Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

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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?

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