On the critical alliance of babies and scholars.

I’ve been wondering about how different R will seem once she starts to use language—because she has so much personality right now, but a large part of it seems to be that she talks and talks without any thought of words. I guess we’ll find out soon, since last night at dinner she started saying “mama,” “baba,” and “daisy” (well, “day-shu”) in fairly clear reference to the appropriate family members.

My friend Tyler has posted a really good piece considering Adorno’s use of “childishness” in his critique of capitalism, and, more broadly, the way we rely on the concept of the child as a figure of immaturity and even disability to formulate our own (adult) agency. Tyler works on children’s popular culture, particularly music, and his post focuses on Adorno’s remarks on “regressive listening,” where the child is invoked as the “primitive” listener who takes in sound without the agency of comprehension. Under the assault of popular culture, Adorno suggests, we are reduced to such a state. Tyler’s response to this is so, so right:

I think we need a critique of capitalism that doesn’t require that childhood or disability (regression as “retardation”) be definitionally abject. Cultural critics have been discovering the infantilization of adults or public culture or what-have-you for long enough that it would seem to reflect more on them than on any actual cultural development. Or, to say the same thing, regressive listening is only bad if we think childhood and disability are bad. I tend to think that the more convincing answer is that adults (especially parents) are stodgy ideologues desperately consolidating their own elevation above the vulgarities of consumer culture by deciding that their children’s pleasure must [be] either abject, unsophisticated, or inauthentic (manipulated).

I know I’m always bringing up Bourdieu these days, because I wrapped up my own book (out soon!) with some thoughts on his critique of taste, but it’s directly relevant here—in the conclusion of Distinction (“Postscript: Towards a ‘Vulgar’ Critique of ‘Pure’ Critiques”) he discusses how a “disgust” at “facile” forms of culture defines bourgeois subjectivity, specifically our ideological insistence that we are subjects because we exercise our agency through cultural objects rather than allow them to manipulate us. Tyler observes the eruption of this bourgeois logic within Adorno’s critique of bourgeois culture. In his words, “I love Adorno’s essay because I think it’s correct about a lot of empirical questions about how pop music works, but it evaluates them through a set of liberal/enlightenment (rather than properly Marxist) values around ability/maturity that I don’t think hold up to scrutiny.”

Tyler’s point is that our ideological use of “childishness” is unjust to actual children. I could not agree more. We narrate our own coherence as “adults” as a romance of maturation in which, through the diligent work of “growing up,” we escape the shameful primitivity of childhood. (This, by the way, is the subject of the last chapter of my monograph—I argue that Jane Austen introduced this mythology of adulthood in Northanger Abbey, and that in addition to inventing modern bourgeois subjectivity, it consolidated a form of modern orientalism. Did I mention my book has cover art? I’VE SEEN IT.) It is also unjust to anyone who devotes time or energy to activity that is deemed “not serious” and “unproductive”—which, under the neoliberalist capitalism of the 21st century, includes scholarship. One of the most pernicious effects of the new drive to apply corporate modes of assessment to higher education in the humanities is the way it merges this romance of “grown ups living in an adult world” with an ideological reduction of the “adult world” to processes of generating financial profit. In other words, if you aren’t teaching people how to make money, you are stunting their development.

Intellectual labor is hardly “facile.” It takes years of training and constant, relentless practice to do it effectively. It is rarely if ever contained by “workday hours.” Plenty of people have argued that one of the reasons neoliberalism hates intellectuals is because critical thinkers are more likely to resist capitalism’s ideological imperatives, and I think this is true, but I also think that the difficulty of intellectual work is itself part of what neoliberalism rejects, the way it concentrates so much energy to generate knowledge that is not easily transformed into profit. Adorno wants to resist the “childish” ease of consumption by asserting the more “mature” taste for uncommodified music, but neoliberalism adopts the romance of maturity to urge us in the opposite direction. Being “grown up” in this culture is all about reaching a state where making money comes “easily”; anyone who struggles—with ideas, with ethical questions, to make ends meet—is interpreted as being unable or unwilling to participate in the adult world. This perhaps helps to explain one of the most infuriating paradoxes of the culture: that those who work the hardest (and I’m not just talking about scholars, here) are systematically accused of “doing nothing.”

I guess one of my points here is that anyone who has spent any amount of time paying attention to actual babies and children knows that they hardly “do nothing.” They are arguably working harder than any of us. (Alison Gopnik‘s work on this is fascinating.) And it’s not just their hard work that is notable; so too are their pleasures, and their capacity for pleasure, from which we, in our pursuit of a limited notion of grown-upness, have deliberately alienated ourselves. I think the same could be said for academics—that both our labor and the pleasures of that labor have value. We need models of subjectivity and agency that recognize these kinds of value, and a culture that cultivates them instead of trying to escape them.

P.S. Tyler’s post was inspired by a Musical Urbanism post on the Kidz Bop franchise, which is also a riveting read.

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