Literacy, Imaginary Politics, and Children

Literacy, Imaginary Politics, and Children

We seek to learn from the new, but it confuses and offends us. The editor of the Polity of Literature series, Matthew Stadler, reevaluates some key concepts of our project to better hear those from whom we all must learn—the oppressed.

“Only power that springs from the weakness of the oppressed will be sufficiently strong to free both [oppresser and oppressed].”

— Paolo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

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The Polity of Literature (PoL) is one-year old. As we turn the corner toward completion at the end of 2021, this insight from educator Paolo Freire haunts the project. Freire warned against the “false generosity” of those with power—many of us, people of good will—and said that the only way forward, for everyone, is through the knowledge and expressions of the oppressed. In their weakness, the oppressed discover the future. It is theirs to tell, or not.

Reports from the future are confusing, and often refused. They collide with past conceptions, falling into silence or awaiting broader collapse to open space in which what-is-coming-to-be can be seen. The PoL inquiry has employed rigid notions of literacy, politics, and imagination. Hewing to historical meanings of all three, we’ve met the variegated, slippery experiences of our writers by aligning their reports, as best we can, with what we assume is true about literacy, politics, and imagination. This week, the series editor reconsiders our key concepts in light of Freire’s insight.


The passport to a polity of literature is literacy, and there are many kinds. As literature itself migrates from the printed page to the smartphone (surely, just a seasonal migration), literacy changes too. The sophisticated readers of books become naive, while the unencumbered young people, born into smartphones, play like animals returned to their native woods. Schools out (or, teacher’s not looking), time to write to the world!

The literature that concerns us is as vast and differentiated as the communities who use literature to site their politics. Excluded from the sovereign politics of the state, children are among the most ardent and innovative citizens of a polity of literature; this is one place where they have agency. Recall Shawn Van Sluys, inventing the gay world he needed to grow into by reading Archie comics queer. What could the child’s parents do? Nothing. It’s just a comic book! Which didn’t stop the industry that profits from comics from trying to police them anyway (see PoL #25).

Whether comics, smartphones, novels, or court-room affidavits, the core measure of literacy has always been comprehension and mastery of writing—the ability to use or understand written letters, words, and grammar. Literacy of this kind is contrasted to “orality,” which is when a community functions without writing, only through their speech and actions. Walter J. Ong, an American Jesuit who was an early student of Marshall McLuhan, wrote a fascinating account of this pairing in his 1982 summa, Orality and Literacy: the Technologizing of the Word. As with the work of a French Jesuit we earlier featured (Ong’s contemporary, Michel de Certeau), Orality and Literacy is a swift, abrasive, often deliberately unresolved account of a subject dear to the writer’s heart.

Literacy is also orality, especially now

Ong, who studied literature and philosophy and was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest, points out that literacy came very late in the history of human society. Homo sapiens have organized in groups that share language, music, and customs since the Upper Paleolithic period, 50,000 years ago. But only in the last six millennia did they develop the technology of writing (using inscribed marks to communicate coded meanings). In the 4th millennium BC, Mesopotamians began inscribing marks in clay to keep accounts of possessions and debts, the private code of clerks keeping records. Until the Phoenicians invented the first phonetic alphabet, in the 19th century BC—after more than 1,500 years of literacy—the technology of writing remained a tool used by a few trained specialists. In the 8th century BC the Greeks added vowels to the Phoenician’s consonant-only alphabet, vastly expanding its uses and reach. From that time until now, writing has been standardized and taught, whether to a select few or to a broad majority, and those who master the skill count themselves as “literate.” 

But even this benchmark is illusory. No one can be literate all alone. The man who alone among his fellows knows reading and writing, isn’t literate so much as he is insane—What is he gibbering about? Literacy only happens in groups, a collective attribute that has no meaning in isolation. Moreover, common literacy (as opposed to an elite practice) depends on having common materials for writing. First was clay, then papyrus, and much later, paper. Not until paper production became common in Spain in the 11th century AD, then slowly spread through Europe, was there a wide availability of any such preservable material. And so, in the long history of human society, we’ve only had a literacy that could site our politics for 900 (out of 50,000) years.

