Saturday, May 31, 2008

On raising disoriented children

by J J Cohen

Eileen posted on Sara Ahmed's new work, describing how Ahmed examines (among other things) the potentially coercive orientation of family towards a circumscribed, impoverished notion of happiness.

While I don't think many readers of ITM will find themselves disagreeing with Ahmed's thesis, at least as Eileen has articulated it (who wants their happiness to function as a normalization mechanism? who wants to submit to the demand to live for the happiness of another, especially when that demand is really just another way of holding you in a place in which you do not actually wish to reside?), Eileen and Ahmed collaboratively offer much to chew over in thinking about living one's life, and especially in orienting the lives of others.

Allow me a personal admission: that post got to me. It made me think, in a rather troubled way, about the potential coerciveness of the family structure in which my son Alexander and daughter Katherine dwell.

It's not the first glimmer of self-awareness in childrearing to come my way, of course. Remember that Eve Sedgwick classic, How to Bring Up Your Kids Gay? I read that in graduate school, a few years after I got married as I recall, and it made me think If Wendy and I ever have kids we will raise them in a utopia-like ├╝bertolerant familial structure! Well, it seemed a practicable idea at the time, since I was pretty much a kid myself, and had no idea of the sheer labor of maintaining a household. Somehow I assumed it would merely extend my life as currently configured. My best friend and teaching partner was [is] gay. It was the heyday of queer theory, we were living in the People's Republic of Cambridge, many of our friends were [are] queer, anything seemed possible.

Then life intervened, in the form of a move to a new city and the superprofessionalization that comes with having jobs and proliferating responsibilities. From the start, and again before we had kids, Wendy and I found ourselves happy (if oddball) members of queer communities: we lived in Dupont Circle, we became [and remain] good friends with our landlord, above whom we lived. Uncle Jim (as our kids call him) lives now in Maine, and we see him and his partner Uncle Joe a few times a year. We've also maintained many of our Massachusetts friendships: Alex is especially attached to Uncle Richard, whom he got to know from frequent visits to DC (Alex wasn't born until we'd been living in DC for quite some time). Like all of us, Alex was dumbstruck with grief with Richard's partner died of pneumonia in 2004. We've also remained close to four Boston friends who live as a polyamorous quad (and to them I say hello! I rely on two of them to read the blog for its funnier bits and to steer odd bits of information my way). Robert McRuer, one of my favorite GW colleagues and a queer theorist extraordinaire, gave Alexander his favorite childhood counting tome, a Keith Haring board book written in English, French and German.

But the fact is we do not live in Dupont Circle anymore. We moved to Montgomery County, Maryland, in 1996, at a time when democracy had been suspended in the District and a control board placed in charge of city government. Combined with the lack of congressional representation, and triggered as well by some less grand and a bit more personal events, we decided that when it was time to invest every penny we had in a house it would not be in DC. We love where we live: a small enclave of small houses just a teeny bit over the DC border, with an amazingly good public school a five minute walk away (living in DC also typically means relying on a private education system), the subway is nearby, we can walk to almost anything we need. MoCo is also politically quite liberal: nothing like Cambridge, but far to the left of most areas in the USA. A plurality county, no single population group holds a majority. But it is also quite affluent and privileged, and we do feel the lingering guilt of having abandoned the city (even if we did so by moving less than five miles: DC is tiny).

So our children enjoy fencing lessons and ballet. They have good lives, but I worry sometimes that we've oriented them towards that suburban notion of happiness that Ahmed labeled coercive. Sure, we can encourage them to be as odd as they want to be, and to have the confidence to be secure in that choice. I think this blog has offered ample evidence of their more eccentric proclivities (Katherine's latest ambition: to be a ballerina-policeman who can fly). We've also tried to leave enough space in their lives that they can fill it with interests that (we hope) do not come from parental coerciveness: Alexander's desire to play piano is a case in point, since neither Wendy nor I has musical bone in our bodies. Fortunately, we have the resources to refurbish an old piano a neighbor gave us and to hire a piano teacher so that he can pound the keys to his heart's content.

But it also strikes me that what have striven to do is to orient our children nonetheless towards a certain kind of happiness. I recognize the coerciveness that comes with that orientation, the domestication that we've worked on them, the ways in which their lives have been circumscribed and shaped. How do I know, I wonder, that we've oriented them rightly? Ethically? Happily?


Eileen Joy said...

