Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Children dressed as animals dressed as children (or, The Meaning of Christmas)

Cuteness, I have argued, often rests on a double mimesis. It's not that the child is dressed as an animal so much as that the child is dressed as an already anthropomorphized animal.

Lee Edelman's No Future famously repudiates the politics of "for the children," a politics that imagines a capital-C Child that "marks the fetishistic fixation of heteronormativity: an erotically charged investment in the rigid sameness of identity that is central to the compulsory narrative of reproductive futurism" (21). In what Heather Love has called Edelman's "star turn as Milton's Satan" (an absolutely right-on description), the unthinkable call to arms is absolute:
Fuck the social order and the Child in whose name we're collectively terrorized; fuck Annie; fuck the waif from Les Mis; fuck the poor, innocent kid on the Net; fuck Laws both with capital ls and with small; fuck the whole network of Symbolic relations and the future that serves as its prop. (29)
Against the Child and reproductive futurism, Edelman counterposes a sinthomosexual figure, which he describes first of all in the character of Charles Dickens's unrepentant Ebenezer Scrooge. The sinthomosexual is not quite gay, although he (usually he)* is certainly queer. Sinthomosexuality is not an identity but a function, the kernel of unreasoning negativity without which we have no Symbolic order. In A Christmas Carol, Christmas is a festival of reproductivity in the name of the Child, in which all children (innocent Victorian ones) are subsumed under the sign of the Christ-child.

[It will surprise no one that the processional for the King's College Advent service, the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols,** is always "Once in Royal David's City." The first verse is sung by a soprano choirboy (never a woman, of course!), and it is itself a Victorian children's hymn, first published in the 1848 Hymns for Little Children. The third verse is especially pointed in this regard:
And through all his wondrous childhood
He would honor and obey,
Love, and watch the lowly maiden
In whose gentle arms he lay.
Christian children all must be
Mild, obedient, good as he.
Theologically, the song is rather remarkable. But I digress.]

Scrooge's rejection of Christmas is merely a particularly recognizable subset of a broader rejection of reproductive futurism, and is for that reason depicted as monstrous. Who could hate Christmas? It's queer, unthinkable, and must be corrected—at least in the novel.

Thus, as Edelman writes, Scrooge is "converted to futurism through his life-changing vision of a futureless future," and thus "is granted the very gift of life he gives to Tiny Tim. But granted it only insofar as he gives that life to Tiny Tim, becoming a 'second father' to the boy by renouncing the intolerable narcissism that futurism projects onto those who will not mirror back its own Imaginary form" (50).

As early as 1993, Eve Sedgwick had already sketched out some of the consequences for queer theory of the ideology surrounding American Christmas, in which religion, capital, state, and "family" merge in a unison chorus of "'tis the season."***

What’s “queer?” Here’s one train of thought about it. The depressing thing about the Christmas season—isn’t it?—is that it’s the time when all the institutions are speaking with one voice. The Church says what the Church says. But the State says the same thing: maybe not (in some ways it hardly matters) in the language of theology, but in the language the State talks: legal holidays, long school hiatus, special postage stamps, and all. And the language of commerce more than chimes in, as consumer purchasing is organized ever more narrowly around the final weeks of the calendar year, the Dow Jones aquiver over Americans’ “holiday mood.” The media, in turn, fall in triumphally behind the Christmas phalanx: ad-swollen magazines have oozing turkeys on the cover, while for the news industry every question turns into the Christmas question—Will hostages be free for Christmas? What did that flash flood or mass murder (umpty-ump people killed and maimed) do to those families’ Christmas? And meanwhile, the pairing “families/Christmas” becomes increasingly tautological, as families more and more constitute themselves according to the schedule, and in the endlessly iterated image, of the holiday itself constituted in the image of ‘the’ family.

The thing hasn’t, finally, so much to do with propaganda for Christianity as with propaganda for Christmas itself. They all—religion, state, capital, ideology, domesticity, the discourses of power and legitimacy—line up with each other so neatly once a year, and the monolith so created is a thing one can come to view with unhappy eyes. What if instead there were a practice of valuing the ways in which meanings and institutions can be at loose ends with each other? What if the richest junctures weren’t the ones where everything means the same thing? (5-6)

Christmas is about capitalism—of course; everyone knows that, albeit usually in the context of bemoaning it. Sedgwick's insight is that Christmas's univocality allows each of these sites of power—capital, the state, "the" (heteronormative, reproductive) family, religion—to stand in as a metonym for all the rest. You buy Christmas presents because you love your family because the Christ-child loves you because you love the Child because the Child is the future of the nation, and round and round. Christmas has meaning, we are continually assured, and it is all the same meaning—the single, univocal meaning that the unmeaning sinthome both opposes and makes possible. If Christmas is about "meaning," then a purely negative Scrooge is the reason for the season.

