The concept of infantilisation. Infantilisation is the growing trend on behalf of corporations, governments, etc. (i.e. ‘the powers that be’) to treat mentally competent adults as children, and for them to be accepting of, comfortable, and happy with, this. We see it in our adverts, where mobile phones are sold with ukulele strumming and baby-voice monologues about how its nice to talk to your nice friends, and cars are sold (no longer with promises of awesome masculine power but) by showing them trundling round a mock-up toytown. We see it in signs like the one I recently saw in the House of Commons cafeteria (don’t ask) next to some napkins, saying “Please Only Take One Of Me.” We see it in Manchester council naming their version of the Oyster card the ‘My Get Me There’, or re-naming the Cornerhouse (an iconic cinema and art space), ‘Home’. We see it, naturally, in the cupcake and other related phenomena. Perhaps most of all we see it in the Onesie, an increasingly acceptable clothing item which cannot disguise the fact that it is literally a giant baby-gro. (1) At this rate, we will be living in a world where, by around 2053, it will be considered a terribly pretentious affectation, for anyone in public life to be capable of wiping their own arse.
It is obvious that an infantilised population would be a docile population, and would be a stupid population. An infant is, of course for very good reasons, self-absorbed to the point of solipsism. Self-absorption and infantilisation, perhaps, go hand-in-hand (have you noticed how pleased with themselves anyone wearing a onesie always looks, like they have learned to enjoy the smell of their own farts?). The less our mental lives are directed to the world outside of ourselves, the more every problem will seem like something insurmountable, the world will just be lived-through, and whenever we suffer through anything in any way, all we can do is wail and weep and wait for our mothers to come to make it all better, but there will be no mothers, because we are all now babies, lying in our individual isolated cribs.
It is an interesting biological fact that domesticated animals come to resemble, in their appearance and behaviour, infant members of the species that they were domesticated from. So a domesticated dog will behave like a wolf puppy, etc. Human beings, curiously, are very similar in their behaviour towards each other, to infant bonobos. The human being is the only animal that has succeeded in domesticating itself. Perhaps indeed, infantilisation is only the latest progression of that process of domestication.
Nobody who is imagining the ideal consumer, would picture a wild animal.
But it would be vulgar to assume that infantilisation is simply something pushed onto the populace by ‘the forces of capitalism’ in order to control them. There is something appealing about being infantilised, and this is associated, I think, with the desire to feel comfortable and secure in a very troubling and uncertain world. This is associated with nostalgia. Of course we see this in the cupcake and so forth. People are afraid of the world, afraid of the fact that it changes, afraid of coming disasters, in particular the ‘environmental crisis’. Instinctively believing false ecological ideas about the world absent human intervention tending towards some perfectly sustainable harmonious state, they long for a ‘simpler time’, conveniently forgetting of course that there were no simpler times.
Ensconcing oneself in the aesthetics of obsolete crafts is one way of satisfying this longing; so retreating into childhood would be another. Childhood too is usually taken to be some perfect unsullied state. The ideal image of the child is as naively good and innocent (as opposed to the nasty little fascist you of course normally witness, usually on public transport). If never exposed to the evil adult world, the child would maintain itself forever in this pre-lapsarian bliss. But more important perhaps is our own memories of childhood. Our lives as children were, of course, (at least for most people, in most aspects) less complicated than our lives as adults, and everything in the world seemed somehow magical, full of a bewitching sort of potential. If only we could recapture that, well, we might not be so insecure and unhappy. So we behave like children, or rather fetishise the child-like, in order to accomplish this return. One can (I am told) feel awfully cosy in a onesie.
It is true that there is hope in childhood, but it is not hope for us. A while ago I wrote a blog post criticising how J.M. Bernstein invokes children’s play as a ‘fugitive experience’ in his reconstruction of Adorno’s ethics. A brief re-cap: the central problematic of Adorno’s ethics is how we can know or move towards ‘the good life’, from our current position in what Adorno tells us is the bad life, where all of our thinking and experience will be infected by the logic of the bad. Bernstein, building on Adorno (in a way that, incidentally, I think is basically illegitimate), solves this by invoking the idea of ‘fugitive experiences of the good’: unmediated experiences of goodness that penetrate through the reified concepts we have inherited from the bad life. Although, as these experiences are in a sense ‘non-conceptual’, we cannot really (in any full sense) know them, or grasp them, what they do give us is the possibility of hope for the future. Crudely put, we get a kind of ineffable sense of what the good life might be like. And one of Bernstein’s paradigmatic examples of this is children’s play.
In the original blog, my objection to this, expressed via the Armando Iannucci clip I have also embedded above, was that, even if (per impossible) we really did get a sense of what the good might be like, or of some sort of hope for the future, from watching children playing, then that hope would necessarily exclude us. We are, to put this in Adorno’s own words, the citizens of the bad life, and we would not even be able to recognise the good life if we were placed in it directly: we are too damaged for that. Not just our thinking and our concepts but our pleasures and pains are all too much a part of the bad form of life for us to have a place in the good. That is: what I think Bernstein gets right about children’s play – and this is something we find in Benjamin even more than in Adorno – is that children’s play in a sense remodels the world, by exploring it in a novel way. (2) Thus it can be said to envisage alternative possibilities which stand against ‘the reified world of late capitalism’, the world of absolute (social) necessity. But, as in the Iannucci clip, where a doting-eyed dad accidentally stumbles upon his chidrens’ make-believe kingdom and is violently ordered out of it, these possibilities must necessarily exclude us, as adults. Because, as long as we are still about, these possibilities cannot be realised: we are like a brittle, rusty hulk weighing down a plucky little tug boat as it tries to steam off out of a festering sea of fire and blood and into the wide blue ocean.
