Meeting Butler

Right now I’m slowly working on my intellectual history. It’s a daunting task. And I’m approaching it in a mostly undisciplined way. This morning, on the last day of 2012, I decided to look through my old notes to find evidence of my first encounter with the theorist, philosopher, troublemaking role model, Judith Butler. In my video introduction to this Trouble blog, I claimed that this first encounter occurred in the fall of 1996, my first year in graduate school. But this morning I discovered that I actually encountered Butler and Gender Trouble in February of 1997, in my Contemporary Feminist Theory course at Claremont Graduate School. According to the syllabus, I first started reading Gender Trouble on February 11th:


In my notes for that week, my favorite line about trouble being inevitable is the first thing I wrote:

But, even though this line gave me pause, it wasn’t what really moved me about her preface or the chapter on that day in 1997. I was interested more in Butler’s challenge to the subject/identity “woman” and her critique of feminist identity politics. And, having recently been exposed to deconstruction and postmodern critiques of the self, I liked her idea of politics as parody, her rethinking of agency through Nietzsche and her discussions of Luce Irigaray. I wanted to add in some links to a few of my papers from that year, but I’ll have to keep looking for them. Hopefully I have them in a filing cabinet somewhere.

Side note: In the process of looking for my papers, I found a syllabus for one of the other classes that I was taking that spring of 1997: Feminist and Womanist Theory with K. Baker-Fletcher and Karen Torjesen. We were engaging with Black Feminist Criticism the same week I discovered Butler:

The recommended reading is Barbara Christian. I don’t think I actually read her Black Feminist Criticism until Emory University in 2002 or 2003. I wonder if reading her Race for Theory and its powerful critique of the limits of theory, would have influenced my initial readings of Butler? It definitely helped to shape my doctoral exams and dissertation writing in 2003-2006.

Some Monday Reflections

Some days I look at my twitter feed and I don’t find anything that makes me curious or inspires me to ask questions and reflect. But, not today. I don’t know if it’s the 16 oz latte, my 2.5 mile jog at the YWCA, or the early snow that has my “little gray cells” working overtime, but I have a big list of items to think/reflect/trouble/write about on this snowy, cold Monday in November. At first, I was planning to write a series of blog entries on each topic, but I soon realized that that was too much. So instead, I’ve decided to create a post with just a few of the links, along with some reflections.

Item One

Did Jezebel cross the line by ratting out teens for their racist tweets?

Background: Shortly after President Obama was re-elected last week, some twitter users began tweeting their highly racist reactions. And the data-mapping experts over at Floating Sheep tracked and mapped them. This tracking, particularly how the map made visible where certain clusters of racism tweets existed (i.e. Alabama and Mississippi), was a popular topic on twitter, facebook, blogs and online news sources. A few examples: Map Shows You Where Those Racists Tweeting After Obama Election Live (Colorlines), The Racist States of America (Daily Mail UK) and Twitters Racists React… (Jezebel).

According to Slate, Jezebel took their tracking of the story too far, by not only publicly shaming the twitter users, who were primarily teens, but by

reaching out to the tweeters’ schools to get the kids in trouble (and, presumably, to gin up page views). They then meticulously noted each administrator’s response. They also updated us, gleefully, on the status of the students’ twitter accounts: Which kids were embarrassed enough to delete them? Which ones offered half-assed excuses? Which ones doubled down on their racism?

Here’s Jezebel’s follow-up post, detailing their efforts to contact the tweeters’ school officials in order to hold the tweeters accountable and in the hopes that the officials could “educate them on racial sensitivity.” In their critique of Jezebel’s actions, Slate author Katy Waldman, argues that a major media outlet like Jezebel is not the appropriate venue for meting out discipline. It not only punishes these “stupid kids” too severely for their lack of judgment (evidence of their mistake and the resultant shaming will exist for years online), but is more likely to piss them off and shut them down, then encourage them to be educated and accountable for their tweets. Here’s the closing line of the brief article:

Morrissey writes: “We contacted their school’s administrators with the hope that, if their educators were made aware of their students’ ignorance, perhaps they could teach them about racial sensitivity.” Perhaps. More likely, as my colleague put it in an email: “It probably won’t make them less racist if they’re bitter forever.”

Initially, I felt that the Slate article was a bit too harsh but now I’m not so sure. These tweets are abhorrent and the users who tweeted them should be held accountable, but these teens are minors and represent only a handful of individuals who contribute to (but have not created) the larger systems of structural racism in this country. To shame only these kids (or primarily these kids) enables us to ignore/suppress the larger structures of racism and to fail to consider all of the ways that racist attitudes continue to exist within this country. It’s much easier to focus our attention on a few “stupid kids,” then to face the reality that, as Colorlines’ author Jorge Rivas writes: “racists are everywhere.”