What's missing from Edelman's account, of course, is any serious consideration of the actual child— not Annie or the waif from Les Mis or Tiny Tim, but the real children whose debt-burdened future is illogically invoked as a reason to cut public school funding, for instance.**** This is a perspective that Kathryn Bond Stockton takes up in The Queer Child (2009), and a place where the relation between children and animals returns.*****

Why are children so cute when dressed up as animals? I keep returning to this question. Here is Ralphie in A Christmas Story (1983), dressed as an animal as part of the same ritual of gift-giving that will eventually unite him with the toy gun he so desires.

Ralphie's abject, miserable cuteness is inseparable from the ritual of gift-giving; indeed, it assures that the queerly gender-bending aunt who sends him the bunny suit (she believes that he is "perpetually four years old [and] also a girl") is domesticated into "the" family. With Ralphie's appearance on the stairs, the aunt's failure to respect gender norms and her likely spinsterhood are recuperated by the forces of Family and Christmas present. Cuteness overcomes queerness, and must do so at any cost to the child's dignity, for example.

Of course, you know what's coming after all this queer theory is a YouTube clip of an Old Navy commercial.

This is one of those tiny artifacts that one comes across, that's so overdetermined it leaves one nearly speechless. My first reaction was really "CHILDREN DRESSED AS ANIMALS DRESSED AS CHILDREN. SCROOGES." And I can't say I've progressed much beyond that. The ad is for something you are supposed to buy for a child, presumably as a Christmas present: "critter hats," which deck the child in bits of an anthropomorphized animal. We are meant to buy them for Christmas in more than one sense: they make great presents, but they also convert "the holiday's Scroogiest Scrooges" with their cuteness. Scrooge here is not a literary reference, not a character, not a person. A "Scrooge" is a function—the sinthomosexual who poses a threat to Christmas and to the child, who must be converted in order for Christmas to be saved.

This ad, which scores a point for capitalism (buy our hats!) by mobilizing child/animal cuteness against queer Scrooginess, seems indeed to belong to a broader genre of the Christmas conversion of the sinthomosexual. There is the text it literally cites, of course—A Christmas Carol. But where does the double animal/child mimesis of cuteness come from?

Exhibit C: How the Grinch Stole Christmas. The Grinch is the quintessential sinthomosexual; indeed, the song from the cartoon special that describes just how repulsive the Grinch is has become something of a holiday standard.

The Grinch himself is not cute; he can't be, despite being a cartoon figure. Comical, sometimes, yes, but not cute.
He is, however, accompanied by a long-suffering cute companion, his dog, made cuter in his more intense suffering when the Grinch straps some antlers to his head—an instance of animals dressed as other animals, which amounts to animals dressed as children dressed as animals. Before we ever encounter Whoville, the cute dog is the yardstick against which we may measure just how dreadful the Christmas-hating Grinch is; each of the Grinch's schemes is met with more of the dog's cute suffering.

But in the end it is Cindy Lou Who, an antennaed child, whose cute innocence is revealed as what is at stake.
This animal-child is not the direct cause of the Grinch's change of heart (just as Tiny Tim does not directly cause Scrooge's conversion), but she is of course the beneficiary. In a final scene, a reformed Grinch in a Santa suit carves the roast beast and paternally hands a slice to the antennaed girl, who in turn hands it to the antlered dog. The outsider Grinch is now part of the family, a family of innocents and cute animal-children in whose interest he must now think, and in contrast with his earlier abuse of the dog.

This is one way that animals are part of "the meaning of Christmas": they mobilize that apotheosis of Child-hood, cuteness—four out of five Scrooges agree.

This post and the Connelly citation are very much indebted to my sister Maria Cecire's dissertation chapter on the medieval "Christmas challenge," its adaptation in twentieth-century children's literature, and the Victorian construction of Christmas as a children's holiday.

[Added 12/29:] Thanks to Aaron, Gerry, Adam Kotsko, Mark Wood, and blckdgrd for links.

*Edelman rather pulls back on the question of the female sinthomosexual, seeing it as a complication that might dilute the force of his argument. Disgruntled as I am to see femininity once again treated as the deviant exception to the rule instead of half of humanity and therefore central to the question of what the rule really is, I must concede that I am swayed by No Future's formal brilliance (Edelman 165-6n10).

**And also the Emory University Lessons and Carols.

***See also this post at A Map of the Country, from which I cut and pasted the same Eve Sedgwick quotation (thanks!). The post addresses the pitting of gay people against Christmas in a campaign ad by Rick Perry. While to the average viewer, "gays in the military" and "war on Christmas" seem like a complete non-sequitur, Sedgwick observes that the national ritual of Christmas demands, above all else, affective uniformity, in which we all go shopping, we all "get in the spirit," and we all spend time with the heteronormative (and, as the my generation's bitter joke has it, homophobic) families that we all have and are exhorted to value above all other relationships. Queerness itself is a serious challenge to those univocal silver bells.

