Against the Cult of the Child

I recently witnessed the birth of one of my relative’s daughter. The entire event was bathed in a spiritual halo. The relative’s tormented screams – likened by a person to an animalistic agony – were supposedly neutralized by the prayer which she was loudly reciting. When the baby finally came out, everyone was thankful to God for transforming the pain of pregnancy and childbirth into the beauty of the child. In the end, everything was justified by the radiant plenitude of the child’s face. Whereas the world is considered as coarse, as full of unmanageable problems, the baby is held as a fresh beginning, as a blank slate gleaming with innocence. While everyone was talking about how cute the child was, I tried to extricate myself from the absolute serenity of the baby’s face, its pristine distance from any contaminating dependency, to focus on how its very cuteness was the result of a long process. To be more precise, I remembered that the relative under discussion had to undergo the costly and painful procedure of in-vitro fertilization (IVF) to hold her daughter in her hands. But in the jubilation brought about by the infant, this history was forgotten, as if God had directly gifted the infant to us.

The glorification of the Child is based on the romanticization of maternity, in which women are predominantly conceived as baby incubators. Their bodies are never their own; they always belong to a higher ideal, in this case – the Child. Against this background of intense pro-natalism, it is refreshing to recall Periyar’s seemingly absurd statement that “for the true liberation of women, the problem of child bearing should be totally destroyed”. For him, it is because of child bearing that “women are unable to demonstrate that they can live without men. As men have no such burden, they are so placed as to declare that they can live without women. Besides, problems of maternity make women seek the help of others and this gives rise to male domination.” In order to destroy the illusion that women can’t live without men, Periyar exhorts the former to stop bearing children. When asked if this move wouldn’t lead to the eventual death of the human species, Periyar retorts: “What difficulty would fall upon women if the world doesn’t increase? What danger could befall women if the human race doesn’t multiply? We don’t understand what difficulty would arise (because of the human race not reproducing) for those who talk about such kind of justice? We don’t know of any benefit that has come out of the human race that has multiplied for so long.”

By supporting the extinction of the human race, Periyar opens a space where the unquestioned superiority of the Child can be displaced in favor of alternative ways of living. Since the figure of the Child forces subaltern groups to sacrifice their own identity for a superior ideal, any resistance to it has to begin with an act of assertive incineration whereby the solidity of long-held beliefs melts into the drain of oblivion. The theological splendor of the Child, the fullness of its presence, has to be erased in order to expose it as a historical construction that pretends to be a metaphysical fact. In order to do this, one has to step out of the fantasy of spiritual security, the ideologically enforced heavenliness of the child. In pro-natalist ideology, the Child functions as an emblem of permanent security: no matter how much atrocities the institution of procreation inflicts upon women, no matter how deeply one feels the arbitrariness of domination, in the end, everything turns out to be right, evident in the glow of the infant’s face. This “fascism of the baby’s face,” as Lee Edelman calls it, is predicated upon the belief that life has an ultimate meaning, that the future is a teleological endpoint towards which we are duty-bound to move. Thus, the image of the Child constructs a linear future in which human desire gets a clearly determined trajectory in the wider framework of an ultimately meaningful history. In opposition to the restriction of human desire within the continuum of a teleological temporality, Shane Greene proposes “the figure of a human life never even conceived. I call it the never-born. It exists but only in the minds of the already born and possesses no material manifestation whatsoever. No sperm hooking up with egg, no embryo, no fetus, no natal development, no forty weeks, no moment of birth, no child to care for, no adult in the making, no mortality to face.”

The identity of the never-born stands for a radical nihilism in which human desire loses any sense of meaningfulness. Whereas the Child symbolizes a locus of meaning that is visible in the divinized body of the infant, the never-born indicates a meaningless absence, a pure void that lurks in the ostensible stability of those who exist. The never-born doesn’t signify any existent thing; it is what defies those things, the medium in which nothing happens, everything perishes. That’s why it can be connected with the fact of cosmic extinction, which Ray Brassier articulates as follows:

[S]ooner or later both life and mind will have to reckon with the disintegration of the ultimate horizon, when, roughly one trillion, trillion, trillion (101728) years from now, the accelerating expansion of the universe will have disintegrated the fabric of matter itself, terminating the possibility of embodiment. Every star in the universe will have burnt out, plunging the cosmos into a state of absolute darkness and leaving behind nothing but spent husks of collapsed matter. All free matter, whether on planetary surfaces or in interstellar space, will have decayed, eradicating any remnants of life based in protons and chemistry, and erasing every vestige of sentience – irrespective of its physical basis. Finally, in a state cosmologists call ‘asymptopia’, the stellar corpses littering the empty universe will evaporate into a brief hailstorm of elementary particles. Atoms themselves will cease to exist. Only the implacable gravitational expansion will continue, driven by the currently inexplicable force called ‘dark energy’, which will keep pushing the extinguished universe deeper and deeper into an eternal and unfathomable blackness.