I saw the power of writing dramatized in a film about European settlers in their encounter with the Mohawk people of eastern North America. Mohawk culture was oral, as were nearly all the cultures indigenous to North America. In their struggle to adapt to the needy, irrational, and often violent newcomers from Europe, Mohawk people did what they’d always done—made contact and began to trade. The film depicts the scene of this encounter as a gathering in the woods where armed groups from both Indigenous and settler tribes try speaking through the intermediation of a French priest who had lived among the Mohawk for some time. To get the upper hand, the settlers use notes written on paper to create the illusion of omniscience in one of them, passing information that the Mohawks cannot decipher. Here is the enduring power of the technology of writing: it skews the even playing field of oral culture by sequestering knowledge inside of silent marks that can be hidden or inscrutable. In Ong’s canny definition, writing is “commitment of the word to space.”

Literacy turns an event in time—the spoken word—into an event in space, writing. Thereby, writing arms the literate with a powerful tool to skew all of our political playing fields.

The spoken word is the medium of all oral culture. It’s also an evanescent, impossible-to-hide thing, which must be heard to function at all. Unheard speech disappears without conveying meanings. In this way, the oral playing field is “even,” in that all who show up, and can hear, have equal access to the exchange. In writing, however, “the word” can be sequestered in material space, transformed into a private resource that can be hidden or shared, taught or inscrutable, saved or destroyed. Literacy turns an event in time—the spoken word—into an event in space, writing. Thereby, writing arms the literate with a powerful tool to skew all of our political playing fields.

The movie’s central drama simplified the relationship of literate and oral cultures by casting them as separate and conflicting—a misleading “binarism” that Ong was also accused of by his critics. The charge against Ong is unfair, although he was content to invite it. Orality and Literacy uses this binary conflict to structure its inquiry, but in the end Ong confirms that all human culture is oral. “The word” is first and foremost a sound that comes out of the mouths of persons. Oral cultures do not “evolve” to become literate ones. Rather, literacy emerges as a technological adaptation of our still-primary orality.

Those who teach writing and reading know very well the ways that oral performance precedes and structures all of our literate exchanges. Literacy is the invention of a fundamentally oral creature that found a clever way to process and enhance the natural resource of words—by committing them to space. Literacy is an adaptation—a way to make “the word” into something portable, transferable, and controllable. The relationship of orality and literacy is the same as that of nature’s water cycle to a man-made irrigation system. And just as our irrigation systems will be useless if the water cycle ends or disappears, so literacy can never “replace” orality.

Ong takes us through the great revolution in mechanical printing that his teacher, McLuhan, said birthed “the Gutenberg Galaxy.” On this the historians agree: the invention and spread of mechanical printing in the 16th and 17th centuries was the tipping point for literacy, which thenceforth ascended in a swiftly globalizing culture of European Enlightenment design. Only after mechanical printing had, thus, thoroughly naturalized writing and reading could the colonial settlers who streamed out from Europe, to their myriad encounters with non-Europeans around the world, universally look upon the strangers they met as “primitive” because oral. As with man-made irrigation and city building (which can blind us to the primacy of the natural world), literacy became so common and immediate that we could forget the primary gift that sustains it—our orality.

Ong warned of this danger and, writing in the 1980s, speculated on the return of a “secondary orality” that he said might develop as electronic reproduction of information destabilized the fixed authority of the printed word. When I first read Ong in the early 2000s, this part of his analysis seemed prophetic. I wrote an essay about “the New Orality” for a Dutch project called We Read Where We Are, arguing that online culture—almost all of it written—displays many of the hallmarks of orality, according to Ong. Specifically, online discourse, like orality, tends to be: (a) additive rather than subordinative [and, and, and…]; (b) aggregative rather than analytical [favoring linked clusters, as against titrated separations]; (c) redundant or ‘copious’ [backtracking often to continuously recall the disappeared earlier expressions]; (d) conservative or traditionalist [based in formal repetitions and fidelity, as with children’s tales]; (e) agnostically toned [Ong describes the ways orality invites one-upmanship, boastfulness, and call/response bragging]; (f) empathetic and participatory rather than objectively distanced; and (g) homeostatic, which is to say self-correcting.

