Off-center

Another thing I want to do in this blog is to experiment with different ways of writing an entry and of using writing as a way to reflect on, process and make note of new concepts and ideas. Here is one attempt at engaging with the concept of being off-center.

Definition: Alison Bailey writes here: “Individuals who occupy the center but whose way of seeing is off-center”(32). While they inhabit the center (in some form), these off-center individuals manage to disrupt and destabilize the center (how it functions, how it is understood).

Questions: What does it mean to be off-center? Is it akin to being off your rocker? Out of balance? Does off-center = queer? How does one go about being off-center? What makes some of us off-center while others of us are the center of everything (including the universe)? When is it okay to be off-center and when is it not?

Applications: In her article, Bailey applies the idea of being off-center to white “traitors” who refuse to follow the proper scripts about how to act and function as white people. They actively give up their privilege and often disrupt its smooth functioning for others in order to fight racism. Bailey contrasts her notion of off-center with Sandra Harding and Harding’s promotion of being cast out and becoming marginalized. Bailey argues that race traitors, by virtue of their whiteness, have the possibility of re-claiming their white privilege and are therefore never really marginalized; they are just off-center.

Reflections: I was really excited when I came across Bailey’s concept of being off-center because it seems to share some affinities with queer and troubled. All three of these (off-center, queer, troubled/troubling), along with off-balanced, seem to evoke the idea of a state of mind that is not quite right. A state of mind (or an attitude, perhaps?) in which one does not quite make sense. Instead of reading this negatively as indicating that someone is not sane, we could interpret being off-center as a location (that is not fully or even close to being outside of the system) from which to subvert, disrupt, critique, challenge and (yes, here it comes) trouble the center and its rigid and limiting understanding of the world.

Questions, part II: Does one have to be a little “off” in order to make trouble for the system?

Conclusion: If by “off” you mean not fully following the rules or refusing to be “normal” or actively being something other than what is expected of you (as dictated by the center), then, yes, one has to be a little (or a lot) “off” in order to enage in effective troublemaking (as being critical and as resisting the system).

Is this a good structure for organizing my thoughts on the usefulness of “off-center” for thinking/theorizing about troublemaking? Perhaps. Is it useful for anyone else reading this blog? I don’t know. Anyone…Bueller….Bueller

Troublemaking in 200 words or less…

So, I use blogs a lot in the courses that I teach and I am always experimenting with how to use them better. I think getting students to participate through the blog is an excellent way to help them organize their thoughts and articulate them in succinct (and hopefully coherent) ways to their fellow students. This past semester I required that my students submit weekly 200 word entries. They grumbled a little about the word length as being too short. I told them that they should be able to express their main idea in a sentence or two. If you can’t express it simply and succinctly, I would always say, then you don’t really understand it.

But, how hard is it really to write short, succinct entries that get at the main point of an article or that do an effective job of conveying your thoughts? Am I able to do that?  I have decided to try an experiment with 200 word entries to see how effective I am at completing my own assignments. I hope to create a bunch of these and mix them in throughout the summer. This was my first attempt and it was hard. It is 200 words exactly.

What do tomboys become when they grow up?

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote an entry about feistiness and feminist ethics. I mentioned a film I found through Women Making Movies called Tomboys! Feisty Girls and Spirited Women. I was finally able to watch it last night. When I first read about the film, I was intrigued by its opening question: Are tomboys tamed once they grow up? The film answers this question by offering up four stories by and about women (various ages–a teenager, an artist in her 20s/30s, a firefighter in her 30s/40s, and an activist in her 80s) who have refused to be tamed and who have managed to keep their feistiness despite societal pressures to become “proper” (more ladylike, more feminine in dress and manner, less playing with boys) women.

In addition to footage of these girls/women, the filmmakers (Julie Akaret and Christian McEwen) interview Carol Gilligan about girls, tomboys, adolescence, and resisting pressure to lose one’s feistiness. I like their inclusion of Gilligan. Her theories on women’s moral development and women-as-caregivers, which were first articulated in the groundbreaking book In a Different Voice, have been highly influential within feminist theory/feminist ethics. In fact, when scholars talk about a feminist ethic of care, her name is one of the first to come up (along with Nel Noddings). Gilligan has one of my favorite lines in the film when she suggests that these girls not be called tomboys but resistors–people who resist oppressive and restrictive rules/codes of behavior.

I really appreciate the concept of this film–creating links between girls, young women, middle-age women, old women. I also like the idea of valuing feistiness–this resonates with my own promotion of troublemaking. I want to show this film to my kids when they get a little older. I think it could generate some interesting discussions about what it means to be a girl (and a boy). For these reasons, I am happy to see such films being made. We need more of them.

