Blog Mash-up #1: Troublestaying-as-care and Feminist Ethics

Over the past year, this blog has been incredibly helpful in enabling me to process, work through and archive my critical reflections on troublemaking and troublestaying. It has also enabled me to make productive connections between seemingly disparate topics: Eminem and Socrates; The Brady Bunch and Habermas; Hannah Montana and Judith Butler; Laura Ingalls and Bourdieu (hint: only briefly in the note at the end), just to name a few. When I began this blog last year, my plan was to use it as a writing tool. Here’s what I wrote about it on my about this site page:

The most important way that I am using this site is as a WRITING TOOL. I have been thinking and teaching about troublemaking for several years now and I thought that it was about time that I started actually writing about it (okay, I have written about it a little). I have talked for a long time (over a decade, sometimes) about certain ideas/theories/topics that would make a great article or book chapter. Life (kids, moves, PhDs, illness) got in the way and, for that matter, is still getting in the way. So, I thought trying out blog writing might help to get me writing again, especially with the limited amount of time I have (did I mention I have two very young kids?).

It has worked. I write a lot now. And on this blog I have stockpiled a large number of ideas, many of which are just waiting to be converted into articles (and maybe books?). So far, I have resisted this process. Academic writing tends to be boring and painful. And it takes time away from the writing that I enjoy; the writing that moves my spirit and that inspires me. But, I believe that I need to change my assessment of formal writing. This summer I need to take my ideas and do something more with them. I need (and not just for my cv) to write some articles and get them published. And I want to use the blog to help me do this by documenting my writing process (what I’m working on, what I’m stuck on, etc) and by posting parts-in-progress for review by others. I also want to use what I have already written, my archive of mini-essays on troublemaking and troublestaying, as the foundation for my manuscripts. In particular, I want to combine several entries, with similar or complementary themes, to create an academic publication-worthy essay. I have decided to call these essays blog mash-ups. I will write and submit as many of these mash-ups as I possibly can this summer.

So, here’s my first mash-up, all taken from the tag, “care”:
what does it mean to care? + defining care + horton the caring elephant who not only makes trouble but stays in it = an awesome article on feminist ethics

So here’s a summary of each entry:

what does it mean to care? In this entry, I critically assess how care is understood and articulated in a children’s book, “We Care, ” that is about a third grade class’s successful efforts to help/care for people in a homeless shelter. While I appreciate much of what the book is trying to do (encouraging students to care and linking care with specific and repeated practices), I ultimately argue that the book presents the reader (aimed at a 3rd grader) with a limited and problematic view of care. I suggest that the students are not encouraged to ask questions or think critically about why the shelter (or homelessness) exists and what kinds of care strategies and practices are most effective. I also suggest that the failure of the story to include the actual residents of the shelter (as characters or even as illustrations) reinforces a very problematic division between the care-giver as subject (student) and the care-receiver as absent object (shelter residents). My main point in this entry: this book offers a insufficient and ineffective definition of care, one that has potentially troubling consequences for readers as they develop their own moral vision of the world and how to treat/exist in the midst of others.

defining care: In this entry, I describe Joan Tronto’s definition of care as it is outlined in the fourth chapter of her book, Moral Boundaries. I also highlight her four inter-related yet distinct phases of care: caring about; taking care of; care-giving; care-receiving. I plan to use her definition as the starting point for my description of a feminist ethic of care. Throughout the entry, I ask questions about her phases and her definition of care. One question I ask is this: are trouble staying and curiosity-as-care only about paying attention? Do they offer other forms of care? Are they only valuable because they make us aware of a problem/need for care?

horton as troublemaker and troublestayer: In this final entry of the three, I write about how Horton, from Horton Hears a Who is a troublemaker who engages in productive troublemaking/staying not just because he pays attention to the voices on the speck that are crying out for help; he is a troublemaker/stayer because he refuses to ignore those voices, even when he is repeatedly told not to, that he is imagining them, and that he will suffer dire consequences if he continues to listen. The care he gives is focused on connecting his attentiveness to the world with his passion for social justice. In concluding this essay, I attempt to link Horton’s speech to the Sour Kangaroo (the “a person’s a person, no matter how small” speech) with a passage from Michel Foucault’s “The Masked Philosopher.” I really like this entry and I think it does a nice job of exploring the possibility for expanding what we mean by care/caring about and how it connects to trouble, both making it and staying in it.

But, wait. As I am writing this, I realize that I should add one more entry into this mash-up: another feminist response to horton hears a who: why is it always the mother’s fault?