These hallmarks of orality diminished during the ascendency of literary cultures, from roughly 1500 until now. The dwindling of homeostatic, empathetic and participatory, agnostically toned, repetitive, etc., communities of exchange correllates with the rise of the technology of writing. Yet, online discourse (especially the increasingly predominant social media)—most of which is conveyed in writing—is home to a resurgence of all of these traits. Could the digitization of writing (indeed, of all human communications transmitted through the Internet), somehow have changed the nature of writing? Is digitized writing different from “print” in any fundamental way?

Digitization cracks the dikes, allowing the fluid social dynamics of orality to return.

I found an answer while re-reading Ong for this essay (now in the centenary edition that his student, John Hartley, put together in 2013, 100 years after Ong’s birth). Hartley added chapters about developments since Ong had died. Prominent among them is a hypothesis called the “Gutenberg parenthesis,” put forward by cultural historian Tom Pettitt, which links digitization to the rise of Ong’s predicted “secondary orality,” and claims that there is no “Gutenberg Galaxy” anymore. Digitization has displaced print, so that we now live on the other side of a 500-year-long “Gutenberg parenthesis.”

The Gutenberg parenthesis closed with the washing away of fixed-type and its displacement by binary coding that can alter the letters we read as “fixed” (you’re reading the product of those codes now). The literate reader silently assumes that a writer (me) inscribed these marks, which have remained stable in their transmission, so that a writer communicates to a reader. But, digitization dissolves the fixed word, and myriad forces can intervene between my actions as writer and yours as reader. I have little control over what you see in front of you. We must trust a great deal, every element in the chain that links us—my computer and its software, the server where I store the result of my keystrokes, the global chain of machines and electronic signals that brings the stored keystrokes into your device, the reliability and software of your device—a chain that’s filled with hazards and other people. This dynamic system is rife with feedback loops and change. In Ong’s terms, the space to which we commit our words is no longer stable; it’s barely “space” at all, in that the words we commit to it don’t exist anywhere in the chain—only in the end, when you experience reading them, do my words take up space again. We’re writing on water.

Yet we go on writing. Miraculously, most of us conclude that yes of course we’re writing on water, and isn’t it great! The Gutenberg parenthesis closes, not from skepticism or lack of trust, but because orality is the natural condition of human culture, a baseline from which all our cultures have grown, literacy included. Unfix the fixity of print—introduce parts of the chain where words become changeable or socially negotiable—and orality will flood back in. Digitization cracks the dikes, allowing the fluid social dynamics of orality to return.

On its face, this would seem to bode well for the Polity of Literature. Any reader of Aristotle or of Hannah Arendt will recognize orality as the natural home of politics. If digitization can loosen or socialize the media of literature (not books but eBooks, not solitary readers but vast reading groups, no longer fixed in time but changing with the hour or minute), thus torquing it towards orality, aren’t literature’s political potentials thereby enhanced? I don’t believe so. Among the essential conditions for politics is the gathering together of a “plurality” (Arendt’s term for a varied group in conflict). Any arrangement that erases or sequesters those in conflict away from each other makes politics impossible. Whenever a group silences this or that disagreeable person, politics comes to an end. Tyrants are the enemies of politics. And so are “friend groups.”

This essay is digital. Every reader arrives by following the vast, invisible chain of digitized communications. Accidental readers are few, if any. Myriad sorting mechanisms are introduced along the chain of any digitized communication, ensuring that the group gathered here is homogeneous—most of all homogeneous in regard to the issues I’m raising. Should an accidental reader (or, worse, an intentional one) take offense, the intense sociality and homeostatic capacity we enjoy in online’s “secondary orality” will swiftly—or painfully slowly—kick-in to erase me from their subset, and they from mine. Pluralism becomes impossible when digital publishing cannot profit by it.

