April 17th, 2005

The "Youing" of the You

There's a part off Richard Linklater's Waking Life which I think about a lot. Two women are in a café talking about the experience of changing over time. One invokes Benedict Anderson, surprisingly, to explain how the illusion of a stable identity is sustained by a narrative that links a series of snapshots. Basically, the idea is that we know who we are only because we grow being told over and over, "Look, that's you as a baby and as a toddler and at age six and at age ten. . . "

Leaving aside the question of whether it's a good idea to promote "pop theory" in the way that Waking Life does -- I think it is, but that's a topic for another day -- I'm intrigued by the parallels between that scene and the arguments that people like Judith Butler are famous for making. Back when I was taking her class in 1993, she referred repeatedly to the "'girling' of the girl." That formulation has gone pop in our own household, with Kim and I using it all the time to talk about the way in which some of Skylar's friends and classmates are normed. I like it a lot, actually, not least because it's readily understandable for someone who doesn't have the will or the way to read theory.

What I was wondering earlier tonight when I decided to write this entry is whether the harm implicit in the idea of girling a girl or boying a boy is absent from the gender-neutral interpellation in the second person that parents ritually engage in. Are we doing Skylar a disservice by regularly pointing to the large picture in the middle of the photo-and-footprint collage on our living-room wall and saying, "That's you when you were only fifteen minutes old!"?

Here's a thought-experiment for you. Imagine a house like ours in which the parents put photographs of their child up all over the place, as we have done, but refuse to explain them. Would the temporal mirror -- I'm inclined to call it an allegory -- that these photos constitute function differently in that case than they do when the parents are always asking their child to acknowledge the correspondence between then and now?

Obviously, the child would at some point figure out that the image she or he sees in the mirror looks like some of the photos on the wall. Perhaps the thought-experiment should be radicalized, then: "Imagine the same scenario in a house where mirrors are forbidden and where looking in pools of liquid is strongly discouraged." Silliness aside, though, the real ideological work of the interpellation is in convincing the child that she or he was once too young and small to look like her or himself. "That's you last week at your fifth birthday party" is a very different assertion than "That's you when you were fifteen minutes old."

This realization shows the flip side of Lacan's mirror stage. The pre-toddler who anticipates autonomy before the mirror is mirrored by the post-toddler who looks at a photograph of a baby and is urged to recognize it as her or himself. It's funny how invested we are in proving to our children that we were there at the beginning of their lives, that we are, in fact, their origin. I wonder how adopted children who do not have photos of themselves from before the mirror stage regard themselves. Do they feel that their identity is less secure because the narrative cannot be traced all the way back? Or is there actually freedom in not being hailed as someone who was once radically other?
  • Current Music
    Beat It (Merengue) - Señor Coconut And His Orchestra - Fiesta Songs


Today was a bad, bad allergy day. The palo verde trees are blooming sheets of gorgeous yellow, but the clouds of pollen they release to the wind have many people around here in misery. I try to alternate my antihistamines in the hope of minimizing their tendency to make me either rage at the slightest provocation or resist every impulse to stay awake. I'm rediscovering the virtues of my teenage "speedball," which consists of pseudoephedrine and antihistamine taken together. Yesterday it was half a yellow pill and one red one. I was far more human than I would have been on the yellow pill alone. Today was worse so I tried a Benadryl and a red one. Even that hefty dose, however, was not equal to the task, so I opted to take a Claritin in the evening. What a mistake! Every time I take one of those I feel like I'm tripping on a hallucinogen whose sole hallucination is an abject self-image. I'm this close to scratching my skin until it bleeds. And I know, I mean I just know,hat I'd feel better with an open wound than I do right now. Somehow I don't think this is what Moses Mendelsohn, Immanuel Kant, and their fellow thinkers had in mind when they discussed the concept of Aufkläritung. This clearing is all bog and my shoes are soaked with slime.
  • Current Music
    the muted sounds of U2's Zooropa from the front room


I'm sitting by the side of the road.
The driver is changing a tire.
I'm not content where I come from.
I'm not content where I'm going.
Why do I watch the tire-changing
with impatience?

-- Bertolt Brecht (translated by C. L. Bertsch)

Mayday, Almost May Day

There's something to be said
for a poem you can translate
without a dictionary. So let
me say it: I'll take a lover
in boxer shorts over one
dolled up in satin or, yes,
even latex any day of the
week. Sometimes the most
necessary beauties are
those that are comfortable
in their curves, soft-sided
testament to the absence of
fiction. Spring is here!