Is There a Santa Claus?

23 December 2014, 1723 EST

[NOTE: To spice up the discussion started by Tenacity’s guest post, we bring you this throw-back post. One of Patrick Thadeus Jackson’s greatest hits (of which there were many) originally posted on December 25, 2007.]

Ever since the invention of the InterNet, not a December goes by without some version of this making the rounds of listservs and e-mail chains and the like. I must have received it a dozen times from various sources. It’s cute and funny and all, but I must say that I’ve never been entirely happy with its conclusions. So in the spirit of the season, I present the first known social constructionist investigation in the the existence of Santa Claus. I mean, why should the natural sciences get to have all the fun — and why should they get to corner the market on looking into such matters?

The first thing to point out is that a social constructionist would not necessarily consider the existence of Santa Claus to be the same thing as the existence of a man in a red suit who flies around the world in one evening in a sleigh pulled by eight or nine flying reindeer and delivers toys to all of the good children of the world. Perhaps physicists are so literal when it comes to social actors, but we social constructionists tend to have a broader view on the subject. Indeed, for us, an actor exists inasmuch as and insofar as action is legitimately performed in its name. It is the massive set of activities carried out in the name of the state — invoking state authority, done on the state’s behalf — that provides the evidence for the state’s existence, as well as concretely instantiating the actor “the state” from moment to moment. Contra some IR constructivists (like Alex Wendt), it’s not like there’s some essential stateness lying around somewhere from which state acts emanate; rather, there are a series of actions performed in the state’s name, actions that — if successfully legitimated — give rise to the effect of a solid object called “the state”. It’s not center first, action second; it’s action first, appearance of a center second.

So the social constructionist standard for an actor’s existence is related to the variety of actions performed in that actor’s name, and on their reception by the relevant audiences. “Acceptance” here doesn’t necessarily mean “belief”; it merely means that the audience accepts that the actor has performed the action, even if the action itself is questioned. If the state seizes my possessions, I might challenge that in court, but in so doing I am accepting the state’s actor-hood, even if only provisionally (I might be a principled anarchist or an extremely rigorous libertarian, and so would never completely accept the state as an actor). The only way to refuse to accept a claim of actor-hood is to refrain from even speaking of an action as though it were performed by the supposed actor, something that it is extremely difficult to do in a world constituted by sovereign territorial states.

Now, some of my critical realist friends always object, at this point in the account, that all of those actions performed “in the name of the state” are really being performed by individual human beings. [When talking to a critical realist, always watch for the adjective or adverb “really” — this generally shows you the weak point in their arguments, since these are the places where they have to rely on the linguistic equivalent of banging a fist on the table in order to make their point.] My usual response is to smile and ask them what basis they have for that assertion; the basis they give usually boils down to either:

— “individual human beings are constituted to be actors, unlike other beings; other beings are only actors inasmuch as human beings do things with and for them.” To me this looks kind of like species prejudice, and also temporal prejudice, since it wasn’t so long ago that animals were considered to have moral culpability (and in some parts of the animal rights movement, this is not a radical claim at all).

— “when you point to something done in the name of the state, you’re actually pointing to a physical human being doing something.” Hmm . . . empiricism and behaviorism from a critical realist? How deliciously ironic. Sure, if I try to abstract from all of the social content what I “see” is a member of the species homo sapiens whose limbs and extremities and orifices are moving. Well, only if I am looking at a certain macroscopic scale; if I peer in closer, I see mitochondria and various cellular components, closer and I see complex chains of organic and inorganic molecules, and if I go even closer I see atoms. Why stop just on the level that is comfortable to those of us raised in human society — especially since if we’ve been raised in human society, we know the difference between that person who has the authority to stop traffic an that other person who does not: the first person is not acting under her or his own authority, but is instead the instrument of the state and as such is not a single isolated individual but is instead a representative of a broader corporate person with a claim on me. The fact that members of the species homo sapiens are involved in these interactions is as little relevant as the fact that oxygen is involved in these interactions.

— “we can only preserve human agency if we confine the notion of action to individual human beings.” I think this is just silly. Indeed, confining action to individual human beings strikes me as a fine way to degrade human agency, because it runs the risk of changing every social arrangement into a more or less deliberate bargain entered into by pre-social individuals, and converting human agency into a matter akin to selecting products from a supermarket shelf. I’d much rather celebrate human creativity, including the various ways that social actors are produced and reproduced over time — some of those actors are “individuals,” to be sure, but this is just as much of a social product as “the state” or “the clan” or “the nation” or even “the civilization” is.

Critical realists dealt with, we can turn to the facts about Santa Claus and actions performed in his name. Every December, millions of kids write letters to Santa, go to malls and other places to see Santa, and discuss what Santa is going to bring them. Millions of adults use the threat of Santa not bringing anything (or bringing coal) as a way to induce better behavior in their kids. NORAD, the strategic air command for the USA, devotes at least some server-space to tracking Santa as he supposedly travels around the globe. And — this is the most important thing — every year millions of kids get presents from Santa on Christmas morning. A gift with a note attached saying “from Santa” strikes me as prime facie evidence of an action performed in the name of Santa Claus, and by social constructivist standards, that’s pretty much all it takes for Santa Claus to exist as a social actor. Wait, you say: what about legitimacy? Think or a moment of the great lengths that people go through to make sure that their kids can’t poke holes in the Santa Claus story: different wrapping-paper for the Santa gifts, modified handwriting for the Santa cards, and so on. And it’s not just kids: think of “Secret Santa” activities in offices, at shelters, in churches. And why does the Salvation Army dress its collectors up in Santa outfits? Clearly, they’re invoking a selfless giver in an effort to solicit donations for their own charitable work. “Santa” has wide popular cultural currency, and the idea of a “present from Santa Claus” occupies a distinctive place in the cultural resources that we use to make our lives meaningful. QED: Santa Claus exists.

Call this the Miracle on 34th Street version of the case for Santa Claus’ existence: to the extent that there’s a series of social practices identifying Santa Claus as their author, there’s a Santa Claus. Of course, that movie presents a mythologized version of the account; there’s a concrete human (or apparently human — Santa is often envisioned as an elf of some kind) being who claims to be, and is eventually recognized by the US postal service and the State of New York (and the two female protagonists) to be the one and only Santa Claus. But in actuality, we have something closer to the situation that Thomas Hobbes identified centuries ago as pertaining to the concept of sovereignty: the commonwealth only exists insofar as it is “personated,” and that personation is, at bottom, a social convention. Hobbes’ Leviathan is a sustained argument to the effect that the commonwealth ought to keep getting personated lest we collapse into a civil war, and as such is an implicit acknowledgment of their being no higher court of appeal for questions of actor-hood than the diffuse processes that go into making socially sustainable claims. We aren’t living in a movie; we don’t have a single identifiable individual member of the species homo sapiens who is the one and only genuine Santa Claus. Instead, we have a whole panoply of cultural practices revolving around the idea of gifts that show up from mysterious sources. And inasmuch as those practices continue, the actor that they sustain continues, and Santa Claus continues to exist.

Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!