Just try dropping this essay out of a low-flying airplane, and you’ll see what a difference the printed page can make.

The most potent anti-pluralist filter, online, is Machine Learning Artificial Intelligence (ML AI), which imposes the homeostatic qualities native to orality in an increasingly swift and invisible feedback loop—beginning by profiling the reader (now known as “the user”) in advance of offering up the text. This process is laid out in the occult “terms of service” we agree to in order to log on. ML AI tries to “read the reader” and adapt, making of the text less a common ground and more an adjustable private fantasy that’s ultimately isolating. This isn’t an unusual nor marginal practice. Mainstream and legacy journalism sites, including The Guardian, run different stories for different readers, and adapt content by, for instance, floating a variety of headlines and counting click-throughs on each. My Guardian is not your Guardian. The balkanization is at its worst on social media sites, such as Facebook, which base their business model on it. The civic equivalent would be a public square in which we all wear VR headsets, roaming within inches of each other while completely unaware of what others see and hear. With fewer texts stable or held in common, the Polity of Literature loses the common ground on which we fight—that is, the site of our politics. We stumble blindly, lost in the delirium of our own feedback loops, little aware of the incredible variety of others, likewise stumbling.

The threat this poses to politics cannot be overstated. It alone convinces me that the use of fixed print on material objects—books, flyers, newspapers—is an essential tactic for anyone interested in reviving politics, especially a polity of literature. “Commitment of the word to space” frees the word from our human grasp, putting it in the open by imprinting it onto objects that can move in surprising ways. Not so the digital text, which circulates and changes out-of-sight (and disappears completely when we’re not looking). Just try dropping this essay out of a low-flying airplane, and you’ll see what a difference the printed page can make.

Imaginary Politics is real enough

Ours is a vastly changed world from that which surrounded Aristotle, and within which he defined politics as oral. Writing and reading in Aristotle’s time were as disruptive of the Agora (the long-standing arena of politics) as the digitized world is disruptive of written discourse now. The essays we publish in this series document a world of persons forced out of the Agora, who nevertheless have pursued politics by writing and reading together, sometimes in print and sometimes in pixels. Their politics—a Polity of Literature—needs a new terminology. Few of us gather in anything like the Agora anymore, and even our face-to-face meetings are overlaid with virtual and social imaginaries that pollute orality’s putative immediacy. I’m reminded of the rabbis who must debate whether a minyan, the necessary gathering of ten observant Jews in a room to have worship, can be assembled using Skype. Current consensus is that you must have ten live bodies; but, once those ten are present, others can attend virtually and still satisfy their duty to God. The flood gates of digitization have opened, and we swim in a world of constructed realities whose building blocks are of many kinds.

We have to ask: what happens to politics when it’s forced into print and pixels? The stories shared in the Polity of Literature series demonstrate that exactly this has happened, and the resulting interactions have put writing on a par with the capacities of speech; in our time both are effectively mediated. Nevertheless politics happens here. Rather than focus on the shortcomings of writing in relation to speech and action, our task is to ask what a polity of literature can do, perhaps uniquely, for those who claim agency in it. So, instead of “politics,” I propose we speak of “imaginary politics.”

By “imaginary politics” I don’t mean politics that aren’t “real;” I mean any politics that are real enough. If we commit ourselves to the collective task of imagining, we open a space of politics (much like writing and reading) in which the social negotiation of imagining makes things real enough. Imaginary politics happens in writing as often as in speech. The imaginary becomes real enough by being shared—try telling our heroes or our burned witches differently. Consequential things happen when we imagine.