This Slate article raised some interesting questions for me:
1. How should we hold users, especially teen users, accountable for their tweets?
2. What sorts of resources are available for educators, parents, community members for learning how to be more accountable and responsible online?
3. After further reviewing comments from the Jezebel post, I came across this thread in which commenters discuss how they’re contacting school officials. One user refers to these actions as internet vigilantism.

Is “internet vigilantism” an effective tool for holding individuals accountable?

Item two

Two Random Encounters with Judith Butler

1. I found an excellent quotation (from a recent interview) on a great post by Michael D Dwyer about teaching pop culture. His use of this quote comes in a section of his post in which he discusses how we can be both critic and consumer of pop culture (this was a big focus in my pop culture class from 2007).

2. I learned about an advice book that Butler contributed to via this Brain Pickings post. This find is one of the reasons why, even as I am wary of Brain Pickings, I still follow them on twitter. Butler contributes an essay on “Doubting Love,” in the 2007 advice book, Take My Advice: Letters to the Next Generation. Looking forward to reading this one; I’ve already requested it from the Minneapolis Public Library! I’d like to think about this advice book in relation to my other research on the self-help industry.

Item Three

Well, I’m quickly running out of time (less than a half an hour before I must pick up RJP from school), so I can’t write much more. Why am I not surprised?! Here’s a In Media Res curated series on The Second Lives of Home Movies that I want to read and reflect on…and put beside my work on home tours.

Bonus Item

Inspired by the snow this morning (and by my desire to experiment with my new iMovie app), I created a digital moment: Minnesota Weather. I plan hope to write more about my thoughts and experiments with the iMovie app soon. For now, here’s my digital moment + my description of the story):

minnesota weather: a digital moment from Undisciplined on Vimeo.

I’ve lived in Minneapolis for the past 9 years (plus 4 years in St, Peter, MN for college and 18 months in Minneapolis in the late 90s) and I still haven’t gotten used to the unpredictable weather. Minnesotans always say, “Don’t like the weather? Just wait 10 minutes.” I was reminded of this phrase when I woke up this morning. Just last week it was sunny, with beautiful leaves on the trees. And, just two days ago, it was in the upper 60s. But, when I looked out my window this morning, around 7 AM, there was snow on the ground. This example of pure Minnesota seemed worthy of a digital moment.

Twitter, Care and Mother’s Day

Ever since my mom died–well, actually, ever since she got really sick–mother’s day has been hard. And, surprisingly, I never expect it to be. I’ve spent a lot of time developing ways to live beside my grief for my mom. And, as I’ve suggested on this blog and in my latest digital video about this blog, I’ve shifted a lot of my recent focus away from grieving over her loss and towards celebrating (her) life. Yet, even though I feel like I’ve come to some sort of peace with her death, I still woke up yesterday with that unsettled, irritable feeling that made me just want to be alone. When I feel this way, I don’t always immediately read it as grief. Grief is supposed to be waves of sadness and feelings of loss, right? Maybe not; my grief rarely comes in those forms.

According to J Butler (whom I’ve written about a lot on this blog), grief is about coming undone:

I think one is hit by waves, and that one starts out the day with an aim, aproject, a plan, and one finds oneself foiled. …Something takes hold, but is this something coming from the self, from the outside, or from some region where the difference between the two is indeterminable? What is it that claims us at such moments, such that we are not the masters of ourselves? In what are we tied? And by what are we seized (Undoing Gender, 18)?

In my case, what took hold yesterday morning were waves of irritation, anger, intolerance and a strong sense of coming undone as a mother, especially a mother without a mother. Luckily the feeling didn’t last that long, and much of the rest of the day–a beautiful one at a baseball game–was good. But, it always helps me to remember that Mother’s Day, much like my mom’s birthday or the day that she died, will probably always be difficult. And in ways that I might never be able to anticipate.

As I was reading through my twitter feed right before bed last night, I came across lots of RTs (retweets) by Xeni Jardin from people who were grieving because of cancer on mother’s day (kids who had lost their moms to cancer, or moms who had lost their kids to cancer, or moms who were living with cancer, etc). Jardin started the series with this tweet:

You can check out many of the tweets on this storify by Josh Sterns. What a powerful series of tweets! As I read through them, I was reminded of how I’m not alone and that plenty of people were having the same trouble I was with mother’s day.

Earlier in the year, I wrote a blog post about Xeni Jardin and her use of twitter to practice an ethics of care. Since that post, Jardin’s use of twitter in relation to (her) cancer has continued to involve multiple caring practices. Her tweets on mother’s day are just one more example.

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

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.