mad/sane, dangerous/harmless, normal/abnormal); and that of coercive assignment, of differential distribution (who he is; where he must be; how he is to be characterized; how he is to be recognized; how a constant surveillance is to be exercised over him in an individual way etc.). (199)

For the sake of my argument, I would add in the “naughty/nice,” or in the language of Elf on a Shelf, “naughty/good” binary, such that the Elf on the Shelf comes to represent the disciplinary figure and or mode of control that both names or “brands” a child naughty/nice in it’s ability to channel directly to the top of the hierarchy (they don’t call him the “big guy up North” for nothing) and the constant surveillance of children’s behavior. In the song the Elf sings, “the elf on the shelf is watching you, what you say and what you do,” which seeks to position an unknown yet known appropriate behavior in which children should engage. The Elf on the Shelf never dictates exactly what you should do, but the Elf’s sheer presence guides children to do what they perceive to be the “right” thing. The creator, Carol V. Aebersold mentions in her letter to parents that “Unwittingly, the tradition provided an added benefit: it helped the children to better control themselves. All it took was a gentle reminder that the “elf is watching,” for errant behavior to be modified.”

Foucault discusses how then the panopticon then becomes an effective measure of disciplining those who are bad, naughty, abnormal, troublemakers you name it, “All that is needed, then, is to place a supervisor in a central tower and to shut up in each cell a madman, a patient, a condemned man, a worker or a schoolboy” (200). In this case the Elf on the Shelf serves as the “supervisor” that children see, find in various locations at each new day’s sunrise and Santa works as the mechanism behind the scenes, the pinnacle of the hierarchy that ensures that the supervisor is doing what he should be doing. Here I would like to point out that I would be remiss not to mention that the creator and her daughter (who wrote the book explaining the Elf on the Shelf’s mission) are both former teachers – in many ways it makes complete sense then, if Foucault aligns the “prisoner” with the “schoolboy” modes of power work similarly in various contexts (the prison and the school). I would also be remiss to mention that there is a spoof of The Elf on the Shelf commercial where someone has dubbed over it Sting’s Every Breath You Take, fitting no?

As the supervisor in the tower the Elf on the Shelf keeps order, Foucault notes that this deployment of power through exclusion and surveillance works precisely because the subject being surveilled, “is seen, but he does not see; he is the object of information, never a subject in communication” (200). From the hand and “tradition” of Carol and her elf, “to better preserve his mystique the children were not allowed to touch him but talking to him was a different matter all together. My children shared many secrets with the elf, and while he was under strict orders not to talk to them, the elf was under no such orders where grown-ups were concerned.” This clear pathway, or one-way communication, along with creating mechanisms to separate those in power (don’t touch the Elf) from those without (children) upholds what Foucault sees as the “guarantee of order” (200).

Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate [child] a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the [children] should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers. (Foucault, 1977, 201)

Need I really say more? In essence the Elf on the Shelf serves as the panopticon, regulating behavior through its very presence, but has become a central figure with rules regarding children’s proper interaction with it for the intention of controlling children’s bad behavior (which is also vaguely determined). By this I mean, that so often the fallacy of binaries is that they are socially constructed, which is why the Elf on the Shelf becomes such a perfect, malleable “observer” in the tower. When children simply know they should be good and that they should fear being bad (because the Elf will tell on them to Santa and they won’t get any Christmas presents) what real lessons of morality are they truly learning? Again, I don’t have children and I imagine it must be easy to say things (when children are cranky/misbehaving) like “you better watch out, you better not cry…” oh wait, that’s another song about someone who “knows when you’ve been sleeping, he knows when you’ve been good or bad” or you know, some other type of scary off in the far away make-believe-land for threatening children about not getting their Christmas presents; but personally I would like to try to inspire my (future) children to be able to make moral decisions without the need of panopticisms (in any form).

Lastly, I would like to conclude with a few notes about race and gender in regards to Elf on the Shelf. In Foucault’s understanding of the ways power is manifested in society, he often fails to include the gendered analysis piece, whereby if the “inmate” or “schoolboy” are constantly observed and then kept in line because of the (presence or invisibility of an) “observer in the tower” what can we imagine happens to little schoolgirls within these mechanisms of power exertion? What I can assume is that these processes are even more dangerous. In many ways, girls and women are constantly observed by male power and the fact that Elf on a Shelf reads male to me, is disturbing. Little girls are often more tightly observed and their behavior more closely monitored (i.e. what is ladylike, proper for girls etc.) And while I’m generalizing here, to me the Elf on the Shelf (as a male elf particularly) only seems to reinforce this type of thinking, that it becomes even more important for not just girls but boys to exhibit their “proper” socialized, appropriate, gendered behavior in the presence of the Elf on the Shelf. The makers of the Elf also problematically assume that “male” is normal, upon closer investigation of products you can purchase for your Elf on the Shelf is a skirt that transforms the male Elf into a female Elf. Seems like some Aristotle “women are incomplete men” propaganda to me.

