Natalia Cecire has an extraordinary post today on the cultural politics of Google’s self-infantilization, responding to the company’s announcement that it would restructure itself under the new name “Alphabet.”
But Google’s simplicity doesn’t go for sophisticated (read: adult) simplicity in the way that Apple’s design so openly does.14)
Contrast this with the conscious citation of children’s alphabet books in the title of Google’s Alphabet announcement, “G Is for Google.” With its logo in primary colors, the letters in a serif typeface as if on toy letter blocks, and of course a name that’s nearly a gurgle and a corporate headquarters (the “Googleplex”) that’s a pun, Google has never exactly gone for the grown-up look. On the contrary, they are, like Facebook, famous for ping-pong tables in the workplace and Silicon Valley’s “youth culture.”
That is not to say that Google’s design strategy is antimodernist. Not at all. For the childishly-named doodles don’t register as ornaments without the “simple and iconic” reputation of the default search page. More to the point, though, the performance of childishness is a key form of modernist primitivism, a way of superseding modern civilization’s (supposed) hypercontrol, not by admitting to being decadent or regressive but rather by appropriating a position of genuine newness in the form of youth (which is also, of course, a proxy for other alleged developmental earlinesses—modernists like Gertrude Stein and William Carlos Williams freely appropriated African-American, Native American, and immigrant positions).
It’s spread across two sites and many posts but at this point I think Natalia’s blogging over the last few years is basically the definitive statement of how to think about the cultural politics of puerility and childhood in contemporary culture.
(Categorizing this in “Calling adults childish” because companies can do it to themselves!)
West, Diana. 2008. The Death of the Grown-Up: How America’s Arrested Development Is Bringing Down Western Civilization. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.
The biggest difference is that when I was young, I wore sweaters. Crewneck sweaters, with button-down shirts and jeans, every single day. And I think at a certain point in my twenties, I decided that was childish. So I gave away all my beautiful sweaters.
Blue jeans are childish too, obviously. But luckily everyone my age kept wearing them. It used to be that adults did not wear jeans—not men, unless they were construction workers—only teenagers wore them. But I guess my generation just said, “We’re going to keep wearing them until we die, because we’re almost there.”
I have to say that one of the biggest changes in my lifetime, is the phenomenon of men wearing shorts. Men never wore shorts when I was young. There are few things I would rather see less, to tell you the truth. I’d just as soon see someone coming toward me with a hand grenade. This is one of the worst changes, by far. It’s disgusting. To have to sit next to grown men on the subway in the summer, and they’re wearing shorts? It’s repulsive. They look ridiculous, like children, and I can’t take them seriously.
You know when George Plimpton died, someone told me, ‘He was so eccentric. He used to ride his bike in a suit and tie!’ and it drove me crazy. I said, ‘What’s eccentric is the bicycle. Everyone here used to wear suits and it was lovely! But only children rode bicycles.’ The trademark of New York City fashion used to be that we dressed more seriously here. More formally. Now people need special costumes to ride bicycles. I mean, a helmet, what, are you an astronaut??
In “Change the World,” a splendid New Yorker article published in 2013, George Packer mentions an employee at a high-tech firm who refused to take time away from work to hear what President Obama, who was visiting the campus, had to say. “I’m making more of a difference than anybody in government could possibly make,” the employee reportedly told a colleague. There are not many places in the world—maybe only one—where an employee can expect an absurd utterance like that to be taken seriously, and where children, metaphorically speaking, believe that adults need their guidance and tutelage.
… and on and on. (I’m all for maximalist critiques of Silicon Valley, but politicians as adults is rich.)
Thus proceeds the infantilization of the American public, hooked more than ever on superficial, unchecked information sometimes rewritten from more reliable, though uncredited sources. It’s no coincidence that Google, Yahoo!, Bing, and Yelp sound like toddler gibberish from the Teletubbies.
Whenever I hear these silly corporate names invoked with sanctimonious awe, I imagine Dipsy, Laa-Laa, Po, and Tinky-Winky singing their hit single “Teletubbies say ‘Eh-oh’ ” as they shake the change out of some two-year-old’s pocket. Come to think of it, Eric Schmidt’s new playmate, the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, bears a more than superficial resemblance to Po.
Where will it end, as the dumbing down of America accelerates and Google becomes ever more dominant? A psychoanalyst friend tells me that listening to baby talk may be gratifying up to a point, but that constant subjection to it produces unconscious rage in adults.
Television stations learned many years ago the difference between maximizing perceived quality, on the one hand, and maximizing hours spent watching, on the other. Netflix has long since started making the same distinction: it wants to serve up a constant stream of content for you to be able to watch in vast quantities, rather than sending individual precious DVDs where you will be very disappointed if they fall below your expectations. Netflix’s biggest fans tend to be parents of young kids — but in a sense, Netflix wants to turn us all into young kids, consuming an endless stream of minimally-differentiated material. (Note that Netflix doesn’t allow you to watch a trailer for a movie before streaming it; it just expects you to stop watching that movie, and start watching something else, if you don’t like it.)
