What Was the Child?

Childhood as we currently understand it emerged with 20th century capitalism, but as the distinction between labor and leisure is breaking down, so too is the concept of childhood

In Down With Childhood, which was published in September, political theorist Paul Rekret takes the reader on an exhilarating tour through the recent history of pop music and politics. For Rekret, “childhood” as we currently understand it emerged with 20th century capitalism, specifically after all those young people were taken off the market as the projected inverse of a day of work. But as the distinction between labor and leisure is breaking down, so too is the concept of childhood. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Paul Rekret, Down with Childhood. Repeater, 2017. 120 Pages.

What questions have you tried to answer about childhood? You point to the ways our changing public understanding of childhood serves specific purposes in our society. You also highlight what childhood’s shifting appearances in pop music can tell us about society.

Children perform an emotional role: Pleasure is taken in them, and this is usually grounded in a nostalgia for what one remembers fondly as a better time in one’s own life. Shulamith Firestone, from whom I’ve taken the book’s title, says this is natural. Given that life in capitalism is mostly drudgery, it’s therapeutic to imagine a period of relative pleasure and comfort. Children are also invested with hopes for the future, and this means they must be carefully guarded, trained, and controlled.

But I also wanted to understand these feelings in their historical contexts. And it turns out they’ve changed quite fundamentally over time, in relation to the particular needs of capital and labor markets. Who counts as a child and how they ought to be treated have shifted quite dramatically since the emergence of capitalism.

And, as it turns out, pop music has been a pretty good marker of changing experiences of childhood, while the changing ways childhood is represented in pop tell us a lot about music as well.

Even more importantly, both pop music and childhood are understood and experienced, at least historically, through their segregation from waged labor. We associate both music and childhood with leisure and play. In that sense at least, they’re closely intertwined.

Pop music is only really, what, 70 years old? Began in about the 1950s in the U.S.? What was going on with material human activity at the time?

Well, there are a lot of different ways we could define popular music, simply as music that is popular, for starters, and I’m not pretending to offer a holistic history. The particular thread through which I trace it starts with histories of work song which examine the way that industrialization ejected folk songs from work: Machinery was simply too loud to sing over, and factory bosses often banned singing as a means of disciplining workers. At that point, music becomes something one consumes in one’s leisure time, or, a bit later, professional singing is broadcast at you by the radio or TV in the evenings and weekends. So in this sense, the history of pop music rests with its isolation from work. Pop is not-work.

This brings us to the idealized image of the postwar nuclear family. By that point, a clear set of borders had long emerged delineating the world of work and non-work, and the latter includes music. Obviously, this border is partly an illusion: School is mostly tedious work, domestic labor is lonely and hard, it’s also an undeniably gendered and deeply racialized ideal. But the point is that I want to locate pop within a longer history where music, play, and indeed women and children, are mainly excluded from the world of waged work and become associated, in part, with a world of leisure.

You imply a few times that after children were removed from the labor market (relatively recently), our idea of childhood often served as a kind of inverse image of modern working life. How did we create our idea of childhood?

The ideal of childhood as we know it goes back to early modernity, as an emergent bourgeois social class drew on the notion of innocence partly as a way of liberating themselves from the authority of medieval superstitions and feudal hierarchy and also anchoring modern notions of progress to human biography.

If you imagine children as a sort of blank slate, then their moral qualities are no longer viewed as innate but the product of development. So that implies that reasonable people ought to be free to make their own decisions and, also, that humanity as a whole is the agent and product of progress. Children become a living, walking, representation of history in miniature.

But the notion of innocence, a property of children as well as colonial subjects, also legitimated continued authority over and careful management of development.

The ideal of innocence was not really extended to working-class children. They were forced into work; this was viewed as a means of disciplining them, of inculcating bourgeois values in them. Not unlike in the present, in the 18th century working-class children hanging out in the streets all day were viewed with deep disquiet and fear. It’s only in the late 19th and early 20th century that, for a number of reasons (men’s resistance to children’s downward pressure on wages, the angst over autonomy won by working children, the need for a better-trained workforce), children are legally prohibited from most forms of waged work and schooling becomes compulsory. It’s at this moment that, as sociologist Viviana Zelizer argues, children become economically worthless. Young people become an economic liability, but the future they promise can offer parents a source of meaning for the toil they suffer.

