Giving an Account and Telling a Story

As I think through how I use my blog to give an account and/or tell stories, I want to put the following books and ideas about storytelling and giving an account beside each other:

Dorothy Allison’s Two or Three Things I Know for Sure
Judith Butler’s Giving an Account of Oneself
Paul John Eakin How Our Lives Become Stories 

In thinking about how and why to put these beside each other, I’m partly interested in exploring the different (and sometimes similar) ways in which they explain the purposes for our stories. Why do we tell stories? Who are they for? What compels us to give an account? What sort of self is created/revealed/performed through these accounts/stories?

Word Count: 116 words

Words of wisdom on the limits of (pseudo) troublemaking

This morning, I’m trying to sort through some links that I either emailed to myself or marked on my Safari Reading list. While reading through one, Sasha Frere-Jones’ Good Things with Twitter, I happened upon the awesome tweets of Jenny Holzer, Mom. Here are two of my favorites:


Excellent! Many of her tweets (unfortunately she only has 175) use humor to critique/play with/make trouble for Ideals of revolution, freedom and rebellion and the tension between promoting trouble and still recognizing the need for rules/discipline.

An urgent need to document my process/ing

My goal in writing on this blog or using twitter is not primarily to build up an audience or to share resources (although those goals are cool too); I developed this blog and my twitter account, @undisciplined, in order to create a space where I could make visible my thinking/writing/feeling/engaging process in ways that were (for the most part) easily accessible, archivable and connectable.

I have found that blogs and twitter work really well for me. The format of a blog, with its multiple layers, playful tone, and ability to bring in various types of media and content, and the format of twitter, with its pithy focus and emphasis on documenting small habits of daily life, fit well with my own approach to thinking, engaging and writing. And, I truly enjoy writing and engaging on both of them. A lot. Too much?

But, why do I want to make visible my process? And why do I feel an urgent need to document it? I want to spend some time ruminating on these questions over the next couple of weeks. As many critics of blogs and twitter have suggested, I suppose that there must be some element of narcissism involved. But, I don’t think that really gets at why I write online and in public. Sure I would like people to recognize and value what I do, but I really don’t create it for those reasons; I’m not driven (that much?) by recognition. 

Tentatively, I can think of several compelling reasons why I feel an urgent need to document my process of engaging with the world:

ONE: I want to leave a visible trace of who I am and have been for others and myself.

TWO: I feel compelled to give an account of and tell a story about who I am, what I do and what I believe.

THREE: I find tremendous value in processing ideas, emotions, experiences and believe that a public account requires more care and persistent attention to that process/ing than a private one does (plus, a public account is more accessible and connectable for me and anyone else whose encountering and engaging with my thoughts).

A Trace

My mom’s journals.

Creating a space for making visible my thinking/writing/feeling/engaging process is a way for me to leave a trace of who I am or have been. This need to have/leave a trace has become increasingly important since my mom died in 2009. It’s no accident that I started writing in my own blog just as my mom was in the final stage of dying from pancreatic cancer. Part of this desire to leave my own trace is a response to my own desperate need for more traces of my mom and what she thought and felt about the world as she was dying and after she died. As I hungrily searched for more of her own reflections on life, teaching, and raising a troublemaking kid like me, I thought about how my kids (or their kids) might want some of my reflections after I’ve died.

A Chain? A Root? A Rhizome?

But my need for leaving a trace isn’t just about providing others with my reflections; I leave a trace as a sort of chain, connecting my past selves and their stories with my present and future selves. This need for a chain of connections is important for me because I feel particularly disconnected from my selves, their stories and the worlds in which those stories were created.

In the past eight years, I’ve had to come to terms with the loss of two grounding forces that enabled me to link together the chains of my selves throughout the years of many moves and transitions: the loss of the farm that had been in the Puotinen family for almost 100 years and the loss of my mom.

The farm was sold in 2004 and my mom died from pancreatic cancer in 2009. Both were devastating losses. The farm had been my most important homespace; it linked me to past generations and served as a location for retreat and connection. My mom had been a kindred spirit and the person with whom I shared countless hours, hiking and talking and being curious about the world. She was also my biggest source of stories, since my memory seems to fail me a lot, about who I was when I was young.

When my family lost the farm and then my mom, something happened to my chain of past and present selves (which were already precariously linked because I have a habit of forgetting/ignoring that which has already passed); it seemed to fully break and with it, my links of belonging…to a family, to a community, even to the past selves that I once was.

I think one of the reasons I write in this blog is to create a space where I am building up an archive of ideas and experiences that I can access, remember and engage with now or tomorrow or ten+ years from now. This archive not only serves as proof of my past/present/future existence, but it enables me to craft (and imagine?) and perform a self that endures through time, space and a range of sometimes contradictory experiences and that is connected through (rooted in? beside) past selves and to generations of family members and various communities. What is the most compelling theoretical model for understanding this sense of self/selves? A signifying chain? The roots of a tree? A Deleuzean rhizome? Wow….I think I have an idea of a digital story. Better read/review Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus first!