Imagining is a group activity, often called “play.” Typically it’s contrasted to work. Work is real, play is not, they say. Imagining is also called “make-believe,” or, in the short-hand my childhood friend preferred, “what if.” Let’s play ‘what if…’ The implication is of nonexistent, childish things that come into “the real” by crossing a border policed by experts. Historically we know that’s not true, that the future itself is born in our imaginations. Social scientists looking for solutions to climate change read science fiction novels. Historians locate urgent scientific breakthroughs in the accidents and chaos of poorly controlled laboratories. Describe it as “play” if you like, so long as we leave imaginary politics unpoliced and use it to make the realities that we need.

This shift in terms has the advantage of linking the Polity of Literature to related current efforts in political science, philosophy, and epistemology. In political science, the phrase “imaginary politics” was proposed in 2017, by Manjana Milkoreit. Her provocative contribution to the debates about climate change includes a theory of imagining, “as linked cognitive-social processes that enable the creation of collectively shared visions of future states of the world.” Imaginary politics takes place in “imagined communities” (as sociologist Benedict Anderson first posited, in his 1983 book of the same name). Milkoreit says that “collective imagining…informs social and political decision-making” and she argues that, by “emphasizing the political nature of creating and contesting imaginaries in a society,” we could discern “the role of power and agency in [a] theory of collective imagination.”

Milkoreit builds on sociologist Cornelius Castoriadis’s earlier notion of “the social imaginary” (1998), itself influenced by Anderson’s Imagined Communities. Essentially, she updates that sociological accounting by asking about its political implications: not simply what is the social imaginary and how did we get ours; but what new capacities are opened by our collective imagining? Milkoreit positions collective imagining as a kind of switching-station between the past and the future, similar to what Hannah Arendt called “natality.”

Milkoreit positions collective imagining as a kind of switching-station between the past and the future, similar to what Hannah Arendt called “natality.”

Before Milkoreit, philosopher Chiara Bottici proposed a related term, “Imaginal Politics,” in her 2014 book of the same name. Also building on insights in Castoriadis’s notion of “the social imaginary,” Bottici advocates quieting the predominant struggle of “the real” versus “the imagined” by speaking of “the imaginal”—a real-agnostic category with roots in the Sufi notion of a “middle territory” (between material and mind; the realm in which collective imagining can become real enough). While Bottici’s use of “imaginal politics” aligns well with the meanings that I’m advancing here, I choose to use “imaginary politics” because Milkoreit’s work is aimed expressly at bringing literature into politics. The discussion around “imaginary politics” already addresses literature directly.

Surrounding these two discipline-specific discourses is a general hunger for transdisciplinary conversation (shared by Bottici and Milkoreit, and their associates) that is home to broader cultural shifts advancing an epistemology of the imaginary. Sylvia Wynter is an important force in a paradigmatic shift away from the authority of intellection—a thousand-year Reich that has largely been enforced by policing the imagination as unreal. It’s long overdue, and revelatory, to see Wynter (writing since the late 1960s) describe the struggles played out between “the real” and “the imaginary” as proxy for larger social and political histories of dichotomous oppression—such as white and Black; settler and Indigenous; rich and poor; male and female; binary and trans; and, one could add, adults and children.

Wynter unsettles and reorganizes that struggle in myriad ways, using fiction and epigraphs, as well as essays and teaching, to focus our attention, instead, on “the Man v. Human struggle.” She applies what she calls the “sociogenic principle” (following Frantz Fanon’s discussion of “sociogeny”) to affirm our deeply imaginary and socially-negotiated experience as humans, as against Descarte’s canonical view of a dualistic, self-defining “man,” which has long underscored the hegemony of intellection. In Walter Mignolo’s reading, “Wynter is not proposing to contribute to and comfortably participate in a system of knowledge that left her out of humanity (as a Black/Caribbean woman), but rather delink herself from this very system of knowledge in order to engage in epistemic disobedience.”

The Polity of Literature offers another site for what Sylvia Wynter calls, “being human as praxis.” Imaginary politics is our common concern.