Jeffrey: this is a very moving and honest post [we say that a lot around here, don't we?], and you know, of course, that I am going to say you are being too hard on yourself, right? You should see where I live in South Carolina: I take your within-five-miles-of-DC left-leaning suburb and I raise it a house on a golf course with rocking chairs on the front porch and a dirt driveway and neighbors who either go to First Baptist or First Presbyterian every Wednesday and Sunday and ride around town on golf carts and celebrate Strom Thurmond's birthday every year with a picnic [and I've been to this picnic]! Try dealing with grade-school teachers who send your daughter secret letters through the mail saying things like, "Jesus loves you soooooo much!" and "Jesus died for you!" and who give your child pitying looks when you pick her up from school [Alicia is now 17, so this was years ago, but who can forget?]. It still goes on, and private school is not an option as the closest ones are Baptist and Catholic and the good ones are too far away. Of course, I'm a split personality who, during the school year, lives in the cool 1923 bungalow nestled in the nitty-gritty Irish working class/Vietnamese/black/eastern European refugee/punk-apocalytpic-teen/lesbian neighborhood in Saint Louis [the fringes of Tower Grove], and therefore can pretend she never gave up on her citified-queer-countercultural-antisuburban self. But in the summers I'm drinking beer with my neighbor who is an ex-Methodist minister who left the ministry because he found it was getting harder and harder to empathize with his parishioners whose problems, he decided, were just stupid and infantile, yet they wouldn't stop complaining about them [ouch]. It is actually neighbors like these who keep me sane here. Most of my neighbors live, married, in houses they grew up in, with parents stashed away in garage apartments and children, also married, with even more children, living just a few doors down the street. I'm lucky in a way--since I don't live here year-round, I can pretend when I *am* here that I am a visiting anthropologist, soaking up the beauty [it *is* freaking beautiful here: we have palm trees, live oaks with spanish moss, 15-feet tall azalea and camellia hedges, magnolais, all over our property, and our house backs up to a swamp right out of a Faulkner novel] and taking notes on the citizens for a future novel never to be written.

But back to you, Jeffrey: you're being too hard on yourself. Your entire narrative indicates what great parents you and Wendy are, and also how cool your kids are, and how "queer" your entire circle of friends has been/is. I want to meet the polyamorous quadrangle [I just can't believe this arrangement works, btw--it's not the polyamorous liason, so much, as its situatedness within a domicile that I can't believe/wouldn't want, but still . . . they're your friends!]. The phrase I cadged from Berlant, "the collaborative risk of a shared disorganization," was operating in her essay as a description of sex, but just as easily could stand in for what I would call a queer family, such as yours obviously is. And there are, as Ahmed herself admits, certain idiosyncratic pleasures to be had with a group of persons who call themselves a family [just think of your earlier post on "hang on little tomato"], and who don't necessarily experience happiness as something that is coerced, but rather, as something that spontaneously erupts out of a richly developed [in time and space] assemblage of shared affections and experience [that even includes what is sad and tragic: here I am thinking of your amazing post about your daughter's seizure]. And this is what I was also trying to get at with my idea of lingering over intermediate relations: what if the happiness of a queer family was just that? In other words, what if the happiness of a queer family was in making a shared/collective agreement to linger over the "point" of that family, never assuming for a moment that its possibilities could ever be exhausted in any normative descriptions [or directions] that could be made of it, while also realizing [with some sadness, of course] that children grow up and have to "leave" one family to make another [or, hopefully, many others], while also always already being with you, with Wendy-and-you, etc.? Laughter was always the glue that held my own family together through everything, and even today, with my sister, brother, and I in our 40s and all of us living spread out all over the world, and my parents still in DC, my sister can just say "mandarin oranges" [secret family joke] and we all crack to pieces and even roll around on the floor with laughter. It happened, in fact, two weeks ago at my sister's second "gay wedding." And it will never stop happening. And it always makes me happy. And I know that is your family, too.

hd said...

JJC, I echo EJ. The fact that you worry about such questions matters greatly. The fact that you chose to provide a stable home life, in a safe environment, along with a range of models of adult life, in which to shower your children with unconditional love seems like all one can really do.
Recently, I found myself thinking about this from the other side of this relationship. Returning from my brother's wedding, the first family function in which I was there with "my partner," or really any partner for that matter, was disorienting. My father, who was the biggest influence on my early scholastic achievements, who made me love history, and museums, and being smart, who was the only person in family who read my WHOLE dissertation (and wanted to talk to me about it), confessed to my "partner" that he never thought I'd "find anyone" since I hung out with so many gay men. [um, and he didn't use the phrase gay men.] When my "partner" confided this to me, i cried and got very, very angry. I felt massively disappointed, in him and in myself for giving him that which he seemingly longed for: a sign of stability that they could understand, ie a "partner" of the opposite sex.