In this entry, I discuss how the story (moreso in the recent movie, yet also present in the book) relies on the very problematic trope of the smothering mother: the mother who wishes to continue tradition/the status quo at all costs. The troublemaker (troublestayer) is pitted against the ultimate enemy: the Mother who sees change, curiosity and wonder as threatening. I like the idea of adding this in as well because feminist ethics of care is usually so closely linked with mothering and the mother-as-care-giver. In my own version of trouble-as-care, I am interested (as in J Tronto in her vision) in challenging this entrenched idea and of rethinking what care from a feminist perspective could mean.

So, there you have it: the key parts to my mash-up. Now I have to think through how to connect them, to mash them up, if you will. [Note: STA felt it necessary to remind me that mash-ups are played. I responded: Of course they are, they just had an episode about them on Glee! Regardless of how out-dated mash-ups are (and regardless of how ill-fitting they are for describing what I am trying to do with this blog and writing), I still want to use them. So there!] More on how I will use them in an upcoming entry…

I just spent a couple of minutes on youtube attempting to find a mash-up that I liked. I couldn’t find anything great…yet. I will keep looking. Any suggestions? In the meantime, here is the girl’s mash-up from Glee:

iPAD note: Because I have had some trouble in the past with the WordPress app, I decided to write this entry the old-school way: on my MacBook. About halfway through I realized that I liked how the app on iPad lets me see more of the entry at once while I am writing. So I switched to the iPad. I wrote the rest of the essay, switching back and forth between the two. Not ideal, I suppose. I will keep experimenting. Hey, have I mentioned that I love my new iPad?

On curiosity, the pedagogy of the question and not being good

In the midst of preparing my learning exercise on women’s studies, curiosity and the pink sneaker, I came across an interview with Paulo Freire entitled “The Future of School.” Check out what he has to say about curiosity, the pedagogy of the question and not being a good boy:

I am the antagonist of pedagogy. I am the antagonist of epistemology. I am the opposite ethic. I am nothing of that, because I am the antagonist of that. And I insist, I don’t like discourses. I am not a “good boy.” I try to be a good person, but “good boy” — God forbid! If you want to hurt me, call me a “good boy.”

I am an educated person, very educated, polite, disciplined, and courteous. That I am, indeed, and more. I try to be respectful, but “good boy,” for God’s sake, no! So I am antagonistic to all this. I am contrary, the opposite of all this. I believe in the pedagogy of curiosity. That’s why I defend, along with the Chilean philosopher Fagundes, the pedagogy of the question and not of the answer. The pedagogy of the question is the one that is based on curiosity. Without that pedagogy there would not be a pedagogy that augments that curiosity.

After reading this brief excerpt from the interview, I was curious: what is the pedagogy of the question? The idea of asking lots of questions is central for my own pedagogical practices, particularly in my feminist debates class; the final part of this entry exemplifies this approach. I became even more curious when I found Freire’s book, Learning to Question. Now I just need time to read it and think about it in relation to my own practices and ideas about the question/questions. Maybe I will even assign part or all of this book to my students next fall in my Feminist Pedagogies course?

Another part of Freire’s brief remarks intrigued me as well: the deliberate way he distinguishes between the “good person” and the “good boy”.  Here the good boy seems to be a direct reference to the good student who always obeys the teacher, complies with their demands and passively absorbs information without questioning or challenging it. For Freire, not being a good boy does not suggest that one is a bad person, that is rude or disrespectful (a disciplinary problem, perhaps?). Now, what is Freire doing with this statement? Is it merely a move to prove his respectability as a teacher, scholar, person–see, just because I ask questions doesn’t mean I am a bad person, a delinquent!?  Or, could he be doing something more here (or maybe could we do something more here) with this distinction? In opposing the “good boy” with the good person, Freire could be suggesting that in order to be a good person, one must necessarily question and be curious; one must not be a good boy. So, to be a good boy is to not be a good person? Hmm…I need to think about this some more.

Note: I think it is significant that he describes it as not being a good boy (as opposed to being a bad boy). This sounds a lot like my discussion of Foucault’s notion of not being governed in certain ways or my discussion of Butler’s idea of asking why as a form of not-obeying. Excellent. What connections can I draw here?

My 100th Post or the Winner of the Chewy Bagel Award for 2010

It is hard to believe, but this is my 100th post. Way back in July, I wrote my 50th post. Sure, it has taken me a while to double that number, but I am still very proud of how much I have written in this blog. In the 50th post I mentioned how I had written a total of 36,301 words. Here is the word count now: 79, 418! Why does this matter? I am not totally sure…maybe it just sounds more impressive to say such a big number (am I admitting too much?)