I have some problems with the film (surprise surprise), but I will get to those in a later blog entry. Right now I want to focus on why I like this short movie: It values troublemaking as a form of spirited feistiness and resistance. And, it uses a feminist ethicist (Gilligan) to do it.

Horton the caring troublemaking elephant who not only makes trouble but stays in it

So, STA used to be surprised by the crazy connections I would make between philosophers, critical theorists and popular TV and movies or how I could interpret and express my own everyday experiences through the words and theories of Judith Butler. Not anymore. For anyone else reading this blog, I offer this entry as a good example of how my brain works. In this entry, I contrast an ethics of troublemaking (inspired by Judith Butler) with a feminist ethics of care, sprinkle in some Michel Foucault (and his idea of the caring and curious masked philosopher) and apply it to Dr. Seuss and Horton Hears a Who. Crazy? Perhaps. Unique? Always. Without further ado, I bring you Horton as the caring troublemaker…

If you can’t see it, hear it, or feel it, it doesn’t exist. Our way of life is under attack. And whose leading that attack? HORTON! Are we going to let troublemakers like Horton poison the minds of our children? When Horton tells our children about worlds beyond the jungle he makes them question authority which leads to defiance which leads to ANARCHY!

These are the words of the Sour Kangaroo (but only in the movie–they aren’t in the book) as she implores the other animals in the jungle of Nool to help her stop Horton. She condemns him as a troublemaker who is out to destroy their way of life and to poison the minds of their children. But what is it about his actions that causes trouble for her? Why is she so angry and frightened and threatened by him? It is not just that he thinks differently or that he sees and hears things (like tiny worlds on small specks on flowers) that others don’t. It is that he refuses to fall in line and obey the rule of their society (at least according to the Sour Kangaroo): If you can’t see it or hear it or feel it than it doesn’t exist.

Horton is condemned as a troublemaker because he makes a choice to disobey what he finds to be wrong (as inaccurate and not properly reflecting his own observations of people on the speck) and unjust. So, the troublemaking part of his action is not only (or even mostly) that he is open to other ways of thinking about the world–ways that are counter to common sense like little worlds or specks that talk, but that he refuses to deny those ways and defiantly claims their value and humanity—a person’s a person, no matter how small. Fundamental to Horton’s troublemaking is a sense of justice and attentiveness to others who he witnesses being treated unfairly and/or that are in need of care. In this sense, he makes trouble by getting into trouble (thinking about the world differently, seeing worlds on specks) and then by staying in trouble (refusing to ignore or deny those specks).

Consider a scene early in the movie (the chapter is titled, “Making Trouble”) when the Kangaroo confronts and threatens Horton. She commands him to stop treating the speck as if it had a world on it and to tell everyone else that he was making it up. If he doesn’t, she warns, he will be in for an ugly fight (and big, big trouble). So, he better hand over the flower and the speck. His reply:

No! I can’t give it to you. There are people on this speck. Granted, they’re very small people. But a person’s a person, no matter how small.

In this scene, the real trouble for Horton is that he refuses to get himself out of trouble even when doing so puts him in danger of being ostracized or worse by the other animals. He stays in trouble not because he is eager to anger the Kangaroo or because he is bored and wants to make life more interesting (or thrilling) for himself. No, he stays in trouble because the alternative is to ignore the voices of others and to let them perish. To get himself out of trouble Horton would not only have to turn his back on the Whos, but he would have to deny that they ever existed. This denial (that is, the refusal to recognize this other world) would strip the Whos of their humanity/humanness. For, how could they have humanity if they don’t even exist, if they are only figments of Horton’s imagination?

What I find interesting about Horton’s troublemaking in this story is how it is inextricably tied to his passion for justice and his openness to other worlds and ways of being/living. This suggests that troublemaking (as in, making trouble for those in power, for the status quo, for rigid rules) can be motivated by something other than rebellion, destruction, or deliquency. Troublemaking is motivated by a sense of moral responsibility towards/for others, by an ethical need to work for more just societies, and by a desire to care (for and about) the world and all of its inhabitants (especially the smallest).

Yes, I think that in this film Horton is a great example of a caring troublemaker. We can see this care in a couple of different ways. In one sense, he is giving care to the Whos on the speck–he cares about their world and he takes care to ensure that that world remains safe and viable. But, there is another sense of care happening in this story–a type of care that is not just about the attention and the help that Horton gives to the Whos and their speck of a world. This type of care is not about specific actions but about an approach/attitude to the world; this type of care refers to the quality of one’s character as someone who cares and is curious about the different possibilities of life that our worlds offer.