Wynter’s work is decolonial (not “post-” in that she recognizes a still-prevailing colonialism and acts outside of it), Caribbean in origin, global in scope, and developed in dialogue with the work of Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, Edouard Glissant, bell hooks, Dionne Brand, and Katherine McKittrick, among many others. Woven across disciplinary divides, this is a richly literary discourse addressing everyday lives—where the white meets the Black, the poor survive the rich, and mobile, often dispossessed persons nevertheless build full lives and live them. Wynter views the human experience as a “bios-mythios,” which McKittrick describes as “a rhythmic interplay between nature and narrative,” placing our capacity to tell stories in a primary, formative position. The Polity of Literature offers another site for what Wynter calls, “being human as praxis.” Imaginary politics is our common concern.

“Imaginary politics” is also an especially suitable description for politics today. In a public realm that has become strange to older people, but is familiar to the young, the subjectivities at play are so radically particular and idiosyncratic as to seem almost private; our commitment to full disclosure and the obligation to listen and respect difference are strong. This is politics always prefaced with “from where I stand” (along with a full accounting of the subjective positions at play), and never punished by the invalidation of that self-accounting. We speak always and only “as a such-and-such.” This is a politics rigorously attentive to relational power and fairness. This is a politics that very often begins with, Let’s play ‘what if…’ This is politics—and by calling it “imaginary politics,” we can more readily recognize the potentials and obligations that come with it.

Imaginary politics is a safe-house for plurality. That is perhaps its most urgent provision. Plurality is in short supply today, as politics is policed by dividing the real from the imagined. Imaginary politics disengages the censor by affirming that any self-accounting can be real enough. Which brings with it serious duties and responsibilities. In imaginary politics, we’re obliged to speak and listen with the care and accountability of children playing their urgent games. It is precisely in its likeness to the serious play of children that imaginary politics becomes urgent.  

What are children and who gets to say?

Hannah Arendt had tremendous respect for children, but she didn’t trust them. She spent much of her final decade of writing, in the United States, focused on education. Her respect for the power of children led to her most peculiar interdiction—that children should somehow be kept “out of politics” until they’ve reached rational, educated adulthood. As if any human creature could be ‘kept’ from politics! While Arendt’s interdiction was based in respect, its effect was identical to the many hostile attempts adults make to disenfranchise children, in that it sequesters them outside “the world.” Arendt wanted not only to protect the children, but to protect society from the children. In Between Past and Future, she put it this way: “the world too needs protection to keep it from being overrun and destroyed by the onslaught of the new that bursts upon it with each new generation.”

Clearly, Arendt meant that children should not take on the responsibilities of public politics. But the notion that any child could be “kept” from politics itself, is unconvincing to me, and provocative. It would be glib to point out that Arendt was an only child who grew up in an isolated dyad with her widowed mother. I had three siblings, all older, and I can testify to how fiercely I grasped at every scrap of politics I could find. As the youngest I was pilloried, pampered, manipulated, and sometimes honoured, by the Machiavellian olders. If Machiavelli counts as politics, then I knew politics and I studied it keenly from the very first day that I could argue. How can any child not?

If Machiavelli counts as politics, then I knew politics and I studied it keenly from the very first day that I could argue. How can any child not?

My siblings and I shared an imaginary play-world we called “The Doggies.” As the days and weeks passed, negotiating our shared lives in a house with our parents, and helping or hindering one another with chores, card games, and arguments at dinner—we always had available a second realm, in which I was “Duffer,” my brothers were “Pal” and “Scooter,” and my sister was “Snowy”—an imaginary world in which we could argue and adjudicate disputes. In the world of Doggies there were also “Doggy Nobodies.” A jury of your peers could always condemn you. It was a more powerful verdict, shunning, than any in “the real world.”

My parents were tolerant and amused, but I don’t think they ever realized how much more real The Doggies were than the family that they believed they were raising. (We were not disrespectful. Their picture occupied the upper-left corner of “the Doggy flag,” in which “Doggy Daddy” and “Doggy Mommy” were sovereigns.) However imaginary its origins, The Doggies sited my most urgent politics as a child, because we enacted it collectively, using our bodies. When I speak of imaginary politics, I do not speak of fantasy or make-believe—I speak of the urgent reality of childhood play.

