Social Theory and Naughty Kids

As a social anthropologist and a parent, I’m constantly exploiting the backdrop of my domestic life as data for social theory and theorization. Here’s a recent example that involves disobedient children and exhausted parents.

The other day my two-year-old was, to put it simply, not doing what I asked her to. It was the end of a long day of double-duty parenting and research, as a full-time stay-at-home dad who is supposedly writing a dissertation. Which is to say that I had already overseen breakfast and school preparation by the older girls, made and cleaned up after lunch and dinner, done a load of laundry, maintained the inbox, and made several remarkable pages of progress in writing during nap time. By the evening, I was tired and observed from a chair the toddler’s destruction of my momentarily ordered apartment environs. Luckily for me, my child’s resistance to my commands quickly morphed into an opportune illustration of how power and authority work in the (read: my) real world.

After repeating my request several times to no avail, I reverted to an old disciplinary technique that I’m certain millennial parents across the board are familiar with: the countdown. Here’s how the strategy played out that night:

Parent: “If you don’t [do X or Y or Z] right now, I’m going to count to three.” [1]

Child: “No, Daddy, I cccaaaaaaaannnnnttt.” 

Parent: “You better do [do X or Y or Z] NOW.”

Child: “Nooooooooo, Daaaaaaadddddy.”

Parent: “OK, I’m counting. ONE . . .” [Child’s face flushes with worry.]

Parent: “TWO . . .” [Child scurries to {do X or Y or Z}.] 

That, dear readers, is the performance of authority, power, resistance, and legitimization on a very small and simple scale [2]. Here we have a parental authority, authorized by legal systems, kinship norms, sociocultural convention, and force of habit, making a demand of a subject, in this case, the child. The child resists. She stamps her feet. She flails on the floor. She whines. The authority leverages the situation with threat of force: the 1-2-3 Count. The threat of impending discipline, the specter of censure. The child, fearing imagined repercussions, responds in line with the parent’s demands. Her obedience thus legitimates the power and authority of the parent, regardless of how fragile, elusive, and fabricated it was in that moment of resistance. In other words, I had no clue how I would have disciplined her had I reached the dreaded “THREE.” In fact, I was in that moment of exhaustion dreading with all of my being the use of any sort of non-linguistic disciplinary technique (i.e., removal of the child to the designated time-out location) that would  have required me to leave the comfort of the chair. I was imagining, willing, calling forth, even hoping for her obedience. The parent’s obligations to the child. The child’s obligations to the parent. Fragile, fluid, multi-sited power, extended linguistically through a verbal command, at first challenged and resisted, but then under threat of action and censure legitimated and reified at the last moment by an act of resigned obedience.

Unfortunately, this is a theorization of an interchange with a two-year-old. My elementary school children no longer recognize my weakly constructed authoritative appeals to threat of censure. The 1-2-3 Count lost its authoritative weight, for children more cognizant of their ability to resist and strategize their own powers, a long time ago.

[1] X or Y or Z = picking up a toy off the floor, getting off the table, sharing a toy with a sibling, etc. Such configurations vary per day (and sometimes per hour). 

[2] For more systematic, larger scale, and empirically-based theories of power, authority, resistance, authorization, language, rhetoric, and legitimacy, please do consult James Scott’s Domination and the Arts of Resistance, Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality, Bruce Lincoln’s Authority: Construction and Corrosion, Max Weber’s On Charisma and Institution Building, Seven Lukes’s Power: A Radical View, and Pierre Bourdieu’s Outline of a Theory of Practice and Language and Symbolic Power, among other important works. 

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Game of Thrones, Season One: A (Critical) Review, Part One

“The American Tolkien,” bragged Lev Grossman, for Time Entertainment—I cringed when I heard it.

I was raised on books. My family read voraciously, in most genres, and in both what I’d now call, with my B. A. from a Liberal Arts university and M. A. in the humanities, “commercial” and “literary” fields. This differentiation bears a degree of literary snobbery, I agree, even though postmodern approaches to film and art have obscured the boundaries between what was once construed as “low” or “high” art. Admittedly, this review might come across as sort of high-brow. I agree, but this is not my intent. And I digress. In my elementary years, I consumed the Boxcar Children, The Hardy Boy mystery series, and innumerable other fantasy and adventure tomes. Latter, in my pre-teens, I read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings while many of my friends spent their time playing Nintendo 64s and watching Sportscenter. In Catholic high school, I fell in love with literature and its categories: American lit, Brit lit, and most of all, Greek mythology. I noticed the differences between 14-volume teen-entertainment sets, and the timelessness of those articles of literary canon that we digested and were tested on in classes. But the theorist in me also problematizes my thinking: Who sets the literary canon? Who sets the criteria that sets this canon? Who decides which are the best examples of literature to be sampled by schools across the nation? Foucault’s analysis of institutions comes to mind. Not only that, but what is art? Is there good art and bad art? Who determines (and replicates) these categories? Although working in the field of visual art, theorist Cynthia Freeland speaks to these issues.