As above: in a world of trembling and uncertainty, we quite understandably desire to feel comfortable at last, but infantilising ourselves is basically a bad way of satisfying this want. Infantilisation may well be linked with self-absorption, but it is also conversely a form of self-estrangement. We are precisely not children, and behaving like them is pathological. What magic there is in childhood experiences is magic for the child, and as adults we can only dimly approximate it.
If there is anything about observing children’s play that can teach us, it is precisely the element of curiosity in it, of seeking out new things, working out what they are, questioning. So really it must be said that a child’s play only envisages alternative possibilities insofar as it takes place in the horizon of a child, who is exploring the world (with the goal, ultimately, of becoming an adult). But in order to see the world ‘through the eyes of a child’, an adult necessarily has to set their own horizon of possibilities in reverse, to make the world smaller rather than larger. (3)
I recall reading Nabokov somewhere describing Humbert Humbert as primarily a character who lacks curiosity, and it is true that the infantilised adult is like Humbert in more ways than one. Humbert’s obsession with his ‘nymphettes’, at least from his own narration, appears to stem from a desire to constantly recapture his first, ultimately tragic sexual experience as a young teen. Humbert has found a desire he is comfortable with and he clings to it. But because he is no longer a child (and because he is really only interested in young girls in a transient state, as they first begin adolescence), Humbert’s ‘comfort’ has necessarily become something, ultimately, cynical, predatory, vile (yes Lolita is poetry, but Humbert is only trying to fool the reader into believing him a poet). In the hands of any adult, infantilised joys of whatever sort (they do not, of course, have to be sexual) become warped in a similar way. And they likewise stand opposed to all dynamism, all change.
The ultimate consolation would be the possibility of being able to catch our breath again, but infantilisation must shut off this possibility, since the infantilised subject only seeks to repeat childhood pleasures, and thus restrict the scope of the world, therefore (unwittingly) coming to inhabit a world that is all the more bound by the iron laws of necessity. And the world of necessity is of course the problem: the world of necessity is, as it turns out, the very same troubling and unpredictable world that we cannot feel comfortable in. It is troubling and unpredictable because we feel unable to do for ourselves in it, it is troubling and unpredictable because the knock of the police is always about to sound on the door, in whatever form (4), like a natural disaster, at any instant. And we cannot do anything about it because this force of absolute law is always able to make demands on us like it is our own stomach calling out for food. This is just what social necessity always amounts to: violent irrationality.
But nevertheless there is something that we can take from childhood experience, and from children’s play, and I also think (although I don’t really want to go into any detail about Benjamin here) that this is why Benjamin is so interested in these things (and why Adorno, echoing Benjamin, also invokes them). It is that, as has been said, for the child, play can involve bringing about new imaginative possibilities. But for the reasons outlined above, the demand cannot be then to become like children. As we can see with the phenomenon of infantilisation, all this means is that the world becomes smaller and more restricted, as we simply repeat childhood (or some reduced approximation thereof), endlessly. Rather, the interest should be in what we can learn, as adults, from the ways of seeing of children. Adults have a major advantage over children: they are, at least in principle, cognitively equipped to take a stance on the world for themselves, to think about it in a way that is, to indulge my own jargon, ‘critically rational’ (5). The child’s play might to a certain extent appear to remodel the world, but it can never really remodel the world because the child precisely lacks this adult quality. But if we can think for ourselves about new ways of seeing the world (as adults), then this would be capturing what is profound about childhood experience, I think, and directing it towards actualising possibility. And this then might be the possibility of some real comfort, the possibility of really catching one’s breath.
In short, to put this perhaps too simply, we need to look at the world something like how children do, but act in it like cognitive adults. The infantilised subject, of course, does precisely the opposite of this: they act like children, because they can only see the world through the tired eyes of adults.
(1) We also see it in the phenomenon of the adult baby, although I don’t particularly want to invoke that here due to the complication of the sexual fetish element. But it is interesting and certainly, bound up with the rise of the onesie, I think the adult baby is one of the paradigmatic figures of our times.
(2) There are lots of places in Benjamin where he talks about childhood experience and children’s play but perhaps the best example (or, at least, my favourite) is the section in One-Way Street about stamp collecting, where he describes stamps as “the visiting-cards that great states leave in a child’s room.” Literally functional objects from the reified, capitalist order, children nevertheless find in stamps a whole imaginative world (“like Gulliver, the child travels among the lands and peoples of his postage stamps”… and this is not a world that exactly maps onto the existing order). Benjamin predicts, quite presciently, that for this very reason, stamps will get less and less decorative as the 20th century goes on.
(3) More manageable; indeed, more austere. See my ‘cupcake fascism’ post for how this stuff is bound up with the imposition of economic austerity.
(4) Money worries, for instance, might be thought of as a sort of police in this sense: anything that binds us heteronomously.
(5) ‘Critical rationality’ is an idea I am exploring in my PhD research. Briefly, it is the idea of a sort of rationality that is distinct from mere means-end rationality. Rationality as the ability to take up and work through a possibility for oneself. I take it that this mode of rationality is crucial for the possibility of doing critical theory.