Also, the politics of race (especially when examined under the context of the Elf on the Shelf as a commercial, branded and marketed product) seem problematic. In all of the representations of the Elf on the Shelf that I have observed –friends’ pictures on facebook, the Elf on the Shelf for sale at Barnes and Noble, the commercial, everyday persons’ homage to Elf on the Shelf on youtube– the Elf is always white. As though it were not bad enough to know that the most effective exertion of power in our society would be a white man observing any other group of people but in particular this becomes an issue when they are attempting to exert control over people of color. This brings up a lot of anxiety for me around historical memory and trauma for people of color, i.e. Spanish/English colonialists taking land away from indigenous peoples with threats and acts of violence; white slave owners working their Black plantation and household slaves denying them the rights to read and/or learn, maintaining control over slaves with threats and acts of violence; Japanese American internment in response to an affront to our nation’s “security” rounding up and penning Japanese Americans with threats and acts of violence; U.S. Border Patrol killing Mexican and Mexican American peoples on the border, the threat and act of violence a reality in the borderlands…

Not that I’m necessarily arguing that the Elf on the Shelf is the Border Patrol, Plantation Slave Owner, U.S. Military or Colonist but, for those of us who have this mechanism of power within our homes regulating the behavior of our children, it is implicated in the very system of power that allows for and fuels the disenfranchisement of people of color in this nation. Especially when the panopticon is led by a white (specifically the language on the website notes “light skin tone”) figure. After recounting just a few of the horrors that white people have perpetrated against people of color I find it difficult to read the “dark skin tone” Elf as anything but a false belief in the potential of multiculturalism as the road to equality (get one of each color then white supremacy is destroyed) assertion.

Based on the history of the white male figure of control and domination as a reality in the lives of people of color, I find it difficult to believe that many people of color would want to have an Elf on their Shelf—neither the “light skin tone elf” nor the “dark skin tone elf”. Don’t even get me started on the fact that the elf gets named in the white version and is simply “Dark skin tone pictured” in the same mold of Elf, just a different color, version.

In essence, this “new holiday tradition” needs to be examined closely. Is it just “all in good fun” as many, I’m sure will argue? Or, is it a symptom of a larger structure of power that is always already constantly acting upon us and which we are also enacting daily? I believe that to not think critically about the representations of power, race, and gender even if that critique comes in regards to a “new holiday tradition” or children’s toys or popular culture in general is important to engage in. Especially if that means we can one day imagine a future where gender, race, sexual and class equality is a reality.

The Blog Experiment: A Success!

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that I have been experimenting with blog assignments this past semester. While I made the blog a key part of both classes, I really emphasized it in my Queering Theory course. I made the blog/blog-related assignments worth 80% of their grade. The other 20% would be earned through participation/attendance in class.  I remember when I first thought about doing this in August, I was a little nervous. Would students be willing to do the blog? Contrary to popular belief, not all students are tech savvy nor do they embrace technologies like the blog, so I knew that there might be resistance. Well, having completed the semester, I am pleased to write that the blog assignment was a great success. Some of the students were (understandably) resistant, but they all did it–and they did it well. I am extremely proud of my students’ willingness to stretch themselves and to deeply engage with the readings and the ideas of the class. My goal is to write more about the experience in the upcoming weeks. For now, check out my fall 2009 blogs here and here.

Word count: 194 words

This is my brain between semesters, part 1

…or some random sources that I am finding as I wrap up my thoughts/discoveries from last semester and ponder what to include in my classes for next semester.