What, you may ask, is the “chewy bagel award”? Many years ago my dad read my presentation on Judith Butler, radical democracy and identity politics that I wrote for the National Women’s Studies Association Conference. After finishing it, he remarked on how dense it was and what careful attention and concentration it demanded of the reader. On the top of the presentation he wrote, “Winner of the Chewy Bagel Award for 2004.” I think that this 100th post, which is all about Foucault, critique, Butler and virtue is worthy of the “Chewy Bagel Award for 2010” for 2 reasons. First, this post is a chewy bagel because it is dense and requires that both the writer (me) and the reader (you) devote substantial time to thinking through the claims that Foucault, Butler and I are making about critique, disobedience, troublemaking and virtue. Second, this post is a chewy bagel because it is about promoting slow and careful rumination (chewing) on ideas, words, and claims. Here is what Butler says in “What is Critique: An Essay on Foucault’s Virtue” about the need for chewiness and how it enables us to patiently and persistently think and reflect:

But here I would ask for your patience since it turns out that critique is a practice that requires a certain amount of patience in the same way that reading, according to Nietzsche, required that we act a bit more like cows than humans and learn the art of slow rumination (307).

A dense, chewy bagel cannot easily be consumed. It requires effort to be eaten. A chewy bagel text is the same way. It is not meant to be easily understood or digested. It demands that we devote some serious time and effort to engaging and processing the ideas that it presents. I love the idea of cultivating patience and persistence; it resonates with one of my own visions of troublemaking, which I wrote about way back in May.

Okay, enough build up to this 100th post. Here it is. Enjoy, or should I say, bon appetit!

A couple of days ago I wrote about how I had found a way to frame the second part of my essay on Butler, troublemaking and virtue. I plan to do a close reading of her essay, “What is Critique? An Essay on Foucault’s Virtue?” In coming up with this approach, I was particularly inspired by Butler’s aside at the end of the essay. She writes:

…I do not mean to rehabilitate Aristotle in the form of Foucault (although, I confess, that such a move intrigues me, and I mention it here to offer it as a possibility without committing myself to it at once (319).

Yes! While I am also not interested in rehabilitating Aristotle through Foucault or Butler (what would it mean to rehabilitate anyway–to return or restore?), I do see a lot of potential in thinking about troublemaking (in Butler and beyond) in relation to virtue ethics and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Discussions of character/attitude, flourishing, the need for role models, and self-making are important for my own development of the moral significance of making and staying in trouble. I want to use this entry to work through some of the connections between Foucault, Butler, troublemaking and virtue.

So, what is the connection between Foucault and virtue? Here is an answer that I gave a few months back:

My vision of troublemaking as an ethical attitude is partly inspired by Michel Foucault and his discussion of the limit attitude in “What is Enlightenment?.” He describes this attitude, which he also calls the “critical ontology of ourselves” as “an attitude, an ethos, a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them” (319).

In his discussion of the critical attitude (or critique), Foucault uses the language of virtue ethics. His emphasis on attitude/ethos/philosophical life is about the quality of one’s character and how we should live and approach our actions. While my own thinking about virtue and Foucault is based on “What is Enlightenment,”  virtue-speak is also very present in “What is Critique?” (a lecture from 1978 that predates his more well-known, “What is Enlightenment?”). Consider what Foucault writes about critique/critical attitude as

a certain way of thinking, speaking, and acting, a certain relationship to what exists, to what one knows, to what one does, a relationship to society, to culture and also a relationship to others (24).

And how he explicitly connects it to virtue:

There is something in critique which is akin to virtue. And in a certain way, what I wanted to speak to you about is this critical attitude as virtue in general (25).

Hmm…note how Foucault doesn’t say that the critical attitude is a virtue, but virtue in general. What does that mean? How are critique and virtue connected here? I hope to revisit this claim later. After contrasting some ways in which critique is often understood (as a judgment, way of evaluating ideas or norms, centered on fault-finding, distanced from actual practices) with how Foucault envisions it (as the suspending of judgment, only realized in concrete situations and practices, aimed at exposing the very framework of evaluating good/bad, right/wrong, productive/unproductive), Butler takes up the claim that the critical attitude is (a) virtue on page 308 (in The Judith Butler Reader). She ruminates on what Foucault means by virtue, writing:

  • virtue is about an attribute or a practice of a subject OR a quality that conditions and characterizes a certain kind of action or practice (308)
  • It is not only a way of complying with/conforming to norms, but a critical relation to those norms (309)
  • Foucault envisions this as a stylization of morality [stylization = fashioning = self-making]

