q/a Jack Halberstam

Jack Halberstam
Photo: Assaf Evron

What can children teach us about resistance?

Themes of rebellion and resistance in our culture are often relegated to children and cast as immature, irrational, and improbable. For this reason, we tend to think of resistance as a simplistic reading of power relations and we move on quickly to more complicated understandings of domination and subjugation. Children, in fact, know more about being ruled, governed, and managed than most social subjects. Until adolescence, they have little power, no say, and not much autonomy. Their lives are scripted and organized according to the schedules of their parents. Children, in a contemporary context, are not so much “seen but not heard” as told but not listened to. As they shuttle from one event to the next: from a play date to a swim class, from swim class to a family function, they have little to no time for wandering, contemplating, or engaging in repetitive play. Children must obey or resist.

What children know about life, embodiment, art, and power is rarely cultivated and tends to be cast as a naïve version of what adults already know.

Children, however, clearly experience the world very differently from adults, they are drawn to different kinds of material and they laugh and cry in response to different stimuli. Why, for example, are kids so drawn to the tacky (glitter), the sticky (goop of any kind), the messy, and the animalistic? Is kid culture always in bad taste and always opposed to adult culture? Is there a tactile quality to aesthetics, indeed to experience, for children (fingerpainting, for example) that adults lose track of as they become socialized into conventional mores of conduct organized more around stability and calm than disorder and chaos? Why, finally, does the childish stand in for all that must be abandoned as we move towards adulthood? Children, in other words, know something about resistance because they must resist if their lives are to be meaningful in ways that are fulfilling to them rather than to their parents. What children know about resistance is that it is made up of repeated acts of refusal, that it is noisy and messy and that a well-placed “no” can bring the whole familial enterprise to a halt. Of course, as we grow older, we lose the edge on resistance. We lose our defiance and yesterday’s refusals become sites for today’s compliance.

The wildness of childhood, the non-verbal, anti-normative, unruly choreographies that constitute experiences of child bodies, gets quickly lost within doctrines of good behavior, proper manners, and appropriate practices. The wildness of childhood, indeed, requires parents willing to cultivate rather than suppress disorderly conduct. And it requires children who find ways not to comply, not to adopt the mandate to be good, and not to simply submit to the ideologies that their parents adopted from their parents. Resistance, the child teaches us, depends upon staying wild. 

JACK HALBERSTAM is Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity, Gender Studies, and Comparative Literature at the University of Southern California. Halberstam’s most recent book Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender and the End of Normal was published by Beacon Press in 2012 and explores Lady Gaga as an exemplar of a new kind of feminism that privileges gender and sexual fluidity.

This text appears in the Spike Art Quarterly N° 46 and is available for purchase at our online shop.