Before I begin all of the “actual” work that I have slated for the next month (betwixt and between the fall and spring semesters–hmm…a liminal space, perhaps?), I am taking some time to explore different ideas. I have always loved the part of research when you just travel from source to source and track the connections that authors make between their ideas and the work of others. I used to spend hours in the library scanning the shelves, picking out books with interesting titles, scrutinizing the footnotes for further sources and then tracking those sources down. Now I do it on my computer through google books or amazon or E-Journals while I am drinking my latte and eating my chocolate zucchini bread at Anodyne. I miss the smells and sounds of the library (so I still do that too), but I think it is so cool that I can do research anywhere (and at anytime–even at 2 AM when I can’t sleep). Anyway, I am sitting here at Andoyne (having just briefly visited Wilson Library), thinking about troublemaking, queer theory, feminist theory, Foucault, children and childishness, and affect/emotion.

I went to Wilson Library to pick up James Kincaid’s Erotic Innocence: The Culture of Child Molesting. I found him though his essay in Curiouser. This book, particularly his chapter, “Inventing the Child–and Sexuality,” seems important for me to read as I think through the dominant narratives of the Child as innocent (and a/pre-sexual). Before I actually started reading the book, I was struck by one of his epigraphs. Well, maybe not the epigraph, but its source : Adam Phillip’s On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored: Psychoanalytic Essays on the Unexamined Life. I tracked it down through google books and previewed it. Here is part of the  book overview:

Psychoanalysis began as a virtuoso improvisation within the science of medicine, but virtuosity has given way to the dream of science that only the examined life is worth living. Phillips shows that the drive to omniscience has been unfortunate both for psychoanalysis and for life. On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored is a set of meditations on underinvestigated themes in psyochoanalysis that shows how much one’s psychic health depends on establishing a realm of life that successfully resists examination.

I love this idea of unknowingness as central to a successful life (reminds of Judith Butler in Undoing Gender). After I check out the book and skim it closely, I will have to reflect on Phillips’ ideas in relation to Socrates and his oft cited mantra: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I was also want to spend some time reading Philips’ chapter, “Worrying and its discontents.” In my last entry I wrote about the link, which seems to be inextricably drawn, between worry, thinking and trouble. I am wondering, when is worrying a valuable enterprise? When is it too much? What exactly is it? Before my google preview ran out (because you can only preview a limited number of pages–perhaps I should look for the exact “rules” somewhere on the google books site), I was able to read this intriguing description: worries are farts that don’t work (47). I am reminded of my queering theory class and our (very) productive, especially for one student, focus on the connection between the abject and shit. If worry is a fart, or the failure to shit, what purpose does it serve? Are farts the in-between the subject and the abject? Wow. I should stop before I go too far here….

Okay, that’s enough writing about books; now I want to read them!

The troublemaker as a feminist killjoy (or an unhappy queer)?

I came across this cartoon in a recent New Yorker today:

Picture 1

Here is one reason (among many others) that I love this cartoon: As someone who persistently challenges the status quo and asks a lot (and I mean a lot!) of questions to myself and others, I am sometimes criticized for “taking the fun out of everything.” Uh oh. Here comes that troublemaker again. Why does she have to ask so many questions? Does she ever stop thinking? Can’t she ever just relax and have fun?

In some of her most recent work, (here and this upcoming book here), Sara Ahmed writes about these ideas in relation to (un)happiness and the feminist killjoy. Here is what she says about the feminist killjoy in her essay, “Happiness and Queer Politics“:

Say, we are seated at the dinner table. Around this table, the family gathers, having polite conversations, where only certain things can be brought up. Someone says something you find problematic. You respond carefully, perhaps. You might be speaking quietly, but you are beginning to feel “wound up,”recognizing with frustration that you are being wound up by someone who is winding you up. Let us take seriously the figure of the feminist killjoy. Does the feminist kill other people’s joy by pointing out moments of sexism? Or does she expose the bad feelings that get hidden, displaced or negated under public signs of joy?

In her larger argument, Ahmed is interested in how happiness–read here as good feelings of contentment and pleasure–gets directed toward specific futures (like marriage and the wedding day as the happiest day of your life). For her, happiness comes at a cost. It is tenuous, restrictive and it conceals the unhappiness that it produces. The feminist killjoy kills others’ joy (takes the fun out of everything) for a reason: to remind them that unhappiness is a necessary result of certain imposed visions of happiness. Ahmed suggests that feminist killjoys (and also queers who resist hetero-happiness) are important because they stay not happy (they stay in trouble, perhaps?) by refusing to be happy on the terms that are dictated by a straight world.