This critical relation to the norms is about not fully complying with those norms and about questioning their validity and their limits. This questioning is not meant to merely refuse or resist a norm–in the case of this essay, Foucault positions his argument in relation to the norms of governmentality/what it means to be governed, or “how not to be governed” (312). Instead, a critical relation to the norm (to being governed) is to ask after why one is governed in such a way and “how not to be governed like that, by that, in the name of those principles, with such and such an objective in mind and by means of such procedures, not like that, not for that, not by them” (Butler, 312). For Butler, raising these questions goes beyond calling out a form of being governed as invalid; it marks the limits of how governing is established and calls into question “the epistemological orderings that have established rules of governmental validity” (313).  In other words, to question a rule/the rules of governmentality is to do more than find fault with that particular rule (a “traditional” role of critique); it is to question and expose how governmentality has been ordered in a particular historical/cultural moment. And it is to open up a space for critically exploring how the system of rules is ordered and how that ordering shapes who/what is governed and how. Butler writes:

To be governed is not only to have a form imposed upon one’s existence, but to be given the terms within which existence will and will not be possible (314).

Wow–this language sounds strikingly familiar to the discussion of the livable life and which lives are possible that she makes in Undoing Gender, which was written 4 years after this essay on Foucault and critique. Interestingly enough, in her more recent work (from Undoing Gender in 2004 and on), the work that is labeled as her “turn to ethics,” she doesn’t explicitly invoke Aristotle or virtue ethics. What happened? She still uses virtue ethics language, like “flourishing” or “the good/livable life,” but never theorizes them in relation to Aristotle or Aristotle through Foucault. More on that later. For now, let’s focus on Foucault and virtue as a critical relation to norms.

A critical relation to norms is not just a rejection of or a judgment against those norms. Throughout his work, Foucault discusses a number of reasons why he isn’t interested in rejection or judgment:

  1. Foucault doesn’t think that one can ever fully reject and be free of norms because it is through those norms that we come to exist (and be produced) as subjects; to reject those norms is to reject ourselves (which is not possible).
  2. He dislikes how judgment usually takes the form of polemics that discourage thought and prevent engagement with ideas and with each other.
  3. Finally, he is not interested in determining what is good or bad because that type of judgment shuts down action. He writes:

    My point is not that everything is bad, but that everything is dangerous, which is not exactly the same as bad. If everything is dangerous, then we always have something to do. So my position leads not to apathy but to a hyper- and pessimistic activism (256, Foucault Ethics: Volume I).

So, instead of rejection or judgment, a critical relation to norms is about something else. It is about virtue as “a non-prescriptive form of inquiry” (308) that is not based on rules or on training one’s character to properly submit to rules. Foucault’s idea of virtue is about the “the art of not being governed, or, better, the art of not being governed like that and at that cost” (312). Foucault and Butler want to distance their version of virtue from obedience to rules and the idea that virtue/virtue ethics is the training of one’s character so that it properly (and effortlessly) conforms to the standard/norm of what is “good” or what leads to happiness (eudamonia). Instead, they envision the practice of virtue to be concerned with the transformation of the self into a person who not only questions the rules, but who questions their own relation to the rules and who asks: a. how have I been produced in relation to those rules? b. how do these rules determine whether my life is possible or not? and c. how might I live otherwise in relation to these rules?  Here’s how Butler asks these questions:

What counts as a person? What counts as a coherent gender? What qualifies as a citizen? Whose world is legitimated as real? Who can I become in such a world where the meanings and limits of the subject are set out in advance for me? By what norms am I constrained as I begin to ask what I may become? And what happens when I begin to become that for which there is no place within the given regime of truth (314-315)

I am again struck by the close parallels between Butler’s language in this essay and her language in Undoing Gender. Undoing Gender still shows traces of virtue-speak, but there is not explicit connection made between the above questions and Foucault’s virtue. Why not?

Again, I hope to take the point about Butler and the shift from this essay on Foucault to Undoing Gender and other ethical texts (Precarious Life, Giving an Account of Oneself)  later in my larger project on Butler and her “ethical turn.” For now, I want to get back to the crucial connection between a critical relation to norms (as not obeying, questioning) and virtue. The key here (and the key, I think, for my own thinking about why troublemaking is a virtue and why virtue ethics are important for envisioning projects like Butler as ethical projects) is that a critical relation to norms or being critical of authority necessarily demands the transformation of the self into one-who-doesn’t obey or one-who-questions. Butler writes: “To be critical of an authority that poses as absolute requires a critical practice that has self-transformation at its core” (311). Transforming one’s self into one who questions or who refuses to accept authority as absolute requires training that self through repeated practice (habit) of questioning and interrogation of the limits of that authority. Butler describes this repeated practice in terms of Foucault and his idea of “the art of voluntary insubordination” or the styling of the self, through the cultivation of a particular set of practices, into someone who resists and thinks otherwise. I wonder: what connections can we draw between Aristotle’s habitual practice of virtue and Butler’s notion of performativity/citationality?