My partner, who lost his father at a very young age, wondered if maybe I was asking too much of my dad, and of the relationship (and probably of myself). he reminded me that it must have been very hard for my father to love and support me, and more importantly, my work, despite our obvious differences in how we think things SHOULD be. and that his happiness and relief that i've settled down is probably part of the same impulse that made him work two jobs so that i could go to school. you know, he made me see that it's supposed to be effing complicated. I'm still trying to wrap my head around this new, but in some ways also very old, understanding of my father, to make it line up with memories of my childhood, with my sense of self. But maybe I shouldn't try so hard and just let the joy and laughter that he inspired over the years (i always thought i have his sense of humor) jar with his failures and disappointments, rather than trying to fit them into a calculus. we have our own angles. Maybe that's what Ahmed's theory of family is really after...a way of understanding difference--and letting it exist--within those ties that bind.

Eileen Joy said...

Something else I meant to say in my initial response, but couldn't, because my "family" [just kidding with the irony quotes] was giving me the evil eye because it was time to go to the beach [another advantage of living where I do in South Carolina], is that I don't think Ahmed's critique of "being directed" along certain genealogical/familial/heterosexual, etc. lines necessarily forecloses the radical possibilities of couples, families, etc. If anything, I would say that it is the very site of the couple, of the family, etc. that provides a ground on which to completely undo the historically normative strictures of those structures while also allowing, precisely because of the structures, new "forms of being," to cadge from Bersani and Dutoit. Indeed, in Bersani and Dutoit's analysis of the doomed, lonely, and alienated couple in Godard's film "Le Mepris" (1963), they fault the couple for having tried too hard to be a couple, whereas if they had allowed themselves "not to be [as a couple]," they might have "potentialized their relation while they [were] in it." Further, "they would have left their condemned coupledom and given to each other the freedom to reappear, always, as subjects too inconclusive, too multiple, too unfinished, ever to be totally loved" ["Forms of Being," pp. 67-68]. And I would argue that the same could be said of families.

I guess I just have this wildly unrealistic hope that couples and families have not necessarily exhausted their capabilities for creative renewal, as structures that can support and extend what counts as, in Butler's phrase, a "livable life," while I also feel very strongly that we should always recognize the ways in which they can quickly slip [and have slipped] into totalitarian tyrannies, which tyrannies also ground national governmental structures that are oppressive of the individual. I am slowly working my way [thanks Karl!] through the recent special issue of SAQ, "After Sex? On Writing since Queer Theory," and after Jeffrey wrote his post, while on the beach, I read Michael Cobb's essay "Lonely," in which he asks us to consider the important ethical space of non-relationality, especially in a world which has become so "crowded," in which everything [bodies and other structures] is overly-proximate and does not always allow for solitary breathing distance. Cobb writes,

"In my most ambitious desires, I'd like the work I'm doing now to give us back some space, some crucial distance in the world of pressed men and women (and other genders). I'd like to figure out a way for loneliness to be removed from the condition of modern life by bringing back a perspective, not unlike the flaneur, who looks for more than the relief of loneliness in the shocks of the crowd's sociality, who looks for more than what I've been trained to look for: sexual relations. . . . For I'm less optimistic about the kind of closeness, the kind of crowdedness, that love and sex often make us believe" [pp. 454, 455-56]

Anonymous said...

"I don't think Ahmed's critique of "being directed" along certain genealogical/familial/heterosexual, etc. lines necessarily forecloses the radical possibilities of couples, families, etc"

Eileen, this is what I was trying to get at in my queer reading of Jean-Luc Marion's The Erotic Phenomenon in my response to Queer Phenomenology at the Ahmed seminars in Dublin. Love for Marion between two in the crossing(s) of flesh, in a deep passivity is rare. It is intermittent (like politics for Badiou or Ranciere, even Agamben). To lend some durability to the fragility of the situation Marion (perhaps inevitably) turns (like Levinas--remember Irigary's critique of this) to the figure of the child (no capitals for me). But this stability is itself highly provisional because the child, in a derailment (or what Ahmed would call an "affective alienation")of the straight lines of inheritance return to their parents as their absolute validation but rather as an independent form of life, or form of being in Bersani and Dutoit's terms. Furthermore, the child destabilizes the gift economy Ahmed describes by failing to return the gift of life directly to their parents but rather by passing it on, in their turn (in a mad economy), to their own children. Although all of this might sound a little heteronormative (I'm prepared to risk this against the totalitarianisms of the current queer hatred for the couple and for the Child) Marion's meditations (in the Descartian fashion) on erotic passivity read for me like the (impossible) staging of a queer drama of (dis)identification and what Marion calls "love beyong being" (in an extension into the field of the erotic of his "God beyond being").