Leaving a trace is not the only reason I feel an urgent need to process ideas and experiences and document that process, however. As I mentioned earlier in this post, I also engage on my blog and twitter account in order to Give an Account and Tell and Share my Stories and because doing so publicly enables me to Take more Care with my Process/ing. Since I know that I have a lot to say about these reasons and since this post is already 1000+ words, I’m not going to discuss these two reasons right now. I do plan (hope) to return to them. Before discussing “giving an account,” I want to review Judith Butler’s Giving an Account of Oneself and put it beside some of the readings from an awesome class that I took in grad school with Pam Hall: Narrative and Female Selfhood.

Nellie Oleson: A Troublemaking Bitch

Right now, I’m reading Alison Arngrim’s memoir, Confessions of a Prairie Bitch. I randomly came across it on my public library e-catalog and decided it might be fun to read. It came out 2 summers ago, around the same time that another Little House memoir I want to read was published: The Wilder Life. It’s fun to read some of the behind-the-scenes details about mean-girl Mary (Melissa Sue Anderson) or Alison Arngrim’s BFF, Melissa Gilbert. But, what really struck me about the book was how Arngrim used it to not only humanize Nellie, but to argue for the value of being a bitch. In reflecting on why she came to love Nellie, she writes:

She transformed me from a shy, abused little girl afraid of her own shadow to the in-your-face, outspoken, world-traveling, politically active, big-mouthed bitch I am today. She taught me to fight back, to be bold, daring, and determined, and, yes, to be down-right sneaky when I needed to be.

Her valuing of bitchiness might be partly a gimmick for selling books, but I was surprised to see how it was informed by her experiences of being bullied and abused (by her brother) and by a critique of gender conformity (she repeatedly discusses her disdain for strict gender rules/roles and mentions her awareness of/connections to transgender folks, like Christine Jorgensen).

Reading this book makes me want to rethink my assessment of half-pint as the only virtuous troublemaker on Little House. Is there room to imagine Nellie Oleson as a troublemaker who challenges the system? Hmmm….maybe if we imagine her role as excessive parody (not sure if I buy it). Now, I want to go back and watch the troublemaker episode again and view it from the anti-hero’s (Nellie’s) perspective.

the trouble with paternal/imperialist care: some sources on #stopkony

From the Kony2012 site.This list of "culturemakers" is fascinating to me, both who they are and how Invisible Children used them to go so viral with their campaign.

In case you missed it (ha!), the talk on twitter two weeks ago was all about Invisible Children’s Kony2012 campaign. The hashtag #stopkony was trending like crazy and everyone (okay, not everyone) was tweeting about how you should watch the video (which was almost 30 minutes long) on youtube if you cared about “children in Africa.”

The initial buzz focused on how amazingly successful this campaign seemed to be and how it was inspiring so many people to care about an issue and people that they so often ignored. However, I was pleased to see how quickly writers/critics/scholars/activists stepped in and began raising important critical questions about the problems with this campaign: its focus on Uganda, it’s plan for making Kony visible, it’s paternalistic/white savior approach. As a side note, I’ve been noticing lately that there seems to be more visibility for critical voices on the web (or, am I just more tuned in to it?) that are challenging viral media and quick/easy/short-sighted solutions to huge problems. In this post, I don’t want to add to the insightful critiques that many have offered (critiques that keep coming as the topic gets increasingly more bizarre with Invisible Children’s founder, Jason Russell, being detained by police for erratic behavior and public masturbation last week). Instead, I want to use this post as a space for archiving a few of the blog posts/articles that are particularly interesting for me and my thinking about twitter and how it can be ab/used for generating empathy and inspiring people to care.

Here they are (in no particular order):

1: [Data viz] KONY2012: See How Invisible Networks Helped a Campaign Capture the World’s Attention

This post looks at the data to understand how this viral campaign went viral (hint: it didn’t just “happen”) by targeting specific, highly influential celebrities (like Ryan Seacreast…ugh) and by tapping into a network of motivated, concerned Christian youth:

This movement did not emerge from the big cities, but rather small-medium sized cities across the Unites States. It is heavily supported by Christian youth, many of whom post Biblical psalms as their profile bios. Below is a wordle tagcloud highlighting the most common words that appear in their user bios. We easily identify prominent words such as Jesus, God, Christ, University and Student.

2: Why We Should Take Heart from the Backlash Against the Kony Campaign

This article offers a positive spin on how critics were able to quickly and effectively (at least to some extent) challenge the campaign.

It’s online where the Tumblr posts, tweets, and videos from more critical voices can add up and become a wave of dissent. Yes, the Internet may spread bad ideas, but it also opens up new avenues for good ones, dissenting ones…

It also cautions against judging the spreaders of this campaign (mostly Christian youth) too harshly. Hmmm….I want to think about this some more…

In the end, the people (teenagers) who spread this video were motivated by a desire to help, no matter how misguided and problematic the organization behind it. It is easy to be cynical, but the desire to do good by your fellow person is widespread. The video’s virality demonstrates that. May the Kony 2012 backlash result in informing that desire, so that it is humbler, smarter, and can recognize a no-good campaign the next time one comes around.

