- Vulnerability of “Virtual” Subjects:Childhood, Memory, and Crisis in the Cultural Value of Innocence1
Innocent childhood currently attracts a great deal of cultural attention and energy, both positive and negative. It is a privileged site not only of concern, celebration, and protection, but also of anxiety regarding its putative demise at the hands of abusive adults, poverty, consumerism, and an increasingly sexualized popular culture. Children are conceived of as vulnerable, to be sure, but so too is the “innocence” they represent and for which, to a large extent, they are held responsible. In spite of its apparent obviousness, the privilege of childhood innocence is complexly overdetermined by a variety of adult exigencies, desires, and crises which, once exposed to scrutiny, may become less self-evident—even questionable. As a virtue, innocence is not cultivated through self-discipline, sustained effort, or special giftedness. It is, rather, an empty trait, valued precisely as a deficit of experience, as if experience itself were corrosive of virtue. That this is so speaks to the extent of vulnerability to life felt by a world-weary middle-class, which imagines for itself a palliative, fantasied existence free of care and safe from the demands of others.
In apparent contrariety to such an imperative, however, this space of fantasy—contemplated through the figure of the innocent child—delimits an existence at the extreme of vulnerability, rather than one that is invulnerable to everyday risk. Deriving from the Latin inocere—to do no harm—innocence suggests a state of defencelessness rather than security, and it is as such that it is valued. Notionally “protected” from experience and conceived of as existing prior to it, “innocence” is instead its own particular mode of contemporary experience, but one that is captured, domesticated, and surveilled in order to stabilize cultural valences against the tide of continual change seen to mark late Modernity.2 Innocent childhood is an idealized and artificial field in which harm, or at least its traces, is deliberately occluded while its vulnerability is heightened and fetishized. Affluent, democratic societies need a contingent they can nominate as innocent, for the sake of their smooth psycho-social functioning—as moral cause célèbre, as alibi and sacred absolution; the part of the [End Page 127] innocent is to cleanse the community of crimes perpetrated in the name of its protection. As such, “the innocent child” plays a paradoxical part in the community’s cultural memory, as the moment of forgetful-remembrance through which its value is artificially sustained. The innocent is in this sense a tabula rasa which, like Freud’s mystic writing pad, receives the impressions of experience without being marked by them.3 The “innocent child” both remembers and forgets for the community: first, by representing to the community a past it feels is lost; and, second, representing an unconsciousness, or insouciance, into which adult cares can be invested and expunged.
Another means of conceiving the amnesiac function of innocence, aside from as tabula rasa, concerns its fetish value—in particular, that it makes a fetish of both vulnerability and of memory. The fetish, for Marx and Freud alike, allows a material fundament to remain unacknowledged: for the former, it conceals the social relationships through which commodities are produced and, for the latter, it conceals that mother lacks a penis. The value of the fetish is its power to obscure the real—to keep matters unchallenging and uncomplicated, so that the subject can maintain an illusion of its own completeness. As an apparently magical, tender fragility, innocence is maintained in children through a protective segregation that assumes great wealth, but does not ask from whence this wealth has come. By withdrawing children from the circuit of production, Western communities show not only how much they value their children, but also that they can afford to render them useless. Childhood innocence is then purchased by a forgetting, or oblivion, of the social relationships and distinctions through which security is produced for some by the rest. While “exemplary” children play the part of innocence, their vulnerability is effectively intensified: their social segregation excludes them from viable forms of agency and separates them from what...