11/26/2010 09:06 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Santa, Deconstructed

I am not a professional Santa. Every December 24th, though, I am enlisted by my mother to play Santa -- red suit, white beard, pillow-expanded stomach and all -- for my cousins' children during our extended family's Christmas Eve celebrations. You would think that my day job would have little relevance to this position: I'm a professor of cultural studies, which means I teach undergraduates about critical theories concerning the relationship of popular culture to the structures of power in advanced capitalist democracies. Madonna videos are frequently involved.

A few years ago, though, something my cousin's daughter Lauren said made me wonder if my chosen profession was so irrelevant to my amateur Santa-ing. Lauren, who was then 11, had recently figured out that Santa is not real, so she asked her mother, in a knowing tone of voice, if "Santa" would be coming this year. She actually did that scare-quote thing with her hands. (I'm not sure what sort of cultural Rubicon we have crossed when 11-year-olds are already using ironic hand gestures, but apparently that's where we are.)

This slightly unnerving experience made me realize that the childhood experience of Santa is actually one that enacts, in miniature, the various stages of our gradual recognition of and acquiescence to contemporary forms of power and authority. No, seriously, it does. Here's how:

Stage 1: Welcome to the panopticon

As we all know, Santa is an effective tool for making small children behave. During the Christmas season, you can get the kids to settle down by reminding them that Santa does not give presents to bad children. And remember, we tell them, Santa can always see you. As the song goes, "He knows when you've been sleeping/ He knows when you're awake/ He knows when you've been bad or good/ So be good for goodness sakes." In other words, we tell kids, you have to behave yourself all the time, even when the adults aren't around.

According to the French poststructuralist theorist Michel Foucault, this is how modern societies train all of their subjects. Foucault argued that many modern institutions are structured, either metaphorically or literally, like the "panopticon" described by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham in his model of a humane prison. This prison is one in which prisoners are put into circles of cells which have as their center a guard tower. The guard in the tower can see into the prisoners' cells, but the prisoners cannot see into the guard tower. Since they can therefore never know when they are being watched, the prisoners must behave as if they are always being watched -- which in turn means that they come to discipline themselves. For Foucault, the panopticon is a model for the various ways we internalize social norms by acting (and even thinking) like an authority figure is watching us, even when one isn't. We act as prison guards over ourselves.

Stage 2: The discovery of false consciousness

At some point, of course, we learn that Santa does not in fact exist. This comes as a disappointment, but not just because we figure that we'll be getting fewer presents as a result of this news. We're also disappointed because it is one of the first times we recognize that our parents have been lying to us about something that's a fairly big deal. And, the next time we hear that "Behave, or else Santa won't bring you any presents" line, we smile ruefully at the fact that we had been played for suckers by this lie.

In such a moment, according to Marxist theory, we are becoming aware of our "false consciousness." One of the ways that capitalism functions, Marxism tells us, is to delude its subjects into believing that the system operates in their best interests, even when it frequently only benefits those in power. These beliefs are forms of false consciousness, which are foisted upon the exploited by the exploiters. The moment of critical awareness comes when the exploited recognize not only that the system is an unfair and unjust one, but also that the beliefs they had been fed by those in power were not a truthful account of the state of things, but rather a self-interested pack of lies. The discovery of Santa's fictionality, then, is an early recognition that those in power will try to hoodwink you with false consciousness so that you do their bidding.

Stage 3: The acceptance of cynical reason

My savvy cousin-once-removed, though, still gets a present from Santa. Even though Lauren has told her mother that she knows that Santa doesn't exist -- and in fact has even identified me as the local Santa -- she still plays along, because she knows that she won't get a gift (I give one to each kid) if she doesn't. But as her ironical hand gesture also makes clear, she wants all the adults to know that she is not fooled by them -- that she is in on the joke.

Critical theorist Slavoj Žižek argues that this sort of "cynical reason" reveals how postmodern irony actually serves contemporary structures of power. He suggests that modern ideology does not work via false consciousness, where we are fooled by the fictions that support those in power. Instead, we accept and even willing participate in these fictions, even as we congratulate ourselves (usually via winking self-irony) for being able to see through them. As Žižek puts it, "even if we do not take things seriously, even if we keep an ironical distance, we are still doing them."

Which is precisely what Lauren is doing, of course. She knows to treat me -- that is, Santa -- as if I am real, even though she knows that I am not. She even knows to behave herself, even though she is well aware that she will not be punished by Santa if she does not. And she knows that the whole spectacle of my dramatic appearance at Christmas Eve is a collective lie supported by all of the adults around her -- a collective lie she agrees to join in, even as she reminds us that she recognizes it for what it is. And as a reward, she gets a present for her acceptance of this adult world of lies.

God bless us, every one.