In “The Masked Philsopher,” Michel Foucault describes curiosity and the care it suggests:

[Curiosity] evokes ‘care’; it evokes the care one takes of what exists and what might exist; a sharpened sense of reality, but one that is never immobilized before it; a readiness to find what surrounds us strange and odd; a certain determination to throw off familiar ways of thought and to look at the same things in a different way; a passion for seizing what is happening now and what is disappearing; a lack of respect for the traditional hierarchies of what is important and fundamental.

From the beginning of the story (in the book and both versions–1970 and 2008–of the movie) Horton exhibits the qualities of curiosity-as-care. Here, let me break it down in terms of the 2008 version. First, let me offer a scene from early on in the movie. Horton is trying to explain to the Sour Kangaroo why he is talking to a speck of dust on a flower:

Kangaroo: That’s absurd. There aren’t people that small!
Horton: Well, maybe they aren’t small. Maybe we’re big.
Kangaroo: Horton!
Horton: No, really. Think about it. What if there was someone way out there looking down on our world right now? And to them, we’re the specks.
Kangaroo: Horton! There is nothing on that speck!
Horton: But I heard.
Kangaroo: Did you, really? Ohhoho my. Then how come I don’t hear anything?
Horton: Well…hmmm…
Kangaroo: If you can’t see, hear, or feel something it doesn’t exist. And believing in tiny, imaginary people is just not something we do or tolerate here in the jungle of Nool.

Foucault: it evokes the care one takes of what exists and what might exist; a sharpened sense of reality, but one that is never immobilized before it
Horton:  Horton is interested in and attentive to the world around him and open to imagining new possibilities. His sharpened (and heightened) sense of reality enables him to hear the tiny cry coming from a small speck floating by as he is bathing in the stream. Instead of not hearing (or more common, hearing but refusing to listen), Horton listens and responds to the voice that signals the possibility of another world beyond his, a world that seems unimaginable within his world (with its empirical, physical and “natural” laws). He is not threatened or even incredulous at the possibility of a tiny world on a speck; it does not immobilize him. Instead it sparks his curiosity and his imagination about what lies beyond his own observations.

Foucault: a readiness to find what surrounds us strange and odd
Horton: Horton is ready and willing to be open to how our surroundings, such as flowers, trees, specks of dust, may not be what they appear to be. They may be strange and strangers to us (we don’t really know them or what they are).

Foucault: a certain determination to throw off familiar ways of thought and to look at the same things in a different way
Horton: Once he hears the voice and believes there that there is a small person on the speck, he is committed to never look at flowers and dust (or the world, for that matter) the same way again. He is committed to staying open to the possibility of other worlds (ones that are smaller and bigger than us).

Foucault: a passion for seizing what is happening now and what is disappearing
Horton: [a stretch perhaps?] Horton is unwilling to let the moment pass and the speck of dust and its inhabitants to perish. When he hears the small voice crying for help, he acts immediately.

Foucault: a lack of respect for the traditional hierarchies of what is important and fundamental.
Horton: Horton refuses to honor the jungle of Nool rule (at least as created and enforced by the Sour Kangaroo): If it you can’t see, hear, or feel it then it doesn’t exist. He steadfastly stands behind his (empirically unproven) claim that there are people on the speck of dust.

Now, this kind of care–the care for remaining open and interested/attentive to the world in its different permutations–is not often recognized as such. Maybe that is because care-as-curiosity is hardly ever about being careful. It is exhausting, dangerous and quite frequently gets us into trouble (and demands that we stay in trouble by being resistant to rigid rules and ready for new possibilities). But, what if we imagined the type of troublemaking and troublestaying that Horton is doing as an ethics of care? Then, could we begin to value (and honor and promote) troublemaking?

Another Feminist Reponse to Horton Hears a Who: Why is it always the mother’s fault?

A year ago, when the Jim Carrey/Steve Carrell version of Horton Hears a Who came out, feminists responded (see here and here and here) to what they saw as the blatant sexism within the movie’s over-emphasis on the single son as the hero and the 96 daughters as invisible. Why couldn’t one of the daughters save the day? Why does the mayor care more about his one son than his daughters? Why would the filmmakers add this sexist storyline?

I agree with this assessment of the film and do find the emphasis on the son at the expense of the daughters to be disappointing. Typical, but disappointing nonetheless. However, when I first watched the movie at the Riverview Theater in South Minneapolis with my kids (and again today on dvd), what angered me was not this reinforcement of the male-as-the-only-hero-that-matters. No, what angered me was how the movie perpetuated the classic take on who was to blame for all of the conflict and crisis: the smothering mother.