****Generally speaking, the language of what children owe and are owed is exceedingly strange.

*****Despite thinking that The Queer Child is overall a terribly compelling and smart book, I'm almost entirely unpersuaded by Stockton's account of "the interval of animal." The argument hinges on the fact that metaphor always includes a moment's delay, and that, I think, is too broad a phenomenon (not to mention difficult to document except by appeals to intuition) to account for the specific associations we see between animals and children.

Connelly, Mark. Christmas: A Social History. London: I.B. Tauris, 1999. Print.

Edelman, Lee. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2004. Print.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. "Queer and Now." Tendencies. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1993. Print.

Stockton, Kathryn Bond. The Queer Child: Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2009. Print.


Andrea A L said...

I am now thinking about the particular queerness of Jews at Christmas. Think of the crypto-Judaism of Scrooge (coupled with his eventual conversion and absorption into the dominant narrative of Christianity!) and the equally crypto-Jewish un-cute, sallow body of the Grinch. Rejecting Christmas and the Christ child and the normative family, they are effectively Jews- when Jews are imagined as the stubborn people who reject the truth of Christianity.

As a Jew (a queer Jew!) who hates the inescapable incursions of Christmas music into supposedly neutral public spaces, I have to claim my identity as Scrooge. Minus the eventual conversion narrative.

Great post, N.

Natalia said...

Oh, sweet Flying Spaghetti Monster, you are right. ...The Grinch even has horns. Minor head explosion here; thanks for the comment, A.

Trevor said...

Nice post! There is a good chance your already frailer with it but any time I end up thinking about "the cute" I end up revisiting Garry Cross's Cute and the Cool. http://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/0195156668 if memory serves me right he has a lot in there about Christmass. In his view the cool is constructed in juxtaposition to the cute. I'd be curious to consider what "the cool" do with the whole thing.

Natalia said...

Hi Trevor -- oh, right! I do know that book, but I must confess it's fuzzy in my mind. I should revisit it.

c said...

So where does this leave cuteoverload, icanhascheezburgr, et al.? Is their year-round animal/child synthesis (and really, since one of those sites has invented a distinct [and distinctly childlike] dialect 'for' cats, the anthro. process can be said to be..advanced) an extension of the Christian-Capitalist monoculture? I have this vague conception that an international (virtual) community specifically devoted to cheerful time-wasting instead of Productivity is somehow anti-Calvinist, anti-capitalist. (Yes, yes, I know, the icanhas empire is a vast and lucrative enterprise. And yet! It feels subversive, still.) And if, as your linked post argues, dressing up animals as children is an aggressive act, then aren't those sites anti-child/animal? Not Christmas-child-state-nation-future-loving at all, but anti-productivity, anti-child/animal, the unmeaning for (all) seasons(s)? Gah, need to think about this more.

zunguzungu's link pointed me here; you'll probably have an influx soon. Looking forward to your archives!

Charles said...

I completely understand this is social/cultural criticism, but I could hardly keep myself from offering a brief theological (albeit Catholic) perspective on this idea cuteness, capitalism and christmas.

I think this may be a good moment to reflect on the Queerness of Christ Himself - the manifestation of the epitome of queerness (the darkness cannot even comprehend it) - the incarnation of the Wholly Other. To understand incarnation is to understand substance turned in on itself: "He came unto his own, and his own received him not". Christ is the ultimate queer: rejected, disowned, and out of sync with the very essence, the very substance that constitutes himself.

"He had not form or comeliness that we should look upon him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by all, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief, as one from whom men hide their faces, he was despised, and we esteemed him not."

Christ himself is not cute; he can't be, despite being the son of God. Transfigured, sometimes, yes, but not cute.

Consider the notion that incarnation is triple mimesis - God dressed as a child who is dressed like animals dressed as children. How humiliating.

Natalia said...

c: Thanks for your comment. I think it's not as simple as productive/anti-productive; see e.g. Liu or Terranova. The interstitial escapes of watching a YouTube video at work are a part of the the way that work also infiltrates "leisure time" (email on your phone, for example). As Liu argues, postmodern culture is necessarily already corporate culture. Neither is it as simple as pro-child/anti-child--that's why cuteness can be mobilized rhetorically against reproductive rights, as if we were making a better world "for the children" by bringing the bodies of half the population radically under state control. This rhetoric "for the children" imagines children who will never grow up, who are not and will never be political agents, and who will never, say, vote. Childhood is transient, which is why the Child (Edelman's capitalization) is always more powerful than any particular actual young humans. The Child isn't a human at all; it's a signifier.

Charles: well trolled; I salute you.