3: Unpacking Kony 2012

This post provides an excellent and insightful overview. He asks some really important questions about social media and activism, like: Can we advocate without oversimplifying? [good link in post to a discussion of Russell’s video as a “story of self”]

In his conclusion, he raises a ton of questions that could have me thinking/reflecting/ruminating for days. I must return to these question in future reflections:

I’m starting to wonder if this is a fundamental limit to attention-based advocacy. If we need simple narratives so people can amplify and spread them, are we forced to engage only with the simplest of problems? Or to propose only the simplest of solutions?

As someone who believes that the ability to create and share media is an important form of power, the Invisible Children story presents a difficult paradox. If we want people to pay attention to the issues we care about, do we need to oversimplify them? And if we do, do our simplistic framings do more unintentional harm than intentional good? Or is the wave of pushback against this campaign from Invisible Children evidence that we’re learning to read and write complex narratives online, and that a college student with doubts about a campaign’s value and validity can find an audience? Will Invisible Children’s campaign continue unchanged, or will it engage with critics and design a more complex and nuanced response.

4: Kony 2012’s Success Shows There’s Big Money Attached to White Saviors

Building on Zuckerman’s questions about the oversimplification of narratives and issues, this post asks:

But the campaign’s visibility is forcing to the surface some uneasy questions about race, political organizing, and the Internet. Namely: Must nuanced political issues be narrowed down to their simplest forms in order for the public to digest them? Can that issue work without perpetuating deeply problematic caricatures about race? And what, in the long run, does it mean to “win”?
It focuses specifically on how the oversimplification comes at the expense of Africans:

Within days, Ugandan journalist Rosebell Kagumire rose to the top of a chorus of African voices criticizing the campaign.

“It simplifies the story of millions of people in northern Uganda and makes out a narrative that is often hard about Africa, about how hopeless people are in times of conflict,” Kagumire said of the Kony 2012 video. “If you are showing me as voiceless, as hopeless, you have no space telling my story, you shouldn’t be telling my story.”

5: The Road to Hell is Paved with Viral Videos

Here’s an explanation of the title of this article/post:

As a film, as history, and as policy analysis, there is little to be said forKony 2012 except that its star and narrator, Jason Russell, the head of Invisible Children, and his colleagues seem to have their hearts in the right place. But this do-good spirit is suffused with an almost boastful naiveté and, more culpably, an American middle-class provincialism that illustrates beautifully the continuing relevance of the old adage about the road to hell being paved with good intentions.

on paternalistic care:

if the narrative structure of Kony 2012 is reminiscent of anything, it is of a tried and true paternalism that the missionaries milked for all it was worth when they returned to the metropole from the outposts of the British and French empires in which they were  working. Rather than trying to inspire, inform, and mobilize kids through the efficiencies of Facebook to care about faraway tragedies and needs, the missionaries had to content themselves with the largely retail work of mobilizing the faithful.

Later on in the article, the author suggests that the naive, feel-good, unthinking approach to inciting people to care is “childlike.” He describes it as: “cheap techno-utopianism that conflates the entirely admirable wish for a better world with the belief that knowing how to move toward it is a simple matter, requiring more determination and goodwill than knowledge.” While I appreciate his critique here of the problems with oversimplification, I don’t fully agree with his critique/dismissal of kids as critical thinkers/agents/resistors. Many kids are troublemakers who recognize that easy narratives exist and that refuse to uncritically accept the truths that are fed to them. And, many kids, especially teenagers, not only have the capacity for but practice a critical ethics of care. Maybe instead of describing a lack of critical thinking and ethical complexity as childlike, he could have used Cornel West’s understanding of “childish” (which I wrote about at the end of this post):

I want to come back to your point about immaturity because I want to make a distinction between “childish” and “childlike.” You see, the blues and jazz are childlike, the sense of awe and wonder and the mystery and perplexity of things. “Childish” is immature.

6: The White Savior Industrial Complex

The author offers his response to Kony2012 through a series of tweets and then discusses how those tweets have resonated with many audiences. Here are few of the tweets:

This article provides an excellent critical discussion of care, like on how the sentimental white savior only sees need (e.g. hungry mouths), but sees no need to reason out the need for need or how sentimental caring and the need to “make a difference”  enables us to ignore larger structures of power:

Let us begin our activism right here: with the money-driven villainy at the heart of American foreign policy. To do this would be to give up the illusion that the sentimental need to “make a difference” trumps all other considerations. What innocent heroes don’t always understand is that they play a useful role for people who have much more cynical motives. The White Savior Industrial Complex is a valve for releasing the unbearable pressures that build in a system built on pillage. We can participate in the economic destruction of Haiti over long years, but when the earthquake strikes it feels good to send $10 each to the rescue fund. I have no opposition, in principle, to such donations (I frequently make them myself), but we must do such things only with awareness of what else is involved. If we are going to interfere in the lives of others, a little due diligence is a minimum requirement.

Yikes! I intended this post to be brief and to only take a few minutes to write. Ha! Oh well, it was very helpful for me to spend the time reading through these posts and thinking (again) about care on/through/with twitter.