le plus loin le plus serré

le plus loin le plus serré
mourning art

in memoriam

"yet I tell you, from the sad knowledge of my older experience, that to every one of you a day will most likely come when sunshine, hope, presents and pleasure will be worth nothing to you in comparison with the unattainable gift of your mother's kiss." (Christina Rossetti, "Speaking Likenesses," 1873)

Friday, July 13, 2012

constructing The Adult

I want to try out an idea. I might be crazy, or this might already have been done - if so, I really, really hope someone will point it out to me. It's something I've been thinking about, in the back of my mind, for well over a year - since teaching Representing Adolescence, and even before then, in tiny embryonic form.
Where it goes is kind of a surprise to me, because I've always been very much of the belief that kids are an oppressed other, that the things we think about children are bad for children, etc. A child-centric view. It's also one that focuses almost entirely on the middle-class, or what passes it for it today; these things do not necessarily apply to those living in or near poverty. But then, our definition of The Child comes from the middle- and upper-classes; the factory worker child or climbing boy isn't the child we think of when we imagine The Child. So there's a huge class problem here, and I'm not trying to avoid it; it's just not part of the current equation of thinking.

So here it is: I think the way we've constructed adulthood against and alongside our construction of childhood is bad for adults. It's bad for children, too, but it's also bad for adults. In the same way that sexism is bad for women and men, so too is our adoration of The Child bad for the child and the grownup.

Disclaimer of sorts: Children, actual children, are still very much an oppressed group in most legal, economic, and political ways. To be a child is to be entirely at the mercy of the adults both local and national (and international, really), without a voice - and that is no good place to be.

But socially, culturally, we've made children into the repository of almost everything good in life. Think about it: when we talk about the way The Child is popularly constructed, we use words like innocent, carefree, playful, natural, free or unrestrained, curious, imaginative. These are all loaded terms, of course, but for the most part they are also positive terms. Who doesn't want to be carefree and unrestrained and imaginative? [okay - there are people who don't want these things. but I'm thinking about our mainstream cultural connotations here].  Even innocence is given positive value, it's seen as a virtue - it doesn't just mean unknowing or virginal, it also means something like trusting, uncynical, believing, unaware of, or protected from, the bad things of this world.

It's easy to see how these are bad things for children, and if you can't figure it out for yourself, there's a ton of writing on the subject for you to read (I recommend, as always, James Kincaid, particularly Erotic Innocence).
It's also been fairly easy to unravel the way that our adoration of youth and youth culture has been bad for women (Kincaid unpacks this very quickly and tidily, in talking about the infantilization of women as sex objects).

But we don't seem to talk much about the blowback these attitudes have for adults. When we're little, we all want to be older. But by college, or so it seems, no one's too eager to fast-forward the clock. Part of the crippling nostalgia we seem to indulge in more and more is provoked, I think, by the fact that we have established childhood as so ideal that adulthood looks like a misery by comparison.

One of the reasons we get freaked out by the toddlers in tiaras is that they are little girls staged as adult women. Yes, sexualized kids is creepy as all get-out; but we also talk about kids who have "grown up too soon," in a very tragic way, as if this is the worst thing that can happen to them.

There are positives to adulthood that adults can identify - you can drink, you can have sex, you can drive a car and set your own bedtime - but they are often counterweighted by some accompanying problem: you can have sex, but babies. diseases. relationships. cheating. You can drive, but fossil fuels and the cost of gas and car repairs and you mostly only drive to work. You can go to bed later, but you're so tired from your day at work and driving and paying bills and grocery shopping that those later hours are just glassy-eyed tv-watching.

Sex and drinking do have negatives, but both are a kind of play, and play is revoked once we pass out of childhood. Right now, Comic Con is going on - thousands of adults convening in san diego to dress up like steampunk gentlemen and anime girls and slave Leia and Batman and Pokemon. And it's become a huge big deal, and grown in popularity. It's a socially-sanctioned playspace for grownups, and not all of the play is about sex, either.
Videogames are another place where we can see play breaking through - gamers aren't just kids and teenagers and slackers in their early 20s. All the multiplayer games and create-your-own-character games and whatnot - those again are all forms of imaginative play. They invite the player to play on several different layers, and millions of adults are happily doing this, and receiving less and less censure from the culture at large.