Now, this sounds a lot like virtue and the forming of a virtuous self through the repeated practice of virtuous acts. Is it the same? While I don’t have a space to (this entry is already ridiculously long at 2230 words and I am not interested in making it a ridiculously ridiculously long entry) or the interest in (maybe in a future essay) outlining how virtue and habit work in Aristotle, I want to briefly mention one way that Butler (and presumably Foucault) wishes to distinguish the art of insubordination with Aristotelean habit: Foucault’s stylization of the self is not done by an autonomous self who can easily or fully reject authority or whose ability to resist can be derived from an autonomous will or some inner essence that is free of the power that she resists. The person who transforms themselves into one who resists/who questions/who doesn’t accept authority as absolute risks a lot in doing so. What do I mean by this? I confess that my patience (and I fear, yours) has run out. Chewing on an idea is great, but at a certain point your jaw gets tired–Am I taking this metaphor too far? I think I need to wrap this entry up. Before I do, here are two passages from JB that speak to my last point that I want to address in a future entry…or two…or three…or more:

In deliberating on what Foucault is suggesting about the self and their agency and intentionality in their actions, Butler writes:

Although Foucault refers quite straightforwardly to intention and deliberation in this text, he also lets us know how difficult it will be to understand this self-stylization in terms of any received understanding of intention and deliberation (321).

In concluding her essay on Foucault, Butler writes:

The self forms itself, but it forms itself within a set of formative practices that are characterized as modes of subjectivations. That the range of possible forms is delimited in advance by such modes of subjectivation does not mean that the self fails to form itself, but to form itself within forms that are already more or less in operation and underway. Or, one might say, it is compelled to form itself within practices that are more or less in place. But if that self-forming is done in disobedience to the principles by which one is formed, then virtue becomes the practice by which the self forms itself in desubjugation, which is to say that it risks its deformation as a subject, occupying that ontologically insecure position which poses the question anew: who will be a subject here, and what will count as a life, a moment of ethical questioning which requires that we break the habits of judgment in favor of a riskier practice that seeks to yield artistry from constraint (321).

Wow, I could write a whole ridiculously long entry unpacking this final statement. I love the last line about breaking habits. How might troublemaking as virtue be about breaking old habits (or breaking from habits) and forming/training new ones? What does a virtue ethics that emphasizes being un-trained instead of just being trained? Cool–now I just need another week of spring break to explore these questions. Sigh…

Word Count: 2680

Judith Butler and Virtue: the starting point

Currently I am working on an essay in which I reflect on the ethical significance of J Butler’s cultivation and promotion of troublemaking. The first half of the essay, which I prepared for the FEAST conference last fall, focuses on the ethical gesture towards troublemaking that Butler makes in Gender Trouble. The second half of the essay focuses on linking that ethical gesture to virtue ethics and on developing my own claim that staying in trouble is an important virtue.

I haven’t fully developed the second half of the essay, partly because I haven’t had the time and partly because I haven’t had the inspiration. Sure I want to argue that troublemaking is a virtue, but how? And why virtue? While vague and unfocused answers to these questions have been swimming around in my brain for a few years now, the specific way to articulate my argument in relation to Butler and virtue ethics has eluded me.  But a few weeks ago, I began to envision an approach. Butler’s work over the past decade is filled with vague references to virtue ethics–she often refers to flourishing and the good life and links them with her ideas of persisting and the livable life (which are central to many of her recent works, including Undoing Gender, Precarious Life, Frames of War). She focuses some attention on Aristotle, particularly in her edited collection with Laclau and Zizek, Contingency, Hegemony and Universality. And she even devotes an entire essay to Foucault, virtue and critique (“What is Critique?” An Essay on Foucault’s Virtue“). I realized that one way to frame my discussion of Butler, troublemaking and virtue is to ask: why does she refer to virtue and draw upon virtue language frequently?

After pondering these questions for a few weeks I decided that I needed to carefully reread “What is Critique?” and think about how Foucault and, by extension, Butler are thinking about virtue. So, I reread it tonight. Cool. Very, very helpful. Since I plan to give the whole essay a lot more attention in the next few days (especially during my writing date with KCF!), I won’t write much now. Let me simply offer a teaser. Towards the end of the essay, after discussing how Foucault understands virtue as: a. a critical relation to norms, b. a way of re-describing resistance (outside of the autonomous self), and c. a self-making through the refusal to obey (that sounds familiar–didn’t I write about that idea here?), Butler offers this very brief aside:

I do not mean to rehabilitate Aristotle in the form of Foucault (although, I confess, that such a move intrigues me, and I mention it here to offer it as a possibility without committing myself to it at once) (319).

