Notes from a Conversation: Inheriting the Grid #14

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #14 in April 2014]

In the language of aspiring adults, “child” can be a dis or a prop. When you are childish you are petty and irrational. When you are childlike, you are innocent and fresh. To be grown is to see the child as the other, as what you no longer are: your lost inner child, or weakness overcome. Looking down at childhood while at the same time idealizing it, as something to be cherished and yet overcome, we might be too confused to know how to listen and to recognize the voices of children. And when we try, what do we hear? Children’s voices are most loudly heard in popular media, where we encounter the words of adults—writers, directors, marketers, entertainers—that are put in the mouths of children who are paid to act. Movies, TV shows, music and children’s books are some of the ways childhood has been reinvented as a source of corporate profit. What are some of the other ways childhood is a way to make money? Think of school systems, nutritious snacks, educational media, character-building games, identity-affirming fashion, behavioral therapies, and parenting experts. All of these, among other such undertakings, have many beneficiaries. But what is their actual benefit to children? Whether it is in the emotional economy of self-making or the neoliberal economy of globalized capital, childhood is a token to be cashed for grown-up profit. In embarking on a project that sketches some of the dimensions of what it means to be growing up in Chicago today, this poses a key challenge. Can we learn to listen, even before we pose our questions, in ways that extract the idea and experience of childhood from these perilous exchanges? In writing, thinking, struggling in relation to childhood can we change our practices, our spaces, and our pace, so that we can find resources for resisting its commodification and commercialization? Several of the writers in this issue document steps in this direction, steps that can help us to be more attuned to what children can teach us about what we should be struggling for. – MM

Last summer AREA advisers gathered for a series of brainstorming meetings. What could we learn about power, about social and political struggles, and about our daily lives if we placed “childhood” at the center of our attention? The retooling of the public school system and the use of children to justify state violence are two obvious ways that “childhood” is a market, and also a terrain of political struggle and contestation. But the threads extend farther, weaving together conservative and liberal politics, which both use the image of the  “child” to justify everything from border militarization, to reproductive and marriage rights, to economic development schemes. Confronted with the crisis of late capitalism as unsustainable and self-destructive, our responses are often articulated in the name of  the “child”, which becomes a stand-in for futurity and innocence. But we seldom see practices of power redistribution that challenge the ways the notions of “child” and “adult” define what it means to be a person, or simply what it means to be something, to exist, to count. “Childhood” is not a single, simple or obvious category; it is plural, malleable and volatile. “Childhood” means different things, depending on where and how it is deployed, and by whom. It is circulated in ways that both reflect and also generate power differentials.
AREA produces a newspaper, but is intentionally at odds with the world of commercial publishing. It is an effort to practice knowledge-in-common at a modest scale. But we have never asked how people identified as children participate in producing knowledge-in-common. How do we set up definitions of “adult” things like knowledge-production and social justice in ways that exclude people identified as children? How are children at times included as disempowered and tokenized participants, as cute props, giving adults ways to legitimize our actions as being in their name? This is the first issue to have a large editorial team and no single lead editor, yet all editors are identified as adults. It is tempting to “resolve” this through token inclusion of a child editor. Instead, we leave these questions open, nagging and urgent, so that they do not just go away. We hope they push us to continuously examine what we mean by making, being and learning together. – RB

A collaborative project by design, much of the writing in this issue has been collaboratively composed. Childhoods asserts the reciprocal and messy nature of relationships among collaborators: parents and their children, other people’s children, teachers and students, students and students, teachers and teachers. The organization of this issue into six sections reflects the multi-directional nature of these relationships.
Rather than absolute thematic categories, these sections are meant as broad, overlapping rubrics that sometimes contain contradictions—i.e., Learning and Unlearning. Self-Determination suggests independence, while Infrastructure describes ways of being dependent; Children’s Politics implies that children might participate in a special category of political life, while What Is a Child Anyway? questions that possibility. Recesses insists on its own contradictions—recess is something you look forward to, and something that can be taken away, but it is also a gap, a hole, something you fall into. Each section header could, perhaps, be read as a title for the whole newspaper: this is the Recesses issue of AREA, and this the What Is a Child Anyway? issue. Fill in the blank. What is actually learned and taught is never limited to curricula, no matter how good or bad the school.
When asked, at the end of a long interview session by her mother and AREA editors whether, as the only eight-year-old contributor to this publication, she has parting words for readers, Sol advises: “Remember they were once kids, too.”
Remember to listen to kids (children), and don’t forget that you were once (“are still?”) one too. Remember that childhood is a noun that can be pluralized. Remember that everyone’s childhoods were different, and infinitely more complicated than a demographic profile, test score, or relationship to language; and that the conception of childhood—which may, as it turns out, be most useful as a neoliberal marketing tool—both reflects and supports the cultures that produce and are produced by it. Childhoods offers insight into how language is created collaboratively, and how language might be used to achieve greater mutual recognition of shared and disparate experience. – SM

One of the first lessons I learned in activist communities was not to speak for people who are disenfranchised. The reason being that the very act of speaking up and voicing yourself can be an act of resistance and an assertion of humanity. So why then is this issue written mostly by adults? The simple answer: we did not know how to engage children in a more meaningful way. We “adults” are not all knowing; there is a lot we do not know how to do, there is a lot for us to learn. And, at times like these, we need to further dismantle, instigate and intervene on our learning and working process.
From the beginning, our intention was to include the voices of children. However, we didn’t want to simply ask them to fill in blanks or color inside designated lines. Thus we avoided sending mass prompts for teachers to fit into their already packed schedules. We also didn’t want to encourage submissions where children became the mouthpiece of an adult. As a publication this was a concern since engaging with AREA, and presumably even hearing about AREA, requires some sort of mediation by an adult. We thought about setting up an “autonomous zone” for kids to plan events, occupy the space and play. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find a space for this and we were limited by our own organizing capacities (but still think it’s a good idea *hint*hint*). Another one of our early ideas was to consider how children interact with geographies in the city.
It’s interesting to realize that we underestimated how much the very structure of AREA as an organization could be a barrier to the participation of kids in the creation of the issue. Intervention by children became somewhat fragmented as our all-adult editorial team only engaged with kids on an individual level, and our meetings were not made accessible to kids.
But are kids even interested in such a project? If we were really to center the voices of kids would we need to (re)create the structures and project from a place of shared leadership and decision-making? What sort of grid are we inheriting, reproducing and passing on? How can it be rearranged or radically transformed? A process with a life cycle requires time to grow and transform: like planting a seed, we might not see anything “productive” for years, though the growth and life of the project would be at its most transformative. – JK

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