MOR (heroic bastard)

Eileen Joy said...

For the life of me I couldn't remember why I had purchased "The Erotic Phenomenon" and was reading it [I really am, right now!]. I thought maybe Nicola had recommended it [it's definitely his kind of book], and now, of course, I see it was Michael, the heroic bastard. It's too late to be coherent right now, and I've just returned from seeing the "Sex and the City" movie and my brain is filled with froth and lightness and being. More in the morning . . . .

Jeffrey J Cohen said...

Eileen, your own reply is quite moving (and humane) in return. Thanks for returning to me some more perspective on what is a lifelong issue without easy resolutions for any of us, only compromises and continued movings-on.

hd, and I thank you for that incredibly moving comment, in which I learned so much about you and which makes me only admire you all the more.

Michael, two things stick out in what you wrote: "the totalitarianisms of the current queer hatred for the couple and for the Child" and "the child (no capitals for me) a derailment ... return to their parents as their absolute validation but rather as an independent form of life." I can see how well these two things fit together, and would love to hear more on each.

Anonymous said...

Good questions JJC but one's I'm not yet well placed to answer. Thats really as far as I got(at least with Marion's The Erotic Phenomenon--a gorgeous book) in my short response to Ahmed's QP. So, these ideas are only really taking shape for me.

On the first question I would reiterate that heteronormativity does not equal the heterosexual couple (i.e. heterosexual forms of life are not monolithic and are full of potential for the unfolding of different relational futures). And setting hetero couples up as the enemy is no less dangerous (or to go a step further fundamentalist) than demonizing the Child. Foucault's late essays on new ways of life are full of signposts pointing in the opposite direction (i.e. in the direction of queer forms of heterosexual life). To dismiss the queer possibilities inherent in certain forms of hetero coupledom and certain forms of queer childhood is, I would argue, a retreat away from the very politicality of the queer political and the very futurality of the queer future.

As for the second question I find in Marion a way to get past or swerve around the gift economy Ahmed describes insofar as for him the child does not return as the *image* of the parent(s). There are obvious similarites with Derrida on the gift (one of his undeconstructables) here but with a difference. While for both the gift is given with no expectation of return in a mad economy Derrida is a little more in love with the impossible and Marion a little more in love with givenness/ousia/saturation. Putting these aporias to one side, though, I would urge queer theorists to engage with Marion's book (and theologico-phenomenology generally)because it does offer a very queer theology of the flesh. Love beyond being,as he formulates it, seems to me to be a way out of Marion's own hyperousiological essentialist trap and is a direction I'd like to go in, a path I'd be keen to follow him on. But I'm only just getting there.


Jeffrey J Cohen said...

A few loose ends, and again thank you everyone for your heartfelt posts.

MOR, one of the things I like about your project is its return to a humane moment early in queer theory when Eve Sedgwick was writing about queer childhoods with such sympathy. How her gentle touch got replaced by a refusal to touch (and I am thinking of that moment of letting go at Mount Rushmore Edelman stages) seems to me a sad story.

Eileen, a quick note on the ployamorous quad because that designation makes our friends sound less ordinary than they actually are. Their household arrangement was interesting for about a day but then, you know, they just became what they always were, which is to say ordinary human beings with fairly mundane lives. Of course there are benefits to having four incomes: they own a small plane that they've flown down to see us in, and a boat, and they take amazing Caribbean vacations.

Lastly the choice to live in MoCo as a good choice was reaffirmed for me yesterday when my 5th grader came home after the third day of his unit on human sexuality having been taught about HIV and AIDS. The series of classes he's had on "health" have been well done -- and I admire his teachers for getting the information across through the giggles.

dtkline said...

All -

No doubt I'm a day or two late (belated?) in this discussion, but it's giving me both heart palpitations and goose bumps - on the one hand, this is territory literally close to my heart and, on the other, scaring the shit out of me because you all are working so creatively in an area that I've been plowing laboriously for some time now. So, to read Eileen's fabulous posts and Jeffrey's responses (and the responses to responses) on top of digesting 'No Future' ... Well, I'm in a kankedort because I'm trying to get this damn historcized book out of the way on children in ME lit but I keep being confronted with such beautiful and challenging ideas that cause me to constantly reorient myself along these lines of force and contact that I must intone, with Pooh, "Oh, bother!" but in the best wayt.

Eileen Joy said...

Happy to reorient you, Dan! Cheers, Eileen