What do we make of this aside? Is she suggesting that troublemaking (in the form of critique–because she never uses the word trouble in this essay) is a virtue? Is she also suggesting that we might want to think some more about the usefulness of Aristotle’s work, particularly in terms of virtue/virtue ethics? Excellent. What would it mean to re-think Aristotle through Foucault and to imagine virtue in terms of trouble and critique? Does reading Aristotle through Foucault suggest a resignifying of virtue (that is, an inhabiting of virtues and virtue language differently)? Am I a nerd because I find this discovery of Butler’s aside to be truly exciting (or because I made a reference to Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure)?

The Elf on the Shelf and other Holiday Panopticonisms

I am very pleased to welcome Kandace Creel Falcón to the trouble blog! When she told me about the Elf on the Shelf and its connection to Foucault’s panopticon, I knew the topic would be great for my blog (especially considering my interest in children and the link between regulation, discipline and moral education). Kandace is a fellow blogger (check out her amazing blog, La Kitchen Chicana), so I asked her if she would write about it. The following are her brilliant ruminations:

It’s not very often that I am able to read Foucault for pleasure, and for that I must thank the wonderful scholar blogger, Dr. Sara Puotinen. To me, theory is only relevant when it can be applied to one’s own life, and so when I had a revelation when becoming acquainted with “the new holiday tradition” of the Elf on the Shelf that it actually is a representation of Foucault’s panopticon I just could not help but scream it from the rooftops for all to hear. When Sara asked me to do a guest blog on the subject I was more than happy to, because as she notes, troublemaking takes many forms and I have a hunch that my thoughts on Elf on the Shelf (and even the great Santa Claus) might cause some “trouble” for those who hold these figures of surveillance dear.

“The Elf on the Shelf is watching you…”


Let me take you back to the beginning of this story, last year one of my high school friends who is married with two children started photographing this skinny elf around her house in different positions and places. She called him “Eddy Peppermints” and I thought to myself, that’s cute, I wonder where she came up with that idea. I wasn’t surprised then when this Christmas rolled around Eddy re-emerged causing more mischief in her house for her boys. It was when I spotted the “Elf on a Shelf kit” at the Highland Park Barnes and Noble that things began to take a dark turn.

When I picked up the Elf on the Shelf I realized that my friend had not simply made this up herself, but rather she was ahead of the Elf on the Shelf explosion where the Elf began showing up everywhere! (My chiropractor in between back adjustments exclaimed to me that her kids just love their little elf!) But what became the most alarming was the description on the back of the box detailing exactly how the Elf on the Shelf should function as your very own new family, Christmas tradition. I’m not sure if this exactly what the back of the box reads, but this is what you can find on the official Elf on the Shelf website.

From My Family to Yours,

This charming tradition began for our family when my children were very small. Like most children through the ages, they wanted to know how Santa really knew who was naughty or who was nice. Their answer, as in my own childhood, came in the form of a small pixie-elf.

The first time the elf arrived at our home, my children officially adopted him by giving him a name. Each year he would arrive around the holidays, usually at Thanksgiving. His sole responsibility was to watch the children’s behavior and report it to Santa each night. The next morning after the children awoke, they discovered the elf had returned from the North Pole and was now resting in a new and different place. My children would race each other out of bed to try and be the first to spy him in his new position.

Over the years the tradition was perfected and rules were introduced. For example, to better preserve his mystique the children were not allowed to touch him but talking to him was a different matter all together. My children shared many secrets with the elf, and while he was under strict orders not to talk to them, the elf was under no such orders where grown-ups were concerned.

Unwittingly, the tradition provided an added benefit: it helped the children to better control themselves. All it took was a gentle reminder that the “elf is watching,” for errant behavior to be modified.

I never dreamed this simple tradition would lead to so many treasured Christmas memories for our entire family. It is my earnest desire that The Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition will bring as much joy to your family as it has to mine.

Enjoy this tradition, and MAKE IT YOUR OWN!