So I think it’s really only in the late 19th or early 20th century that childhood as we know it becomes generalized. I also think that ideal is once again in crisis today.

What does all of this have to do with this pure Victorian idea of childhood you mention in the book that became so popular in 1960s rock? Where did that come from?

I actually think it’s more an Edwardian image of childhood that pervades the visual imagery of psychedelia, penny-farthings, village fairs, circuses, all the stuff that’s quite prominent in Sgt. Pepper’s–era Beatles for instance. I think the ’60s counterculture deployed a deeply romantic image of childhood as part of its broader demand for social renewal and change.

This sort of ye-olde-circus imagery suited the ’60s perfectly. It stood in for the playful wonder, amusement, and sensuous intoxication with the world that the music sought to communicate. These are old tropes of renewal or revolt where children are concerned; one finds them in various forms in the long romantic tradition that runs from Rousseau to Walter Benjamin. Children question ceaselessly, their knowledge is tactile, and in this sense they have a redemptive quality.

This not only suited the cultural politics of the epoch quite well but was also closely reflected in the music. Psych rock demanded immersion of the audience; songs were more like roving jams than tight, coherent pop melodies, and they had that sort of washing-over-you feeling we continue to associate with psychedelia. This was all part of a broader ethos of self-transformation and discovery. Childhood stood in for it particularly well.

You say that in a few instances, young children are almost used to sneak dangerous Black music into the mainstream. Which understanding of childhood allows this to happen? How does it to happen?

Yeah, the Jackson 5 are the most well-known instance of this. Berry Gordy apparently quite cynically wanted to use Michael as a means of getting Motown Records, often associated with Black militancy, into white living rooms. But this isn’t the only example. If I remember this right, “Pass the Dutchie” was the first No. 1 reggae single in the UK and throughout Europe. All of this works because we see children as innocent, as vulnerable, and as passive. They’re not viewed as a threat.

That said, one pervasive theme in the history of childhood is an anxiety over when exactly children are no longer children when they’ve become intentional actors responsible for their own actions and so no longer innocent. Or more broadly, who exactly counts as a child? The moment they’re not able or willing to be passive and vulnerable the child becomes the object of all kinds of forms of repression, from workhouses to juvenile prisons, curfews, or anti-gang ordinances. These can get pretty preposterous. Do you remember those sonic mosquito things that shops were putting in their doorways in London to deter children from loitering? At Turnpike Lane station they play classical music over the PA to deter loitering and antisocial behavior. What kind of deluded view of young people do you have to have to think that playing some Bach is going to send them scurrying off?

Obviously, this accounting of childhood is deeply stratified by class and race. Poor or working-class kids, young people of color, are overwhelmingly more likely to be viewed as a threat, as poorly developed, or as adults and in need of carceral discipline and training, but it affects all children.

You point out how much we love to publicize the narrative of the childhood star’s public breaking down as their innocence is lost. Britney’s shaved head is the most memorable example. What purpose does highlighting that narrative serve? Who gains?

I’d speculate that those sorts of breakdowns relate to a democratic need to see celebrities fail. But in the case of children, it has a more specific set of coordinates too. On the one hand, the child star is deeply seductive. They publicly perform and thus reproduce the ideal of innocence contemporary society cherishes. But we’re also aware on some level that these children are actors, that is to say, that they are working and that the innocence they put on display is affected. That means that these working child performers also represent a threat to our ideal of innocence. When we finally see images of them drunk, high, shaving their heads, or whatever, I think it serves for their audience as a sort of confirmation that they have sinned against innocence. In this way we can keep on consuming the child star’s posed vulnerability while being morally rewarded with images of their downfall. Best of both worlds, really.

You write that for neoliberal subjects, there is no distinction between work and leisure. How did that collapse affect our public presentation of the child in contemporary music?