Why does the Mayor’s son need to save the day? Because the kangaroo mother is afraid of change in the jungle of Nool. She is afraid of things that she cannot see or hear. She is afraid that all of Horton’s “troublemaking” (yes, she uses that word in the film) will lead to questioning authority and eventually anarchy. While other animals may help her realize her plans, it is her fear alone and her disdain for that which challenges her simple worldview that leads to the crisis in the first place. She will stop at nothing to make sure that Horton doesn’t corrupt the children of Nool. She is so concerned with the corruption of her own son that she “pouch schools” him. And, she manages to stir up the other parents into a frenzy over the supposed threat that Horton and his “free thinking” pose.

Unlike the storyline about the son and the 96 sisters, the idea of the fearful kangaroo was present in the original version. But what is different in the earlier version is that the kangaroo was not alone in her fear or her disdain of Horton. Her son was a willing participant in the mocking and criticizing of Horton. In fact, he helped to instigate it. He was not trapped in her pouch, smothered by her “love” and her need to protect. So, why did they add this smothering mother theme? What could it possibly add to the story?

Horton Hears a Who was originally written in the 1950s and, according to this wikipedia entry, was inspired by Dr. Seuss’ desire for the U.S. (in their occupation of Japan post WWII) to treat the Japanese better. The book serves as an allegory and, as such, has a political message: Every person counts. Even the Japanese. The 2008 version seems to have its own political message. With its rhetoric of change good/staying the same bad and its villifying of traditionalists (and the Bush Administration) as home-schoolin’, fear mongering, anti-thinking conservatives, Horton Hears a Who is a liberal response to what is understood to be a radical shift towards conservative, fundamentalist beliefs. The message seems to be less that every person counts (because a person’s a person no matter how small) and more that close minded conservatives who see change as undermining important traditions and values are crazy freaks who are willing to kill an entire world (the cute little whos in whoville by boiling it in oil) just to protect their own. The film seems to be saying (or screaming or bashing its audience over their heads) with the message: They must be stopped! Free thinking, imagination, questioning authority must win out!

Hey, that sounds like what I am trying to promote in my own vision of troublemaking as a critical and questioning approach to the world and our understandings of it. I am all for promoting imagination and encouraging people to move beyond their limited perspectives (and their belief that anything that they don’t see or that they ignore doesn’t exist). So, what’s my problem? My problem is that the person standing in the way of all of this great thinking and imagining and saving little worlds is an overbearing, smothering mother. That’s right. Once again, the mother is to blame. Not the government. The city council of Whoville only makes a brief appearance as a bunch of idiot jerks who are more interested in ensuring that the annual Whoville celebration occurs than protecting the interests of its citzens. Not the evil vulture Vlad. He is tricked by the Kangaroo into stealing the flower that houses the Whos and Whoville. Not the other animals in the jungle. They like Horton, but the Kangaroo bullies them into being afraid of his non-conformist behavior and approach to life. Nope. It is the evil, nagging, overbearing, ignorant, close-minded, fear mongering Kangaroo that is to blame (Do I sound a little harsh here? She is such a caricature of the smothering mother role that I am not sure that she has any endearing qualities).

The filmmakers in this 2008 version shifted the message away from valuing everyone (as emphasized in the book) and towards critiquing those who fear change and are afraid to challenge tradition. To emphasize this message, they went with one of the most popular ways to show the conflict between tradition and innovation: The mother who refuses to let her child grow up and who wants to make sure that tradition is respected and adhered to. So, what’s the big deal? Here is one reason that this is a big deal:

This movie vilifies mothers. This isn’t something new. It happens all of the time in movies (in many kid’s movies mothers are not present–usually dead–or they are clueless or they are the problem). But, when I am sitting in the theater with my two kids watching Horton Hears a Who, I get very angry at being reminded of how I, as a mother, am represented in movies. What images and damaging stereotypes are my kid’s wittingly and unwittingly absorbing as they watch the mean kangaroo try to destory Horton and Whoville? She is the ultimate bad guy (don’t get me started on how they oversimplify the good guys/bad guys and good vs. evil in these films).

As I mentioned at the beginning of this entry, feminists have been quite critical of how the girls (the mayor’s 96 daughters) are ignored in favor of the boy (the son). By ignoring the girls and not allowing one (or all) of them to save the day, the movie reinforces the idea that boys are still the heros and reminds kids, as they are watching the film, that “boys rule, girls drool” (sorry, my son likes to chant that. Of course my daughter flips it so that “girls rule, boys drool”). In some ways, this part of the story is an easy (and obvious) target for criticism. But, if we focus all of our attention on this example of sexism (which seems to be indefensible for many these days), we fail to see some of the deeper, darker and more insidious forms of sexism and mysogyny that this film taps into and reinforces. Why is it still okay to blame the mother for our problems? For our own inability to embrace change? For our desire to not think critically? Why aren’t we all responsible for this ignorance and our hateful responses to a fear of change, the unknown, or different ways of living?

When will we ever grow up?