Suffice it to say, a taxonomic ability to separate literature (and media more broadly) into categories is seared into my cognitive faculties. It’s an ability that comes in handy as a J. Z. Smith-influenced scholar of religion, one that impairs my ability to enjoy very much of what we call “pop” entertainment—at least, not without a high degree of irony. (NBC’s Bachelor and Bachelorette are important exceptions. It’d be easy to blame my wife, but I ultimately have no excuse. I study culture, media, consumption, religion, and emotion, so, obviously, I’m hooked. The show is so bad, but so good.)

And now to the material at hand: George R. R. Martin, Game of Thrones, and absurdist Tolkien comparisons. To begin, I read the opening book in the series. I was at times impressed by Martin’s sporadic witticisms and ability to weave together multiple, but interrelated storylines. There’s no question that Martin knows how to craft a compelling storyline. I was hoping for a realist, gritty, medievalesque, dragon-and-armor epic. In a way, I got what I wanted. I had heard, through the proverbial pipeline, that Martin develops deep character personalities, with contested moral identities, like real, everyday people–people like us, the viewers. Martin’s works, proponents praised, captures the world in all of its realism, in its chaos and meaninglessness. In my experience, however, the book both reinforced my preconceptions of Martin’s writings as commercial literature and challenged it. When I use the word commercial I simply mean marketed for mass appeal and consumption, sometimes at the risk of losing artistic nuance, and I indeed imply, perhaps, that such a work might be borderline sensationalist. Contrary to my expectations, however, I finished the book eager to wanting to know what happens, and with mixed emotions. I’ll explain, below.

Second, I’ve had a similar reaction to HBO’s rendition of Martin’s book, which I’ve recently just finished viewing. Again, I had high expectations. Film versions are entirely different animals than their print predecessors, sometimes even for the better. The season’s cover, after all, hails it as a “crowing triumph,” “red-blooded and raw . . . rich . . . cinematic . . . brilliant.” So when I finally got a hold of the five-disc set of season one, I was hyped. And for a while into it, I was caught: The blood! The layered stories! The lineages! The hints of terra incognita! The incest! The history! The tragedy! The cosmology! The complexity! I compared the fold-out lineages and territorial map of the DVD with Martin’s originals on my Nook. But the hype wears off pretty quickly. One learns to predict the bloody impaling and slicing and de-limbing of bodies to the right and left of EVERY, SINGLE military skirmish. The nudity, mostly from scenes staged within brothels and whore-houses, is a-dime-a-dozen. One recent review, in fact, has described these particular scenes as “sexpositions” in that they contain crucial plot material, nearly always in the form of character dialogue, while a minimum of two minor characters go at it in some interesting position (more on this term later). I’m looking for the right word, here, but based on my own experience, one becomes desensitized to these scenes. What am I trying to say, here? The scenes become redundant: that’s it. They become expected, predictable, and cliché. Don’t mistake this critique as puritanical modesty; don’t think that I support tighter media regulation. This, after all, an HBO series. And it is, after all, Rated R. Actually, I enjoy realist literature and film that captures life in all of its ambiguity, and portrays the depths of relational human beings in all dimensions, including their identity as sexual beings. I dislike artistic censorship, it’s true, but I really like art. I’ll just come out with it: Martin and HBO, especially, objectify sex and women’s bodies. Refrain! Refrain! I admonish as I watch, addressing Martin himself to a degree, and also the HBO screen-writers that gleefully overextended many of his explicit-yet-still-titillating scenes of eroticism. Martin, I argue, are you not aware that in art, sometimes less is more—sometimes vague or abstract descriptions fire the imaginations of the readers? Take a lesson from your fellow novelist James Joyce, who, in his Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, says it by not saying it, says it by showing it, nay, shows it in crafted, brilliant, provocative, phantasmagoric phraseology and artful word-craft. To give too much is to make for lazy, inept readers (and viewers). I don’t want to bracket my imagination; I want to partner with the artist in an active dialogue. On Game of Thrones, sex is commodified. It serves a dull purpose, a dual purpose: To exploit the attention of the viewers in moments of lagging plot-line and to enter details that are crucial to the plot arch. As I’ve implied, it gets a little redundant after a while. To return to the term introduced above, James Hibberd of Entertainment Weekly (EW), argues that Game of Thrones includes “infamous scenes of ‘sexposition,’” which he defines as “noun: the strategic use of sexual activity to make expository dialogue more lively.” This isn’t art, though; it’s artifice. It’s cheap entertainment, reminiscent of what one might find in the adult video section of the now disappearing video store. Like the Greek literary device of deus ex machina these scenes are merely convenient and predictable fillers-of-space.

What are your thoughts, so far, those of you who have seen the show and read the book? Am I too hard on Martin? In my next post, I’ll consider Martin’s construction of characters and personalities. Stay tuned.