Judith Butler wants us to disobey. Why? Exactly.

I first came across this interview with Judith Butler at Engage: Conversations in Philosophy. In this excerpt, Butler talks about disobedience and how we can shift from being obedient subjects who willingly accept and follow the rules/regulations by those in power to being critical thinkers who, through the process of questioning and challenging, become disobedient troublemakers. The emphasis in bold is mine.

But in the moment we begin to ask ourselves about the legitimacy of this power we become critical, we adopt a point of view that is not completely shaped by the state and we question ourselves about the limits of the demands that can be placed on us. And if I am not wholly formed by this power of the state, in what way am I, or might I be, formed?  Asking yourself this question means you are already beginning to form yourself in another way, outside this relation with the state, so critical thought distances you to some extent.  When someone says “no” to power, they are saying “no” to a particular way of being formed by power.  They are saying: I am not going to be subjected in this way or by these means through which the state establishes its legitimacy.  The critical position implies a certain “no”, a saying “no” as an “I”, and this, then, is a step in the formation of this “I”.  Many people ask about the basis on which Foucault establishes this resistance to power.  What he is saying to us is that in the practice of critical thought we are forming ourselves as subjects, through resistance and questioning.

So, when we begin to ask about why we are formed in the way that we are or why the rules exist as they do, we create a critical distance from those rules. This distance enables us to (occasionally or more frequently) resist those rules and it also prevents us from being completely shaped by them (or in the shadow of them) into good little obedient people/subjects/citizens. Instead of being overly influenced by the rules, we can be shaped by our questioning of them into critical thinkers who disobey and never merely accept anything without questioning it once or twice or three times, etc. Ah ha! Critical thinking. Being disobedient. Questioning authority. Sounds a lot like troublemaking. Yep. Well, it should. Butler (along with Foucault who is she referencing) is a big source of inspiration for my own thinking about troublemaking (It also reminds me of my discussion of Foucault’s link between curiosity and care in this entry).

I really like how Butler (with the help of Foucault) links disobedience with critical thinking and turns asking “why” into an act of resistance. The mere (or not so mere) act of wondering why something is the way that it is or why it isn’t any other way opens up distance between you and the things (like regulatory power) that shape you. It gives you an “outside” perspective from which to reflect on your own experiences. And it allows for the possibility of an alternative idea of the subject/self–not as one who is wholly constructed by the norms and regulations that surround us and give us meaning but as one who is constructed as a being-in-resistance, a self-who-questions. That’s cool.

Here, let me explain that idea in another way. Butler argues that asking why things are the way that they are is a form of disobedience (or is way of not being obedient if obedience requires unquestioned acceptance). The emphasis here is not on disobedience as a refusal to follow the rules or a rejection of rules altogether–some rules are necessary and important and helpful.  No, Butler wants to emphasize disobedience as the refusal to be/become subjects who accept and willingly/unthinkingly obey the dictates that we are given without question. Again, in this sense, the disobedience is not to Rules or Law or the State (although that is important as well), but to the formation of us as subjects-who-merely-obey. So, Butler is particularly interested in how our obedience or disobedience functions on the level of self-(re)making (or what Butler would call subject formation).

Now, this idea of disobedience is not just about how and who we are as political subjects who engage in those practices that are traditionally considered to be political (like voting or protesting or being a part of activist communities or even participating in civic organizations). This idea of disobedience is about how and who we are as selves as we engage in our everyday activities and as we work (intentionally and not so intentionally) on our moral/ethical/intellectual development. And it happens when we ask “why”–not once or twice but everyday and all the time.

Kids are really good (sometimes too good) at asking “why”–from the mundane (why isn’t yellow your favorite color?) to the scientific (why can’t it snow in the summer?) to the existential (why can’t Nana live forever?) to the defiant (why do I have to eat my vegetables?) to the disturbing (why can’t I eat my own poop?) to the repetitive (Why? Why? Why?). The asking of these questions can be tedious for parents, but they are (most often) not done by children in order to be destructive or disrespectful. At their best, these “why” questions demonstrate curiosity and an interest in (caring about) the world and how it works. And, they are an assertion of a self-in-process who is claiming their independence from the forces that shape them.

The “why?” is our chance to disobey (more precisely, to not obey) and to make a claim as someone who questions, who resists being fed easy answers, who is willing to make trouble and stay in trouble for the sake of learning and understanding more. Of course, the asking of “why” is not enough to transform the world or to topple unjust ideologies and institutions. But, it is a good start. And, it is something that almost all of us do all of the time. Many of us are taught (directly or indirectly) that asking “why” is tedious, disruptive and only productive up to a point. We need to remember that “why” is always a proper and appropriate question. Okay, sometimes it should only be posed to ourselves, but maybe we should take that up in a different post…

Trouble, the board game

This morning I played Trouble with my sisters and niece. I used to love that game. So, we were sitting around playing it and I asked AMP: Why is it called trouble and when are you in trouble? Do you make trouble when you send somebody else back to the start or are you in trouble when another player is trying to send you back or is the whole thing about being in the state of trouble (always staying in it) because your situation is so precarious? And, why is it called trouble at all? What is it about making/being/staying in trouble that attracts people? That is, why are people drawn to a game with trouble as the goal?

AMP suggested looking at the rules for an explanation (thanks AMP!), but it doesn’t say anything about why you call it Trouble instead of SORRY or AGGRAVATION (for example). When the rules didn’t help, I decided to search on the interwebs. At Board Game Central they describe trouble as what you are in when an opponent that you have sent back to home gets out and comes after you (as in…uh oh. You shouldn’t have done that. You’re in trouble now). This description is very different than SORRY which is described as being about seeking revenge on others when they send you back or AGGRAVATION which is described as being about aggravating others or shutting them down when they try to take shortcuts through the game. TROUBLE, in contrast, is not about seeking revenge or upsetting your opponent; TROUBLE is about getting in trouble by suffering the consequences of your misbehaving actions (see what happens when you do something bad to someone else, you get in trouble). The focus of the game is not on the trouble you make for others (that is, on getting back at others for how they have treated you or on preventing them from moving ahead in the game), but on the trouble you make for yourself.

Trouble in TROUBLE is not an action you take but a state you are in because of your actions. Hmmm….


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.