What are Little Kids Made of, in Theory?

Over the past six weeks of this serial essay I have taken up what I consider to be some of the most important conceptual frameworks through which to think the generation of children, particularly in relation to their adult others.  In a sense, the assemblage of texts with which I have engaged could be read as a genealogy of theories of the genesis and development of the child in the West.  I began with the Platonic body politic as detailed by John Protevi because at the foundation of hylomorphic Western thought we found that the child as a blank slate was the legitimizing logic of the project of pedagogy and child-rearing in the image and form of adults.  Psychoanalysis, in turn, was an indispensable second stop, for Freud’s “discovery” of infantile sexuality and his consolidation of a developmental theory of psychosexual stages, as Laplanche so eloquently explored, has become one of the most intractably naturalized theories of bio-cultural child development.  So intractable, indeed, that my subsequent reading of Foucault’s work on the masturbating child was made in the explicit hope of re-emphasizing the importance of treating sexuality as an exogenous (to children) mode of power/knowledge that organ-izes bodies and populations, rather than an endogenous set of instincts.  Irigaray’s ethics, in turn, helped to clarify the phallocentric replacement of horizontal forms of differential relationality with the vertical lines of genealogy and potential vectors for relating differently.  Finally, Deleuze and Guattari brought me full-circle while also propelling my thinking in completely different directions, taking up Protevi’s call in the first week to think on the terms of material self-ordering in the vocabulary of complexity theory, rather than only highlighting the slippages or traces produced by restricted economies of signification or logic.

I began, then, with a series of concentric critiques of adultomorphic thought, expounding upon and noting the slippages in developmental theories, where children seem to indicate their own positive contributions to their generation, outside of developmental teleologies, but are only able to do so ultimately outside of the restricted economy of logic according to which children are little unfinished adults.  Within that critique, I accented especially the range of non-sexual (in Laplanche’s sense) activities of infants and children, in order to move to reconsider such recurring motifs as the mother-baby relation, or other forms of somatic attunement common to both children and adults.  Indeed, affect emerged as the strongest theoretical framework through which to approach the differences generative of the children-adults relation in the first place—i.e. ontologically prior to the emergence of the terms “children” and “adults”—that which subtends all relationality and suggests a way of thinking of the variable degrees of power of all bodies in their encounter with others and their milieu, to leave room for the wayward becomings-child that children and adults may (or may not) undergo.  Affect, in other words, offers in this essay a way of moving from a critique of a restricted economy toward the relational generation of children as a case of material self-ordering, an account based on a positive or pure conception of difference, the one provided by a Deleuzian ontology.

I don’t mean for this essay’s culmination to read as a kind of victory for Deleuze and Guattari over Plato, psychoanalysis, Foucault, or Irigaray, however.  The genealogical impulse of this serial project, its grouping and imbricating of concentric forms of thought, even if for the purposes of critique, is deliberate: I do not think it is possible to simply leave behind the concepts of pedagogy or infantile sexuality, for instance, even if I clearly mean to put so much pressure on them so as to undo the naturalness with which these terms define the parameters of our thinking in the first place.  Rather, I tend to take two related points of view on this question: first, in a resolutely Deleuzian register, I think all texts can be useful; it is always a question of what you can make them do, often by scrambling their operational logic and plugging them into a new machine of thought that uproots them from their arborescent functions as anchors of self-justified knowledge and encourages them to become differently.  Second, I have a rather Simondonian take on the relation of an affective analysis to the rest of the levels of what Simondon refers to as the ontogenesis of the individual through the de-phasing of its preindividual and individuated dimensions, his processual account of individuation that I have written about elsewhere.  I think affect, in other words, is a useful theory because it subtends all relationality and therefore is prior to the adults/children distinction, as well as adultomorphic teleologies of development.  However, even if affect concerns virtuality at all levels of matter, it is not the only component of children’s individuation and lives.  Children are still caught up in normative projects of pedagogy, they are still made into sexual beings, and they still find their relations with their mother replaced by their father through genealogy.