Cosmic extinction underscores that the mind is dependent on matter, that mind itself is an intricate organization and form of matter. Since thought itself is a natural process, it is subject to the fact of extinction contained in universal material interaction. As a dissipation of material intensities, the human mind is marked by a loss that can’t be incorporated into the legible script of the Child. The Child promises to undo a loss that is located within the individual experience of the human being. By constructing a narrative of a linear desire, natalism positions the Child as an object that can provide immediate satisfaction. However, the loss represented by cosmic extinction is not a human loss; it an extra-human loss that constitutes the very foundations of humanity. Even as cosmic extinction subjects everything to a crippling impermanence, its working accounts for the transition from dead nature to organic nature. Since matter constitutes the basis of human experience, it can’t be exorcised. It is not a hole that can be plugged through the Child. Rather, it is a hole that forms our identity: as matter in motion, our organic lives are dissipations of energy on account of which we are dead already, death lives within us as the capacity of unbinding.

This “inbuilt loss,” as Alenka Zupancic calls it, means that the permanent security offered by the Child is false. The future can’t be secured through the fictional coherence of a fixed object like the Child, which stands aloof from all concrete interrelations to exude an untouched purity. On the contrary, “there are in general no things in the world that would exist in isolation from the universal links – things always exist in a system of relations to one another.” Universal material interaction – matter in motion – is the structural context within which human beings develop and deploy their capacities. As Evald Ilyenkov notes, “each individual phenomenon (thing, event, etc.) is always born and exists in its definiteness and later dies within a certain concrete whole, within a system of individual things developing in a law-governed way.” Our mode of enjoyment, then, lies not in the attainment of a final, invulnerable object lying beyond the system but in the exploration of our objective interdependencies with other components of the system. This enables a deeper understanding of ourselves and thus enhances our practical powers. Instead of remaining content with an ultimate object of satisfaction, human desire enjoys its own repetitive movement of self-development and self-expansion. Desire is concerned not with the realization of an authentic self, essence or identity but in its own consumption to the end, as it transcends its limited boundaries to relate itself to the entire system.

Given that human life is the dissipation and unbinding of matter, desire enjoys the negation of its own immediacies, the consumption of its restricted boundaries. In response to the question “How does one use life?” Max Stirner said, “In using it up, like the candle, which one uses in burning it up. One uses life, and consequently himself the living one, in consuming it and himself. Enjoyment of life is using life up…The question runs not how one can acquire life, but how one can squander, enjoy it; or, not how one is to produce the true self in himself, but how one is to dissolve himself, to live himself out.” Any reified social organization that pretends to offer the narcissistic solace of a solid existence is false. As a radical indifference towards everything, as the movement of nothingness, human life “refers to a persistent negation that offers assurance of nothing at all: neither identity, nor survival, nor any promise of a future.” It only insists on the self-consuming dynamic of desire whereby everything is treated as matter in motion, as consisting of its own dissipation.

It is the inevitability of extinction that forces us to think of ourselves as eminently historical, contingent creatures who can enjoy only by freely determining their own mode of dissipation. As organisms that are dead already, whose existence consists in the constant overcoming/negation of their own selves, our truth lies in accepting this unilateral fact. The unilaterality of extinction “means letting go of myself, renouncing my absolute will to be unique, separate from others, for that too traps me into one form of being I. To remain one’s own is thus to let go of the will to be only one’s own.” This process itself stands for the I, which constantly consumes itself by treating everything as nothing, by refusing to absolutize anything as an unbreakable limit. The overturning of all hierarchical ideals allows the human subject to locate itself in the system of universal relations that is constantly negating itself in the movement towards cosmic extinction. “I am an auto-cannibal, eating myself to protect myself from my own loss into something other, something fixed, alien. If I fail to destroy myself on my own terms, then I am destroyed by another.” The auto-cannibalism of humanity is obscured by the “economic bilateralization” of extinction’s unilateral terms, whereby the latter is subsumed under an exclusivist regime of dissipation.

Through the symbol of the Child, natalism enacts such a bilateralization as it construes heterosexual reproduction as the sole form in which the human species can articulate its negativity. Insofar as the Child becomes the exclusive manifestation of human future, the inevitability of extinction is trivialized as a trifling matter when compared to its grandeur. In response, we need multiple modes of dissipation, which means making motherhood one option among many others; and it is actually optional only if people have access to contraception and abortions, if people who don’t have children are not stigmatized. Once alternatives are promoted, reproduction itself will be divested of its mystical aura to become a mere historical arrangement. Currently, the materiality of sex – its transitory status as “expenditure without reserve, as the irreparable loss of presence, the irreversible usage of energy” – is translated into the eternal durability of procreation, manifest in the Child. Once people have access to alternatives to reproduction, they will be able to assess hetero-genital sex in a level-headed manner as a contingent practice, and not view it as an overbearing moral imperative. Furthermore, with the democratic development of artificial reproduction technologies, concerned with the ability for ectogenesis (the growth of a fetus outside the body), the practice of having children could be divorced from the fantasmatic figure of the Child. The end of the Child, the end of patriarchy, could thus open a future unbound by any specific future.

Yanis Iqbal is a student and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India. Read other articles by Yanis.