Jean-Francois Lyotard: The Debt to Childhood – Part I

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Critics like A.O. Scott and Josh Eells are frustrated when it comes to Hollywood. They feel that the possibility of adulthood – which they equate with progress – is stifled by countless films that encourage “perpetual adolescence.”   Scott, at the end of his essay “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture,” tells that “to get off his lawn.” But his mocked crankiness discloses his witty insight: that he’s half serious. Likewise, Josh Eels in a feature article of Seth Rogen’s The Interview, insists that Rogen is finally at a “crossroads” and must decide whether or not he wants to grow up. The Interview, muses Eells, seems to be a step in that direction.

Although many people would nod their heads in agreement to Eells and Scott’s pronouncements, I would like to suggest that we stop and think about what, exactly, this framework of maturity is. For me, one of the most interesting reflections on the meaning of growing up comes from the introduction of Jean-Francois Lyotard’s The Inhuman. Like many thinkers, Lyotard is interested in what it means to be human. Aristotle linked the meaning of being human to thinking. And many followed in his path. Lyotard takes a different path toward childhood and its battle with “adult consciousness.” His question opens up this path:

What shall we call human in humans, the initial misery of their childhood, or their capacity to acquire a ‘second’ nature which, thanks, to language, makes them fit to share in communal life, adult consciousness, and reasons? (3)

In response to his question, Lyotard notes that what matters is not simply how this “dialectic” means so much as whether it “leaves a remainder”(3).   “If this were so,” writes Lyotard, the remainder would be “inexplicable” to the adult.   It remainder leaves its mark on humankind because one has to “struggle constantly to assure his or her conformity to institutions or even to arrange them with a view to a better living-together”(3).

But this is not freedom.

And there is nothing comical about this kind of life.  Is it….really human?

Lyotard tells us that what we need to draw from the “remainder” is the “power of criticizing them,” “the pain of supporting them,” and “the temptation to escape them.” And that power can be found manifested in “literature, the arts, philosophy.” But what makes them special, this remainder, is what Lyotard calls “the traces of an indetermination, a childhood, persisting up to the age of adulthood”(3).

Lyotard, in other words, suggests that the freedom of literature is informed by a “childhood” that remains.

…..to be continued….

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