Christmas is the Season of Joy & Cultural Criticism

Essays on technology, psycho­analysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek


December 27, 2012

Christmas is the Season of Joy & Cultural Criticism

No one has anything interesting to say about Christmas, neither in favor nor against it. Is that interesting? It’s all I can manage. There are a series of traditional criticisms, but all of them seem hackneyed and exhausted. Consumerism? Greed? Forced jolliness? Christianity? What else needs to be said on these topics?

I know several families who consciously buck the tide of consumerism by emphasizing to their children that the Christmas is really about giving to others, so they have them volunteer at homeless shelters and donate to charity. This is all very nice, but I don’t find anything wrong with children’s innocent greed during the holidays.

These critiques have become clichés, almost becoming integrated into the rituals of the holiday. We gather around the fireplace to sing holiday favorites like Silent Night, Jingle Bells, Christmas Has Become Too Commercialized and Did You Know It Was Originally a Pagan Solistice Festival?. Maybe the holiday attracts so much critique because it is the closest thing to a universal cultural event in the United States, with an estimated 96% of the population celebrating it. Whatever comment we make about Christmas is implicitly relevant to and addressed to everyone in society, and certainly some people seem to feel a sense of connection or collective solidarity with even strangers, especially with the ritual of exchanging holiday greetings, symbolic of the exchange of gifts.

Adam Kotsko critiqued the ideal of warm family bonds during the holidays via the 1996 film Jingle All the Way, where Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a workaholic father who chooses work over his son’s karate event, and presumably learns the important lesson that Family Is What Matters before the movie ends. Kotsko calls this a totalitarian demand and says

“Surely there are people for whom the demands of family and home are so suffocating that they can’t imagine submitting to them. Surely there are people who, left to themselves, would never have had kids and would never have been filled with regret at their failure to reproduce…”

I can definitely relate to the feeling of oppressive family obligations, but as a cultural criticism, it’s a little boring. Not to say that Kotsko is doing this, but as a rule, the genre tends to be tainted with the typical bad faith whining that adult children indulge in with their parents, where they complain, but dutifully show up for all the events anyway. Lots of critiques are based in personal experience, but these critiques tend to be extremely specific to the author’s circumstances and tend to veer towards “My mother’s guilt trips are society’s predominant ideological apparatus!”

Rejecting the totalitarian demand of the season, Kotsko proposes a more subversive message for a holiday movie, one that could never be made:

What I’d like to see is a movie in which workaholic dad sits his son down and says, “You know what? I’m not really interested in your karate thing or what specific toy you’ve decided you want for Christmas. What I am interested in is my work, and coincidentally my work finances all that crap for you. I am giving you enough money that you can do basically whatever you want — so just go do it already and stop trying to force me into a role I’m obviously never going to fulfill. It may be physically impossible for such a movie to be made in America, though. ”

I wrote a comment on his blog in response—what follows is based on that.

This exact scene could never be made, but there is the standard cliche of the hero who rejects his duty to go into the family business, and chooses to follow his passion instead. One example: Kung Fu Panda, where the protagonist Po dreams of becoming a kung fu master rather than inheriting his father’s noodle restaurant.

In this genre, it’s usually the son talking to his dad rather than the other way around, but Kotsko has only repeated the cliche for a contemporary context. The father begs the son to stop forcing him into a role he can’t live up to. Although the father’s lack of interest is a little subversive, it still treats the child as a kind of pseudo-authority. This is perfect for today’s post-oedipal, post-ideological times where traditional authority is under seige, and Left and Right compete with each other to be on the margins. Making the child into the authority so that the father can rebel fits in here quite well. It’s a shocking scene, but also cheap and lurid, definitely a perverse gesture.

Maybe the real purpose of these “workaholic dad learns that family is what really matters” is to reframe fatherhood and family so it is on the side of enjoyment rather than duty. These dads always have boring jobs - Arnold plays a mattress salesman. It’s as if the movies are rehearsing the 1950s-era critique of alienation and meaninglessness of the business world, offering the family as the warm alternative. One non-Christmas variation is Stranger than Fiction, where Will Ferrell plays a bureaucratic IRS agent who learns to loosen up and enjoy himself with the aid of his love interest Maggie Gyllenhall, a free-spirited small business owner who owns a bakery.

Feel-good family values films exist more as lip service to the ideal than any real attachment to them. They are popular, but compared to other countries and cultures, middle class white Americans are not known for their tight-knit families. And in my personal experience, liberal childless-and-proud people often have surprisingly conservative attitudes about how to raise children. They are turn out to be very judgmental about parents who deviate from standard expectations, and it seems almost fetishistic.

They are very cynical about family and children and how they ruin your life, but then they are scandalized by parents who don’t fit the contemporary mold of showing up for every soccer practice, i.e. whose lives are not ruined by having children. So you tend to find outward cynicism, but with a disavowed belief, and this has two purposes. First, in order to be cynical about family values, they secretly retain a fetish that someone else sincerely believes in them. Second, the idea that parents’ lives are ruined by children sustains their enjoyment of their child-free lives, believing that they are enjoying transgressively where parents are conforming and only able to dream. What I am describing here is the Lacanian structure of perversion, which is the dominant mode of subjectivity today.

This was all made very clear to me when I went to Burning Man with my wife and daughter a few years ago. A small daily newspaper is published and distributed throughout Black Rock City, and in one issue, there was a lengthy editorial arguing that children shouldn’t be allowed on the playa because seeing children makes people feel inhibited, want to censor themselves and put their pants back on and so on. This was of course not in response to parents complaining and demanding censorship, and if I remember it correctly, the writer was not feeling inhibited himself so much as worried that other people would feel inhibited.

Here again the child is the authority, and the demand is for a space where the child doesn’t see what naughty things we adults are getting up to, as if the child is the parent and the adults are the children.