But we still see adulthood as a fairly rigid, square space. It's all the things childhood isn't - it's restrained, it's not free, it's not innocent (it's knowing, it's experienced, it's jaded), it's artificial. The kind of artistic and playful imagination and curiosity we encourage in young children is not valued once it's being practiced by adults.

I think right now we're seeing some pushback from adults - Comic Con and videogames and the boom in popularity of children's & YA literature, the boom of people doing creative artsy things, even poorly, making their own steampunk hats and goggles and whatnot. There's a huge drive to play that we've repressed for a long time, and I think people are reaching out for that playspace. There's still a lot of resistance to the idea of grownups as play-full, though; play as we conceive of it for children is seen as frivolous. Adults need to be serious. This is a demand of capitalism - play doesn't generate money. Work, the "opposite" of play, does.

There's a lot more to be said here, but this is long enough, and I am really curious about anyone's thoughts on the subject. I may be way off, making things up to stretch a point in the dissertation, or to justify my own issues.

But I do think that, as with most binaries, the one we've constructed of The Child/The Adult needs to be complicated, broken down, made multiple and varied, queered.


Thaddeus said...

There is definitely more to be said here, but I think you're off to an interesting start. There has been some conversations about this kind of topic (which I find fascinating), but not nearly enough.

I find your analysis of the Adult reclamation of play very interesting, particularly. I'm reminded of the Calvin and Hobbes strip in which Calvin's dad tells Calvin that once you're "grown-up," the only way you can justify play is if you call it exercise and keep track of all the numbers--which, of course isn't very much fun at all.

Early in your post, you suggest the Child/Adult binary is bad for adults as well...Have you read Lee Edelman's No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive? I would have assumed you had, but if you hadn't it's very much a repudiation of the politics of the Child, for the Child, although in a way that tends to attack "reproductive futurism" more than the Child/Adult binary itself. I also stand by my suggestion that you need to read Halberstam.

Your point about capitalism, play, and labor can also be complicated by the rise of "play-bor": Companies extracting labor from consumers while they do recreational activities. (E.g., Your perusal of your Facebook page generates capital for Facebook because they expose you to ads.)

I'm curious to see where you take this from here. Good luck. :)

Anonymous said...

Thaddeus's comment makes me think about play at tech companies. I've seen places with your more traditional "play" spaces (gyms, basketball courts, ping pong), but it's not unusual to see arcades, music rooms, video game rooms, non-traditional chairs/desks, etc. The design in these workspaces as a whole tends to favor playfulness over the "stuffiness" of rows of cubicles, board rooms, etc. Hierarchy is also nearly invisible, as you can't tell by desk placement/office size/floor arrangement who's in charge.

Now, I think there's a political angle to all of this: any time you render invisible an existing hierarchical structure, you're not eliminating it, you're making it more powerful.

But as far as play goes, there's open acknowledgement that play makes work better, but also makes workers better, gives their brains a break or simply reroutes the neurons for a bit. The assumption is that creative play makes for more productive/efficient/creative work.

BUT, on top of all of this, you've got the societal assumption that tech workers are essentially man-children (rarely women-children, as the ratio of women to men is something abysmal like 1:10). Zuckerberg is a great example of this: he's essentially a "billionaire kid" even though he's also an executive who makes serious decisions that impact our privacy.

kittens not kids said...

Right! I really want to set aside - or deal separately with - the "man-child" issue, because I think that exists as well, but it's organized differently. "Play-bor" sounds awfully sinister to me, like some corporate trickery designed to make you work longer hours at worse jobs while making you feel like you're just playing farmville.

I've been reading Halberstam, and she's fascinating; it's been several years since I last really looked at Edelman in any depth, though I'll be getting him out soon for the dissertation. Edelman is one of my heroes, even though I find him difficult to read (difficulty can be dealt with, but his linguistic tricks are both impressive and occasionally irritating). I also wonder if the increase - at least increased visibility - of adult play like Comic Con, cosplaying, etc - has to do with an increasingly unsatisfying work culture/economy.