Ahmed sees happiness as dangerous:

  • “The risk of promoting happy queers is that the unhappiness of the world could disappear from view” (9).
  • “The good faith in queer progression [towards happiness, acceptance, contentment] can be a form of bad faith. Those of us committed to queer life know that forms of recognition are either precariously conditional–you have to be the right kind of queer by depositing your hope for happiness in the right places–or it is simply not given” (9).
  • “…it conceals the ongoing realities of discrimination, non-recognition and violence, and requires that we approximate the straight signs of civility” (9).

She concludes that: “We must stay unhappy with this world” (9). This unhappiness does not mean being sad or miserable. Ahmed believes that resisting happiness (in the form of unhappiness) “opens up other ways of being” that are not constrained by preconceived visions of happiness and the good life. These other ways of being could allow for an increase in possibilities of what could/does/should happen. In this way, queers–and feminist killjoys too?–could put the hap (as in what happens and of being perhaps) back into happiness (16).

In this essay, which I am still working through, Ahmed only briefly mentions the feminist killjoy. How is she linking this figure with the unhappy queer? I can’t wait to read her upcoming essay in Signs about the feminist killjoy (Spring 2010). In my class on feminist and queer explorations in troublemaking I am really interested in how making trouble functions in different feminist and queer contexts. It will be helpful to see how/where Ahmed places feminism within her own queer project.

I really like what Ahmed is doing in this essay. I see many connections between unhappiness/the feminist killjoy and troublemaking. Ahmed does too; at one point in the essay, she describes unhappiness as “causing misfortune or trouble” (10) and then links it with being miserable and wretched.  While it would be easy to read the connection between unhappiness, trouble and wretchedness as an argument for the impossibility of happiness (and the fundamental disconnection between happiness and trouble), this is not what Ahmed is doing. She wants to rethink what happiness could be (to put the hap back in happiness), by “rewriting it from the point of the view of the wretch” and by exploring how to “estrange us from the happiness of the familiar” (11). Happiness becomes less about contentment or following the right path (towards hetero-happiness and the good life), and more about opening up new and uncertain possibilities (more happenings, the perhaps?). This happiness relies on making trouble (unsettling, refusing visions of happiness that constrain) for others’  happiness.

I want to return to my own experiences as a feminist killjoy and as someone who has been charged with “taking the fun out of everything.” What sort of fun is being taken away when I ask lots of questions? And who said making trouble by asking lots of questions wasn’t fun? In my own experiences being labeled/dismissed as a feminist killjoy (although admittedly I don’t think I have ever been called a killjoy, maybe a buzzkill or a debbie downer), the assumption is this: having fun means not worrying which means not thinking. For many, the fear is that thinking leads to worrying (which is another word for trouble, right?) which is never any fun. But is their direct link between worrying and thinking/troubling? This past summer I wrote an entry about trouble, worry, and not thinking and how it is linked in a Travelers Insurance Commercial:

Trouble, represented as worry, is something bad that we don’t want and that we suffer through. In this commercial, the uncertainty of the world and our inevitable exposure to others–and the danger that that exposure leads to–are implicitly linked to financial insecurity and the current economic crisis. The solution is not to learn how to deal with our vulnerability (and the inevitability of uncertainty and lack of control which is part of being human) or to develop skills/strategies for staying in trouble in productive ways. Instead, the solution is to buy more insurance, thereby shoring up the illusion that we can have complete and total control over what happens to us. This enables us to stop worrying (and stop thinking) about those things we care about and start enjoying life (because, of course, thinking and enjoying are diametrically opposed). The message in this commercial is: You want to stop being troubled by your tenuous financial situation? Don’t worry. Stop losing sleep over it. Buy more insurance and then you don’t have to think about it anymore. Or, put more simply: Don’t think. It makes you worry too much. Leave the thinking to someone else, like Travelers Insurance.

But what sort of joy and enjoyment is possible when we think and when we make others think? Is it possible to imagine the dinner table differently, where asking questions leads to intense conversations or radical shifts in world views? Could it be a place of joy, imagined as something like Audre Lorde’s notion of erotic as feeling (as opposed to the traditional definition of joy/pleasure/happiness as contentment, comfort or safety)? Now, my discussion of the feminist killjoy and happiness is a departure (I think) from Ahmed and her interest in happiness. I will write a follow-up post in 2010 once I have read her specific analysis of the killjoy within feminism. I can’t wait.

As a conclusion, I just want to add: Does anyone else immediately think of Kilroy when they hear killjoy? I can’t seem to get “Mr. Roboto” by Styx out of my head. In case you weren’t thinking about that, here it is. You’re welcome.