June 1, 2010 § 2 Comments
I’m in the toy shop looking for something for my kids. I want something they can play with… that can be played with in lots of different ways. But all the toys have minds of their own: they do certain things and certain things alone.
This one buzzes and jerks erratically across the shop floor, stopping against the wheel of a pram and shuffling spastically in one spot as a recumbent toddler raises his bleary head and looks down, icily and slightly alarmed.
This one beeps and whines and plays tunes when you hit certain buttons. A fat, flailing baby arm bangs it and it squarks into song like some fucked up satellite that the North Koreans failed to launch properly and that fell to earth with a £6.99 sticker on it.
I stand still amid the cacophony, the carnage of fun, aghast. It’s like Bladerunner in miniature. It’s our shop, the replicants seem to say in gritted electronic tones. If you don’t like us fuck off before we turn on you.
I go to the cashiers; two fat middle-aged ladies and one vacant-eyed student in her twenties.
“Excuse me, but do you have any toys my kids can actually play with?” I ask. “I mean, play with. Play. Do different things with. Toys that won’t usurp their young games with dictatorial, manic beeping, schizoid shuffling and spontaneous plastic self-destruction? Anything that’s not shit?”
Well, that’s what I mean: what I say is more along the lines of “Excuse me, I’m terribly sorry but do you have any toys that are not quite so noisy? Anything that’s not battery powered? “
Vacant student stares vacantly. Podgy lady number one looks confused and doesn’t answer. Podgier, older lady looks at me with a latent sympathy. She comes from behind the till and leads me towards the Lego; leans forward conspiratorially: “I know I shouldn’t say this…” she whispers, eyes flitting furtively left and right lest the manager hear. “But I know where you’re coming from. That’s not actually anything here (she waves an elbow surreptitiously) to play with!”
I have an ally. We look at each, aghast. Our horror breaches the vast divide separating us under the artificial lights of Merry Hill shopping mall. Our horror is palpable and profound. It suddenly terrifies me that she has to whisper this. I want her to shout it aloud to all the customers: “It’s all total shit! Run The toys have killed fun! They’ve killed it, wrapped its corpse in cellophane and are singing a requiem to it in a tuneless programmed series of beeps. But you’re just standing around gormlessly and smiling.” But I don’t, because I don’t want to get sectioned. I grimace at the old lady and she grimaces at me and she says, quietly but very seriously. “Don’t buy anything.”
I won’t”, I say, “Thank you, I won’t…”
October 30, 2009 § Leave a Comment
In January 2004, Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben did what very few people who pontificate for a living do and put his money where his mouth was. The professor at the University of Venice had been invited to teach a course in New York, but learned that all visitors to the U.S., irrespective of their visa status, would now have to undergo fingerprinting at the border.
Refusing in advance to undergo the procedure, he promptly cancelled the course and tore up his tickets. The move puzzled many: was this the petulant fit of some professorial ego not wanting to submit to a process formerly reserved for criminals, they wondered?
In an essay for French daily Le Monde, Agamben set about explaining his decision, claiming it was not only necessary and “without appeal”, but that he hoped it would be shared by others.
It was not, he wrote, the immediate and superficial reaction some had suggested it was to a procedure that has long been imposed on criminals and political defendants.
“If it were only that, we would certainly be morally able to share, in solidarity, the humiliating conditions to which so many human beings are subjected.”
The essence, Agamben wrote, does not lie there. The problem exceeds the limits of personal sensitivity and “simply concerns the juridical-political status (it would be simpler, perhaps, to say bio-political) of citizens of the so-called democratic states where we live.”
The decision, he wrote, was taken in the light of attempts over the last few years
To convince us to accept as the humane and normal dimensions of our existence, practices of control that had always been properly considered inhumane and exceptional.
The boundaries even the most tolerant of intrusion would consider close to home were being transgressed by the state, he claimed, and this was a breach not just simply of generally accepted buffers between private and public life but symptomatic of something more disturbing.
As he wrote:
It wouldn’t be possible to cross certain thresholds in the control and manipulation of bodies without entering a new bio-political era, without going one step further in what Michel Foucault called the progressive animalization of man which is established through the most sophisticated techniques.
Electronic filing of finger and retina prints, subcutaneous tattooing, as well as other practices of the same type, are elements that contribute towards defining this threshold…
…What is at stake here is nothing less than the new normal bio-political relationship between citizens and the state. This relation no longer has anything to do with free and active participation in the public sphere, but concerns the enrolment and the filing away of the most private and incommunicable aspect of subjectivity: I mean the body s biological life.
These technological devices that register and identify naked life correspond to the media devices that control and manipulate public speech: between these two extremes of a body without words and words without a body, the space we once upon a time called politics is ever more scaled-down and tiny.
Thus, by applying these techniques and these devices invented for the dangerous classes to a citizen, or rather to a human being as such, states, which should constitute the precise space of political life, have made the person the ideal suspect, to the point that it s humanity itself that has become the dangerous class.
These were prescient words in 2004, for just five years later the transgressions by the state into other regions of the individual’s life have become more prominent, more unapologetic and more oppressive and humanity as “dangerous class” looks increasingly like becoming the norm.
I thought of Agamben’s essay while reading that a local council in London had banned parents from play areas, fencing them off with six foot high steel and wooden fences. Only council-vetted “play rangers” will be allowed inside the perimeter.
Council mayor Dorothy Thornhill was unapologetic in defense of the move.
“Sadly, in today’s climate, you can’t have adults walking around unchecked in a children’s playground and the adventure playground is not a meeting place for adults. We have reviewed our procedures, so although previously some parents have stayed with their children at the discretion of our play workers, this is not something we can continue to do.”
Let me repeat this for you slowly: a council mayor thinks she has the right to keep parents and their children separated by a steel fence in a public playground! Bear in mind that this is not a private school play area, but space provided by a democratically elected body for the public good.
Her comment is worth deconstructing step-by-step:
1: “In today’s climate” And what climate would that be? One of paranoia in which every adult in contact with a child, (even their own!) is suspected of harbouring paedophiliac impulses. Does building a cage around playgrounds not exacerbate this climate of suspicion?
2: “You can’t have adults walking around unchecked in a children’s playground.” But surely the safety of children is the responsibility of the adult accompanying them, not that of the state? Or does the state not trust parents to ensure appropriate supervision and feel it is necessary to supersede the traditional role of the family?
3: “The adventure playground is not a meeting place for adults.” Why shouldn’t parents strike up friendships where their kids are playing? It has been happening since time immemorial…
4: “Although previously some parents have stayed with their children at the discretion of our play workers, this is not something we can continue to do.” A mayor thinks they can impose, in a blasé manner, physical boundaries between parents and their own children in a public place? Is this not obscene?
Never has so much garbage been uttered in less than 50 words by one petty official.
The criminalisation of parenthood, intrusion into the natural relationship and proximity of parent and child and substitution of “risky” mums and dads for “safe” and “vetted” council play-guides epitomise the reconstitution of citizen/state relationship as sketched by Agamben (and presents them in terms that would do Orwell’s Oceania proud).
I mentioned Jenny Bristow’s book “Standing up to Super Nanny” before and her call for child-rearing to be reclaimed from those who seek to ‘professionalise parenting’. The key to this, she emphasises, is to insist on the privacy of family life – and to push back against the state’s attempts to insinuate itself into family life: as she writes, parents are not and should not be mere partners of a government in the project of childrearing.
So tear down those fences, parents of Watford! The state has no right to separate you from your children in while they play. It’s a fucking disgrace and people’s passivity in the face of such creeping oppression has gone on too long: “Aux swings, slides and barricades…”