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Thursday, September 10, 2015

self-consciousness: notes

We were walking down the street the other day, Adam and me, and we passed a woman who stopped and smiled and said to me, you have the Coppertone baby there. Referring to Adam’s blonde curls and his tan, the result of our visit to the beach over Labor Day weekend.
I smiled back at her. We walked on and Adam said to me, I’m not a baby.
I’m not a baby. Adam has begun to use this phrase quite often. And it has made me think about … well, about the origin of self-consciousness.
We all know, consciousness has a fatal tendency to doubling, to finding itself in front of mirrors, or even, in many cases, fun house mirrors, a mirror effect that is even reflected in the possibility of there being a first person subject in Indo European languages, at least, which leads to the grammatical possibility of that first person taking itself as a predicate. Every cowboy, structuralism teaches, is eventually caught in his own lasso. But we have a tendency to freeze this moment, this mirror stage, outside of the history of our experience, as though self-consciousness were enacted in some lunar zone outside our biology. 
Which is a fancy windup to saying that the stage of “I’m not a baby” is full of unteased out sense, I think. For not being a baby means, I think, I’m not a baby any more. This of course means that I was a baby once. In fact, in the very near past. Adam, like any little boy in the age of digital photography, can, if he chooses, wander through galleries of pics of himself being very much a baby. A year ago he was one and three fourths, and two years ago he wasn’t even one – and yet he was, here on a bouncy bounce, there with Momma, there with a toy giraffe. He certainly recognizes himself in these pics – in a way that is more implicating for him, now, than it is for, say, me, looking at a baby pic of myself (is there one? I don’t have a lot of pics of myself as a child – or, actually any). 
I often ask Adam if he remembers things. Do you remember Grandma’s Dog? Do you remember Atlanta? Etc. Many times he says yes, and sometimes he begins the game with me: Dad, remember the swimming pool? For us, his babyhood is something that has, somehow, slipped beyond our grasp – is he already almost three? Oh Jesus. Oh I loved it when he was asleep in his cradle. Oh, I remember him learning to walk. Etc. All of those moments, and yet he grew up when I was absent minded, when I was thinking of something else, it always seems. But for him, there is the bio-temperal fact that he is not a baby, and that he was a baby, and that the baby he used to be is an object he has left behind, with the object’s properties: a certain size, a certain capacity to make shrieky sounds, a certain inability to do what big boys like him do. So, he left the baby behind, and yet he is, or was, that baby. 
Part of the weirdness of Western culture is the high value it puts on youth. I have a complex theory about this which has to do with early capitalism, the demographic changes in the composition of the household which accompanied or were implicated in the rise of the capitalist mode of production.  The ideal of age has been thoroughly overthrown, now,  but  the conditions that determine the mortality rate allow us now to live, en masse, to unheard of ages, which means that there are more old people than ever before, This age overhang is, itself, a sort of accident, and one that probably has a future, just as the youth had a future in the accident that changed the household norms of the seventeenth century. Youth was created in the vacuum of waiting for marriage by choice, that necessary period of accumulation before a man could hope to marry or a woman could consider marriage.  At the moment, though, old age, advancing age, is curiously lacking in a culture of its own. It looks backwards to its youth for the culture that it has, a reflex conditioned, massively, by the semiosphere. I don’t want to read this cultural phenomenon back into Adam’s own looking backwards – a backward look marked, in proper Lacanian style, by a negation. However, I do think this moment helps us break our theoretical trance before the mirror stage and bring back history. I’ll have to tell Adam next time he says it: Adam, you are such a Marxist!

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