I read Darren O’Donnell’s forthcoming book, Haircuts by Children and Other Evidence for a New Social Contract, and loved it. In it, he argues that working with children in the cultural industries in a manner that maintains a large space for their participation can be understood as a pilot for a vision of a very different role for young people in the world. It’s a much-needed call for a reframing of childhood, and thus, personhood.
If you like people in general and/or children in particular you should pre-order the book here. The February 13 pub date means it will make a wonderful Valentine’s Day gift. -AF
…If we’re looking for a population with nearly infinite identities expressed by the individuals within it, all of whom share the condition of precarity, we don’t have to look much further than children, even the richest of whom are denied many basic rights, including the right to work. Children are everywhere, all identity groups have them, and all of us, no matter our identity or our politics, have been a child and experienced the acute powerlessness that is the child’s condition. Can the child – and efforts to infiltrate much of the world with the presence of children – provide a strategy for destabilizing the status quo? And if so, can this strategy attract the critical mass currently missing from the many fractured movements that wrestle with the question of fairness?
Our understanding of what it means to be a child and what children are capable of contributing is rapidly evolving. I believe we do have the possibility of both subverting business as usual and finding a common cause to organize around, a stealthy little cause that, at first, seems naive and innocuous – sure, let the kids in – but that might radically revolutionize the world. So let’s get on with this revolution, let’s parachute the little kids in everywhere, like tiny anarchic guerrillas, with the first question being, how do we get the whippersnappers back to work, one area where capitalism has particularly strong purchase?
In this book, I turn to recent developments in the arts and cultural sectors in which children and young people increasingly play important leadership roles. Working with kids to make financially viable, aesthetically successful art for the international performing arts market – as I do – is, admittedly, a narrow case study, but many of the benefits kids bring if fully included in this sector map fit neatly onto places where adults and children already interact: the family, school, extracurricular activities, online, and, oftentimes, the market. Some of the principles of our engagement with children in the arts can inform other pathways to including kids in the everyday institutions that make up our social fabric, our world. What happens when we put kids in boardrooms, in Silicon Valley, in our marketing and accounting departments, our parliaments, and our newsrooms?
Perhaps what’s happening in arts and culture can be considered a pilot, a way to test and develop new methods of including the widespread participation of children across many other aspects of life, with the goal of evolving this new social contract, yielding changes in political, social, institutional, and cultural structures that will benefit the family, the community, the State, and democracy. In short: everything.
But first let’s talk about the kids. Just what exactly are they? What do we mean when we say that someone is a child?
What it means to be a child, and what the capacities of a child are understood to be, are not historically fixed values. Our current social order, for the most part, views children as becoming and not being. Children, we tend to believe, are moving toward a destination: adulthood. They are constituted in opposition to adulthood, and considered to be in a state of preparation for taking on life’s ‘real’ responsibilities once they are old enough, when they reach an age that is locked in law. They are on their way toward being finished. However, it is possible to conceive of young people not as headed toward a more perfected state, but as who they are right now, a view that prioritizes the young person’s being at this moment over that of the adult they may eventually become. Accepting that their being is as legitimate as anyone else’s would, ultimately, require recognizing that they do have a real stake in all discussions affecting them – and also that most issues really do affect them.
Shifting away from the psychology of development lays bare an uncomfortable fact: adults themselves hardly resemble the fully formed, rational entities that are popularly understood to be the province of adulthood. Beyond being ‘grown-up’ or just simply older, we really don’t have much of a clue about, let alone a consensus on, what it means to be an adult. Certainly to be an adult is to be many, many things we think of as childlike: vulnerable, mistaken, confused, petulant, afraid, irrational, and despairing. We never stop making missteps, learning, and growing up. But that doesn’t mean we don’t sometimes have our shit mostly together. Just like many children do.