Therefore, while accenting the strength of affect theory in diverging from the impasses of adultomorphism, I nevertheless want to end this essay by stressing the need to attend to the relation of the affective to the subjective, or the molecular to the molar, in Deleuze and Guattari’s vocabulary.  As I suggested last week, not all molar children enter into becomings-child, animal, woman, or otherwise.  Given the ongoing, heightening investment in the bodies of children by biopolitical apparatuses and tendencies within financial capitalism that monetize the seemingly unending capacities of children’s available brain time on social media, for instance, I would go even further and say that an analysis of the molar strata in which children’s bodies are condensed into identitarian fields like gender, sexuality and race are as important a part of a project of thinking children as the affective theory I have built up to in this essay.  (Indeed, in the dissertation I am writing right now, I precisely aim to do both.)

I want to end this essay, then, which has up to this point been a very pleasurable (for me, at least!) exegesis of conceptual thought, with a digression of sorts from that mode into a contemporary case of adults-children relationality that has both entertained me greatly for what it expresses of our present, as well as offering precisely such an opportunity for an analysis that attends to both the molar and the molecular, or, in Simondon’s vocabulary, the transduction of all of the levels of individuation: the #followateen Twitter war (for a lighthearted introduction to the war, see Gawker’s article on it, from which I have also borrowed some of their choice Twitter citations).

The trending hashtag #followateen, which began as a project for adults to follow a random teenager on Twitter and then “report” back on their day-to-day life, quickly became an opportunity to highlight the anxiety-producing generational rift that social media has come to incarnate, with adults first trivializing the assumed idiocy of their teen subjects reflected by their unimportant tweets:

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Interestingly, it didn’t take long for #followanadult to generate itself, with teens in this case taking to Twitter to highlight the social media ineptitude of their would be adult followers, the implied improper use of Twitter by adults consisting of its use for self-evidently embarrassing ends that the teens would never pursue:

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The reading of the molar here, turns around the persistence of the assumption of a rational cognitive subject, the Englightenment individual as Internet user—an assumption, parenthetically, I simply cannot wait to die off.  If psychoanalysis has had any lasting effect on the conception of the self, it is to remind us that we are never intentional subjects, nor do we act consciously in any way about anything.  Online, moreover, I suspect that rational actor theory meets its final, gruesome death, which I cannot but celebrate for its explicitness.  Whence this war between two competing conceptions of what social media is “for,” what are its acceptable uses, and who should come off looking like the idiot for misrecognizing the point of Twitter—adults, or children, depending on which hashtag you believe.

The molecular questions here, to me, take us back to affect theory, to the way that digital technologies, with their speeds of near real-time circulation, viral proliferation and transmission, amplification of exposure, and latent archiving and surveillance, are habituating bodies to new degrees of power without the rational cognitive subject at its center in their encounter on social media.  I would read the #followateen war as an exhausted discursive battle over the, well, exhaustion of the molar adaptations of the digital, which feel so idiotic.  It’s still as of yet unclear what kinds of digital becomings children and teens’ habituation to the digital are generating, but not because they are so new or novel; rather, I think adult subjects are for the most part quite literally incapable at the moment of understanding what it is children are doing online, for precisely the adultomorphic reason of finding themselves unable to effectively measure children against the norm of the adult subject.  Cyberbullying and sexting are two exemplars of the political implications of this situation, where this crisis of adultomorphic knowledge has led to disastrous, punitive results when juridical “clarity” is brought down hard on young people to punish them for producing new forms of affective, racialized, gendered and sexual habituations online without necessarily reinvesting in developmental teleologies.  Therefore, although this serial essay has been resolutely abstract, I think it has very material and political implications.

To begin to think differently then, I want to end by reaffirming the necessity of recognizing the pervasiveness of adultomorphic thought and pursuing positive accounts of children’s relational generation and becomings to diverge from it.  For the answer to the question, “What are Little Kids Made Of?” has never been so unknowable, yet not for that any less important.


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