Searching for politics in a Polity of Literature has led us to children. We’ve been here before. In “The Zines of Terezín” we saw the collective acts of writing and publication that kept teenagers, imprisoned in a Nazi death camp, active and political in that worst of all possible worlds. In “Plaza Girls Diary,” we witnessed a half-dozen young refugees, Afghan and Iranian girls mostly, sharing their time in the City Plaza squat in Athens, writing and circulating their own zines. Erkan Özgen’s video, “Wonderland,” showed us a deaf, mute Syrian boy, Muhammed, who conveys the terrors of the Syrian war and his family’s flight to safety in Turkey, entirely through wordless utterances and gestures. Shawn Van Sluys recalled his childhood years of reading Archie comics queer, with Jughead as a make-believe boyfriend, painting “the world in the lavender hues of [his] queerness-in-waiting.” He called it his “first participation in a polity of literature.”

The Polity of Literature is rife with young people. This could be due, in part, to their universal exclusion from the sovereign politics of the state. Despite great numerical advantages, young people everywhere lack autonomy and agency—by law. They are a special kind of property, the possession of parents, but also their responsibility. In most countries the law confers to children some human rights while withholding their agency and autonomy. It’s natural that such a creature would prove especially clever at finding and exploiting whatever realms of politics they had left to them. If not the state, why not the Polity of Literature?

But what are children? The adult managers of children who ask such questions all agree with Arendt that children are incomplete adults, not to be trusted on their own in “the world.” It is our duty to provide them with the safety and support they need to grow into adulthood. This view, which is old and predominant (Aristotle held it; Piaget was its champion), reminds us that discussions about children are mostly by and for adults. It is what’s called a “deficit conception,” in that it defines children by what they are not. As such, the only ones with no knowledge of childhood whatsoever are the children themselves. Any deficit conception invalidates the self-accounting of its subjects.

Forever becoming, caught in a deficit conception of being what they are not yet, children are asked to stand idly by as silent witnesses to their own lives. 

Curiously, while the use of deficit conceptions to dominate their subjects elsewhere—colonial dismissals of “savage” Indigenous people; supremacist ideas of race; patriarchal ideas of female vulnerability; human-directed industries that consign the lives of animals to their cost/benefit spread-sheets—has been repudiated in most fields, young people are not supported in their refusal of the same maneuvers. But then, who is asking? In an era hostile to politics and natality (which is to say, our era) children are the targets, most of all. Their imaginations beg to be policed. Has any era subjected children’s lives to as much state law as ours? Finally, the deficit conception of childhood is effectively tautological, always producing either adults or the failure to become an adult. There are no other outcomes.

Children soldier on, a resilient group who either shed their injuries or die. Whether or not they grow to become adults, there’s no doubt at all that children grow, relentlessly. They experience a dynamism and natality that bedazzles and threatens their adult admirers. Forever becoming, caught in a deficit conception of being what they are not yet, children are asked to stand idly by as silent witnesses to their own lives. In the next few weeks, in the Polity of Literature series, we’ll reverse this by asking young people to tell us about literature in their political lives, and older people to recall the same from their own childhoods. The stories will have one thing in common—because self-accounting can’t produce a deficit conception, there will be no deficit conceptions! Our accounts will be as various and unpoliced as the Polity of Literature itself. If you’d like to contribute one, let us know.

Filed Under: Articles & Essays

Written by

Matthew Stadler is a novelist (Landscape: Memory, Allan Stein, Chloe Jarren's La Cucaracha, and others) and essayist. He was the literary editor of Nest magazine and a co-founder of Publication Studio, where he now edits the Fellow Travelers Series.

Illustrated by

Ken Krimstein is an illustrator who published the graphic novel/biography of Hannah Arendt, The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt — A Tyranny of Truth (Bloomsbury 2018).

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