Feminist legal scholar Martha Albertson Fineman points out that prevailing political and legal theories assume that the universal or typical human subject is autonomous, self-sufficient, rational, and competent. It is this idea of the typical human for which laws are written – laws that, for the most part, do not apply to children, who are generally not legally responsible for their actions. Therefore, the universal human subject, around whom we understand human rights and which we consider the default, is an adult. Which is to say, not a child. Adulthood produces the category of childhood; the idea of the autonomy of adults makes no sense without the lack of autonomy implied in the idea of children. We’ve seen the shape of that universal subject change, however gradually or imperfectly, to accommodate greater rights for women, racialized people, and, increasingly, trans and other gender-variant folks. And we can likewise anticipate – if not actively work toward – the dissolution of the strict binary that is adult and child.
The first step is to stop assigning essential and unchanging qualities to either adults or children. Every adult and every child has the capacities and abilities they have: some adults are more childlike than others, some require the same care that a baby requires for their entire lives, and some children are, at a young age, resilient, rational, and independent. Practically speaking, the best, safest approach to breaking down this binary may be to err on the side of caution and assume that adults, as commonly understood, simply do not exist.
We are all children, we are all vulnerable, and we are all always figuring out how to cope with complex situations in ways that will be, in all likelihood, less than perfect. In the end, the notions of childhood and adulthood are stereotypes, with all the coercion that being a stereotype entails. But beyond a stereotype, childhood is a way to relegate a big chunk of the population to the status of eternal other, less than and separate from the rest of us.
As a way to address this otherness, Fineman argues that we need to look more closely at vulnerability, which is ‘universal and constant, inherent in the human condition.’ She suggests we position vulnerability as central to what we think of as a typical person, contrasting it with the individual imagined in liberal political theory, where the ‘typical’ person is understood to be self-sufficient, rational, always personally responsible, and not particularly vulnerable.
Centring a vulnerable subject, like, say, a child, reveals some of the brokenness of a society ‘conceived as constituted by self-interested individuals with the capacity to manipulate and manage their independently acquired and overlapping resources.’ Capitalism is absolutely reliant on the idea of this individual, a rational actor who trundles to the market every day to happily exchange their labour for a few dollars, the notion of the fairness of this arrangement hinging on this ideology of self-aware, rational self-sufficiency.
Fineman points to the idea of the vulnerable subject as a ‘more accurate and complete universal figure to place at the heart of social policy.’ Vulnerability is typically a condition that causes the state and other institutions to intervene in the social sphere, and using a framework of vulnerability opens things up to consider children the same way we consider adults. Imagine if vulnerability were central to our world view instead of a symbol of failure: it would become possible to shift the universal subject to include central aspects of the experience of children – which are also sure to be aspects of the adult experience. Within a vulnerability framework, every child is one of us and, as such, has the same right to participate in the world, and any systems not amenable to their participation – capitalism, say – would be considered unfair. If the universal or typical person – the vulnerable – has a hard time getting their act together to be of use to capitalism, then how useful, really, is capitalism?
5. Alison M. Watson, The Child in International Politics: A Place at the Table (London: Routledge, 2009).
6. Martha Albertson Fineman, ‘The Vulnerable Subject: Anchoring Equality in the Human Condition,’ Yale Journal of Law and Feminism 20, no. 1, article 2 (2008).
Darren O’Donnell is an urban cultural planner, novelist, essayist, playwright, director, and filmmaker. He is the artistic director of performance company Mammalian Diving Reflex and research director of Methods for Mammals. He holds a BFA in theatre, a MSc in urban planning from the University of Toronto, and studied traditional Chinese and Western medicine at the Shiatsu School of Canada. His books include Social Acupuncture, which argues for aesthetics of civic engagement, and Your Secrets Sleep with Me, a novel about difference, love, and the miraculous. His stage-based works include All the Sex I’ve Ever Had, The Hemsbach Protocol, Promises to a Divided City, A Suicide-Site Guide to the City, White Mice, and [boxhead]. His performance works include Haircuts by Children, Nightwalks with Teenagers, Eat the Street and The Children’s Choice Awards. His films include High School Health, Sleeping with Family, Allegations, and How to Be a Brown Teen. His urban cultural planning clients include the Tate Modern; the London International Festival of Theatre; the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art; the Metropolitan Region of Rhine-Neckar, Germany; and the West Kowloon Cultural District, Hong Kong. He currently lives out of a suitcase, primarily dividing his time between Europe, the U.K., Australia, and Canada.