Why Grow Up? Philosophy for a Generation of Adult Infants


Are we living in an infantile age? Are millennial minds populated with pastel balloons, cartoons, piñatas, and other accoutrements of childhood as a Platonic ideal? These and other questions are avoided in Why Grow Up? Subversive Thoughts for an Infantile Age by the philosopher Susan Neiman. Instead of wondering whether the diagnosis is correct, Neiman doles out the prescription. What the millennial mind needs, she suggests, is a dose of Enlightenment philosophy. After all, Immanuel Kant famously pitched the Enlightenment as “man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity.” Without this, Neiman warns, society risks caving into bellicosity. “It may not be an accident,” Neiman writes, “that Peter Pan was published shortly before the First World War.”

Well, if Neiman is right — if Peter Pan is a sign of the end times — we are in trouble. Take, for instance, PAPER magazine’s recent rethink piece about babycore, or kidcore, a conceptual art project widely misread as a fashion trend by the majority of media, including newspapers like the Guardian. Created by artist Matt Star, babycore was simply an attitude or enthusiasm about childhood in the form of dressing like a child. With a basic awareness of what you might call “core concepts” — normcore, slobcore, whatever — babycore came ready-made with its own critique (which is really nothing new under the millennial sun). To hate it was to defy childlike wonder; to like it meant caving into mindless millennial childishness. As a self-canceling maneuver that highlighted the ethos of millennial art, babycore was exemplary. And it was unabashedly Peter Pan-ist.

But the PAPER piece was odd in the way that it criticized itself for thinking (mostly) the right thing. “We overlooked this ‘movement’ as an art project,” wrote Abby Schreiber. The wrong word here is in quotation marks. Babycore was certainly never a movement, even though its pretensions to virality were transparent from the start. But it was an art project, and a pretty “loud” one at that, in the sense that Starr photographed himself multiple times with a child. (“Where do you get your children?” I asked Starr at my office. “That’s a great question,” he replied.) Predictably, the writer’s confusion about babycore folded neatly into a broader confusion wrought by journalists who could only see it as fashion. And why is this? Media, especially newspapers, can no longer understand art — good or bad — as anything other than a trend.

So PAPER did what everyone would do, which is to say it did exactly what Starr wanted it to do: it retroactively made babycore (or kidcore) into fashion. Hey: Mac DeMarco dresses like child. Some guy named Jack Antonoff dresses like a child. And Kanye West had recently explained to T Magazine that he prefers to “dress like a child as much as possible.” The donning of Oshkosh B’Gosh or Gymboree-style clothing was now an intelligible trend, a thing that comes in threes; and so babycore was no longer as effortlessly hateable as it was when Starr loosed it onto an internet of overgrown kulturkritik earlier this year.

What babycore highlights is precisely what Neiman (rightly) takes for granted: we are infantilized and self-infantilized. The longing for childhood is broad cultural disposition, one that certainly links Kanye West to Mac DeMarco. Now, on the surface, it may not seem that much (if anything) connects these two men. The former’s identification with childhood has a lot to do with his megalomania, which, to my mind, is a positive thing. (Megalomania and narcissism, I would offer, are distinct psychological conditions.) And it is embellished by his idolization of Michael Jackson, who was without question our culture’s purest incarnation of Peter Pan. On the other hand, Mac DeMarco just wants to bite off bat heads.

But as different as they may seem, both men seem to express a longing for what Kant (and Neiman) refers to as the Unconditioned: a “tranquil inactivity and constant peace” that comes when all questions about the world have obvious answers. Basically, the Unconditioned results in the sort of childlike, carefree glee that comes about when one’s imagination can resolve any logistical dilemma. Mac DeMarco appears to live in this state at every moment. And West tips his hat to the Unconditioned whenever he talks about power or how Nike or Adidas won’t let him design or make what he wants to make. The difference between the two is that West also exhibits what Nietzsche called “the metaphysical wound at the heart of the universe”: injustice. Nieman calls this “the difference between is and ought.”

One feature of the Unconditioned — a sign of immaturity — is that humans in this state cannot distinguish between “the way the world is” and “the way it ought to be.” I would agree with Nieman that this lack of distinction characterizes much of of millennial culture. (And I would add that the abovementioned inability to distinguish art from fashion is another huge problem.) But I would also agree with millennials that the reason for it is simple: there is no longer any benchmark for maturity. In Growing Up Absurd, Paul Goodman wonders whether we have created a culture that makes growing up a viable option, and I think most millennials would submit that we haven’t. The question is: grow up as what? In short: the cruel math of austerity has undercut our calculus for maturity.

I think learning to distinguish between “ought” and “is” ought to be our project. And I think Nieman is right to tie cultural infantilism to questions of the Enlightenment. Whether we choose to believe it or not, Enlightenment principles became the standard for maturity in Western culture — the Enlightenment, in fact, was always about maturity. But I also agree with Foucault that Kant’s gospel of Enlightenment is just one of many possible poses, attitudes, dispositions. In fact, it could be useful to historicize our current mania for Western maturity, especially in the face of rampant state violence, institutional racism, and historic levels of wealth disparity. We could call this pose Enlightenment-core.