Leonard Nevarez, blogging at his site Musical Urbanism, has a fascinating post up about Kidz Bop, which is an ongoingtopic of interest for me. This post is the first of a series, and it focuses on Kidz Bop’s history and the contexts of it’s production (economic, corporate, technological, etc). It’s incredibly thorough — I don’t think I’ve seen all this material assembled in one place, and it’s telling a fascinating story already about the role of children’s music in a changing commercial music environment. The post is a masterful overview and history of Kidz Bop — definitely a much better introduction to the topic than my own published work is.
The counterpart to the fetishism of music is a regression of listening. Not only do listeners lose, along with freedom of choice and responsibility, the capacity for conscious perception of music, but listeners come to stubbornly reject the notion that any such perception is possible. They listen atomistically and dissociate what they hear. They are childish. However, their primitivism is not that of the undeveloped, but that of the forcibly retarded.
I’ve always kind of loved this piece of Adorno’s in particular, mostly because I think it’s remarkably insightful about how commodity fetishism works as listening practices. (One of my main goals in my MA thesis on karaoke was to find some empirical verification for Adorno’s account of listening here.) Funnily, however, I haven’t returned to that one since I’ve started working on children and music, and so I forgot the role that “childishness” and a sort of age- or development-based “regression” played in its structure of values.
Also, lately I’ve been sort of collecting statements by prominent cultural theorists who say that the (adult) world is becoming childish somehow — things like Lauren Berlant’s “infantile public sphere” or Benjamin Barber’s jeremiad against consumer culture as puerile, infantilizing, juvenile, etc. (For the record: the former is wonderful and in the best tradition of feminist critique of the figure of the child and reproduction; the latter is a deeply reactionary and sensationalist howl of unreconstructed prejudice.) In principle I take these with a grain of salt, but I also enjoy ironically repurposing them to justify my own interests: if the adult world is being infantilized, what does that mean for children?! So it’s pretty wonderful to return to this piece by Adorno that once influenced me very deeply and see exactly the same thing!
The questions for me are (1) whether Adorno and other critics are correct that the phenomena they identify are somehow characteristic of children or childhood, (2) whether that’s good or bad or something else, and (3) whether such an account of adults provides some insight for understanding children. I think (1) remains an open question that probably depends on too strong a definition of “childhood” to ever be really answerable. And personally I’m happy not to confirm it because from some neurosis built as a scholar of childhood I take a lot of pleasure in letting major theorists assert the importance of childishness for me.
Regarding (3), Nevarez suggests that Adorno’s references to childishness and development make it clearly relevant to a product like Kidz Bop, but I’m not so sure. It seems a bit circular to talk about kids and the regression of listening, so long as “childishness” (or worse, “retardation”) is what makes regressive listening regressive. If Adorno’s right and commodity music reflects the regression of adults, then shouldn’t it be developmentally appropriate for children themselves? But if anything it seems like the popularity of products like Kidz Bop would reveal more the similarities rather than developmental differences between kids and adults (or at least older youths), which is that everyone loves pop music (it’s great!), while younger kids have been artificially excluded from participation as pop audiences for a long time. That is, it’s not teenagers and young adults who are turning to a childish medium, it’s children who are being provided with a genre associated with older people. That’s not obviously infantilization. (I also disagree somewhat with the “getting-older-younger” thesis, but that’s for a different post.)
Regarding (2), I think we need a critique of capitalism that doesn’t require that childhood or disability (regression as “retardation”) be definitionally abject. Cultural critics have been discovering the infantilization of adults or public culture or what-have-you for long enough that it would seem to reflect more on them than on any actual cultural development. Or, to say the same thing, regressive listening is only bad if we think childhood and disability are bad. I tend to think that the more convincing answer is that adults (especially parents) are stodgy ideologues desperately consolidating their own elevation above the vulgarities of consumer culture by deciding that their children’s pleasure must be either abject, unsophisticated, or inauthentic (manipulated). I’ve been looking for an excuse to post this video, which I think illustrates the point as well as anything could:
(edited July 2017 with new video link. For some reason the Ad Council took down the original?)
So I love Adorno’s essay because I think it’s correct about a lot of empirical questions about how pop music works, but it evaluates them through a set of liberal/enlightenment (rather than properly Marxist) values around ability/maturity that I don’t think hold up to scrutiny. To the extent that someone like Adorno (or Benjamin Barber) is correct that the world is becoming childish, it is important to at least ask if that might reflect something desirable — an openness to relations of care and dependence, an emphasis on pleasure and consumption over against “productive investment” and the classic capitalist traps of wage labor, relations like “friend” rather than “spouse” or “coworker,” valuing silliness over seriousness, etc. (And as music scholars we’re supposed to always end up hating the music we study, but to be honest I like kids’ music more and more. The Super Duper Party Troopers in that video above are really good! Maybe kids’ music in general is good? [For the record: I do know that the answer to these questions is that I have no taste, but I still can’t help but raise them.])
Anyways, none of this should be read as a critique of Nevarez’s piece, since he doesn’t really develop his Adornian critique so much in that first post. More this is a welcome opportunity for me to return to an essay by Adorno that I haven’t read in a while and be pleasantly surprised how relevant it still is. I’m looking forward to seeing how he explores these question in the text/consumption posts to come.