Mavericks, Renegades, Troublemakers

I was doing a random google search of troublemakers and I came across this article from Rolling Stone (12/2005). It was part of a special feature on Mavericks, Renegades and Troublemakers of 2005. Michael Moore wrote the introduction for it. Here are some highlights from Moore’s reflections on making trouble [emphasis is mine]:

Thanks to a number of individuals who, in 2005, dared to step out of line and say something real, the public had begun a seismic shift away from the chokehold of uniform and uninformed thought.…As a rule, we are instructed from childhood that serious consequences shall arise if we dare to rock the boat. We learn instinctually that it is always better to go along so that we get along. To slip off the assembly line of group think means to risk ridicule, rejection, banishment. Being alone sucks, but being alone while you are attacked, smeared and scorned is about the same as picking up a hot poker and jamming it in your eye. Who in their right mind would want to do that? Especially when conformity to the community offers as its reward acceptance, support, love and the chance to be comfortably numb.

So, troublemaking (and rebelling, rabble-rousing, being a brat–which are all categories in this special issue) is: daring to step out of line; saying something real; and shifting away from uniform and uninformed thought–from being the same and being ignorant.

We don’t make trouble because: there are serious consequences for rocking the boat (troubling the waters); refusing to participate in group think is risky and leads to rejection and ridicule; challenging others is often an ostracizing and solitary endeavor which can lead to violent attacks; and conformity is comfortable and comforting.

Note: Moore’s description of being attacked because you rock the boat as the equivalent of jamming a hot poker in your eye reminds me of Theodor Adorno and this passage from Minima Moralia: “The splinter in your eye is the best magnifying glass.” I will have to find my copy of the book (at least I think I have a copy) and reread it. That might provide for an intriguing way in which to read Moore’s comments.

Here is some more of Moore’s introduction:

This year’s mavericks and rabble-rousers stuck their necks out — and they didn’t get them chopped off. They helped the nation make a turn toward the truth, and average Americans began to speak their minds freely in the diners and the churches and the bars, little words of discontent and dissent and growing outrage. You can argue that it was five years and 2,100 dead soldiers too late. Or you can say that Americans may be slow learners, but when we finally figure something out… well, watch out. A new majority forms, and there can be no stopping it. Stands taken by this year’s troublemakers had become, by year’s end, the mainstream position of the American people. Every poll shows the same thing: The majority now oppose the war and no longer trust the president when he speaks. The time is ripe to get this country back in the hands of the majority. Will we seize the moment? Or will we need a whole new crop of rebels next year to keep us honest? Thank God we will still have artists and writers and everyday citizens willing to sign up for the call. Those who dare to be different are the closest thing we have to a national treasure.

This passage raises some interesting questions for me: Can we be a nation of troublemakers? Or, if troublemakers become the majority do they lose their ability to make trouble? What is the process that occurs when troublemakers unsettle us to the point that we listen–really listen–to what they have to say? The image I get of the troublemaker from Moore’s description here is that of someone (or a bunch of someones) who provoke us into action. These troublemakers are not part of the action, instead, they cause the action. But, is that the only role of the troublemaker? What kind of action is troublemaking itself? And, how can troublemakers participate in the action themselves?

Finally, what do we make of Moore’s final statement: “Those who dare to be different are the closest thing we have to a national treasure”? If you are part of the majority can you dare to be different? Earlier in the passage, Moore argues that the majority of American’s disagree with the direction of the country and the President (this is 2005, remember). If you are part of that majority and you share the same opinion, can you dare to be different (whatever that means) and still be part of the majority? If not, is Moore suggesting that those who are different–who stand out, who don’t conform and who are willing to challenge the mainstream–are not us (the majority) but simply treasures (objects) that we should keep around to remind us of where we are going wrong or how we should change? If so, where and how do these figures fit into the community–are they just exalted figures that are different from us OR can we learn to be our own troublemakers?

Films with Trouble in the Title

Here are three different films that have trouble in the title (and that have some connection with making/being in/staying in trouble). As of this post, I have only seen one of them.

ONE Trouble the Water is a documentary from this year (2009) that was nominated for an Academy Award. It is about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath and includes footage by an aspiring rap artist–Kimberly Rivers Roberts–whose home and community were devastated by the storm and the chaos and destruction that it caused.

What or who is it that is troubling the waters? Is it the storm and its aftermath? Is it the filmmakers (the “professionals” and/or the “amateurs”)? Is it Kimberly’s/Scott’s community and the people of New Orleans? Is the trouble the water of the title a good thing or a bad thing or both? I will report back to this blog once I have watched the movie. Hopefully it will be sometime soon.

TWO Making Trouble (2007) is a documentary about some key Jewish women comedians and the important contribution that they have made to the entertainment world.

I like the connection between making trouble, comedy and women. I am very interested in the exploring how comedy/laughter/humor fit into troublemaking and its role in resistance and transformation. I have wanted to watch this for awhile, but it is not available on DVD. I just might have to arrange for a special screening this year.

THREE Female Trouble is part of John Water’s Trash Trilogy. It came out the year I was born (1974) and chronicles the descent of Dawn Davenport (Divine) into the world of crime and the criminal.

What can I say? This movie is crazy and gross and fabulous. I previewed it this spring and then screened parts of it in my Feminist and Queer Explorations in Troublemaking class. Judith Butler makes reference to it in the original preface to Gender Trouble and it (and Waters and Divine) has a lot to say about the links between troublemaking, deliquency, gender performance, and trash-as-abject. It is available on DVD and worth a screening–just don’t watch it on a full stomach.

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