Now, my partner and I read this and my immediate thought was, wow, what a great idea (sarcasm) nothing like creating fear in your children (in addition to already having to be good for Santa) now kids need to watch out on what the elf might report back to Santa!? Now, I must admit, I do not currently have children, but the fun “new tradition” aside, what types of messages are we giving to our children if parents are constantly employing methods of surveillance to ensure “good” behavior? Isn’t the point of raising children enabling them to make the decisions of what is good or bad, as opposed to simply scaring them with the illusion of “someone is watching you”? But I digress, the wording on the back of the box/website implied the underlying purpose of the elf on the shelf is to monitor children’s behavior, report back to Santa and to serve as the liaison between the big guy up north, parental powers and children’s innermost hopes and dreams during the Christmas season. I’ll come back to this in a moment. But the moment when it all became blatantly clear for me was when my partner and I were innocently watching a Christmas movie on ABC FAMILY when on pops a commercial for the Elf on the Shelf.


“Every year at Christmas, Santa sends his elves to watch you. And they go back and tell him who’s been bad and who’s been goooooood. The elf on the shelf is watching you, what you say and what you do, the elf on the shelf is watching you, each and every Christmas. <musical interlude> The elf on the shelf is watching you each and every Christmas.”

In Foucault’s chapter entitled “Panopticism” in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1977) he highlights the rise of the prison and the mechanisms that are put into daily practice when hierarchies are created to control those who do not fit the norm. Beginning with tracing the policies enacted when the plague hit and then going on to discuss the measures taken within Bentham’s Panopticon in the prison context. Foucault deftly weaves together how the projects of exclusion (he uses the example of ridding the town of those with the plague or lepers) and how the image of the plagued person/leper becomes a stand in for “all forms of confusion and disorder” (199). It is both the processes of exclusion and the marking of the abnormal that becomes the cornerstone of disciplinary mechanisms created solely for the ridding and ordering of that which is not normal.

Generally speaking, all the authorities exercising individual control function according to a double mode; that of binary division and branding (mad/sane, dangerous/harmless, normal/abnormal); and that of coercive assignment, of differential distribution (who he is; where he must be; how he is to be characterized; how he is to be recognized; how a constant surveillance is to be exercised over him in an individual way etc.). (199)

For the sake of my argument, I would add in the “naughty/nice,” or in the language of Elf on a Shelf, “naughty/good” binary, such that the Elf on the Shelf comes to represent the disciplinary figure and or mode of control that both names or “brands” a child naughty/nice in it’s ability to channel directly to the top of the hierarchy (they don’t call him the “big guy up North” for nothing) and the constant surveillance of children’s behavior. In the song the Elf sings, “the elf on the shelf is watching you, what you say and what you do,” which seeks to position an unknown yet known appropriate behavior in which children should engage. The Elf on the Shelf never dictates exactly what you should do, but the Elf’s sheer presence guides children to do what they perceive to be the “right” thing. The creator, Carol V. Aebersold mentions in her letter to parents that “Unwittingly, the tradition provided an added benefit: it helped the children to better control themselves. All it took was a gentle reminder that the “elf is watching,” for errant behavior to be modified.”

Foucault discusses how then the panopticon then becomes an effective measure of disciplining those who are bad, naughty, abnormal, troublemakers you name it, “All that is needed, then, is to place a supervisor in a central tower and to shut up in each cell a madman, a patient, a condemned man, a worker or a schoolboy” (200). In this case the Elf on the Shelf serves as the “supervisor” that children see, find in various locations at each new day’s sunrise and Santa works as the mechanism behind the scenes, the pinnacle of the hierarchy that ensures that the supervisor is doing what he should be doing. Here I would like to point out that I would be remiss not to mention that the creator and her daughter (who wrote the book explaining the Elf on the Shelf’s mission) are both former teachers – in many ways it makes complete sense then, if Foucault aligns the “prisoner” with the “schoolboy” modes of power work similarly in various contexts (the prison and the school). I would also be remiss to mention that there is a spoof of The Elf on the Shelf commercial where someone has dubbed over it Sting’s Every Breath You Take, fitting no?

As the supervisor in the tower the Elf on the Shelf keeps order, Foucault notes that this deployment of power through exclusion and surveillance works precisely because the subject being surveilled, “is seen, but he does not see; he is the object of information, never a subject in communication” (200). From the hand and “tradition” of Carol and her elf, “to better preserve his mystique the children were not allowed to touch him but talking to him was a different matter all together. My children shared many secrets with the elf, and while he was under strict orders not to talk to them, the elf was under no such orders where grown-ups were concerned.” This clear pathway, or one-way communication, along with creating mechanisms to separate those in power (don’t touch the Elf) from those without (children) upholds what Foucault sees as the “guarantee of order” (200).

Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate [child] a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the [children] should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers. (Foucault, 1977, 201)

Need I really say more? In essence the Elf on the Shelf serves as the panopticon, regulating behavior through its very presence, but has become a central figure with rules regarding children’s proper interaction with it for the intention of controlling children’s bad behavior (which is also vaguely determined). By this I mean, that so often the fallacy of binaries is that they are socially constructed, which is why the Elf on the Shelf becomes such a perfect, malleable “observer” in the tower. When children simply know they should be good and that they should fear being bad (because the Elf will tell on them to Santa and they won’t get any Christmas presents) what real lessons of morality are they truly learning? Again, I don’t have children and I imagine it must be easy to say things (when children are cranky/misbehaving) like “you better watch out, you better not cry…” oh wait, that’s another song about someone who “knows when you’ve been sleeping, he knows when you’ve been good or bad” or you know, some other type of scary off in the far away make-believe-land for threatening children about not getting their Christmas presents; but personally I would like to try to inspire my (future) children to be able to make moral decisions without the need of panopticisms (in any form).

Lastly, I would like to conclude with a few notes about race and gender in regards to Elf on the Shelf. In Foucault’s understanding of the ways power is manifested in society, he often fails to include the gendered analysis piece, whereby if the “inmate” or “schoolboy” are constantly observed and then kept in line because of the (presence or invisibility of an) “observer in the tower” what can we imagine happens to little schoolgirls within these mechanisms of power exertion? What I can assume is that these processes are even more dangerous. In many ways, girls and women are constantly observed by male power and the fact that Elf on a Shelf reads male to me, is disturbing. Little girls are often more tightly observed and their behavior more closely monitored (i.e. what is ladylike, proper for girls etc.) And while I’m generalizing here, to me the Elf on the Shelf (as a male elf particularly) only seems to reinforce this type of thinking, that it becomes even more important for not just girls but boys to exhibit their “proper” socialized, appropriate, gendered behavior in the presence of the Elf on the Shelf. The makers of the Elf also problematically assume that “male” is normal, upon closer investigation of products you can purchase for your Elf on the Shelf is a skirt that transforms the male Elf into a female Elf. Seems like some Aristotle “women are incomplete men” propaganda to me.

Also, the politics of race (especially when examined under the context of the Elf on the Shelf as a commercial, branded and marketed product) seem problematic. In all of the representations of the Elf on the Shelf that I have observed –friends’ pictures on facebook, the Elf on the Shelf for sale at Barnes and Noble, the commercial, everyday persons’ homage to Elf on the Shelf on youtube– the Elf is always white. As though it were not bad enough to know that the most effective exertion of power in our society would be a white man observing any other group of people but in particular this becomes an issue when they are attempting to exert control over people of color. This brings up a lot of anxiety for me around historical memory and trauma for people of color, i.e. Spanish/English colonialists taking land away from indigenous peoples with threats and acts of violence; white slave owners working their Black plantation and household slaves denying them the rights to read and/or learn, maintaining control over slaves with threats and acts of violence; Japanese American internment in response to an affront to our nation’s “security” rounding up and penning Japanese Americans with threats and acts of violence; U.S. Border Patrol killing Mexican and Mexican American peoples on the border, the threat and act of violence a reality in the borderlands…

Not that I’m necessarily arguing that the Elf on the Shelf is the Border Patrol, Plantation Slave Owner, U.S. Military or Colonist but, for those of us who have this mechanism of power within our homes regulating the behavior of our children, it is implicated in the very system of power that allows for and fuels the disenfranchisement of people of color in this nation. Especially when the panopticon is led by a white (specifically the language on the website notes “light skin tone”) figure. After recounting just a few of the horrors that white people have perpetrated against people of color I find it difficult to read the “dark skin tone” Elf as anything but a false belief in the potential of multiculturalism as the road to equality (get one of each color then white supremacy is destroyed) assertion.

Based on the history of the white male figure of control and domination as a reality in the lives of people of color, I find it difficult to believe that many people of color would want to have an Elf on their Shelf—neither the “light skin tone elf” nor the “dark skin tone elf”. Don’t even get me started on the fact that the elf gets named in the white version and is simply “Dark skin tone pictured” in the same mold of Elf, just a different color, version.

In essence, this “new holiday tradition” needs to be examined closely. Is it just “all in good fun” as many, I’m sure will argue? Or, is it a symptom of a larger structure of power that is always already constantly acting upon us and which we are also enacting daily? I believe that to not think critically about the representations of power, race, and gender even if that critique comes in regards to a “new holiday tradition” or children’s toys or popular culture in general is important to engage in. Especially if that means we can one day imagine a future where gender, race, sexual and class equality is a reality.