The Child at the Social Limit

Associate professor of English at the University of Toronto

From a podium in Central Park West, a student activist from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School declared: “The adults failed us and now seventeen people are dead.” During a day of nationwide actions, a coalition of youth would point to the “failure” of adults to protect children not only from school shootings at locations such as Columbine, Sandy Hook, and Stoneman Douglas (to name a few!), but from the everyday gun violence directed at children and youth in minority communities. “We share the stage today and always with those who have always stared down the barrel of a gun,” Jaclyn Corin, a Stoneman Douglas student and one of the event’s organizers, told the crowd. And Edna Chavez, a South Los Angeles resident, asked those assembled to remember her brother, Ricardo, and chant his name. “This is normal—normal to the point that I’ve learned to duck from bullets before I learned how to read,” she said.

What many of these young activists point to in their anger and grief is a social failure, or a failure of the social, that only seems to draw successful attention to itself in isolated moments but which is surely calling out for a more meaningful response. How are we to respond when some of the “solutions” offered up conjure a feudal world (every school an armed citadel) or a state of nature in which all the “bad” guys and all the “good” guys are armed? And surely the point here is that our world is already, in some sense, this dystopian world, even if we can’t always see it.

A story in The Washington Post reports that every day, threats send classrooms into lockdowns and thousands of schools conduct active-shooter drills in which children as young as four hide in darkened closets and bathrooms from imaginary murderers. Another account in the media tells the story of teachers who opt to follow protocol during a school shooting, versus those who decide to break the rules; this scenario calls for a decision about shutting a classroom door once and for all, sealing it against a shooter but also against potential victims, as opposed to opting to open the door to let others in. While some teachers who opened their doors at Stoneman Douglas were considered heroes, others who opted to follow the directives of their training were severely criticized. What is most striking to me is not which choice any given individual made in this circumstance, but rather that the individuals in question were abandoned to such a choice. Decisions regarding the protection of children are in a sense like all decisions regarding sexual and social reproduction. They ask to be engaged on a scale that suspends and complicates the fantasy of individual responsible decision making. And to fail to engage them on such a scale is to lapse into a dangerously reductive morality (open or shut, good or bad). Here I think of philosophers who only appear to encounter the madness of decision making when they address the madness of the reproductive decision, as if any other decision might be made entirely rationally (e.g. L. A. Paul or David Benatar) or those whose philosophical accounts remind us of the inseparability of sexual and social reproduction (e.g. Hannah Arendt or Donna Haraway).

If it sometimes seems as if children are abandoned at the edges of the world, at other times it is as if too much is demanded of them. Such children may be “asked” to suture together the ragged edges that expose us to the traumatic real, or, to put it slightly differently, to be the “all” which fulfills an adult’s desire. Ben Lerner’s 2014 novel, 10:04, takes on questions of sexual reproduction, social reproduction and the reproduction of life itself in the Anthropocene. When the narrator is engaged in the highly unusual activity (for him) of preparing food for another (a protester camping out at Zucotti Park) he is suddenly struck by an overwhelming desire: “for the first time I could remember—I wanted a child, wanted one badly. Then I recoiled at the thought, wanted one not at all. So this is how it works, I said to myself, as if I’d caught an ideological mechanism in flagrante delicto . . . ” In this hybrid of a text, what we might think of as the child figure in contemporary discourse is dispersed throughout the narrative, rather than intensified in a particular instance. The narrator consumes baby octopus at the beginning of the novel; he has a sense of himself as child-like and relays memories from his own childhood; there is also a plot line concerning Intrauterine Insemination (IUI), “fatherhood” (“I felt my presence flicker”), and the narrator’s good friend and the mother-to-be of a thus-far imaginary baby; and finally there is Roberto, an undocumented immigrant eight-year-old, whom the narrator tutors in an unofficial capacity (no social roles here are established or stable).

What the narrator and Roberto share most profoundly is a tendency to “figure the global apocalyptically.” The narrator (referred to once or twice as “Ben”—itself a kind of flickering) listens to Roberto’s extravagant and anxious tales, but, living in his world—which is also our world—the narrator can only provide the most minimal of reassurances to his young unofficial charge. We should probably read Lerner’s novel in dialogue with other fatherhood stories less marked by irony and more comfortable with grandiosity (McCarthy’s The Road or just about any “angry dad revenge drama”). When Ben temporarily loses Roberto in the dinosaur exhibit in The Natural History Museum, we encounter a deflated version of the man and boy negotiating post-apocalyptic terrain. Ben comments on his anxiety and helplessness: “I was no more a functional adult than Pluto was a planet.” In one of the novel’s culminating moments, and in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Ben watches while Alex receives an ultrasound: “On the flat-screen hung high up on the wall, we see the image of the coming storm, its limbs moving in real time, the brain visible in its translucent skull . . . Confirming a heartbeat lowers the risk, although the chances the creature will never make landfall remain significant.’’ Here the tenuous being-coming-into-being is at once octopus, fetus (fetupus?) and storm, as Lerner figures new life as a kind of cataclysmic event. Which may be just another way to say that it is an “event”—a future that, while anxiously anticipated, is also sublimely unknown and unknowable.


Naomi Morgenstern is author of Wild Child: Intensive Parenting and Posthumanist Ethics. Morgenstern is associate professor of English at the University of Toronto.

“Your child isn’t civilized. Neither are you. Expect the child to be more productively destructive and survivalist than you imagined, showing us to be the techno-relational-vulnerable animals that we are, strange to the core in crisis and change. Also expect that you won’t find a smarter, more forthright, and beautifully nuanced guide to these thoughts than Naomi Morgenstern. Impressive and persuasive.”
—Kathryn Bond Stockton, author of The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century


Emma Whitford, “’The Adults Failed Us’: More than 100,000 youth, parents, teachers, and Beatles march in New York to end gun violence,” The Village Voice, March 26, 2018.

Lois Beckett and Evelyn Hockstein, “’We share the stage: white suburban liberals and minority activists fight together for gun reform,” The Guardian, March 25, 2018.

German Lopez, “March for Our Lives’ Edna Chavez speaks for the kind of gun violence that doesn’t make front pages,” Vox, March 24, 2018.

John Woodrow Cox and Steven Rich, “Scarred by School Shootings: More than 187,000 students have been exposed to gun violence at school since Columbine, The Washington Post Found. Many are never the same,” The Washington Post, March 25, 2018.

Oliver Laughland and Eleanor Beckett in Parkland Florida, “Parkland teachers faced an impossible choice: ‘Do I hold the door open or close it?,’” The Guardian, March 23, 2018.

L.A. Paul, “What You Can’t Expect When You’re Expecting,” Res Philosophica 92.2 (2015): 149-170. Print.

David Benatar, Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence. Clarendon Press, 2006. Print.

Hannah Arendt, “The Crisis in Education.” Between Past and Future: Six Exercises in Political Thought. Viking, 1961. 173-196. Print.

Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke UP, 2016. Print.

Ben Lerner, 10:04, Penguin, 2014. Print.

Cormac McCarthy, The Road. New York: Vintage, 2006. Print.

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