This is the central argument I want to make: If childhood as we know it emerges where children are segregated from waged work and are imbued with all these emotional qualities I’ve been talking about, then the current epoch of capitalism’s crisis seems to imply a deep crisis for the ideal of childhood too. Not only are work and play increasingly difficult to distinguish today, but the markers of childhood and adulthood are increasingly mixed up. Permanent employment, perhaps the ultimate marker of adulthood, grows increasingly unattainable for greater and greater portions of the population. Meanwhile, we’re asked to keep learning and “growing” throughout the period of our increasingly precarious attachment to work. It seems that as the capitalist wage relation undergoes fundamental mutations since the early 1980s, so too does the ideal of childhood become increasingly difficult to hold on to.

I think this is what’s going on in so much of the popular music in recent decades. I think it’s particularly prevalent in what’s come to be known as “toytown techno” anthemic rave tunes from the early- to mid-’90s that drew heavily on samples from public service ads and ’70s kids’ TV shows. These reflect a sort of mocking derision of the ideal of childhood by a generation increasingly abandoned by the welfare state. Something similar is going on in a lot of hard rock. I’m thinking of a song like Metallica’s “Enter Sandman.” I wonder if it’s also what underlies the themes of pathological childhoods, abuse, suicide, depression, in a lot of grunge around the same time.

It’s even more pronounced in a lot hip-hop, though in rap music the tone is much more confrontational. There’s often a playful ridiculing of the ideal of childhood, especially where children sing choruses to tracks like Trick Daddy’s “I’m a Thug,” “Hard Knock Life,” Gucci Mane’s “Lemonade,” and countless others.

Do children exist?

If you mean is there a period in our biological and cognitive transformation that we associate with “childhood”? Then sure, yes obviously. But, at risk of profound cliché, I’d say it’s also a construct. Where does childhood stop? Why are we segregated from it? Why can’t we also play, explore, wonder? Not only does the ideal of childhood exclude the rest of us from its categories, but that very exclusion sets the rest of us up as complete and autonomous. That seems pretty problematic to me. Not only does it imply we are independent and demand we not be vulnerable or that we only play at allotted times and places, but it also legitimates our absolute authority over all those people we consider to be children.

The most influential history of childhood is Philippe Ariès’s. He famously argues that there seemed to be no meaningful markers differentiating children in medieval society. They were simply, as he famously says, “miniature adults.” Aries was writing in the early ’60s, though, and since then a lot of historians have complicated this view. But I think his basic point still stands, which is that childhood was far more of something like a spectrum wherein one was more or less vulnerable, more or less capable of undertaking particular tasks. But it wasn’t this totally separate sphere of life, as it is conceived today. It didn’t require special forms of dress, literature, a wholly unique culture. Those are all much more recent inventions.

In any case, I think that childhood as we know it is a characteristic of capitalism. Obviously, there are points in our lives where we’re more or less vulnerable, but those aren’t necessarily reducible to age, and they ought not to justify unquestionable power over us, regardless of our age.

Might we guess how the adult/child distinction might change or break down in a different postcapitalist or postneoliberal system, even a utopian world?

The utopian horizon against which the book is set is one where human activity is not determined by the compulsion to earn money to survive. So one way to think about this is as a world where labor and play are not separate. It would also be a world where our understandings of the differences between adults and children wouldn’t make any sense. I don’t really know what that world would look like, but at the very least, I know it would imply that play wouldn’t only be an activity engaged in by very young people or be isolated from other activity.

I see the adult/child binary collapsing in the current era, but for nefarious reasons that have to do with collapsing profits and declining levels of employment. I nonetheless want to look at this crisis to see what might be learned from it about the contingency of these categories.

But I should also add that as the crisis continues and there are less and less social resources to care for children, one sees an increasingly venomous attack upon them. There’s an attempt to exclude many young people from the category of childhood, by trying them as adults for instance, and, in doing so, preserving an ideal of innocence ever further from reality. It’s genuinely really hard to be a child today.