restricted access Chapter 6. On the Unrelenting Creepiness of Childhood: Lyotard, Kid-Tested

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Chapter 6 On the Unrelenting Creepiness of Childhood Lyotard, Kid-Tested Unde wenn die Prüfung Ist durch die Knie gegangen, Mag einer spüren das Waldgeschrei. (And when the trial Has passed through our knees, May someone sense the forest’s cry.) —Hölderlin, “The Ister Hymn” From Socrates’ predatory urges to Locke’s invention of the “Ideot”orHegel’sracistassignments—forthemomentIshall takethisnofurther—philosophyhasdemonstratedaneedtoimpoundthose who could not speak for themselves, who had not reached a certain legislated majority. Under the reign of Locke, Hume, and Condillac, empirical philosophy assembled the figure of the idiot in order to put some reality behind established hypothetical assumptions.1 The idiot pinned down the firstfoldsoflanguageintheessaysonhumanunderstanding.Madetostand for an epoch, lost to civilization, of originary memory the idiot spanned the chasm between the asserted polarity of nature and culture. The entry on philosophical pages of miscreants helped, moreover, to rehabilitate the “empirical” basis of empiricism. Much can be said about the induction of wild children, savages, idiots, and infants into the realm of philosophical 1. IdiscusstherelationofidiocyanditscorrelatesinphilosophymorefullyinStupidity (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001). Ronell_Text.indd 155 2/3/12 10:12 AM 156 On the Unrelenting Creepiness of Childhood speculation,anditwouldbeimportanttoinvestigatemorefullythepeculiar yet crucial status of these minorities as philosophy conducts its adult raids. No doubt Nietzsche may be seen to have turned this state of affairs on its head when he invited the animals to participate in a new tropology. Now comes Jean-François Lyotard, who talks to children. No matter how polymorphously perverse, punctually pampered or pacified, these are the distressed among us, the fearful and hungry. They squeak and peek and try to get their meaning across. They panic; then smile and burble, then panic. Held in abusive custody by the laws of becoming, they hang on to your finger for dear life. From the get-go, the reality principle sneaks up on them to snap them out of the domain of the pleasure principle (of course this is a complicated relay, as Lacan has shown, for the reality principle is always in defeat; but still, it goes after you). As in Goethe’s ballad, the Erlking is out to getthem,poisedtosnatchthechildfromthearmsofmomentaryreassurance. InthecasepresentedbyLyotardwearefacedwiththefigureoftheminor, oftenoppressed,forwhomlanguageandrepresentationmaynotbeentirely foreclosed,thoughsurrender,thepredominanceofmuteness,andarepertoireofstammersoftengovernthethwartedsceneofchildhood .Still,there arereprievesandtheeventofmemory;language,howeverjumbled,mimetic, deregulated,occursandbelongstotheexistencetowhichchildhood—something that eventually goes into remission but returns in waves throughout thelivesofthewounded—isfitted.Interioritydoesnotnecessarilytakehold at the early stages. Yet even when these children are silenced or a hand is laidonthem,theyare traversedbywhatLyotardunderstandsassheerfeeling —maybe a pinch of joy, a sting of melancholic regret, a straitening both pleasurable and painful, a body memory that trembles. With no language of interiority to vouch for feeling, the children are more or less stranded, bared to colonializing projection. Vaulted and shut, their subjectivity—if there is one—offers little in the way of an account; even so, in most cases they surpass or at least scramble themastercodesofphilosophicalclaimsmadeontheirbehalfandeludethe cognitivescannersthattrytodetectandclassifythem.Thechildconstitutes a security risk for the house of philosophy. It crawls in, setting off a lot of noise. The figure of the child, which in the end inserts an imaginary lesion in philosophy—a condition that calls out for endless symbolic repair—may bebornebytheanguishofthe différend.Thatistosayitenters,orisentered into the places where speech falters and language chokes in the throat of a political body, where the question of fair representation is peremptorily dismissed or simply not addressed. But it is not as if the child had the means of representation at hand. The child is given over to extreme forms Ronell_Text.indd 156 2/3/12 10:12 AM 157 On the Unrelenting Creepiness of Childhood of defenselessness: “dependency,” Lyotard indicates, is too weak a word to describetheconditionofsuchminority-being,theever-chafingcondition of childhood. ❂ ❂ ❂ How did they stumble into philosophical headquarters? Well, their prototype ,theessentialchild—theidiot—appearedalongsideorattheheadofthe train of blind, deaf, or mute subjects (whose implications for subjecthood, precisely, provoked crisis), and was most closely leagued with the prestige accordedtotheconstructionofthewildchild—theteachableidiot.Theywere pressed into service, assigned to uphold mythic assurances of the humanly clean slate, presenting such a possibility, in theory, at least, to the extent that they—idiots—donated their bodies to the cause of a science that staked everythingonwhatappearedtoconstituteobservabletraitsofhumanorigins. Recruitedtothecauseofphilosophytomakeaphilosophicalpoint,theidiot belongs outside the philosophy whose integrity it promotes. The child, as I said, crawls in at unexpected moments or morphs, as in Kant’s critical reflections,intotheambivalentpurveyorofgenius—theirresponsible,often puerile excess to which we owe the poetic word. In The Inhuman, Lyotard, for his part, writes of the debt to childhood that is never paid off. A matter of...


Subject Headings

  • Authority in literature.
  • Authority.
  • Fathers and sons in literature.
  • Fathers and sons.
  • Kafka, Franz, 1883-1924 -- Family.
  • Lyotard, Jean-François, 1924-1998.
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