Tuesday, 3 February 2009

A Good Childhood

Having previously rescued children from the chimneys of industrial capitalism we have put them to work on the sofas of cognitive capitalism.

A Good Childhood is a so called ‘landmark report’ from the UK Children’s Society. According to a selective article in the Telegraph, it argues, inter alia, that television makes children mentally ill partly through advertisers' messages that 'you are what you own' and partly through that medium's practice of celebrity:

'Children today know in intimate detail the lives of celebrities who are richer than they will ever be, and mostly better-looking. This exposure inevitably raises aspirations and reduces self-esteem.'

The reference to 'aspirations' here is peculiar. For a start, aspiration is more usually seen as one of capitalist society's major drivers: you look across at the field belonging to that other chap, you see that it is greener, you apply some fertiliser to your own field and very soon everyone gains. It is this that underpins the hugely patronising (and often White) belief that inhabitants of US projects and slums are going to look up at Obama over the coming years and see not only a brave fulfilment of the dream of Dr King but also an inducement to themselves to give things one further heave.

And that, essentially, is its function in this view of how things work, an inducement to further effort, to fit in. But it's a position from which, even though Tim Gill, for example, notes that children need to be autonomous, self directing and so forth, the Report as a whole will probably not dissent, its own sort of aspiration, other than at the margin. Aspiration, in other words, doesn't seesaw with self esteem. Rather it works as social control in a way that desire, for instance, never can; which is what makes desire so subversive.

So here we have it: the dynamic model of capitalist aspiration. A carrot moves forward endlessly and therefore you do too, failing again and failing better, goaded onwards by a stick. Don't do drugs and/or go to prison. Join the Democrats instead.

In a more topological model, one reaches towards the object of aspiration which always lies on the boundary of the very system within which one starts aspiring in the first place. In L'Europa e l'Impero, for example, Toni Negri notes how the US 'empire' is the skin or outer surface of a container for which we provide the contents, within which we live. And this, no doubt, is why (in a British context) the same mindless New Labour clique has looked successively to the vibrancy, if that's the word, of WJ Clinton, GW Bush and now of BH Obama. Policy here is secondary if it's relevant at all, because the issue is one of marques.

Nor are things much different in some Christian contexts. Christ is the object of imitation, the source of 'living waters'. However, that imitation is always radically incomplete. Either one never reaches that boundary (becoming fully alive is therefore always postponed) or else imitation fails in some other way: '[they have] hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water' (Jeremiah).

As to the message that 'you are what you own' here are the children of Don Lorenzo Milani's school in 1960s Barbiana (from Lettera ad una professoressa):

'The poor create different tongues and then they struggle to renew them for ever. The rich crystallise these so that they can keep down those who do not speak as they do.'

Now what these children were complaining of was this: firstly that they were excluded from or dispossessed by others of a language which was theirs and secondly that a false and 'crystallised' form of that language (and this is similar to the commodification of 'dead labour') was then turned back on them prescriptively and proscriptively as a source for their (new) identity.

And this is actually quite serious. On the one hand there is an asymptotic relationship pre-existing between two aspects of language, a sort of ecology of the potential, which must not be destroyed:

'The true culture, that which no one has so far possessed, is made up of two things: belonging to the group and possessing the power of individual speech.' (Lettera...)

And on the other hand there is the sort of observation about that destruction which is made by Roland Barthes:

'To rob a man of his language in the very name of language; this is the first step in all legal murders.' (Mythologies)

But of course children living today are by no means dumber (or less dumb) than were their counterparts in Barbiana. Certainly they are experiencing a similar negative loop whereby they too become forced consumers of their own production, now fed back at them in crude and distorted ways: for example as reflections of their desire to be like their peers or like their older siblings, or as their desire to create new friendships, now reflected back as the bogus friendship of celebrity. And, almost certainly, like the children of Barbiana, they know this at some level. Yet they are hardly unique in this. Rather they are victims of the process common in cognitive capitalism and which applies both to children and to adults whereby (as Alquati and others have noted: tourism is an example) production and consumption coalesce:

'They have sold us one by one. They have sold our poor lives and our history to make a history combined with others, a fake history, that doesn't even have a happy ending, one that finishes in indifference for everything and for everyone.' (Stefano Benni: Saltatempo).

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